Colorado’s State Board of Education is expected to hold a final vote on Thursday on social studies standards that will play a key role in what students learn.
The seven-member council has spent the past year and a half taking positions on issues such as whether LGBTQ people and their contributions should appear in courses and how students understand the forces that contribute to the Holocaust and other genocides.
Although the board is controlled by Democrats, Republicans have played an important role in setting standards on politically charged issues. Their objections, for example, prompted committee members to drop many references to racial and ethnic groups and LGBTQ people in favor of references to “diverse perspectives.”
But now some Democrats on the elected council are pushing to restore the credentials that were cut and name the many groups whose history and contributions they want to represent: Latino, Indigenous, African American, Asian American and LGBTQ.
Lisa Escárcega, a Democratic board member who sponsored several amendments, said she was responding to her constituents — parents, teachers and students. “People came out of the woodwork,” she said. “People are overwhelmingly in favor of restoring the cuts.”
The council is also due to review standards on genocide and the Holocaust adopted in August. As Chalkbeat reports, these standards bear the ideological hallmark of conservative Republican Steve Durham, who wants students to learn the misconception that the Nazis were socialists and that left-wing regimes are particularly susceptible to committing genocide.
Amendments posted on the Council of State’s website suggest restoring lost references to Rwanda, Darfur and Bosnia; add the descriptor “fascist” before mentions of the Nazi Party; and add the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado to the list of genocides students should study.
Republican deputies also want to reverse certain decisions. Debora Scheffel again calls on the State Board to adopt the conservative US Birthright program as the basis for Colorado’s civic standards. The council rejected the program last month in a party vote.
Whatever form the standards take after Thursday’s vote, they are likely to spark more debate at the local level. Unlike many states, Colorado does not set a curriculum or textbooks. School districts — some of them with new conservative majorities on the board — will have to decide how and whether to turn new standards into new lesson plans.
How Social Studies Became a Struggle
Updates to Colorado’s social studies standards were prompted by a series of state laws that called for stronger civics education, media literacy, and personal financial literacy. New laws also made learning about the Holocaust and genocide a condition of graduation and called for social studies courses to do more to include the perspectives of diverse groups.
Democrats led those efforts, but many bills passed with bipartisan support. Committees of teachers and other experts worked to incorporate the new requirements into state standards. Committee members hoped their work would inspire teachers to think more critically about how they frame their lessons.
But when the draft standards were made public last November, the Conservatives reacted strongly.
“I think it will be harmful for children to learn to group people together based on their skin color or their sexuality and then assume they understand their values and their character,” said Pam Benigno, director education policies for the Independence Institute, in an interview earlier this year.
Benigno said a different committee could have come up with standards that “leave students with a complete history of America but also feel inspired by the progress we’ve made.”
The State Council received thousands of comments on the standards. While supportive comments outnumbered critics, opponents outlined the standards in no-nonsense terms: They would divide Americans by group and introduce children to sex from an early age. Board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Democrat from Boulder, expressed concern that the state was putting itself at odds with the values of many parents.
The debate echoed those unfolding in state houses and school board meetings across the country.
Members of the standards committee, in response to feedback, have published new draft standards that refer to “diverse groups” and “diverse perspectives,” but rarely mention which groups by name.
This decision triggered its own reaction. Lawmakers warned the Council of State that they were violating the intent of the legislation. Gay youth and their parents, teachers and friends told the State Board that knowing that gay, lesbian and transgender people have always been part of society and that their families were treated as normal would have made a huge difference to their mental health.
“This is a real opportunity to advance educational equity for all students,” said Meredith Gleitz, policy manager for One Colorado, an LGBTQ advocacy group. “There is substantial research that shows that when young people see themselves reflected in the program, it has a significant impact on their mental health, their behavioral health, their studies.”
The Latino Education Coalition and the Latino Action Council have made restoring specific references to ethnic and racial groups and LGBTQ people an election priority.
“We are very concerned that they will eliminate this story,” said Milo Marquez, a leader of both groups. “How can we expect students to engage when they discover people who are unlike them? »
Specific examples could support more inclusive teaching
Democratic members Escárcega and Karla Esser propose restoring many specifics to the standards.
In first grade, rather than discussing “what makes a culture unique,” teachers could encourage students to “discuss the common and unique characteristics of different cultures, including African American, Latino, American Asian descent, Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ and religious minorities, using multiple sources of information.
In fifth grade, rather than asking, “How have omissions in historical records shaped our understanding of history?” teachers would also be encouraged to ask, “Which voices have been excluded from the process of establishing the United States government?”
“It sets a baseline for what everyone should know and it allows districts that want to go above and beyond to do so,” Escárcega said.
Escárcega said she has been deeply influenced by the testimonies of young LGBTQ people and hopes that recognizing their place in society can contribute to safer and more welcoming school environments.
Gleitz of One Colorado said teachers need those specific references in the standards to defend themselves if a parent questions why they’re highlighting black perspectives or teaching a trailblazer who was LGBTQ.
Mark agrees. “Superintendents [in conservatives areas] say they can’t implement it because their school board doesn’t believe in it. This creates equity for all of our students. By making this mandatory, it allows all of these communities to do so.
Sam Westerdale, an American history teacher at Rangeview High School in Aurora who served on the standards committee, said she sees students eager for more diverse perspectives and hopes the new social studies standards will foster that. When she was a student, she rarely saw her mother’s Latina identity portrayed.
The committee also did not want to overwhelm teachers with too many content requirements and sought to create standards that would balance the positive and negative aspects of American history.
“We were doing our best for a balanced and objective tone,” she said. “It’s a job for the whole state. It’s not just about you or your district. It’s for everyone.
Genocide standards inaccurate and need change, committee says
Teachers who helped write the Colorado history standards, including Westerdale, are appalled at the final form the genocide standards took under Durham’s influence and that efforts to improve the standards by adding the word Nazi alongside the party’s full name, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, still retained much of Durham’s preferred language referring extensively to socialist governments.
In a letter to members of the Council of State, the history teachers wrote that the standards prescribed teaching inaccurate history – “a precedent which is terrifying for a number of reasons” – in describing past atrocities committed by the Chinese government as genocide when they do not. meet common definitions of the term. Moreover, the standards ignore that “the majority of genocides were committed by far-right fascist leaders or groups.”
Committee members asked the Council of State to seriously consider their original recommendation that students should learn about the Holocaust and genocides in Armenia, Ukraine, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and on the modern genocide of the Uyghurs, as well as “other acts of mass violence such as the political, economic and social policies of Joseph Stalin and the cultural revolution of Mao Zedong and the great famine which resulted from it.”
It is unclear whether the norms of genocide will change, but several council members want to reopen the discussion. Democrat Rebecca McClellan has two amendments, one to add the word “fascist” before the name of the Nazi party to clarify their political leanings and another to restore references to Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur that were lost when the council accepted Durham’s preferred language. .
Schroeder, the chairman of the board, suggested adding references to “19th century genocides” and specifically the Sand Creek Massacre, in which US troops raided an Arapaho and Cheyenne encampment consisting of largely women, children and elders early in the morning, killing over 200 and committing other atrocities.
State Senator Julie Gonzales, who sponsored legislation requiring more inclusive social education, said she was shocked to see the standards deviate so much from her intent and proud of how the community has rallied together. to champion the value of more diverse perspectives.
“The tenor of the debate showed me that we have to watch these debates very closely,” she said. She hopes the State Board “does the right thing, adopts social studies standards that comply with the law, and provides students in Colorado with the opportunity to learn an inclusive and true story from people who have contributed to the welfare of our state and our nation.
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at [email protected].