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Balow Criticizes Federal Proposal On Diversifying History Curriculum

Wyoming Department of Education

The U.S. Department of Education is proposing a new set of priorities that would incentivize changes to the way history and civics is taught. The federal government is encouraging K-12 schools to include diverse perspectives in history and civics and to take notice of systemic racism in America's history.

Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler spoke with State Superintendent Jillian Balow about the proposal, which Balow sharply criticized.

Jillian Balow: What caught my attention and what made this new, and frankly, alarming to me, was the inclusion of specific recommendations for curriculum in the rule and also that represents two things. Number one: it represents an overreach by the federal government. That's not something that typically the federal government has done, and when they have, it's been concerning for state and local leaders, where education decisions should reside. The second thing is that the references, the curricular references that were cited, are fairly controversial and have been viewed as divisive. And, so I have some concerns about that as well.

Catherine Wheeler: From what I understand the proposed priorities aren't going to be a mandate but instead like incentives for grants and programs. Is that correct?

JB: Right. So this is not something that is, you know, at this point this proposed rule is not something that schools are forced to do or forced to adopt. It is an opt-in, and it's a small grant program. I think the larger issue that the symbolizes is maybe a move toward more control over education by the federal government through suggesting or maybe down the road mandating curriculum.

CW: And so you also mentioned some concerns about the content of things cited in these proposed priorities, like the 1619 Project and the writings of the scholar Ibram X. Kendi. And I'm wondering for you, in your opinion, what are the controversial or divisive components of those works?

JB: I want to just be really clear at the outset that, you know, and I said this in the statement that America, including Wyoming, needs to update and renew our expectations for how teachers teach and students learn about history and civics. Those decisions should be made at the local level, at the state level, and everyone should be working to build a consensus on what should be taught. We look in education, for resources and materials that are evidence base that our research base that have been replicated, that is not the case with the 1619 Project. And that's not to say that they're, you know, that there's not merit in teaching the significance of 1619, and the impacts that it has on us as a country. But it distorts some of the facts, frankly, and places a central theme that race and not class is at the forefront of American history.

CW: And I think something that might be a good example of this in Wyoming is the Indian Education For All Standards that were passed by the state. Because I think it comes along with that same intent of understanding the history and contributions of Indigenous people in this country. And I feel like that intent is pretty on par with what is being asked in these proposed priorities. Do you do agree here?

JB: I agree. And guess where those decisions were made, they were made in our communities in our school districts, our legislature weighed in, we had a public conversation about this at the state level, there was never a federal government suggestion, mandate, encouragement, rule that attached money to it saying, 'This is what you should focus on as a state when you teach Indian education for all.' That was a grassroots movement from our tribes. And I wholeheartedly support that every Wyoming student needs to understand the past, present and future impacts of our tribes on our state and our nation, politically, culturally, monetarily, geographically, etc. The same is true for, for our Black Americans who reside and have lived in Wyoming. It's important for every single Wyoming student to learn about the diversity that has existed in our state in the past, present and will continue to exist, the impacts that has had, and then on a larger scale to really understand how we as a nation have been impacted by race and diversity. But as a state, we determine how to teach that, and I completely agree that it needs to be done with greater depth and breadth than it has been in the past. But it is over the federal government is overstepping with even the suggestion in a rule and the monetization of a specific resource.

CW: And so while you say state and local governments should have primary control over what is being taught and how in schools, do you not think though there should be some consistency across this country on the foundational things that we learn, especially in history and civics, so we're all working from the same place?

JB: We do have that in reading, writing, math and science, and that's in the form of our federal accountability system. And that must be aligned with our state accountability system. We see that play out in our assessments where we compare ourselves to other states. We compare our students from district to district, even class to class, and even students from one year to the next. So we have sort of those big mile markers for students that have sort of that federal outline or that federal framework. We don't have that body or those cues around American history and civics education. And therein lies the issue and the need for the conversation. However, that should not be driven by a proposed rule by the federal government. There are a lot of really great groups that are working on this right now. Those are the most important conversations that we can be having right now: determining what our common ground is and focusing on that as a starting point for the conversations.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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