What's taught in social studies courses is a regular source of controversy. Disagreement in a Colorado school district over whether the US history curriculum needs to be reviewed to ensure it doesn't "encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law" is at the root of students' and teachers' own demonstration of civil disobedience.
On Tuesday, hundreds of students in Jefferson County, a political swing district near Denver, walked out of classes to demonstrate their unhappiness with the curriculum review proposed by the school board. They carried signs with slogans such as "There is nothing more patriotic than protest" – a reference to the direction from school board members that the new Advanced Placement US history course, which has been widely criticized in conservative circles – be reviewed to ensure that the materials promote patriotism and "present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”
The student protest followed a teacher "sick-out" on Friday that shut down two high schools when a large number of teachers called in sick.
At this point, nothing has been decided in Jefferson County about the history curriculum. The board put off discussion of the curriculum review until October, and the district superintendent, Dan McMinimee, emphasized in a statement to the community that "no decisions have been made regarding the curriculum committee."
“I respect the right of our students to express their opinions in a peaceful manner," Mr. McMinimee added. "I do, however, prefer that our students stay in class."
But the controversy is indicative of a deeper political divide, both in Jefferson County – a swing district in a swing state – and, when it comes to curriculum issues, nationally.
In JeffCo, as the district is known, tension between the school board and teachers and some parents has been growing ever since a contentious election last year that gave the board a conservative majority. The curriculum clash is the latest in a series of disagreements about issues ranging from merit pay to charter schools.
The board's concern over the AP US history course, meanwhile, reflects many conservatives' complaints that the new course, which was designed to give teachers more discretion over what they teach and to emphasize critical thinking skills, no longer teaches American exceptionalism, or gives as much weight to traditional events, and puts some American actions – like Manifest Destiny or the dropping of the atomic bomb in World War II – in a negative context.
Last week, the Texas Board of Education approved a measure declaring that Texas's history curriculum, set by state board members, takes precedence over the AP US history course. The board still needs to take a final vote, but the measure would essentially require that Texas students learn the state curriculum when it comes to US history.
In JeffCo, things are likely to calm down until the board next takes up the issue, and when students have said they plan to take their concerns to the board.
“The frustration level is just so high right now among students and teachers,” Kayla Greco, a senior at Pomona High in Arvada, Colo., told Chalkbeat Colorado, a local education news source. “It’s not just the teachers who are upset about changes.”