Anytime K-12 curriculum is the subject of breaking news, it’s generally a bad sign for things to come. When things like textbooks, lesson plans, and history projects make headlines—things that make most normal adults instinctively recoil—you don’t even need the context to realize that it’s probably not something good. In fact, it’s probably because something racist happened.
That situation is unfolding right now in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, where a group of middle school teachers gave sixth-graders an assignment asking them how they would punish a slave. It’s not the first time that teachers have been guilty of assigning culturally insensitive topics, and it likely won’t be the last. But sadly, this opportunity for us to seriously rethink the importance of arming teachers with strong, culturally competent curriculum to help mitigate future incidents like this is being lost amid a brewing culture war.
This discussion in the NYT does a good job summing up what I mean. In the case of Sun Prairie, you have teachers who are struggling to find and evaluate appropriate curriculum—teachers who ended up going rogue on Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT) where the lesson plans are typically pretty low-quality, but cheap and easy to implement. Ignorance and insensitivity were clearly in play here, but with better planning and oversight of curriculum, perhaps the district may have avoided this situation altogether.
But this event also comes at a time when there are a growing number of parents who are so alarmed by what their kids are learning in school that they are pressuring their school boards and legislatures to ban certain topics and viewpoints altogether. Efforts to ban critical race theory in schools in nearly a dozen states could prevent teachers from discussing racism at all.
The outcry is predictable, to be fair—there are probably countless teachers aspiring to demonstrate their anti-racist dispositions, but who end up peddling their own simple explanations of very complex topics through poorly-thought out activities and low-quality lessons like those from TpT. (And ultimately harming the children they wish to uplift as a result.) Not to mention, the backlash only further politicizes our children’s learning environments.
There are a lot of real, systemic problems that underlie this culture war and it would take a novella to get down into the weeds of all of them. But there are a few things that I think we all have to agree on to actually make progress.
First, as we saw in Sun Prairie, having no curriculum oversight at all can lead to harmful experiences for students. When teachers are pulling low-quality content from sources like TpT, districts run the risk of future incidents like this occurring. Next, parents have the right to know and speak up about what’s happening in their children’s classroom, but states banning topics all together is the wrong approach. Finally, there are no silver bullets in education or in culture wars, but arming teachers with better prep and stronger curricular choices are two of the silverest.
As schools begin winding down for the summer, now is the time to reflect on all the things we’ve learned from a year filled with challenges. Moving forward, may providing students with access to a high-quality curriculum never again be one of them.