When hundreds of high school students across a suburban school district outside of Denver, Colo. recently walked out of classes to protest a history curriculum, it quickly became national news.
According to a local reporter, the students took to the streets multiple days in a row "to voice their concerns over a proposed curriculum review panel they believe could stifle an honest teaching of U.S. history." But the story has now widened into a much larger controversy.
The students' teachers got involved as well, staging a "mass sick-out" in support of the students. The national outlet for Fox News has since chimed in with an alarmist interpretation of the events, which prompted an immediate response from liberal news watchdog Media Matters.
Now, prominent national political leaders, like potential Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, are voicing their interpretations of the events, and even organizations as well-known as The College Board have seen fit to take a stand.
So this is a big story. But it's even bigger than you think.
Protesting A 'Patriotism' Curriculum
What's driving events in the Denver suburb of Arvada for sure is a controversial move by the local county school board to, as the Associated Press reported, "establish a committee to review texts and coursework, starting with Advanced Placement history, to make sure materials 'promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights' and don't 'encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.'"
Students who are alarmed to know they're not allowed to learn about civil dissent and protest have quite rationally chosen to protest.
As other reports have noted, the controversy goes way beyond the borders of Colorado. The AP course that's causing controversy has become a favorite target of right-wing extremists on a national level.
Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post explained, "Conservatives have said that the new history framework – being used this fall in classrooms around the country – does not highlight American achievements or mention key American historical figures but spends a lot of time talking about America's worst period. Top officials at the College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program, have said there is nothing anti-American about the document."
An analysis at The Hechinger Report meticulously explained what exactly had been changed in the course. Apparently, most of the changes are the result of a shift from giving teachers "a list of suggested topics" – without telling them which ones will be covered on the exam – to a "curriculum that outlines specific concepts that must be covered," such as, "Africans developed both overt and covert means to resist the dehumanizing aspects of slavery."
These changes are likely related to new Common Core Standards, the Hechinger analysis concluded, that Colorado and most other states have adopted, at the federal government's urging. "The College Board has acknowledged that elements of the new course align with the goals of the new standards," and the course's emphasis on "developing students' ability to analyze historical texts ... dovetails with the Common Core."
But there's more to the students' protests than just an extension of the War Over the Core between conservatives and education technocrats.
More Than The Core
In a news program broadcast by MSNBC, host Melissa Harris-Perry interviewed two student leaders of the protest, Ashlyn Maher and Kyle Ferris. When Harris-Perry asked the students to explain their motivation to walk out of school, Ferris explained, "We wanted to get the school board's attention. They're not really listening to the concerns of the community."
In the story's video footage, one of the protest signs the student brandished proclaimed, "Keep public schools public," and "Support our teachers." Commenting on this, Harris-Perry correctly jumped to the assumption that the issues might be broader than just the curriculum, and asked the students, "What else is all of this about?"
Ferris replied there were indeed other issues including "teachers' wages, which they're messing with," and "funneling funds away from public into charter schools."
Indeed, student protests around the country for some time have been nearly unanimous in their raising of specific issues: lack of student voice in school governance, mistreatment of classroom teachers, and funding austerity, including lack of resources and the redirection of public funds to private interests such as charter schools.
Beginning last school year, students in metropolitan school districts across the country begin speaking out in prominent, headline-earning protests, using their social media and organizing skills to send hundreds of their peers into the streets to protest – including previous actions in Denver.
To spur the protests, students in Philadelphia, Providence, Rhode Island, Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere have formed student unions that have developed attention-getting tactics, which have spread to a national scale. The issues students continue to rail against are school closures and budget cutbacks, widespread teacher firings and wage reductions, and top-down implementations of mandated standards and high-stakes testing.
The rapid scaling up of student unrest prompted activist Hannah Nguyen to write at the time, "Students all over the United States, from Portland to Chicago to Providence, are tired of feeling powerless when it comes to decisions that affect their education ... They've begun to organize together, forming student unions and fighting back against threats to their education, such as budget cuts, high stakes testing, and school closings. From mass walkouts and sit-ins to creative street theatre and flash mobs, these students are demanding that their voices be heard."
Student Protests Are Not Going Away
As the current school year rolls out, the protests are likely to continue and to build in intensity as school "reform" – including resource deprivation, top-down standardization, and autocratic rule – continues to plague the public education system.
As the news site at The Nation devoted to student activism documented at the beginning of the school year, the slaying of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teen, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri set off a wave of student-led actions in schools calling for racial justice in both the education system and society at large.
"On August 18," The Nation reported, "more than 100 members of the Chicago Students Union, alongside parents, teachers and elected officials, marched on Chicago Public Schools headquarters demanding the fair funding of schools and a democratically elected board of education."
In September, Newark, N.J. students organized a two-day boycott, demanding the resignation of Superintendent Cami Anderson, who is installing a school "reform" plan that "disguises itself as a means of giving students more school choices while eliding lack of funding, accountability from the state and the voices of students." The students "shut down Broad Street, the busiest street in New Jersey's biggest city, laying down and chanting for nine hours."
More recently, The Guardian reported about "a spate of revolts against school dress codes appears to be gaining momentum across the United States, with students staging walkouts and other protests to complain at the way girls have been 'humiliated' and forced to cover up. A vocal campaign has emerged after recent incidents angered students in New York, Utah, Florida, Oklahoma and other states, with some accusing schools of sexism and so-called 'slut shaming'."
What's at the core of all these student actions is their call to have some say-so in how they are being educated in a system that increasingly imposes "sameness" and rigid "accountability" from remote authorities who seem unanswerable to anybody.
The Adults Don't Get It
The controversy over a history curriculum in Colorado is an argument over a very much bigger issue. It's about how we're treating our nation's youngest citizens with a substandard form of education that emphasizes fiscal efficiency over learning opportunity and standardization over individual needs and interests. And it's about how we treat students as learners, imposing education as something done to them rather than with them.
Indeed, the arguments back and forth over the Denver-area high school protests treat the students as if they were inert objects rather than active agents in their own learning.
For example, in trying to sort out the curriculum controversy, Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic wrote, "Conservatives want schools to emphasize faith and obedience, while liberals are more likely to care about teaching tolerance and curiosity. You can guess how each group would react to a curriculum that asked some hard questions about U.S. history."
In other words, students are passive recipients waiting to be filled with right ways of thinking, and it's up to the adults – liberal or conservative – to decide what to populate their empty minds with.
That's so wrong.
Students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with prescribed content vetted by technocrats in government and well-funded think tanks. To treat them that way is both disrespectful to their humanity and bad education that doesn't reflect the ways we know that human beings learn.
You call your "reform" a "patriotism curriculum." You can call it "college and career ready." Either way, you're leaving the students out of the matter. And until we start putting the interests of students at the center of any type of "reform," we're getting our education policies all wrong.