Colorado social studies lessons must include the experiences and contributions of diverse groups: Latino, Indigenous, African American, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, 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 an expansive view of the American story and who has a place in it. The decision restored many specific references that had been cut from the draft standards in response to negative feedback from conservatives.
And the board also voted unanimously to make changes to standards that guide instruction about the Holocaust and genocide, clarifying that the Nazi Party was fascist, not socialist, and adding historic and contemporary atrocities to the list of what students should know.
The decision moves Colorado in the opposite direction of states under Republican control that are passing laws to limit how teachers can talk about race, gender, and sexuality and also to 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 divide students by race and ethnicity and introduce ideas about sex and gender at a young age, potentially in violation of parents’ values. Republican board members largely agreed.
In response, a standards committee made up of teachers, community members, and other experts stripped out many specific references in favor of terms like “diverse groups” and “marginalized perspectives.”
After those changes, other groups including parents, students, and teachers, rallied in defense of the more inclusive and specific version of the standards. They said students would benefit from seeing themselves in the curriculum and in American history.
In particular, queer youth said they would have understood themselves better and feared less for their futures if they had learned 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 trans Latina student at Cherry Creek High School. “It’s simply been 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 material Thursday, with some formatting changes to reduce repetition.
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In preschool, rather than asking students, “Why is it important to hear and share multiple diverse 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?”
In eighth grade, rather than ask students to “analyze evidence from multiple sources including those with conflicting accounts about specific events in both Colorado and United States history,” the standard names the perspectives that should be considered: “Indigenous Peoples’, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and African American perspectives on Western colonization and enslavement, Asian American and Latinos’ perspectives on immigration, the Indian Removal Act, the Buffalo Soldiers, and the Sand Creek Massacre.”
Republicans focused their concerns on references in early grades to LGBTQ people. One preschool standard says students should show interest in interacting with and developing relationships with people from a range of backgrounds, and names LGBTQ people among other groups.
Democratic board members said this would look like children sharing freely about their families and bringing in family photos, whether they have a mom and a dad or two dads. Republican board member Steve Durham countered with the example of drag queen story time sessions held at some libraries.
He described the standards as “anti-parent,” and some parents in the audience agreed.
Mary Goodley described teaching her toddler to sit, then walk, then run, and said teaching younger children about the contributions of members of the LGBTQ community would be like asking them to run before they could sit. She imagined her child entering school, learning about a notable leader in the LGBTQ community, and then wondering what LGBTQ means.
“I don’t want my child’s first grade teacher to introduce him to these vast sexual complexities,” Goodley said. “Teaching children about particular sex and gender notions is a clear violation of parental rights … and decreases trust in the public education model.”
And parent Janelle Rumley said the idea that students need to see themselves in the curriculum disturbed her, because it suggests white children like her own couldn’t learn from or be inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. or Harriet Tubman.
But other parents said without specifics in the standards, their communities’ history just doesn’t get 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 same color.”
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Hernandez, the Cherry Creek student, has been working to develop a class that would cover LGBTQ issues and ethnic studies. It’s been hard to convince administrators the topics 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 case.
“For a very long time, I was scared of who I was,” she said. “With education, it helps.”
Standards will shape instruction, but not dictate it
Colorado does not set curriculum or choose textbooks at the state level. That will be up to school districts. The standards lay out what students are supposed to know, and school districts usually try to pick curriculum that aligns with state standards. However, there is little enforcement, especially in subjects like social studies.
The State Board was required to update the social studies standards to comply with several new state laws that require the inclusion of more diverse perspectives in social studies, call for more robust civics instruction, and make learning about the Holocaust and genocide a graduation requirement.
All three requirements became politically contentious. Republican board member Deb Scheffel wanted Colorado civics standards to be based on the conservative American Birthright standards, an idea Democrats rejected. And Durham shaped the standards around the Holocaust and genocide to associate Nazis with socialism and emphasize the dangers of left-wing governments, leading history teachers, Jewish groups, and others to call for changes.
Also on Thursday, the State Board voted unanimously to make changes to the genocide standards before finalizing the social studies standards. After reading out a quote in which Hitler attacked Jews for being capitalists, Durham voted with other board members to add the word fascist to the description of the Nazi Party at the suggestion of board member Rebecca McClellan.
Board members also voted unanimously to restore references to Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur that had been lost and, at the suggestion of Board Chair Angelika Schroeder, added a requirement that students learn about the Sand Creek massacre as a genocide.
“I don’t want people to think with all the -isms that this only happens in other countries,” Schroeder said.
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at firstname.lastname@example.org.