U.S. Textbooks Miss Opportunities to Teach Latino History

Analysis shows widely used materials omit seminal Latino events, contributions 

WASHINGTON, DC— The first comprehensive analysis of how Latinos are portrayed in widely used U.S. history textbooks reveals a lack of authenticity and a failure to cover many seminal events in the Latino experience. 

The report released today by Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for Education Policy and UnidosUS—the nation’s largest Hispanic nonpartisan civil rights organization—found 87% of key topics in Latino history were either not covered in the evaluated books or mentioned in five or fewer sentences. Together the books included just one Hispanic breakthrough moment from the last 200 years: Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment to the Supreme Court. 

“Research is clear that high-quality, knowledge-building materials are the foundation of academic achievement,” said Ashley Berner, director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. “Although Latino students represent more than a quarter of the 50.8 million K-12 public school students in the United States, until this study, we hadn’t known the extent, quality, and variety of opportunities students have to understand the Latino story.” 

Viviana López Green, senior director of the Racial Equity Initiative at UnidosUS, said inclusion doesn’t just benefit Latino students; it improves the achievement of all students. 

“As the country grows more diverse,” Green said, “it’s essential for our future workers, businesspeople, community leaders, and public officials to learn about the contributions and experiences of all Americans, including Latinos, the country’s largest racial/ethnic minority.” 

The Johns Hopkins researchers have previously performed extensive evaluations of social studies and English curricula used in public, private, and charter school classrooms across the United States. Their reviews include how diverse Americans’ experience is portrayed, knowing that students learn best when they see themselves reflected in course materials and that other students benefit from learning about diverse groups of people. 

For this project, the team analyzed five high school U.S. history textbooks and one AP U.S. history book, using a curated rubric developed in partnership with UnidosUS. The researchers considered how Latinos were depicted, the extent to which each textbook covered the Latino experience, and the degree to which the books balanced discussions of inequality with discussions of Latino contributions to U.S. history. They also evaluated the books’ complexity of language and the authenticity of images. 

Key findings include: 

  1. 87% of key topics in Latino history were either not covered in the evaluated books or were mentioned in five or fewer sentences. 
  2. Only 28 of 222 important topics were covered well, leaving out many aspects of the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the U.S. acquisition of Puerto Rico, the Panama Canal, the modern civil rights movement, Cold War politics, and legal developments shaping the Latino experience, such as the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, and racial segregation. 
  3. The topics covered most fully were related to American land purchases from Mexico and foreign policy in Latin America. 
  4. The books had in common only one Latino breakthrough moment from the last 200 years: Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment to the Supreme Court. 

“The American Latino experience must be accurately depicted to our young people in the classroom if we want them to grow up in a society that recognizes and values the contributions made by people of color,” said José Gregory, a U.S. history teacher at Marist School in Atlanta and a consultant on this project. 

Although curriculum topics are under increasing political scrutiny, the authors say it’s critical to understand what and how students are being taught. They hope the findings will spark efforts to reframe how the Latino American contribution to the United States is taught in K-12 schools, and inspire an understanding of the unique place Latinos play in U.S. history. 

“Martin Luther King Jr. wisely said, ‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly,’” said Anika Prather, the institute’s director of High-Quality Curriculum and Instruction. “Following his words, our hope is for all the nation’s children to understand the Latino contributions to fulfilling our motto: E pluribus unum.” 


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