Colorado students plan more protests, after board sets up curriculum review

After two weeks of student walkouts in Colorado, the Jefferson County Board of Education backed off somewhat on a plan to review AP US history for 'patriotic' content, but still set up a curriculum review committee.

Brennan Linsley/AP/File
Teachers, students, and supporters march near the location of a Jefferson County School Board meeting last fall in Golden, Colo., protesting a school board proposal to emphasize patriotism and downplay civil unrest in the teaching of US history. Now a new version of the AP US history guidelines have gone into effect.

In the wake of student-led protests, the Jefferson County Board of Education in Colorado backed off Thursday night somewhat from a proposal to create a committee to review Advanced Placement US History.

But what the majority of the board deemed a compromise did not fully satisfy students, parents, and teachers, and plans are under way for a Friday afternoon demonstration along Wadsworth Boulevard.

The board voted 3 to 2 to adapt existing policies so that the curriculum review process includes parents, students, curriculum specialists, teachers, and community members appointed by the board, but it did not yet specify whether the history course will be subject to review, reports Chalkbeat Colorado. 

Hundreds of people gathered outside the meeting in Golden, Colo., Thursday afternoon before the meeting. 

“Why the board majority believes they need their own select special committee smacks of hidden agendas,” said Ashlyn Maher of Chatfield High School, one of the students who has been organizing protests, which have included students walking out of high schools throughout the district during the past week.

Ashlyn noted that the board’s own policy requires that a challenge to “learning resources” originate in the school where those resources are being used.

“Ms. Williams’ complaint originated from her opinions and beliefs,” she said, referring to board member Julie Williams, who proposed the review of AP US History in part to ensure that it promoted patriotism. 

The debate over how history is taught isn’t new. In the 1980s and ’90s, proposed national standards for US history were shot down by Congress, partly because critics raised concerns that they didn’t do enough to promote patriotism by emphasizing certain figures like George Washington or teaching about specific battles. 

Similar concerns about the new AP History framework from the College Board have been raised by people worried that it doesn’t place enough emphasis on the uniqueness of the nation.  But the framework’s purpose is to outline key concepts and let teachers choose how best to teach them in depth, says Tom English, president of the Organization of History Teachers, an affiliate of the American Historical Association in Washington.

Teachers will certainly include George Washington and other key figures in their discussion of the founding of the nation, he says.

“I don’t think the best way to teach patriotism and love of country is to teach a whitewashed version to kids who are pretty sophisticated,” says Mr. English. “They know there are things in our country’s past not to be proud of … just as there are things to be very proud of.”

The framework accurately reflects college-level history courses, adds English, who teaches history at the independent George School in Bucks County, Penn. What the Colorado protests illustrate, he says, is that AP courses are important to students – who can show colleges they are taking the most challenging coursework, and, if they do well enough on the exams, can in many cases earn college credit. 

"If a school or district censors essential concepts from an Advanced Placement course, that course can no longer bear the 'AP' designation," Education Week reports.

Before and during the meeting Thursday night, many people spoke against the proposed curriculum review process. Students delivered a box that they said contained 40,000 online signatures supporting their protest.

Some who agreed with the conservative majority on the board also showed their support. Carole Morenz of Pueblo, Colo., stood with board supporters outside the meeting and told the Associated Press that she's worried that the change in the approach to teaching history could be the "biggest cultural shift of our lifetime”  and that students "will lose the knowledge of what made America great."

 As reaction to the meeting’s outcome spread in social media last night, one supporter of the protesters urged students not to give up. In a Facebook post written after she attending the meeting, Jefferson County resident Annie Michelle wrote to them: “You were articulate, eloquent and your passion is unsurpassed!... What's important is that you voices WERE heard across this state, across this country and around the world…. It’s not over by a long shot.”

Longtime history professor Fritz Fischer of the University of Northern Colorado says he’s encouraged that the board decided to include content specialists in any future review process, but he’s still worried what the board may do.

The student protesters have showed “they get it,” that history education is about learning to apply the lens of historical thinking and learning to think for themselves, says Professor Fischer, author of a book about the politics surrounding history education. But “the board majority … has a different interpretation of what history should be, and it’s a very dangerous one.”

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