Battling for the truth in public school curriculum

The climax of an impassioned debate over censorship, academic freedom and what to teach students about American history occurred in a suburban Colorado school district where the school board’s conservative majority voted to change how the district reviews parts of its curriculum.
After two weeks of student protests and a fierce backlash across Colorado and beyond, the Jefferson County School Board backed away from a proposal to teach students the “benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights,” while avoiding lessons that condoned “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” But the board did vote 3-to-2 to reorganize its curriculum-review committee to include students, teachers and board-appointed community members.
The Jefferson County schools superintendent, Dan McMinimee, who suggested the compromise, said it represented the “middle ground” in a fevered debate that pitted the board’s three conservative members against students, parents, the teachers’ union and other critics who opposed the effort to steer lessons toward the “positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.” The board members who supported the proposal said they did not want to censor or distort history.
But the compromise allayed few critics. On Friday afternoon, hundreds of parents and students lined the streets in the Jefferson County School District —
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Colorado’s second-largest — to criticize the board’s actions as the latest in a series of divisive moves.
Parents and students have said that the board ignored dissenting voices and that the majority voted in haste, overruling the other two members when they said they needed more time to review the proposal. Parents said they were concerned that the curriculum-review committee’s members would be appointed by, and answerable to, the board.
“That still opens the door for the board to mess with curriculum,” said Jonna Levine, a parent and co-founder of the group Support JeffCo Kids. “It starts with A.P. history. What comes next? Stop and think about the books in A.P. lit they could monkey around with.”
Some called for the board’s three conservative members, who were elected last November over a slate of three union-backed candidates, to resign. Others proposed recalling them.
“They have lost my trust,” Amanda Stevens, whose children are in elementary school in the district, said in an email. “I have not seen actions that reassure me they will govern with students’ learning as their top and singular focus.”
For two hours on Thursday night, dozens of parents, students and community members spoke about how the schools lay at the heart of this quilt of suburban towns west of Denver. Families whose children graduated years ago still show up at Friday night football games. Parents live-stream school board meetings at home. Graduates move back to raise their children here.
As board members looked on, students and parents stood up to deride the idea of sanitizing history or tilting curriculum to suit a particular political view. They also criticized board members for suggesting that the teachers’ union and other critics had been using the students as pawns.
“We know what we stand for and what we want,” Ashlyn Maher, a senior, told the board. “It is our education that is at stake.”
“What’s next?” asked Jackson Curtiss, another student. “Are you going to choose science? Are you going to take down English?”
The original proposal — to create a panel to examine what students were learning in Advanced Placement United States History and elementary-school health classes — crystallized months of tension. Since the November election, the board and its critics have clashed over teacher pay and charter schools, the
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expansion of full-day kindergarten and the resignation of a long-serving superintendent. After Julie Williams, one of the three conservative members, proposed the curriculum-review committee last month, hundreds of high school students staged walkouts, and teachers shut down schools by calling out sick.
Civil liberties groups and several prominent Democrats in Colorado cheered the students on. Senator Mark Udall and Representative Ed Perlmutter issued supportive statements and urged the board to hear out the students. Representative Jared Polis, a Democrat from Boulder, sent Twitter messages under the hashtag #JeffCoSchoolBoardHistory, which offered up humorously whitewashed versions of American history.
The College Board, which administers Advanced Placement programs and exams, warned Jefferson County that a course could not carry an “A.P.” designation “if a school or district censors essential concepts.”
At the meeting Thursday, Ms. Williams said she had never wanted to censor history classes, but simply to evaluate recent changes to the A.P. United States History course that have drawn criticism from the Republican National Committee and some conservative educators.
“My proposal was aimed to increase community engagement and transparency, so people do know what is being taught to their children,” she said. “We want increased transparency, increased accountability and increased community engagement.”
Even the board’s critics — as they looked at the signs, homemade T-shirts and hundreds of people inside and outside the district offices on Thursday — said they agreed that the community was now undoubtedly engaged.

Facebook said it will change the way it does research, but stopped short of apologising for a controversial experiment it conducted this year.
In June, the site was criticised for manipulating the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users without their consent.
The network said it was “unprepared” for the backlash it received.
“[We] have taken to heart the comments and criticism. It is clear now that there are things we should have done differently,” Facebook said.
In a blog, chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer said the company should have “considered other non-experimental ways to do this research”.
He added: “In releasing the study, we failed to communicate clearly why and how we did it.”
The social network controlled the news feed of users over a one-week period in 2012 without their knowledge to manage which emotional expressions they were exposed to.
Study sparks furore
The experiment was part of a study by Facebook and two US universities. The social network said at the time it was to gauge whether “exposure to emotions led people to change their own posting behaviours”.
However, the company was widely criticised for manipulating material from people’s personal lives in order to play with user emotions or make them sad.
In response on Thursday, Facebook said that it was introducing new rules for conducting research on users with clearer guidelines, better training for researchers and a stricter review process.
But, it did not state whether or not it would notify users – or seek their consent – before starting a study.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in London, which supports data privacy for individuals, said Facebook’s comments were “a step in the right direction”, but it hoped to hear more about how the social network intends to improve transparency.
“Organisations who want to process people’s personal information without explicitly asking for their permission, for instance to carry out research, always need to proceed with caution,” an ICO spokesman said.
Should Facebook apologise?
IDC research analyst Jan van Vonno said it was Facebook’s responsibility to notify users of any studies they were partaking in.
“They’re going to continue that research and what they should do is make users aware of what they’re doing and that’s not really what they’re doing right now,” Mr van Vonno said.
An apology would be a sign of regret and they obviously don’t regret any of their actions because they think it’s for the benefit of their own platform.”
It was still important for Facebook to study consumer behaviour so it could maximize the impact advertisers had on the platform, which remains a huge source of revenue for the company, Mr van Vonno added.
The company’s mobile advertising re

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