The adoption of Colorado’s new social studies standards provides parents with a lesson in why increased curriculum transparency is needed.
After a year of impassioned debate about proposed new social studies standards, the Colorado State Board of Education has finalized what PK-12 public school students should learn in history, civics, geography, economics, and financial literacy. The social studies review committee was charged with incorporating directives from the legislature related to five new laws. The major controversy was triggered by one bill that targeted history and civics education.
For decades, as it should, Colorado law has required students to learn about the history, culture, and social contributions of African Americans, Latinos, and indigenous peoples. In 2019, House Bill 1192 added Asian Americans and religious minorities to the required studies, as well as individuals from the LGBTQ community. The bill also incorporated the requirement into history and civics academic standards. How the legislation would be implemented is what caused concern, not the groups that were included.
We can all agree that children should be well educated in history and civics. Both can be taught from various political perspectives, which helps inform and shape students’ world views. To ensure that students receive a balanced view of these important topics, schools and parents must work closely together as partners. And at the root of any true partnership is transparency. Policy makers at the school district and state levels should adopt policies that encourage curriculum transparency.
A political battleground
When the proposed, revised social studies standards were first released a year ago, they prompted thousands of comments from individuals through the public scrutiny process. Obviously, the revisions stirred controversy. Comments from politically left-leaning individuals generally supported the revisions. Individuals on the right were concerned that the legislature was using academic standards as a vehicle to interject politics into the classroom.
Our public school system has been a battleground for social transformation for over a hundred years. It’s commonly known that most university professors lean left politically. Parents, however, may have been unaware that politically progressive thinking has also been infused into elementary and secondary education for decades. In recent years it has become more apparent.
Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? is a compilation of essays published by the Fordham Foundation. Chester E. Finn Jr. wrote in the book’s forward that those who took over the field of social studies possessed no respect for Western civilization and saw America as a problem for humanity rather than mankind’s best hope. Diane Ravitch, a well-known education historian, wrote in her essay that the term social studies was unknown until 1913. She explains that a 1918 report published by the National Education Association suggested that the goal of social studies was good citizenship and that historical studies that did not contribute to social change had no value.
Usually called critical race theory among political conservatives, multiculturalism pedagogy, which emerged in the 1980s and 90s, is often based on the belief that there must be justice for marginalized groups by dismantling the dominance of white privilege in the United States.
Traditionally the United States is viewed as a cultural and ethnic melting pot where we embrace and appreciate the history and culture each brings to our country and are proud to come together as Americans. The aforementioned education historian, Diane Ravitch, wrote in 1990 regarding multiculturalism’s role in schools, “Paradoxical though it may seem, the United States has a common culture that is multicultural.”
Pushing a divisive agenda
Colorado’s new social studies standards ask children to dissect the differences among identity groups instead of what unites us. It’s not fair to group people by their skin color or sexuality and generalize about each individual group member’s perspective on life.
Many who read the proposed standards were shocked to see how the United States was portrayed. Students could be led to the conclusion that our country was founded on the premise of oppressing marginalized groups rather than on the idea of individuals seeking freedom and opportunity.
Our unvarnished history should be taught, but it must include our accomplishments, not just our shortcomings. Otherwise, students are not learning the whole truth, which is harmful to all, including to some of our most vulnerable children who need to know that no matter their skin color, they have hope and opportunity.
Some individuals felt that the state was promoting “action civics,” another trend in social studies instruction, which asks students to participate in protests against social injustices instead of learning about history and civics.
The proposed first-grade standards included discussions related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Numerous individuals who submitted comments were concerned that young children don’t have the cognitive ability to engage meaningfully with these topics and that the timing for such conversations should be up to parents.
The standards review committee considered the record-setting number of public comments and modified the new standards before presenting its final work to the State Board of Education last spring.
The committee tried to be more balanced in portraying America and offered a compromise by removing the mention of LGBTQ from below fourth grade. The compromise aligned with a state law that says comprehensive human sexuality courses cannot be taught below fourth grade.
Parents who felt the originally proposed standards were violating their parental rights were pleased with the change. LGBTQ organizations, however, disagreed with the modifications.
Parents ignored by board
In the final vote, Democrat members, who control the Colorado State Board of Education and will continue to do so following the 2022 elections, rejected the review committee’s compromise to delete LGBTQ from below fourth grade. They also ignored the argument from moms and dads that parents should control when sexual orientation and gender identity are introduced to their young children. Instead, they added the acronym LGBTQ into civics standards beginning in preschool.
State Board member Dr. Debora Scheffel offered an amendment to replace the standards with American Birthright: The Civics Alliance’s Model K-12 Social Studies Content Standards, from the National Association of Scholars. American Birthright is based on some of the highest-rated standards in the country. The amendment failed on a party-line vote.
Here is an example of one of Colorado’s new first-grade history standards:“Explain how the diverse perspectives and traditions of families from many cultures have shaped the United States.” The following measurement is one of three that first-grade students are expected to demonstrate: “Students can discuss common and unique characteristics of different cultures, including African American, Latino, Asian American, Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, Indigenous Peoples, LGBTQ, and religious minorities, using multiple sources of information.”
The Colorado Department of Education makes it clear in the standards document that references to LGBTQ are to ensure that the history, culture, and social contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals are recognized in Colorado’s history and civics standards and that this requirement is not an obligation to teach comprehensive human sexuality education.
Yet, what children will learn about sexuality in social studies class will depend on the perspective of the teacher, school, and school district. Colorado law says parents can opt their children out of sex education classes, but no law gives parents the legal right to opt their children out of social studies classes.
The case for transparency
The standards have been adopted. Now, it is up to parents to do their due diligence to discover what their children are learning. And unfortunately, it is not as easy as it should be. Partnerships between teachers and parents are the key.
When my daughters, now in their 30s, attended school, there were no secrets about educational materials. As a parent, I knew which textbooks they would learn from and the names of the books they would read in literature classes.
Today, many educational resources purchased by districts are hidden behind password-protected portals or gathered from various internet sites. Parents don’t always have easy access to the materials.
Take Poudre School District’s mother of two students, Sherri Yockey. On four occasions, she was told that she could not see educational materials used in her daughters’ classrooms for various reasons. One time she simply asked to access the learning materials used to teach her daughter about Russia so that she could help her daughter study for a quiz.
Another time, a sexual assault course was going to be taught in one daughter’s P.E. class. An outside nonprofit runs the program and has partnered with Poudre School District for 20 years. When Yockey asked to view the program materials, she was told by the program director that they have a policy not to share the curriculum with parents.
Sherri works in educational publishing, and it never crossed her mind that the curriculum wouldn’t be shared with parents. After much time, effort, and fortitude to challenge the system, she was finally allowed to see the instructional materials.
Parents want to be partners in education. And to foster the trust that underlies true partnership, transparency is critical. School districts have policies regulating how materials are chosen; some districts honor parental concerns about curricula more than others.
Local school district boards and charter schools should pass policies that clearly state a parent’s right to access all educational materials, including those used by guest speakers and non-profit partnerships.
Independence Institute’s publication, Curriculum Transparency: A Must for Effective Parent-Teacher Partnerships, empowers parents with the knowledge to better understand district policies and their rights as parents to view curricula. It also suggests simple changes to local school district policies and state law that could help to cultivate trust between parents and schools.
Local control matters
Local school districts may adopt the state’s model standards or create their own if they meet the state’s minimum requirements. However, there is no enforcement if school districts don’t. School districts can even consider some or all of the standards within the American Birthright model standards.
Colorado’s Constitution guarantees local school boards control over instruction and prohibits the state from prescribing textbooks; therefore, the state cannot adopt curricula because that would include instructional materials.
We can be proud that the authors of our state constitution had the foresight to empower local communities with curricula decisions. In fact, according to the Education Commission of the States, we are the only state with such a provision in our constitution. Some school boards believe the Colorado legislature has disregarded “local control” by pushing a political agenda using academic content standards.
School districts and schools should be transparent with whatever they are teaching students. The new social studies standards should signal parents to request and expect access to all educational materials used in their children’s classrooms.
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