In an echo of what happened last year in South Dakota, unnamed state officials in Louisiana have rewritten an educator-drafted set of K-12 history expectations after fielding politicized claims that it embodied a negative view of America.
Louisiana’s final set of guidelines, which its state board of education approved unanimously March 9, differs substantially both in content and overall approach from what its own committee of educators submitted last September.
The Pelican State’s completed standards are far more detailed and specific than the earlier draft, especially in U.S. History and civics. And while officials at the Louisiana education department fleshed out content on slavery, civil rights, and important Black luminaries, they also removed the prior draft’s many references to “diverse groups,"—including its sole mention of LGBTQ people.
Some of the original writers protest the completed standards’ different emphasis, which they say focuses less on historical inquiry, a teaching method that requires coverage of fewer topics in more depth.
“Teachers had complained that even starting after Reconstruction, it’s hard to get through all the material, and here they’ve added 200 years,” said Lynn Walters-Rauenhorst, a teacher-educator who worked on the high school standards. “There was never a time where the department came to us and said, ‘We have concerns with this. Can we wordsmith it?’
“I think it just speaks in general to the continued attack on teachers and their professionalism,” she said.
About the only thing everyone agrees on is that the new set emphasizes American exceptionalism. State Superintendent Cade Brumley, in an interview, called the standards a “freedom framework” that shows how Americans have continued to perfect their country.
Some of these tensions—between specificity and flexibility, patriotism and critique—are inherent in the difficult challenge of writing K-12 history expectations. Plenty of room for disagreement exists.
But the situation also reflects a seething political maelstrom over what students should learn about the country’s past that has engulfed several states’ attempts to update their expectations. The development in Louisiana is also, potentially, a bigger symptom of how these disagreements are affecting governance: The revision of content standards behind closed doors remains a rare phenomenon, but it’s getting less rare.
“In general, we’ve got this erosion of trust and belief that the experts really are experts, replaced with the idea that all experts are really ideological hacks,” said Paul Manna, a professor of political science at the College of William and Mary, who studies public policymaking in education. “There’s just a loss of respect for opinions based on research and evidence.”
A look at the changes
In all, the situation has echoes of what happened last year in South Dakota, when the state department significantly altered a draft of standards teachers and experts had put together. And as in that state, Louisiana officials haven’t disclosed who precisely made the revisions.
Here are some of the changes Louisiana officials made to the September 2021 draft:
- It puts more emphasis on foundational documents, like the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and the Declaration of Independence, which are referenced in several grades.
- Third grade is now a continuation of the 2nd grade focus on U.S. foundations. The earlier draft made 3rd grade the beginning of a sequence on world history.
- The final standards strike the earlier draft’s references—about a dozen in all—to “diverse individuals,” “diverse groups,” or “diverse cultures.” And they omit the former draft’s single reference to LGBTQ people.
- The department eliminated a standard that asked students to analyze a contemporary problem, evaluate the expense and feasibility of solutions, and construct an argument in favor of one of them, apparently over concerns about “action civics.”
- The standards preserve and even expand a focus on slavery, referencing the topic more than 30 times—far more than the earlier draft—and contain specific expectations for students to learn about the Middle Passage, the dependence of the country’s economics on slavery, and the civil rights movement’s key developments.
- The high school history class begins with the traditional topic of the Jamestown settlement in 1607; the original draft envisioned beginning in 1898, giving teachers more time to dig into 20th century content.
Brumley said many of the changes were made in direct response to the public feedback on the original draft, which was generally negative. But it is not clear how representative that feedback was of parents’ opinions at large: Education Week found that many of those comments were cut and pasted from interest-group commentary—notably a document put out by the far-right National Association of Scholars.
In any case, state officials used the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s review of history standards to identify other states deemed to have strong expectations; they drew on those states’ standards to shape the final draft. (The right-leaning nonprofit has tended to give higher marks to standards that are specific and detailed, rather than broad.)
“I think the standards we put forward are very balanced,” Brumely said. “We made the decision that we wanted to be very inclusive of content, tell as much of the story of our country and state’s history as time would allow in a given academic year. We corrected the course sequencing, and we tried to add rigor, which I feel like we did, and include multiple historical perspectives, which I know we did.”
The standards’ specificity also explains the elimination of the adjective “diverse,” Brumley said.
“Instead of using a broad word, [we wanted to] be much more specific with the content experienced by diverse individuals in state of Louisiana and in our country,” he said, noting that he’d had “hundreds” of conversations with parents and community members on this issue. “I tried to capture and relay back to our team some of the most important events and individuals that people felt like should be captured.”
That did not, apparently, include LGBTQ Americans. The removal of that standard, Brumley said, was directly linked to the public comments: “We saw a pattern of feedback of people who did not feel that high school civics was the place for discussions around sexual orientation.”
Some of the writers of the original drafts say those changes traduce the very tenets the state education board laid out for the process, which included shifting to an approach that prioritizes historical inquiry using primary sources.
The changes, Walters-Rauenhorst said, instead seem to straight-jacket teachers.
An attempt to remove ‘CRT,’ or just cynical politics?
The subtext to the situation in Louisiana—as in other states—has been the national debate over whether and how to teach about the history of American racism, at what grade and age levels, and its connection to public policy today.
When the original draft was made public last year, commentators accused the writers of embedding critical race theory into the standards, a charge they vehemently denied. The feedback at public meetings got so intense that the state department had to change safety protocols, escorting the educators back to their cars and reducing the number of people allowed to comment at a time.
(Critical race theory is an academic framework that posits that racism can be embedded in laws, structures, and policies. Critics of this idea have since applied the term to a host of other diversity initiatives and training.)
Brumley has demurred on whether he personally believes the initial draft contained critical race theory, but he has pointed to this public feedback as one rationale for the changes.
For some of the writers, cynical politics—not a commitment to excellence—explain the changes. The new draft effectively allows state officials to take a victory lap by claiming that they’ve removed critical race theory, contends Aaron Jura, a former teacher who contributed to the earlier drafts. He now writes curriculum.
“They’re using this whole narrative to support the idea they’re the saviors from these rogue classroom teachers and historians,” said Jura, who said he spent hours of unpaid labor reviewing drafts and driving to Baton Rouge for public meetings. “I honestly feel like they’re using us as chumps.”
The department’s changes, unveiled in February, prompted about 400 additional public comments. This time the feedback focused less on critical race theory and more about the standards’ level of specificity, which attracted both criticism and praise from teachers and parents.
And while some commentators appreciated the more-detailed focus on slavery and civil rights, others felt the standards amounted to a type of grab-bag diversity focused on specific names and events, rather than on students’ understanding and interrogating this hard history.
The debate may not yet be over, as Louisiana officials begin to grapple with how to provide training, model lessons, and supports for teachers to put the new standards into action.
Louisiana legislators haven’t approved a bill to circumscribe how teachers can talk about race, as some 15 other states have, but similar proposals are currently being debated in the statehouse. If one of them does pass, it could be on a collision course with the standards.
For example, under the new standards, 8th graders will read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously deplored “the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice,” and noted that “oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.” But pending legislation would prevent teachers from using resources that present some people as “disadvantaged, privileged, underprivileged, biased, or oppressed relative to another.”
One high school standard now says that students will be expected to “explain how slavery contributed to U.S. industrial and economic growth.” It’s unclear how can they do that without discussing racist systems and structures.
What does it say about governance at large?
Apart from disagreements about content, some of the former standards-writers say they’re concerned about the message that the upended process sends: Why would teachers, they said, ever volunteer to contribute to a time-consuming, unpaid process in the future, now that the state has shown that their work can be eviscerated at the stroke of a pen?
Said one unnamed writer, who submitted via the public comments: “I am left wondering what the purpose was of convening a statewide group of committee members—many of whom participated in working groups tasked with the hard work of drafting, receiving feedback on, revising, and finalizing a carefully considered set of revised standards with no financial compensation—if their work was to be discarded and overwritten outside of the established process.”
It’s not illegal, or even unprecedented, for politicians or civil servants to interfere in standards-writing. Education Week has documented multiple such instances in science over hot-button topics like evolution and climate change. Now it appears to be on the rise in social studies, a discipline whose inherent subjectivity makes such changes harder to counter.
A few days before the Louisiana board voted to approve the standards, nine of the 28 members of the steering committee sent a letter to Brumley and the state education board asking for the standards to be returned to them, in accordance with the process the board initially laid out. More members were sympathetic but chose not to sign on, fearing for their jobs, Walters-Rauenhorst said. (Louisiana does not require public-sector collective bargaining, and teachers often have fewer job protections.)
But Brumley says the state board gave the department the green light to make its changes when it approved a motion last December asking it to take the public feedback into consideration for the final draft.
Manna, the political science professor, said the point of having advisory boards—like the steering committee in Louisiana—is to help elected or appointed officials craft the best policies. But as with health experts over vaccinations and scientists over climate change, there’s a growing phenomenon of distrust, and even rejection, of what they bring to the table.
“If there’s this erosion of trust in experts, then the elected officials really aren’t going to pay too much attention, and it wouldn’t seem unusual that they would rewrite entire sections of things based on their own opinions about what they think is right,” he said.
In the end, what frustrates Walters-Rauenhorst most is that none of the people who spouted off at public meetings about critical race theory were ever asked to provide any evidence that it was in the standards. That’s a bitterly ironic twist, given that social studies is a field where teachers expect students to marshal and analyze evidence when they make arguments.
“I think we have to move on from Louisiana specifically,” she said. “The reality is that this is a pattern of behavior across the country, and we’re not holding people to account for it.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2022 edition of Education Week as Louisiana’s History Standards Got a Closed-Door Rewrite. What’s In and What’s Out