Morey Middle School in Denver on Oct. 28, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)
Colorado’s State Board of Education will consider further amendments to a new set of standards for K-12 history and civics curricula in the coming months, following an extended public comment period and multiple major revisions made at the request of conservative board members and outside groups.
The co-chairs of the state’s 35-member Social Studies Standards Review Committee presented their final draft at the board’s monthly meeting on Thursday, outlining 154 pages of recommended learning expectations for Colorado students from kindergarten to high school.
The latest recommendations depart significantly from an initial draft submitted to the board last year, making hundreds of changes sought by conservative activists, including the removal of many references to LGBTQ people, people of color, immigrants and other groups; stripping the document of language such as “equity” and “marginalized groups”; and excising historical events and themes that critics said amounted to an excessively negative view of U.S. history.
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Pam Benigno, director of education policy at the right-wing Independence Institute, thanked the committee for the changes during a public comment period Wednesday.
“It was obvious that much thought and time was spent modifying the standards based on the varied public feedback,” Benigno said. “In the committee’s final version, I was glad to see that there was a more balanced approach to our country’s history.”
Reactions to the final draft by members of the board’s Democratic majority during Thursday’s meeting were muted, though Rebecca McClellan, a Democrat representing the 6th Congressional District, expressed concerns about “remaining true to the legislation that we’ve specifically been asked to comply with.”
Review committee members were tasked with updating the standards pursuant to several recent pieces of legislation passed by the General Assembly, including House Bill 19-1192, which required the inclusion of the “history, culture, and social contributions of American Indians, Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans,” as well as the LGBTQ community and religious minorities.
The board’s Republican members, meanwhile, used the meeting to call for even more radical revisions to the draft document, arguing that the standards were too long and complex.
“With the volume of things we are are dealing with here, and trying to cram into this, we really are not accomplishing the objective of teaching essential elements of American history,” said board vice chair Steve Durham, a Republican representing the 5th Congressional District. “We have a long way to go in trying to reorient our education system to what is important. And what’s important is — can they read, can they write, can they do mathematics?”
Diverse communities, historical events erased
The initial revisions released by the review committee last November were the result of nearly two years of meetings to draft language consistent with HB-1192. But right-wing critics quickly flooded state officials with complaints, many of which cited homophobic and transphobic conspiracy theories about “grooming” children, echoing rhetoric used to justify a wave of anti-LGBTQ policies enacted across the country, including Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
In subsequent drafts, the committee removed all references to LGBTQ topics in lower grade levels. The final draft presented Thursday also removes many instances in which groups like Black Americans, Indigenous peoples and Latinos were explicitly identified, replacing them with broad language like “multiple diverse perspectives.” In more than a dozen cases, the committee removed learning objectives or discussion questions pertaining to diversity and equity at the request of Republican board members.
And following pushback to what opponents called a “flaw-focused” version of American history, the latest draft revisions dropped proposed references to the U.S. government’s response to apartheid in South Africa, Loving v. Virginia, lynching, COINTELPRO and the war on drugs.
We have a long way to go in trying to reorient our education system to what is important. And what’s important is — can they read, can they write, can they do mathematics?
– Steve Durham, Republican Board of Education member
Meanwhile, discussion questions about human rights abuses and efforts to “form a more perfect country” were edited or removed, while a new inquiry, added at Durham’s request, asks: “Why is it important to understand the positive contributions made by the United States of America in advancing human freedom and prosperity?”
The committee also bowed to Durham’s requests to insert language relating to the Civil Rights Movement and the United States’ “defense of democratic governments during the Cold War,” as well as the false claim that “the United States was the only nation to fight a war to eliminate slavery.” The Haitian Revolution and other slave rebellions were waged to end slavery, and the United Kingdom enforced its abolition of the Atlantic slave trade through a decades-long military campaign beginning in 1807.
During Thursday’s meeting, Angelika Schroeder, the board’s Democratic chair, asked Floyd Cobb, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of teaching and learning, why the latest revisions reflected a greater degree conservative feedback when public comments had been “vehement in both directions.”
Cobb noted that despite the changes, the final draft places much more emphasis on diversity than the state’s currently enacted social studies standards, which were approved in 2018. “They may have moved the line down here, but the line isn’t down where we started,” he said.
Colorado Commissioner of Education Katy Anthes told board members that they can submit additional amendments to the proposed revisions in writing in the weeks and months ahead. A timeline presented by Cobb suggested that a final board vote on the new standards could come as late as November or December.
Both Republican and Democratic members suggested that the next phase of the process could involve hundreds of amendments to the lengthy standards document, as the board hashes out deep disagreements over which skills and values Colorado schools should impart on their students.
Just how deep those disagreements run was made clear in feedback submitted by board member Joyce Rankin, a Republican representing the 3rd Congressional District.
Amid dozens of other suggested changes, Rankin objected to a discussion question for fifth-grade history students: “Why is it important to understand and empathize with the perspectives of diverse groups?”
“Is it?” Rankin wrote. “Or is this a teacher’s perspective?”
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