Curriculum Changes Don’t Need to Result in Controversy

“All politics is local.”

If you’ve worked in schools for any amount of time, chances are that’s an adage you’ve witnessed play out firsthand.

K12 public schools are local political hotbeds. In district meetings, during school board campaigns, even in the local courts, debates over what and how students learn can turn fierce.

In 1925, local school politics went all the way to  the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark State of Tennessee v. Scopes case. In that case, a public school teacher was reprimanded for teaching evolution in class, in violation of Tennessee law. The case has been uses as precedent in recent legal skirmishes over the teaching of creationism in schools.

Now a similar debate is emerging around the ways schools teach climate change.

Is it hot in here?
When the Portland Public School Board passed a resolution in May that called for updates to any texts that “express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its root in human activities,” school leaders probably didn’t anticipate the change would touch off a national debate about how climate change is taught in the nation’s schools.

But, as this article in the Los Angeles Times demonstrates, that’s precisely what happened.

Members of the Portland school board defended the resolution, saying it was intended to update current texts. But several advocacy groups, many from outside the district, accused board members and others of trying to ban books in favor of a less popular view on climate change.

Curriculum as conversation
What sets the Portland case apart, is that the proposed changes passed without much fanfare in the district. The people of Portland, a community known for progressive and environmental leanings, largely supported the change when it was first handed down.

It wasn’t until advocacy groups outside of the city caught wind that the firestorm ignited.

With accusations that the district was trying to silence alternative theories on climate change and that it was ostensibly banning books to do so, the debate escalated quickly.

As journalist and documentarian Trey Kay told the LA Times for a story on the issue, “Many believe schools will be a place where their children will learn fundamental, core values. It’s possible that a teacher or principal or a whole curriculum is going to teach knowledge and values that are contradictory to what they’re being taught at home.”

Given the many different schools of thought surrounding how controversial issues are taught in schools, what steps can you take to ensure a similar debate does not create a distraction in your school district?

Tough conversations about teaching and learning are going to happen. The key is to have these debates up front and in full public view before you make a decision.

Ask your community for feedback on the issue and outline a clear strategy and a timeline for moving ahead.

Even if your opponents disagree with your choices, they will take comfort in the fact that they had a say in the process.

Has your district ever implemented curriculum changes that ended in controversy? Tell us in the comments.

Want to know how your community feels about the way a particularly touchy subject is addressed in your schools? A community survey is one way to get a handle on community sentiment.  

Author: Todd Kominiak

Todd Kominiak is Managing Editor of TrustED.

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