Social studies instruction in Colorado must include the experiences and contributions of diverse groups: Latino, Indigenous, African American, Asian, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Indians, religious minorities, and LGBTQ people.
In a series of 4-3 party-line votes Thursday, Democrats on the Colorado State Board of Education approved social studies standards with a broad look at American history and who has a place in it. The decision restored many specific references that had been removed from the draft standards in response to negative feedback from Conservatives.
And the board also voted unanimously to make changes to the standards that guide teaching about the Holocaust and genocide, clarify that the Nazi Party was fascist, not socialist, and add historical and contemporary atrocities to the list of things students should know .
The decision moves Colorado in the opposite direction from Republican-controlled states that are passing legislation to limit how teachers can talk about race, gender and sexuality, and also limit how they can support students.
The State Board heard months of debate and received hundreds of emails about the standards. Conservative parents said the standards would segregate students by race and ethnicity and introduce notions about sex and sex at an early age, potentially going against parents’ values. Republican board members largely agreed.
In response, a standards committee composed of teachers, community members, and other experts removed many specific references in favor of terms such as “diverse groups” and “marginalized perspectives.”
After these changes, other groups, including parents, students, and teachers, rallied in defense of the broader and more specific version of the standards. They said students would benefit from seeing themselves in the curriculum and in American history.
Queer youth, in particular, said they understood themselves better and felt less fear for their future after learning about gay or transgender people living full lives and contributing to their communities. They also want their peers to understand them better.
“My existence is not political,” said Reina Hernandez, a translatina student at Cherry Creek High School. “It was simply politicized to pursue a political agenda. Will you support my right as a student to exist publicly?”
Approved standards name groups, require specifics
The state board restored most of the cut footage Thursday, with some formatting changes to reduce repeats.
Rather than asking preschool students, “Why is it important to hear and share multiple different perspectives?” A teacher would ask, “Why is it important to hear what friends from different backgrounds (cultures, races, languages, religions, family composition, etc.) have to say?”
Rather than asking eighth grade students to “analyze evidence from multiple sources, including those with conflicting accounts of specific events in Colorado and United States history,” the Standard identifies the perspectives that should be considered: “Indigenous peoples “, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and African American perspectives on Western colonization and enslavement, Asian American and Latino perspectives on immigration, the Indian Removal Act, the Buffalo Soldiers, and the Sand Creek Massacre.”
Republicans focused their concerns on evidence of LGBTQ people in the early grades. A preschool standard states that students should show an interest in interacting and building relationships with people from different backgrounds, and lists LGBTQ people among other groups.
Democratic board members said this would make it look like children are free to tell about their families and bring family photos with them, whether they have a mother and father or two fathers. Republican board member Steve Durham countered with the example of drag queen story-time sessions held in some libraries.
He described the standards as “anti-parents,” and some parents in the audience agreed.
Mary Goodley described teaching her toddler to sit, then walk, then run, saying teaching younger children about the contributions of members of the LGBTQ community would be like asking them to run, before they can sit. She imagined her child entering school, learning about a remarkable leader in the LGBTQ community, and then wondering what LGBTQ meant.
“I don’t want my child’s first grader to introduce him to these tremendous sexual complexities,” Goodley said. “Teaching children about gender and gender concepts is a clear violation of parental rights … and reduces trust in the public education model.”
And parent Janelle Rumley said the idea of students having to see themselves in the curriculum worried her because it suggests white children like their own are not learning from or being inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. or Harriet Tubman could.
But other parents said, without detail in the Standards, that their community’s history simply isn’t taught.
Maria Guadalupe Cardoza said she has nine children in the Boulder Valley School District and “the only thing my children learn about our history is from people of their own color.”
Hernandez, the Cherry Creek student, has been working to develop a course that covers LGBTQ issues and ethnic studies. It has been difficult to convince administrators that the subjects are as important as other academic subjects, she said. Having social studies standards that list by name the groups whose stories should be told would help students make their arguments.
“I’ve been scared of who I am for a very long time,” she said. “It helps with education.”
Standards will shape instruction, not dictate it
Colorado does not set a curriculum at the state level and does not select textbooks. That will be up to the school districts. The standards specify what students are expected to know, and school districts usually attempt to select a curriculum that meets state standards. However, there is little enforcement, particularly in subjects such as social studies.
The State Board had to update the social studies standards to conform to several new state laws that require the inclusion of more diverse perspectives in social studies, require more robust civics instruction, and make learning about the Holocaust and genocide a degree requirement.
All three demands became politically controversial. Republican board member Deb Scheffel wanted civic standards in Colorado to be based on conservative American birthright standards, an idea Democrats rejected. And Durham shaped the standards around the Holocaust and genocide to associate Nazis with socialism and to emphasize the dangers of left-wing governments, leading history teachers, Jewish groups and others to demand change.
Also on Thursday, the state board voted unanimously to make changes to the genocide standards before the social studies standards are finalized. After reading a quote in which Hitler attacked Jews as capitalists, Durham voted with other board members to add the word fascist to describe the Nazi Party, at the suggestion of board member Rebecca McClellan.
Board members also voted unanimously to restore lost references to Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur and, at the suggestion of Board Chair Angelika Schroeder, added a requirement that students learn about the Sand Creek massacre as genocide.
“I don’t want people with all the -isms to think that this only happens in other countries,” said Schröder.
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer oversees education policy and policy and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education reporting. Contact Erica at [email protected]