“There is no present or future; only the past, happening over and over again…now.”
— Eugene O’Neill
I don’t know if anybody in Jefferson County could watch the events in Douglas County last week without a powerful sense of déjà vu. To recap, the conservative majority on the Douglas County School Board fired Superintendent Corey Wise. Wise had served in that role for a little over a year, and his contract was to run into 2024. This, after some heated back and forth over Sunshine Law legalities, a tense meeting which was supposed to be behind closed doors but was forced into the open and several weeks of turmoil related to the school district’s equity policy. In response, hundreds of students across the district staged a coordinated walkout from their classrooms in protest.
Sound at all familiar?
If you recall, in 2014, the Jefferson County School Board—with its own conservative majority—forced their long-time Superintendent, Cindy Stevenson, into resigning from her position. In addition, the board refused to accept the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum as it was being presented, which followed the outlines of what was called “Common Core.” In response, there were widespread accusations of “censorship,” there was a “spontaneous” student walkout or four, and, eventually, a grassroots recall election which ousted the majority.
What were the long-term effects? Well, to start with, it was revealed weeks after the recall that the “grassroots” effort to oust the conservative board was 95% funded by the state and national Teachers’ Unions. Secondly, it was later showed that the Board was right to question the Common Core curriculum, as its authors and the Educational Testing Service which writes the tests for the AP Exam (which, truly, dictates curriculum) scrapped their framework entirely, and wrote a whole new curriculum the next year.
So, what’s going to happen in Dougco? Well, I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I can see the playbook developing already. Ham-handed public relations by outsiders in power? Check. Students organized in protest (to, miraculously, get out of class)? Check. Issues of diversity, race and indoctrination? Check. Will the rest of it play out the same, in 2022? I doubt it — nothing is remotely the same as it was eight years ago.
But, there is one, interesting corollary this time around: the curriculum battle is at a much higher level. The Colorado State Board of Education is looking at revising the state’s social studies academic standards. And — surprise! — many groups have already expressed their concerns about the new framework, its age-appropriateness, and their view of its reliance on group identification and the framework of [whispers] Critical Race Theory and social activism.
We learned from the Jeffco experience that curriculum, most of the time, takes shape far away from the classroom. And, in my experience as a teacher, most classroom teachers simply want to convey their subject matter and are very responsible about how they deal with complicated topics. However, most of my experience comes from a different generation. Many of (not all, or, perhaps, even most) the youngest teachers today were trained at institutions of higher education in which there is no distinction between education and social activism. Twenty-five years ago, teachers changed the world by showing individual students how to be better than they thought they could be; these days, many teachers believe that to change the world, they have enlist students in an army of social change. This curriculum, perhaps, gives activism carte blanche, thus the school board’s concern.
And, if nobody noticed, all of this is happening while we’ve barely gotten a grasp for how far our students fell behind in the last two years in actual learning.
I am thankful that Jeffco — a newly, happily unmasked Jeffco — is currently free from the chaos that has visited our neighbors to the south. But, as Mr. O’Neill pointed out, it’s worth noting that that’s not necessarily a permanent condition.
Michael Alcorn is a former teacher and current writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His new novel, “Valkyrie’s Kiss,” a finalist in the ScreenCraft Book Competition, is available now at firstname.lastname@example.org. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.