Experts say Maryland requirements for teaching history are ‘balanced.’ But parents are challenging what they call ‘critical race theory.’

Maryland’s standards for teaching U.S. history and civics are considered by experts to be balanced and of high quality, but some Baltimore-area school districts are being pulled into the polarized national debate over how the country’s racial history is taught.

In Carroll County, the school board recently voted to say it wants a “politically neutral” curriculum, while Harford County’s school board defended its efforts to address racial inequities in the face of criticisms. Their decisions on classroom content are happening as at least five Republican-led states, including Texas, have passed laws that limit the teaching of concepts related to race even as the country reckons with systemic racism.


No such state legislative effort is underway in Maryland to address what opponents have tagged as “critical race theory,” and it is doubtful that will occur in a blue state where the legislature is less likely to weigh in on the issue.

“I think its standards are really straight down the middle,” said David Griffith, one of the authors of a report by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which found no bias in Maryland’s requirements. While the report said elementary school standards needed improvement, it gave the state a B+ in civics and a B in history.


Too little time and focus have been paid to the teaching of history and civics, according to the report, but it applauded Maryland as one of the few states that require students have at least four doses of U.S. history through 12 years of schooling. United States history is taught in fourth and fifth grades, and students begin a two-part course in eighth grade and complete it in high school. A year of American government is required in high school, as well.

Maryland began rewriting its history standards in 2015 and will finish next year. They have been updated to include the contributions and perspectives of different racial groups, women, LGBTQ individuals and those with disabilities.

For instance, in studying the westward expansion during the late 19th century, Maryland students will look at how it affected rights for African Americans, Chinese immigrants, and the political and legal rights of women.

“We have been working hard to create an awareness of perspective, to make students understand the complicated narrative of the American story,” said Carol Williamson, chief academic officer for the Maryland State Department of Education.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan agrees, calling Maryland’s history requirements “some of the best curriculum in the country that has always been kind of fair and balanced,” in a discussion earlier in July with the Ronald Reagan Institute.

Schools and districts have made significant changes to their curricula — sometimes at the urging of students.

Baltimore City school officials rewrote curricula recently to better “honor the experience, culture, and humanity of students absent the traditionally taught dominant framing,” the school system said in a statement. CEO Sonja Santelises added: “We have decided here in Baltimore City that our content is going to reflect the children we teach, and large portions of the children we teach were left out of the content.”

Last summer, Baltimore-area students who joined and organized Black Lives Matter protests called for curricula to include more Black history and to teach students how the country’s history of racism has contributed to systemic oppression.


About a year later, Mahsati Moorhead, who helped coordinate one such protest last summer, said she expects education departments won’t follow through fully on their promises. But the 18-year-old trusts that the recently created Black Student Union at her alma mater, the Baltimore School for the Arts, will keep the conversations going.

Mahsati Moorhead, pictured last July, organized Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 calling for curricula to include more Black history and to teach students how the country’s history of racism has contributed to systemic oppression. She said she doesn't expect education departments to follow through fully on their promises.

“There are people behind me who are going to do even more,” Moorhead said. “We started something that is going to become something bigger.”

Efforts to improve education around race and racism have been met in recent months with backlash from conservative groups that say politics have no place in the classroom.

Those critics are part of a national debate that has erupted this year, often focused on critical race theory. Narrowly defined, CRT is a legal concept that examines how racism is embedded in U.S. systems and policies. Critics who define the concept more broadly say CRT inaccurately filters history, is opposed to U.S. values, and seeks to make white students feel guilty about historical events.

Some conservative leaders have latched onto CRT as a catchall term for diversity efforts. Then-President Donald Trump directed federal officials in September to halt training for federal employees on critical race theory, calling it “un-American propaganda.”

Several states have passed legislation banning critical race theory or other concepts they perceive as racially divisive. Florida’s state school board adopted rules in June that ban critical race theory and other concepts that allegedly distort historical events” from classrooms.


The Fordham Institute’s review found no states, including Maryland, suggest teaching critical race theory.

In Baltimore, some students who took to the streets last summer to call for school curricula that are more reflective of their lives said they were not surprised by the national debate.

“The reason this backlash is happening is because a year ago, there was a rude awakening that not as many people were on their side as they thought,” said Quinn Fireside, a recent graduate of Baltimore School for the Arts, referring to the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Fireside, who is white, helped Moorhead and other schoolmates organize last summer’s protest. They called for a better curriculum on Black history and were proud when several hundred people showed up.

The national backlash to educating students on racism was not a surprise, Fireside said.

“It feels like a last-ditch, Hail Mary effort to keep schools out of something that schools absolutely need to be a part of,” she said.


The 19-year-old has spent the past year assistant teaching fourth grade social studies in New York City through the City Year AmeriCorps program. She found her students to be naturally curious about the United States’ history and treatment of Black people.

“Kids are going to ask about race anyway,” Fireside said. “The question is, ‘Are our teachers prepared to answer?’”

Parents have begun asking how teachers are answering. A significant portion of Carroll and Harford board of education meetings in July have been spent on parents’ comments on what they call critical race theory. Although both systems have stated the theory is not taught in their schools, parents have said it’s disguised under equity training or taught by teachers regardless.

Jill Ferrara, a Harford County parent, said during a public comment period at a July 12 school board meeting that critical race theory was embedded in a high school assignment that called “young white males racist chauvinists.” School system officials said they were unaware of any such assignment.

During her children’s online learning last school year, Jennifer Mateer, a Carroll County parent, said she noticed political bias.

She said any material that imposes a view that makes students feel at fault for events that happened in America, “or makes a student feel that they need help from our government to be an achiever, or if sexes are discussed in a way that makes someone with religious beliefs like mine ... feel unaccepted, or if law enforcement is put down to feel less than a hero” should not be in the curriculum.


Tara Battaglia, a Carroll board member who joined all her colleagues voting for politically neutral lessons, said in an interview that the history curriculum itself is not an issue and the textbooks are neutral. Battaglia believes “the good, bad, beautiful and ugly” of history should be taught, but she believes some teachers “may put personal beliefs into it that is not part of the curriculum.”

Carroll County school board member Tara Battaglia, pictured in 2018, believes “the good, bad, beautiful and ugly” of history should be taught, but that some teachers “may put personal beliefs into it that is not part of the curriculum.”

The conversation is also happening in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties, though those school boards have not taken action on the issue.

Carroll County teachers and students, like those in Baltimore City, see a need for the teaching of history to be more inclusive.

Devanshi Mistry, the student member of the Carroll County school board, said peers are concerned that too often history lessons are taught from a white perspective, leaving out the contributions of Black people and the LGBTQ community, and lessons about religion lack perspectives outside Christianity.

Jack Nelson, secretary of the Carroll County Student Government and a rising freshman at Century High School in Sykesville, said the curriculum lacks diversity, citing an eighth grade lesson on the forced removal of Native Americans from the South to the West in the 1830s. Nelson said the lesson focused on “the reasons we kicked them off the land when, really, no one could justify what [the U.S. government] did.”

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“There should always be more representation of different ethnic groups, religions, cultures, sexualities, race and so much more,” Nelson said via a text message. “It’s important that we make these changes so we can normalize differences, learn to accept one another and learn how to talk about issues in a nonoffensive way.”


Carroll County teachers believe the debate could have a chilling effect on their ability to discuss race-related topics for fear of losing their jobs. Kelly Zavandro, a teacher at Winters Mill High School in Westminster, said teachers should have the ability to have difficult conversations, particularly in high school. Teachers aren’t trying to indoctrinate students, Zavandro said, but present “different ways of thinking” about issues.

Griffith, the Fordham Institute scholar, said the national discussion around the teaching of critical race theory is a distraction.

“The real problem is that Americans don’t know enough history and civics,” Griffith said. The institute has called for more civics education nationally.

While conservative state legislatures debate the teaching of critical race theory, Griffith said no sensible discussion about race can take place when so few Americans have enough basic knowledge of history to debate the details.

For instance, only half of Americans can name the three branches of government, according to an Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey. One can’t defend a constitutional democracy if one doesn’t know how it works, he said.

“We won’t really understand what we’re arguing about.”