Curriculum

LGBT Lessons Spread Slowly, Despite Mandate

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 05, 2017 4 min read
Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco Board of Supervisors official, cropped up in an early version of California’s history/social studies framework—but there was little else about LGBT history, advocates say.
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It’s tough to be a pioneer, as the state of California is learning.

Signed into law in 2012, California’s FAIR Education Act requires all students to learn about the contributions of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals, as well as people with disabilities. Aside from making California the only state to mandate LGBT-inclusive teaching, it lends—at least theoretically—legal cover for teachers.

And yet in other ways, the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act is typical of education mandates in the Golden State. It did not, as even proponents point out, provide any funding for implementation. Some districts have dawdled in training teachers. And aligned curricula are only now being rolled out.

“I question how much is going to be implemented until we actually have the textbooks,” said Olivia Higgins, an education consultant who works with several Bay Area school districts. “Some districts are working on creating lessons, and some individual teachers are, but when you have a textbook, it will be taught across the board in a way it can’t be until we have those resources.”

See Also: LGBT History Gets Short Shrift in Schools. There’s an Effort to Change That.

A statewide picture of implementation is hard to come by. Contacted for insights into the law’s implementation, three of the state’s county offices of education—those in Mendocino, San Bernardino, and Yuba—did not return calls or emails; one referred a reporter to individual districts. A spokeswoman for the Elk Grove district, near Sacramento, said it is currently focusing on science standards and will turn to history next.

Officials at the Los Angeles school district, California’s largest, said it has asked teachers to use curricula that better reflect student dversity for years, beginning with a 1984 health education curriculum. Not all teachers are at the same level of fluency with inclusive curricula across subjects, though, and the work needs to be deepened and reinforced, said Judy Chiasson, the program coordinator for the district’s office of human relations, diversity, and equity.

Last October, for LGBT history month, “we sent materials through all the librarians; the year before that, we sent stuff to all the coaches. You just keep searching for opportunities,” she said.

In her own work, Higgins has found that teachers embrace the law in concept but fear that they don’t have the time or space to include LGBT-inclusive curricula in already-stuffed classes. Advanced Placement history teachers especially balk because LGBT history isn’t typically covered on AP U.S. History exam, she said.

Advocacy for the law’s implementation has been most intense over the revision of the state’s history/social studies framework. While not a curriculum, the framework providessome insight on how to approach topics and serves as a roadmap for textbook publishers.

Materials in Flux?

An early draft referenced slain San Francisco board of supervisors official Harvey Milk twice, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 gay-marriage decision, and little else, noted Don Romesburg, an associate professor in the women’s- and gender-studies department at Sonoma State University.

Teachers want to have latitude to make this true to their teaching and to the history, but districts don’t always know what that latitude should look like."

He and other historians wrote a report proposing revisions to the standards, each with a historical rationale. And the state was receptive: About 60 percent of the suggestions were included in the final framework, released last year.

“I do think that the framework really takes up the challenges of what it means to teach young people about the existence of gender diversity, family diversity, and same-sex relationships in the past, and how understanding them as part of the past helps us all prepare to be citizens for the present and future,” he said.In the final framework, students in 2nd grade learn about the diversity of families, including those headed by LGBT parents; about Harvey Milk in 4th grade; and in 11th grade, about the emergence of the gay-rights movement in the 1950s, and other topics.

History textbooks are another story. The state is midway through an adoption of K-8 books. (High school adoption occurs next year.) On a first review, at least two of the submitted series appeared to all but ignore the topic, Romesburg said, though the publishers are providing more information. He and other advocates will continue to review the series and plan to press the state’s Instructional Quality Commission, which meets Sept. 27-28, to reject those that don’t adhere to the framework.

In the meantime, the California History—Social Science Project—a state initiative connecting history scholars to K-12 teachers—is helping to craft sample lesson plans, and its experts are participating in state-organized conferences to familiarize teachers with the framework.

In general, the most effective tack for teachers is to find places where LGBT topics fit naturally and enhance discussion of the lesson’s overall theme, said Beth Slutsky, the social-science project’s program coordinator and a historian at the University of California, Davis. For example, teaching about Cold War culture should include the Lavender Scare—the mass firing of LGBT federal employees purportedly for security reasons.

Slutsky’s trainings have been well attended. She said many teachers simply want to learn how to infuse the topic thoughtfully into their teaching.

What’s less clear are districts’ underlying motives in sending staff members. Slutsky suspects some districts send staff members mainly to suss out what constitutes compliance with the law.

“They’re looking at this from a very litigious viewpoint,” she said. “Teachers want to have latitude to make this true to their teaching and to the history, but districts don’t always know what that latitude should look like.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2017 edition of Education Week as LGBT Curricula Spreads Slowly

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