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School & District Management

Amid Backlash, Colo. Board Rethinks U.S. History Review

By Denisa R. Superville — October 03, 2014 4 min read
Students line a busy intersection and overpass protesting against a Jefferson County, Colo., school board proposal to emphasize patriotism and downplay civil unrest in the teaching of U.S. history.

Colorado’s second-largest school district is in the midst of a political firestorm over what should be taught in U.S. history courses, a standoff that raised broader concerns about school board members inserting their political views into curriculum and instruction matters.

Since mid-September, hundreds of Jefferson County high school students have walked out of classes to protest school board member Julie Williams’ proposal to set up a committee to review the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum with the goal of promoting patriotism and downplaying civil disobedience. Teachers, also upset about the proposal, called in sick and used personal days en masse that led to the shutdown of four schools over the past month.

The curriculum-review proposal and protests catapulted the district, with 85,000 students in 155 schools, into a national debate about censorship. It has drawn attention from the College Board, which administers the AP program and threw its support behind the student protests, as well as a coalition of First Amendment and education groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Coalition Against Censorship, which wrote the school board this week decrying the proposal.

On Thursday night, the board adopted an alternative plan crafted by Superintendent Daniel McMinimee that will include students, educators, and community members, as well as the district’s chief academic officer, in the curriculum-review process. The superintendent called his plan “middle ground.”

The final proposal—approved on 3-2 vote after a long, animated meeting—was stripped of most of its most controversial aspects.

Despite that, protests are likely to continue.

‘Deeply Problematic’

The First Amendment groups called the original resolution “deeply problematic” and zeroed in on two aspects: a portion that would give the committee the authority to identify materials in the curriculum that “may reasonably be deemed” objectionable, and another that could give the committee discretion to choose instructional materials to “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-enterprise system, respect for authority, and respect for individual rights.”

“Highlighting content that is ‘objectionable’ plainly invites the exclusion of such material; the term itself is inherently vague and subjective and would predictably result in complaints based on personal, political, moral, or religious grounds,” the groups wrote in an Oct. 1 letter.

Since the College Board revised its AP U.S. History curriculum framework, it has been criticized by conservative groups that argue the new framework distorts and omits important aspects of the country’s history—the same arguments that undermined the voluntary national history standards nearly two decades ago. The Republican National Committee adopted a resolution in August that said the framework “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.”

Conservative Board

Protesters—parents, students, and teachers—in Jefferson County say the proposed AP curriculum-review committee is just the latest in a string of actions by a conservative three-member majority on a five-member board that swept into office late last year and drove longtime superintendent Cynthia M. Stevenson to step down from the helm earlier than planned.

Members of the board’s majority said the student protests are based on misinformation. They have blamed teachers for inciting the walkouts, arguing they are seizing on the curriculum-review proposal to voice opposition to a compensation package that ties their pay increases to a controversial teacher-evaluation system.

Board President Ken Witt told the Associated Press that he believes the student protesters were being used as “pawns” by the teachers’ union.

In an interview, board member John Newkirk said students’ views were being improperly influenced by teachers.

“Where do they get the idea that we are going to leave out the history of Nagasaki or Hiroshima?” said Mr. Newkirk, referring to Japanese cities bombed by the Allies in World War II. “Where do they get this information? ... It’s simply not true.”

But John Ford, the president of the Jefferson County Education Association, said the union did not plan the sickouts or coordinate the student protests.

Concerns Over Content

Mia Lundin, a freshman at Bear Creek High School, said students heard about the resolution, conducted their own research, and drew their own conclusions.

“I don’t think it’s fair to anyone who is in school and to any of our teachers because the AP curriculum is a national curriculum,” she said. “If they change it, I may not get into certain types of colleges, or [the course] just won’t count for anything.”

Jack Shefrin, a 17-year-old senior who helped organize a walkout at Arvada West High school late last month and has already taken AP U.S. History, said he was concerned that future students may “learn the wrong information because it doesn’t fit with the board’s vision.”

Michele Patterson, the president of Jefferson County’s 13,000-member Parent-Teacher Association, whose board voted unanimously to oppose the resolution, said she was concerned that particular books—for example, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which makes liberal use of a racial epithet in a historical context—could be removed from an English class because parents or board members found the language or content objectionable.

Superintendent McMinimee said the board has authority to review curriculum, and it was not engaging in censorship by doing so. Nevertheless, he said he favored an alternative proposal to use the district’s existing review committees for curriculum and textbooks, and to make changes to the memberships of those panels.

A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as Students and Board in Colorado Face Off Over U.S. History

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