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Colorado social studies standards: Final vote will determine LGBTQ inclusion, accurate history

Students raise their hands in a classroom with a bulletin board that says “American History.”

Social studies standards adopted by the Colorado State Board of Education will influence classroom lessons and district curriculum choices.

Jonathan Kirn / Getty Images

Colorado’s State Board of Education is set to take a final vote Thursday on social studies standards that will play a key role in what students learn.

The seven-member board has spent the last year and a half adopting positions on issues such as whether LGBTQ people and their contributions should appear in lessons and how students understand the forces that contribute to the Holocaust and other genocides. 

Although the board is controlled by Democrats, Republicans have played a large role in shaping standards on politically charged issues. Their objections, for example, prompted committee members to remove many references to racial and ethnic groups and LGBTQ people in favor of references to “diverse perspectives.” 

But now some Democrats on the elected board are pushing to restore references that were cut and name the many groups whose history and contributions they want represented: Latino, Indigenous, African American, Asian American, and LGBTQ. 

Democratic board member Lisa Escárcega, the sponsor of several amendments, said she’s responding to her constituents — parents, teachers, and students. “People have come out of the woodwork,” she said. “People are overwhelmingly in favor of restoring the cuts.”

The board is also set to revisit standards related to genocide and the Holocaust adopted in August. As reported by Chalkbeat, those standards bear the ideological stamp of conservative Republican Steve Durham, who wants students to learn the false idea that the Nazis were socialists and that left-wing regimes are uniquely prone to commit genocide. 

Amendments posted on the State Board website suggest restoring lost references to Rwanda, Darfur, and Bosnia; adding the descriptor “fascist” before mentions of the Nazi Party; and adding Colorado’s Sand Creek Massacre to the list of genocides students should study.

Republican members also want to revisit some decisions. Debora Scheffel is again asking the State Board to adopt the conservative American Birthright program as a basis for Colorado civics standards. The board rejected the program last month in a party-line vote.

Whatever form the standards take after Thursday’s vote, they’ll likely kick off more debate at the local level. Unlike many states, Colorado doesn’t set curriculum or textbooks. School districts — some of them with new conservative board majorities — will have to decide how and whether to turn new standards into new lesson plans. 

How social studies became a fight

The updates to Colorado social studies standards were prompted by a series of state laws that called for more robust civics instruction, media literacy, and personal financial literacy. New laws also made learning about the Holocaust and genocide a graduation requirement and called for social studies lessons to do more to include the perspectives of diverse groups. 

Democrats spearheaded these efforts, but many of the bills passed with bipartisan support. Committees of teachers and other experts worked to incorporate the new requirements into state standards. Committee members hoped their work would prompt teachers to think more critically about how they framed their lessons.

But when draft standards were made public last November, conservatives reacted strongly. 

“I believe it will be harmful for children to be taught to group people by their skin color or their sexuality and then assume they understand their values and character,” said Pam Benigno, education policy director for the Independence Institute, in an interview earlier this year. 

Benigno said a different committee might have come up with standards that “left students with a full history of America but also feeling inspired by the progress that we’ve made.”

The State Board received thousands of comments about the standards. While supportive comments outnumbered critical ones, opponents described the standards in stark terms: They would divide Americans by group and introduce kids to sex at an early age. Board Chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, expressed concern that the state was putting itself at odds with many parents’ values.

The debate echoed those happening in statehouses and school board meetings around the country.

Standards committee members, responding to the comments, released new draft standards that referred to “various groups” and “diverse perspectives” but rarely mentioned which groups by name.

That decision sparked its own backlash. Lawmakers warned the State Board they were violating the intent of legislation. Queer youth and their parents, teachers, and friends told the State Board that knowing that gay, lesbian, and transgender people have always been part of society and having their families treated as normal would have made a huge difference to their mental health. 

“This is a real opportunity to make an advancement in educational equity for all students,” said Meredith Gleitz, policy manager for One Colorado, an LGBTQ advocacy group. “There is substantial research that when youth see themselves reflected in the curriculum, it has a meaningful impact on their mental health, their behavioral health, their academics.” 

The Latino Education Coalition and the Latino Action Council made restoring specific references to ethnic and racial groups and LGBTQ people an election priority.

“We are very concerned that they are going to eliminate that history,” said Milo Marquez, a leader in both groups. “How do we expect students to be engaged when they are learning about people who don’t look like them?”

Specific examples could support more inclusive instruction

Democratic members Escárcega and Karla Esser propose restoring many specifics to the standards. 

In first grade, rather than discussing “what makes a culture unique,” teachers might prompt students to “discuss common and unique characteristics of different cultures, including African American, Latino, Asian American, Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, Indigenous Peoples, LGBTQ, and religious minorities, using multiple sources of information.” 

In fifth grade, rather than ask, “How have omissions in the historical record shaped our perception of history?” teachers would be encouraged to also ask, “Whose voices were left out of the process of establishing the United States Government?”

“It sets a baseline for what everyone should know and it allows districts who want to go above and beyond to do that,” Escárcega said. 

Escárcega said she’s been deeply influenced by the testimony of LGBTQ youth and hopes that acknowledging their place in society can contribute to safer, more welcoming school environments.

Gleitz, of One Colorado, said teachers need those specific references in the standards to defend themselves if a parent questions why they’re highlighting Black perspectives or teaching about an early pioneer who was LGBTQ. 

Marquez agrees. “Superintendents [in conservatives areas] are saying there is no way they can implement it because their school board does not believe it. This creates equity for all of our students. By mandating this, it allows all of these communities to do it.”

Sam Westerdale, a U.S. history teacher at Rangeview High School in Aurora who served on the standards committee, said she sees students eager for more diverse perspectives and hopes the new social studies standards promote that. When she was a student, she rarely saw her mother’s Latina identity represented.

The committee also didn’t want to overwhelm teachers with too many content requirements and sought to create standards that would balance positive and negative aspects of American history.

“We were doing our best for a balanced, objective tone,” she said. “This is work for the entire state. This is not just about you or your district. This is for everyone.” 

Genocide standards are inaccurate and require changes, committee says

The teachers who helped write Colorado’s history standards, including Westerdale, are dismayed by the final form the genocide standards took under Durham’s influence and that efforts to improve the standards by adding the word Nazi alongside the full party name, the National Socialist German Workers Party, still kept much of Durham’s preferred language referring extensively to socialist governments.

In a letter to State Board members, the history teachers wrote that the standards mandate teaching inaccurate history — “a precedent that is terrifying for a number of reasons” — by describing past atrocities carried out by the Chinese government as genocide when they don’t meet common definitions of the term. Further, the standards ignore that “the majority of genocides have been committed by far-right, fascist leaders or groups.” 

The committee members asked that the State Board give serious consideration to their original recommendation, which said students should learn about the Holocaust and genocides in Armenia, Ukraine, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, and the modern genocide of the Uyghurs, as well as “other acts of mass violence such as the political, economic, and social policies of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and resulting Great Famine.”

It’s not clear whether the genocide standards will change, but several board members want to reopen the discussion. Democrat Rebecca McClellan has two amendments, one to add the word “fascist” before the name of the Nazi Party to make their political leanings clear and another to restore references to Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur that were lost when the board accommodated Durham’s preferred language. 

Schroeder, the board chair, has suggested adding references to “19th century genocides” and specifically the Sand Creek Massacre, in which American troops attacked an encampment of Arapaho and Cheyenne people composed largely of women, children, and elders in the early morning, killing more than 200 and committing other atrocities.

State Sen. Julie Gonzales, who sponsored the legislation requiring more inclusive social studies instruction, said she’s been distressed to see the standards deviate so much from her intent and proud of how the community has rallied to defend the value of more diverse perspectives.

“The tenor of the debate has shown me that we must watch these proceedings very closely,” she said. She hopes the State Board “does the right thing, that they pass social studies standards that comport with the law and provide Colorado students with the opportunity to learn an inclusive and true history of people who have offered contributions to the well-being of our state and our nation.”

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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