Colorado high school caught up in AP history curriculum controversy
“The committee’s initial projects will be a review of the AP U.S. History curriculum and elementary health curriculum.
Review criteria shall include the following: instructional materials should present the most current factual information accurately and objectively. … Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”
— minutes from the Jefferson County, CO Board Committee for Curriculum Review
A part of a proposition spearheaded by Jefferson County school board member Julie Williams, these words sparked protests from students, faculty and parents in the Colorado district.
The above text is the first project of a new curriculum review committee, which was approved by the board of education on Oct. 2. Although students and parents will be included on the committee, many were unhappy with the decision, considering it to be censorship.
Williams disagreed. She said, “I hope that this was a defining moment for this board, that there is not one member up here that would support censorship.”
Other students noted the irony of the board’s effort to discourage civil disobedience. FOX31 Denver reported live: “Let me say to Ms. Williams, thank you for your lesson in civil disobedience,” student Eric Temple said at the meeting. “What I have learned from you is there is a time and place for civil disobedience and that time is right now.”
The board’s proposal stemmed from changes that were made to the Advanced Placement United States History curriculum in the past year. These changes, as explained in a fact sheet released by the College Board, include being “more transparent, balanced, flexible and local.”
The issue drew media attention from across the county and the College Board released an official statement in support of Jefferson County student protests on Sept. 26: “These students recognize that the social order can — and sometimes must — be disrupted in the pursuit of liberty and justice. Civil disorder and social strife are at the patriotic heart of American history — from the Boston Tea Party to the American Revolution to the Civil Rights Movement. And these events and ideas are essential within the study of a college-level, AP U.S. History course.”
Tova Lenchner, a junior at North Salem Middle/High School in North Salem, New York, who is currently enrolled in APUSH, expressed agreement with the College Board’s analysis of the issue.
“I believe that these proposed changes are completely contradictory of the objective of not just APUSH, but any AP history class,” she said. “We are being trained to become historians, to analyze events and make conclusions without the influence of our own bias. By insisting that ‘Materials should promote citizenship [and] patriotism’ bias is basically forced upon us.”
Her words echoed those of the hundreds of students and teachers who walked out of school to protest after Williams’ idea was initially pitched in late September.
Protesting the curriculum review wasn’t the only reason people in the county were angry. At the same board meeting where this committee was proposed, there was another proposal that affected teacher compensation, which led to teachers organizing to call in sick. The Denver Channel reported so many teachers were absent that two Jefferson County schools were forced to close, but they reopened the following Monday.
The issues became connected: teachers thought their students deserved better, students thought their teachers deserved better and the school board was the cause of both spikes in concern.
But these protests weren’t just a result of mob enthusiasm. The anger about curriculum review wasn’t a piggyback onto the already-public issue of teacher compensation. Students protested because they cared about the quality of their educations.
Nic Garcia, a staff writer for Chalkbeat Colorado who covers education, has addressed this issue in his recent coverage of the controversies.
“Was this something that was led by the teachers?” he said. “I haven’t seen any proof of that. Obviously, there was some concurrent actions by the teachers with their sick-outs at a couple of the high schools, but I don’t necessarily know how related they are.”
Regardless, he said he has truly seen students taking the initiative to challenge the proposal.
“I think that the question about reviewing APUSH really ignited a fire in a lot of students that hadn’t been really paying attention,” Garcia said. “It was sort of the first time that a decision by this board, which was elected in November of last year, that would have directly impacted them … I think as they became involved they became aware of some of the other issues.”
How could they not? Despite cries about the apathy of this generation, protests from those regarding police brutality in Ferguson to the People’s Climate March in New York City have been garnering national attention — and young people have been heavily involved in all of them. Students know exactly what this board is trying to minimize. To create social change in America, sometimes you have to break rules.
Like it says on many a history classroom wall, if we don’t learn from our country’s mistakes, how are we going to improve as a nation? Lenchner explained it best.
“If only the positive aspects of American history was taught in schools, many aspects of current American culture would never be explained to me as a student,” she said. “What has happened in the past is uncontrollable, but that definitely does not mean it is unimportant.” And it most certainly should not be ignored.
Alexa Salvato is a sophomore journalism major who is revoking her 5 on the APUSH test as a form of civil disobedience. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.