Teaching Controversial and Sensitive Subjects is a Policy School Districts Need

Part 1

House Bill 22-1066, Public Education Curriculum and Professional Development Information, sponsored by Representative Tim Geitner (R) from the 19th district, proposes to make curriculum and instruction more accessible to parents and the public. As an Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, I believe that is a good thing. Public education is, by definition, open to the public. Every email I write includes the disclaimer that, “This message and any response to it may constitute a public record and, therefore, may be available upon request in accordance with Colorado Open Records Law.” Spurred on by fears about Critical Race Theory and fueled by the ever-increasing polarization our country faces, there is a national movement for parents to be more “involved” in curricular decisions. Unless parents truly understand what curriculum is and how it is used, this involvement really boils down to parents wanting to approve the resources being used more than anything else. I worry that will complicate the process and water down what we teach.

Amongst several requirements of the bill are: posting a list of the educational materials that the district uses for each grade, subject, and course; a copy of each survey, nonacademic assessment, analysis, and evaluation distributed to students; and information concerning the professional development requirements for educators employed by the district. While it is hard to say what the intention behind these provisions is, there is a section of the bill at toward the end that, no matter the intention, will protect teachers and school districts. It states that, “a local education provider may adopt a policy concerning the teaching of controversial issues. At a minimum the policy must include procedures for reporting policy violations and the local education provider must post the policy on its website.” This is the one part of the bill that all school districts definitely should have.

I assume most districts do have this in board policy, but if your district does not it needs to adopt one immediately. In the school district where I work we have policy IMB Teaching About Controversial and Sensitive Subjects, which is predicated on policy, IB Academic Freedom. These two policies together require us to teach about controversial topics and clearly lay out the rights and responsibilities for parents, students, and teachers in this process.

Policy IB states that, “The Board of Education seeks to educate students in the democratic tradition, to foster a recognition of individual freedom and social responsibility, and to inspire meaningful awareness of and respect for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” Policy IMB further states that, “Controversy is inherent in the democratic way of life. It is essential, therefore, that the study and discussion of controversial issues have an important place in education for citizenship in a free society.” The policy goes on to define controversial subjects as, “...those problems, subjects, or questions about which there are significant differences of opinion, for which there are no easy resolutions, and discussion of which generally create strong feelings among people.” Teaching topics about which there are differences of opinion is essential to teaching in the democratic tradition, which according to our policy, is essential to our mission as educators. Having established that controversial and sensitive subjects must be taught, the policy goes on to define the rights and responsibilities for everyone involved in the educational process - parents, students, and teachers.

Policy IMB recommends that parents and patrons of the Eagle County School District: recognize that it is the responsibility of the school to present controversial issues that are appropriate to the curriculum; refrain from attempting to suppress the teaching about controversial issues, assuming that the guidelines of responsibility and appropriateness have been followed (this is especially important in the age of CRT); inform the teacher, principal, and other appropriate personnel when they have information that indicates controversial issues are being dealt with in an inappropriate manner.

The policy also includes student rights and responsibilities which include in part: to research, study, and discuss significant issues, and to reach judgments and express opinions without jeopardizing their relationship with classmates or teachers (so don’t be a jerk to your teachers or classmates just because you disagree); to learn in an open classroom and school climate so that they feel free to examine any aspect of a controversial issue; to recognize that reasonable compromise often is an important facet in decision making in our society.

Policy IMB goes on to clarify teacher rights and responsibilities, which include: to be free to conduct reasonable study and discussion of controversial issues without fear of reprisal; to maintain impartiality; to treat controversial topics objectively and to present alternative and/or divergent positions and opinions; to reveal his/her opinion to the degree, and at the time, determined most appropriate (if at all) and to inform students that this is a personal opinion rather than a factual and authoritative statement; to be sure their opinion does not interfere with the evaluation process of the student; and should stress that the student has every right to reach a different opinion.

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