A bill before the Maine Legislature would require schools to teach about African American history and the history of genocide as part of American history. The proposal comes as states and schools across the country examine how to teach Black history amid a national reckoning on issues of racial justice.

“Education is so important in stopping things like racism, discrimination and hate that in my view it’s serious enough to require it to be taught in the law,” Sen. Louis Luchini, D-Hancock, the bill’s sponsor, said Tuesday.

Luchini sponsored a similar bill two years ago, though that effort ultimately came to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic. He said the idea originated with an Ellsworth High School teacher and her students who were dismayed by the number of people who didn’t know what the Holocaust was.

As the bill worked its way through the Legislature last session, Luchini worked with Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, to also include the requirement to teach African American history. The proposal follows a similar effort in 2001 that resulted in a law requiring Maine schools to teach Native American history.

Other states around the country also are examining how they’re teaching African American history. In December, Connecticut became the first state to require all high schools to offer courses on African American, Black, Puerto Rican and Latino studies.

In Virginia, a 2019 executive order from Gov. Ralph Northam established an African American History Education Commission tasked with examining and improving the state’s K-12 curriculum and teaching practices. Last summer the commission issued a report calling for standards revisions and new professional development requirements.

Curriculum in Maine schools is currently shaped by the Maine Learning Results, which provide broad standards for what is required in content areas, although what is taught, how it is taught and how it is assessed are determined locally. The standards for social studies don’t identify specific topics or content but instead focus on providing support for school districts to teach concepts that span the topics, giving them the flexibility to incorporate content as they see fit.

Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education, said the state doesn’t track data related to course offerings or how much class time is devoted to individual topics, as all curricular decisions are left to local school boards.

“While some schools may offer it as a standalone course, the most common practice would most likely be as integrated units of study aligned with the standards across different courses such as American history and current event classes, but the standards themselves do include potential for inclusion in just about any social studies course and certainly in English language arts, humanities, and visual and performing arts classes, just to name a few,” Deveaux said in an email.

The department is currently reviewing the bill, L.D. 187, and will be offering its thoughts on whether to support it through testimony to the Legislature’s education committee.

Two years ago, when Luchini’s earlier bill went before the Legislature, several people testified in support, although the Maine School Management Association, which opposes curriculum mandates in general, testified against the measure. Steve Bailey, executive director of the association, said Tuesday that they are neither taking a position for nor against this year in hopes that another bill, L.D. 278 will be considered first. That bill seeks to establish a review committee to look at all proposed changes to mandated instruction or training in schools.

Some educators said they support the idea of teaching African American history, although they also are generally wary of curriculum mandates.

“The more you mandate a specific list of content that needs to be covered, the more you’re making choices for the teacher, so that’s the danger,” said Dom Lambek, a history teacher at Windham High School. Lambek said he doesn’t worry about that with the way L.D. 187 is written, but in general he tends to support a thematic approach to teaching as opposed to having to cover certain events.

One potential benefit of the legislation is that it could result in more training opportunities and resources for teachers, he said. “One of the biggest challenges that largely white teachers in Maine face is they are probably themselves coming from backgrounds in which they weren’t exposed to the history or current lives of African Americans in the United States,” Lambek said. “So if something like this is written into law it will filter its way down into teacher training and professional development. So that would change the emphasis a little bit.”

In Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Melea Nalli said the district already is undertaking curricular work related to African American studies as part of its equity work through the Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan. Currently, the amount of African American history taught varies teacher by teacher and school by school, and Nalli said the district is working to universally embed it in the experience of all students across the district.

“We hear feedback from our students, especially our high school students, that they want to see this and they want us to act urgently to get it out there,” Nalli said. The district also has been undertaking similar efforts related to Wabanaki studies.

Professional development opportunities for teachers to collaborate and reflect on incorporating African American studies in the curriculum will be part of the rollout, Nalli said. The district also is working with an advisory team of Black leaders, including professors, educators, arts organizations and language specialists to gather feedback.

The bill similarly calls on the state to form voluntary advisory groups made of civil and human rights advocates, scholars and others to inform the preparation and distribution of educational materials.

It lists a one-time allocation of $9,000 to allow the DOE to pay for costs associated with holding meetings with stakeholders to revise the social studies standards, though Nalli said there also may be costs for districts that seek to conduct meaningful curriculum work related to African American studies. Portland has found ways to help offset those costs in its district budget or through grant money, she said.

“We believe in the importance of teaching African American history and are on a path to do that already,” Nalli said. “If there are more resources and collaborators across the state that can help support that work, that would be great.”


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