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Outside of the home, children learn about the world, where they fit in amongst their peers, and who they want to be in school.
Access to a quality education means different things to different people. Some families are willing and able to pay top dollar for a private school, other children are homeschooled, while many rely on public schools for their education. And some students are calling for a more thorough and inclusive curriculum in the legislature and in the classroom.
In this edition of Making Contact, we look at two major changes to statewide curriculum in California, and where schools nationwide may be headed under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Special thanks to the Oyez Project for providing free online access to US Supreme Court audio recordings, and Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library for access to their archive.
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- Hi. Jasmine Lopez here. If you like what you’re hearing, you can donate to us by going to RadioProject.org, and click on the big Donate button. And don’t forget to read us on iTunes, which helps other listeners find us. Thanks, and here’s the show.
This week on Making Contact.
This is what’s happening in education. High stakes testing narrowing the curriculum, marketizing and privatizing education– all of these things are interlinked not only here in the United States, but around the world. There’s a point of hope, which is that communities and the professions are really fighting back.
Access to a quality education means different things to different people. Some families are willing and able to pay top dollar for a private school. Other children are homeschooled, while many rely on public schools for their education. And some students are calling for a more thorough and inclusive curriculum in the legislature and in the classroom.
It’s not a great feeling to feel like you have to educate your educators. And that’s not something I should have to do, and it’s not something I want to do.
On this edition of Making Contact, we look at two major changes to the statewide curriculum in California and ask where schools nationwide might be headed under education secretary Betsy DeVos. California has retooled its course offerings by developing ethnic studies and LGBT studies. In some states, it’s illegal for teachers to say positive things about LGBT people. California however has passed multiple laws in recent years that do just the opposite and actively include LGBT communities in the public school curricula. But just because it’s the law doesn’t mean it’s actually happening yet. Reporter Hannah Harris Greene visited a middle school in Los Angeles where teachers are using the new curriculum.
- It’s Ally Week at Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Angeles. That means a week of activities devoted to making LGBTQ students feel safe. Matthew French is teaching his sixth grade health class a lesson entitled Diversity and Human Relationships.
Aside from the fact that the state includes all of this in what you’re supposed to learn anyway, to me, one of the biggest motivations in teaching it to you, and especially now during Ally Week, is this word up here– homophobia. So when we think about the reasons that people discriminate against other people, bully them, harass them, hate them, whatever, we have names for that. So for example, if somebody is against you because of your race, that’s racism.
- Just because I’m Mexican?
In this case–
Just because I was born–
In this case–
The students feel comfortable with French. But they respect him also. Sometimes they get a little rowdy, banging on tables and talking all at once. But they’re engaged. And when French tells them to be quiet, they listen. He feels comfortable with them too. They ask him questions about when he was a teenager, a closeted high schooler in Arizona, and he answers them. At my high school, there were more than 3,000 students. More than 3,000. And here at King we have, what, 20–
2,100? 2,000? So a lot. So over 3,000 students. And there wasn’t a single person on the whole campus– a student, a teacher, administrator– no one that was out. So does that mean there were no gay people at my school?
So how come I didn’t know a single other gay person?
Because they were in the closet.
Yeah. So I presume that we were all hiding in a sense. Why do you think that’s the case, out of 3,000 people, that all those people that might have been LGBT+ would not have been out?
Because they were worried that nobody else would support them or back them up, and so people are feared that they won’t be able to actually express themselves without being made fun of.
Somebody connect that for me to–
A lot of effort went into making a classroom like this one possible. The California State Legislature passed several policies over the last few years to make public schools more inclusive. These include provisions to allow trans students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms as well as join sports teams that match their gender, a policy which Obama enforced nationally through an executive order. Trump repealed the order after a month in office. But California’s state law still stands.
California has also passed laws requiring inclusive curriculums in health and social science classes. The FAIR Act, passed in 2011, requires history and social science classes to include the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals as well as people with disabilities. Don Romesburg helped create the curriculum textbook companies and teachers will follow in order to comply with the law. He’s a queer studies and a history professor at Sonoma State University in northern California.
- When the California Department of Education came out with its first suggested revisions for the new framework, the only places where they put LGBT material was a mention of Harvey Milk in fourth grade California history, and then another mention of Harvey Milk and activist Cleve Jones as well as gay marriage in 11th grade US history. And we were surprised because LGBT history goes back to the beginning of the nation, before that even, and extends all the way through to the present.
The law requiring inclusive health classes is relatively new. It came into effect in early 2016. But the FAIR Act passed more than five years ago, and at least one student has been waiting that whole time for a change.
Hi. My name is Cal Larisch. I go to Washington High School. I’m 17 years old, and I use they/them pronouns.
Cal identifies as queer, gender non-binary, and gender fluid. They started working with student LGBTQ organizations to lobby for the FAIR Act before they even started high school. At that age, they had never heard about other queer people in class. And even after the FAIR Act passed, it wasn’t until their junior year that a teacher brought up queer history at all, and the teacher didn’t say much.
- I feel a responsibility to bring this up in a classroom setting sometimes. I brought it up my freshman year when we were talking about sex ed. I brought it up my junior year so we more explicitly talked about what went on in the Stonewall riots and in the AIDS crisis and the movements that sprang up because of that. And it’s not a great feeling to feel like you have to educate your educators. And that’s not something I should have to do, and it’s not something I want to do.
A more in-depth change is coming. Romesburg and others who helped lobby for the FAIR Act realized the initial changes weren’t enough.
The inclusion that we are pushing for was basically to say, let’s make the FAIR Education Act real by putting LGBT history into K12 education all across the curriculum. I was working with an organization called the Committee on LGBT History, which is an affiliate of the American Historical Association. And we took the old framework and handed out parts of it to experts in early American history, in California history, Native American history, history of slavery and freedom, and so on.
We were surprised to learn that this was not common practice. We had really gone above and beyond in terms of the amount of scholarly justification that we were putting forward to propose our changes. And I think that that good faith effort at the beginning was part of our success, because we saw about half of our changes make it in.
- This curriculum matters to Romesburg. Studies show that schools where students learn about LGBTQ people have less bullying and better climates. But Romesburg is a historian and as equally passionate about making sure that the material is accurate.
It’s absolutely essential that when we teach about the past, we aren’t teaching about diversity just for the sake of inclusion but because of accuracy. And a great example of this is in 11th grade, most people teach McCarthyism, and they teach about Cold War paranoia about Communism in the 1950s and how an overreach by the federal government destroyed many lives. What a lot of people don’t even know is that there was a far more expansive federal persecution, what historians have dubbed the Lavender Scare, that went from the late 1940s through the early 1970s.
And nearly 10,000 people lost their jobs, were pushed out of government, oftentimes lost families. Some committed suicide. So this is a story that is part of our civil society and a cautionary tale, like Japanese internment, like McCarthyism, that should absolutely be taught. It’s also essential to teach the Lavender Scare because it helps explain why LGBT people in the 1950s and 1960s began to see themselves as a political minority that needed to fight for their civil rights.
- As students get ready for the bell to ring, Matthew French reminds them to contribute to a mural out in the courtyard constructed for Ally Week. He manages to throw in a sly jab at Trump’s proposed wall, and the students go wild for it.
Just a reminder, all week this week is Ally Week, so you will be seeing events. At the end of the week, what they’re doing is they’re building a wall– of love.
Of love. On this wall, you can write a statement or a commitment of love and support of being an ally.
- But these laws don’t mean that every classroom in California is automatically as open as French’s. Romesburg acknowledges that not every teacher will embrace the new material, but he hopes that in those cases students will demand that their teachers educate them.
In a perfect world, all students should be able to have access to the LGBT past in elementary school, middle school, and high school, and that should just be a matter of fact in the way that the LGBT community as a matter of fact of the US nation state. Unfortunately, LGBT people have always had to fight for our right to exist and for a place at the table and for a voice in our community.
And so I wish students didn’t have to fight for that, but now at least they have a really powerful tool to wage that battle. And it may not feel like so much of a fight. It might feel more like a dialogue, where once students are empowered with this framework and with this law, they’ll be able to advocate on their own behalf and educators will join their struggle.
- No matter what the law says, some aspects of every student’s education are up to chance. Even in blue states like California, there are places where anti-LGBTQ prejudice runs deep. There are teachers who feel uncomfortable talking about queer people, especially to younger students. But now, California teachers who want to teach about queer history have the law on their side, and so do students who want to learn about it.
That segment was produced by Hannah Harris Green in Los Angeles. As was mentioned earlier in the program, even though curriculum changes make it into the law books, it doesn’t mean they’re suddenly being taught in the classroom. The same could be said for the development of ethnic studies curriculum in California, where the field was first developed at colleges and universities in the 1960s and ’70s. Jose Lara is a social studies teacher and the dean at Santee Education Complex. It’s a high school just south of downtown Los Angeles.
Lara is also part of a statewide coalition of students, educators, and parents who work to pass a model statewide ethnic studies curriculum that would be available by June 30, 2019. Lara is also a school board member at El Rancho Unified School District and one of the founders of the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition. I asked him how he first came to advocate for the curriculum changes.
- Myself and a couple other real progressive, social justice-oriented educators got elected to the board. And we said, hey, you know what? Ethnic studies shouldn’t be something that’s only offered as an elective. It should be simply mandatory for all students. So we actually passed a resolution that made ethnic studies a graduation requirement in the El Rancho Unified School District.
So in El Rancho, you can take classes like Gender and Ethnicity in Literature and Film, Chicano Mural Art. You can take Multicultural Literature. So there’s different classes that students get to choose from in the field of ethnic studies that fits their needs and fits what they’re interested in and teachers are passionate about.
In San Francisco, they followed a little different model. In San Francisco, they created one specific ethnic studies course that really supported students who were really falling behind. And they’ve shown dramatic gains, and research has recently shown students go up by whole grade– GPAs go up by a whole grade point. Attendance increases for students taking the ethnic studies courses in the San Francisco Unified School District. So it looks a little bit different in different districts.
But the way we really got started was we started in El Rancho as graduation requirements, and we started a grassroots campaign in local districts across the state of California, really connecting with local groups through our network and our website, EthnicStudiesNow.com, and really built a grassroots effort to have similar resolutions like the one that passed in El Rancho Unified, passed in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Diego, Long Beach.
And each location entered and developed ethnic studies in a way that fit their needs and their talents and their expertise inside of their district. Very few school districts actually had ethnic studies. Those that did expanded them. Some districts made it mandatory. Other districts established their first programs in the field of ethnic studies. And each place is really responsive to their own regional or local needs, so it looks a little bit different in different parts of California. It all has the same basic strands of looking at race, gender, ethnicity, intersectionality through a lens of power and power dynamics.
It has an emphasis on social justice. It has an emphasis of telling counter-narratives and stories not typically found in your standard curriculum. And it allows students to be– especially students color to be at the center of the curriculum instead of the margins. And it also includes local history, which is absolutely amazing. So it looks a little bit different in different places because local history and context changes from place to place throughout the state of California.
- State law says that the Instructional Quality Commission will develop the model curriculum, and the Board of Education will encourage districts to offer it in high schools. But statewide, it’s not a graduation requirement. How has that been playing out at the district level?
So there are some districts that are going the requirement route. There’s other districts that are making it mandatory that they’re offered at every single school site. So it looks different in different places. And there’s an argument– should you make it mandatory or should you not make it mandatory? So different people have different opinions on that. But we all agree on one thing, that we should be expanding our ethnic studies programs in the state of California.
What have been some of the challenges in the implementation of ethnic studies in public high schools?
So some of the challenges have been school districts really understanding what ethnic studies is. A lot of people don’t– a lot of school district officials don’t have a concept of what the curriculum looks like. There’s been a challenge finding teachers who are well versed in ethnic studies. You have the credential to teach it, but if you don’t have the background in the curriculum, it makes it a little bit more difficult. So training has been a challenge. We have gotten pushback on budgetary issues and local priorities.
So there’s a lot of people will be supportive of ethnic studies, but that’s not one of their main district’s priorities at this time. And so we tried to make a local push to say, this should be a priority. Having students’ lives centered in education, having them see themselves in a curriculum, is just as important as the math class that you’re taking, as the English book that you’re taking. And just as importantly, the new Common Core standards actually support what we’re trying to do in ethnic studies. Because their skill-base and not content-based, you can use any content to teach those skills.
And so what we’re saying is that you can teach reading using almost any book. Why not use one by authors of color? Why not use one reflective of the student lives that you’re teaching in? And so as public school teachers, we teach the students that walk through the door. Those are students. That’s our clientele. And more and more increasingly, they’re students of color. But when they’re not in our textbooks and the stories of their experiences are not in our books, in our curriculum, there’s something gravely missing.
We’re telling our students that their lives and their stories and their histories and their art, their music, their beauty isn’t important to us. And that’s the wrong message that we should be sending to students. We should be sending that their lives matter, that they’re important, that they’re part of our community, and that they’re a part of the rich tapestry that creates this country. And so that’s what we’re really pushing for when we say we want ethnic studies now.
- That was Jose Lara, founder of the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition in Los Angeles.
You are listening to Making Contact. Thanks to generous support from listeners like you, this program is offered for free to radio stations in the US, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. To find out how to support us, download shows, or get our podcast, go to RadioProject.org. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Our handle is Making_Contact. Coming up, we’ll hear from a former dean of education at the University of San Francisco on where national education policy could be headed.
The state of California is making strides in creating more thorough and inclusive curricula with ethnic studies and LGBT studies, but education policy nationally could be moving in a different direction. Making Contact producer Marie Choi spoke with Professor Kevin Kumashiro, founder of Education Deans for Justice and Equity.
- Within a week of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, members of Congress introduced HB 610, the Choices in Education Act, The bill would take federal money that goes to the schools and communities that need it the most and require states to implement voucher programs that allow parents to use it for private schools, religious schools, or homeschooling.
Kevin Kumashiro is former dean of education at the University of San Francisco and founder of Education Deans for Justice and Equity. He says whether or not this particular bill passes, it’s a harbinger of what’s to come under President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
- What we’re hearing, both in terms of rhetoric and in terms of proposed policies, are really going to be quite destructive to public education. They are about doing away with the federal role in advancing civil rights in education. It’s about using funds to fuel the privatization of public schools. But a lot of the things that we’re hearing currently at the federal level are actually not brand new.
In some ways, what we’re seeing with Trump and Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education, it might be shocking to some, but it’s actually building on decades and even the most recent years under the Obama administration to move us towards marketizing and privatizing public education, to move us towards more school choice, to in some ways over-regulate, to in some ways under-regulate. So I think this is our challenge, is when we try to name the landscape, we need to actually recognize that there’s a history that brought us here and that the picture is incredibly complex.
- That history takes us to 1965. The Civil Rights movement was winning the battle of ideas, and in response, Lyndon Johnson had declared a War on Poverty. A key part of it was passing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or the ESEA.
And now, within the past three weeks, the House of Representatives by a vote of 263 to 153, and the Senate by a vote of 73 to 18, have passed the most sweeping educational bill ever to come before Congress. It represents a major new commitment of the federal government to quality and equality in the schooling that we offer our young people.
That bill created the framework for how the federal government would engage in education.
So when we study the history of US schooling, of public schools in the United States, we tend to break up into periods, chunks of time. And there is a period from around the 1950s to the 1980s that many historians called the Federal Era in US schooling. And it’s called the Federal Era because that’s the decades when the federal government began to assert a lot more influence over public education. It wasn’t really about micromanaging. It wasn’t about telling states and districts everything that they need to do.
It was a very specific role that they were playing, and that is to advance civil rights by leveraging federal funds to push states and districts to comply. So what characterizes a lot of what was happening, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, was a series of federal legislation that was doing exactly that. It was basically compelling states and local districts to follow civil rights nondiscrimination legislation and principles by leveraging federal funding as the carrot or the incentive.
So Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it’s addressing– in Title I, it’s addressing students in poverty. Title III, it’s addressing English language learners. And you have the Bilingual Education Act. You have the Higher Education Act. You have the Civil Rights Act. You have what eventually became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
And all of these are really the federal government saying, we need to recognize that public schools are falling short in serving some of the most under-served populations. And so our role is to come in and direct federal funding to try to address the populations that are most falling through the cracks. And this is what I think is so concerning about the recent movement by the federal government.
- In 2001, No Child Left Behind was enacted. On the one hand, it reauthorized the ESEA. But on the other, it shifted the role that the federal government would play in education.
I was saying earlier that there was this period from the ’50s to the ’80s called the Federal Period. Well, historians also call the period from the ’80s till today the Standards Based Reform period or the Standards and Accountability period. And it’s because there are ideas that emerged, particularly from some of the foundational entities of the conservative and neoliberal movements like the Business Roundtable, the top 300 CEOs of corporations from the United States, that have turned their attention to public education policy.
And what then became influential, from the Reagan Administration really right up until now, is this idea that the way you improve education is you delineate, you articulate a set of standards, and then you hold schools accountable for meeting those standards as measured by these really narrow standardized tests. And so high stakes decision making increasingly became a centerpiece of federal policy and therefore of national policy.
And so we were moving in this direction, this narrow way of thinking about– who can argue with having high standards? But you can’t argue with narrowly defining what those standards are and how we measure and then what the consequences are. It became this very narrow test-and-punish, test-and-punish kind of policy that really you see roots, rhetorically at least, with the Reagan administration. It continued with Clinton. But No Child Left Behind really brought this to life. And then, of course, under Obama, you have Race to the Top.
And moving us even more towards high stakes testing is a very– as you pointed out, it’s a very different role that the federal government has played when you compare it from the ’50s to the ’80s, which is much more about ensuring that we’re addressing issues of diversity equity. Now we’re actually telling states what to teach– how to measure whether or not that’s been taught. And I think that it is not surprising that when Congress reauthorized ESEA, that was one of their points of obsession, was really recognizing that maybe the federal government has gone too far in the direction of high stakes testing– we need to change that.
- Kevin Kumashiro says we’re still in this period of standards and high stakes testing, not just in the United States, but around the world.
Globally, this is what’s happening in education. High stakes testing, narrowing the curriculum, marketing and privatizing education, all of these things are interlinked not only here in the United States, but around the world as we look at what some of the trends are. There’s a point of hope, which is that communities and the professions are really fighting back against a lot of these changes.
A few years ago, when the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike, it got a lot of national attention. But what was interesting was at that very moment, in half a dozen countries around the world, there were other very high profile professional actions going on by teachers not who were fighting over their contracts but who were fighting to push back against these really problematic reforms coming down the pipe that they were seeing were making it impossible to really teach.
- In other countries, these reforms went beyond high stakes standardized tests. As the global recession sank in, governments had less money for public resources, and faced pressure to privatize their education systems. Private companies offered to partner with public schools or offer low-fee public education. Some also saw education as a market that they could extract profit from. In the United States, wealthy individuals and foundations directed similar efforts at states and local school districts.
We’re going to see not only pushes to expand school choice and voucher programs, but more specifically, I also think we’re going to see a push to liberalize our ability to charterize a district, in other words, to convert a whole bunch of neighborhood public schools into charter schools. Donald Trump was calling to expand school choice by diverting a lot of money into vouchers. Betsy DeVos is known for really spearheading the voucher reform initiatives in Michigan.
And what we’re hearing is that– there is a series of research reports that was released in the last year and a half that actually tells us that in states where they’re experimenting with voucher programs, we now have some very recent and rich data that shows that students who took advantage of the vouchers actually in many instances were performing less well. They were getting less education than students in the regular neighborhood public schools.
So the idea that everything will improve if you can just treat it like a marketplace where competition is going to drive innovation and hard work, that is not just an objective truth. That actually is an ideology. It’s rooted in what’s called neoliberal ideology, that marketplaces solve all of our problems. The reality is competition sometimes does make us work harder. But anyone who’s been in a classroom will know that sometimes competition can so get in the way of learning, and cooperative learning can actually make a really big difference.
- That was Dr. Kevin Kumashiro in conversation with Making Contact producer Marie Choi. Kumashiro is the former dean of education at the University of San Francisco and founder of Education Deans for Justice and Equity.
And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact. To find out more about the people and organizations in today’s program, check out our website at RadioProject.org. Contributing producers were Hannah Harris Green and Marie Choi. Lisa Rudman is our executive director. Staff producers are Anita Johnson, Marie Choi, and RJ Lozada. Sabine Blaizin is our audience engagement director. And our development associate is Vera Tykulsker. I’m Monica Lopez. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.