Board of Ed clashes over stricter rules for classroom materials
Board of Education members debated the merits of a policy update aimed at reviewing how various ethnic, cultural, professional and gender identities are portrayed in classroom materials.
Ariela Lopez, Contributing Photographer
Deliberation and disagreement over proposed amendments to instruction-related policies emerged at the Board of Education’s biweekly meeting on Monday, leading the Board to postpone voting on the changes.
At the meeting, held at the Barack H. Obama Magnet University School, board member Abby Quiñones-Benitez presented amendments to four policies related to student publications and productions, classroom instructional materials and standards in multilingual studies and adult education. The policies’ numerical codes, numbered in the 6000s, denote that they pertain to educational instruction. The 6000 series of policies was last amended in 1995.
Board members raised concerns over the language of the amendment regulating how instructional materials depict groups of diverse ethnic, cultural and gender identities.
“I think the language is making [the policy] overly restrictive,” said board member Matthew Wilcox. “I’m worried that the unintentional consequence will be a prohibition of materials, rather than what I think people want, which is careful consideration of them and how they fit into a curriculum that’s very well drawn.”
The language of the proposed amendment to policy 6161.1 (b), pertaining to the evaluation of instructional materials, is more strict than the current language of the policies. The current text of the policy specifies that portrayals of diverse ethnic or cultural groups in educational materials “should not depict differences in customs or life-style as undesirable and should not reflect an adverse value judgment of such differences.” In the amendment, the phrase “should not” has been altered to “shall not,” and the phrase “should not reflect” has been changed to “must avoid.” The board members have had the text of the amendments to look over for over a month, according to Quiñones-Benitez.
Wilcox questioned how the change in language from “should” to “must” would impact the materials included in a curriculum. He asked whether the amendment’s call for increased oversight on instructional materials’ depictions of cultural groups would affect “supplemental materials,” such as literary sources students might read outside of textbooks.
“I could imagine a poem that might list a custom or a lifestyle as undesirable, so now we must avoid it,” Wilcox said. “I want to know if we’re removing the option for teachers and curriculum folks to have supplemental materials, [if] that might create issues with the changes from ‘shoulds’ to ‘musts.’”
Board member Edward Joyner, who attended the meeting over Zoom, said that there is no technical distinct category of “supplemental materials,” as any material used in a classroom has educational value and would thus be subject to the policies pertaining to instructional materials.
Joyner emphasized the need for policies that encourage good judgment when dealing with materials outside of a textbook that can have adverse impacts on students.
“If you’re using an excerpt from Mark Twain, and it uses the n-word, while it may have been written in that way, it is a deeply offensive term,” he said. “We have to have ways of letting students know that it was done at that time because it was allowed to be done, but it doesn’t mean that we condone the use of the term because we simply use it as a teaching device.”
Joyner described the revised policy as “beautifully” written and said that it has enough flexibility for teachers to use their discretion, while still making sure that discretion is responsible.
Wilcox then asked Joyner whether the new policy, which calls for an “absence” of descriptions, depictions or labels which demean ethnic groups, would ban the teaching of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Joyner responded that the book would not be prohibited, but that teachers must be mindful of the grade level of the students and that they should provide context before teaching works that include provocative language, stereotypes or demeaning descriptions of specific groups.
“I would try to explain to the students in advance that at that time anyone who wrote about certain people could say what they wanted to about them, but it’s not appropriate now because we’ve evolved,” Joyner said.
Joyner clarified that he is opposed to prohibiting the teaching of “anything.”
Wilcox apologized to the Board for using the meeting to raise concerns about the amendments, saying that he should have done so previously. He announced his intent to vote against the amendments out of concern for their specific language, although he was in full support of the general principles being discussed.
“When we have words like ‘shall not’ and ‘must be,’ from the letter of the policy that starts to create unintended consequences for the freedom of teachers and curriculum designers,” Wilcox said.
He said that the policy’s language could restrict classroom discussion of current events as well.
Board member Darnell Goldson echoed Wilcox’s apology for not raising his concerns until the meeting. He then expressed similar alarm about the restrictions to materials implied by the updated language.
“I skimmed through this at the beginning of the board meeting, and the hairs stuck up on the back of my neck,” Goldson said. “The reason why is that I see a creep that we keep talking against in the rest of the country. Good intentions or not, when you start going down this road, it gets easier to do more things.”
He cited the discourse over “Huckleberry Finn” as a perfect example of a possible negative ramification of the policy, saying that it is impossible to learn from the past if it is not taught.
Goldson echoed Wilcox’s intent to vote against the amendments.
Quiñones-Benitez recommended that the Board delay voting on policies 6145 and 6161, noting that the board members did not seem informed or ready to approve them. She withdrew her motion to approve the amendments, and issued a new motion to pass the amendments only to policy 6146.2, on statewide proficiency examinations for multilingual learners, and policy 6200 on adult and continuing education.
The new motion passed unanimously.