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Louisiana's BESE approves social studies standards after 14-month process, CRT concerns

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Louisiana school board members approved new state social studies standards this week, ending a 14-month process that was delayed more than once due to concerns over critical race theory.

Members voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt the new standards, which the department said better balance disciplinary skills with content knowledge, provide a coherent sequence of events and incorporate the perspectives of more people of color.

“We already know that we set out to accomplish a feat that oftentimes seemed impossible,” said State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley. “But I think we can all agree it always felt worthy.”

Jenna Chiasson, assistant superintendent for the Office of Teaching and Learning, presented the new standards right before Tuesday’s vote and explained how they met the department’s goals. The standards balance disciplinary skills with content knowledge, provide a more coherent sequence of events across grade levels and integrate the perspectives of people from different backgrounds, Chiasson said.

Brumley has referred to the new standards as a “freedom framework,” with elementary courses titled “Life in the Great State of Louisiana” and “Life in Our Great Country, The United States of America.”

“I look forward to seeing these standards come to life in classrooms across our state and, ultimately, recognizing the influence these standards will have on the State of Louisiana and the United States of America,” Brumley said in a statement after Tuesday’s vote.

Earlier versions of the new standards received more than 1,600 public comments, many of them claiming the standards advanced critical race theory (CRT), an academic framework that looks at how race and racism have shaped the United States.

For the most part, CRT is taught only at the law school level. Some teachers feel the concept shouldn’t be taught in K-12 classrooms, not necessarily because it's controversial, but because it may be hard for younger students to grasp.

Even though the words “critical race theory” never appeared in the state’s proposed standards, that didn’t stop hundreds of parents from writing in with concerns, some pointing to the inclusion of certain historical events as evidence of CRT.

Brumley responded by extending the public comment period and assuring the public that critical race theory would not become a part of the state’s curriculum.

“Critical race theory does not belong in K-12 education,” Brumley said in an interview in February, describing CRT as the idea that America as a whole is “inherently racist.”

While most parents cheered Brumley, a former social studies teacher, and the department for their public comments on excluding CRT, others were upset by Brumley’s comments and said a curriculum that doesn’t do a better job of addressing racism could hurt students.

“Removing the lens of race from classroom conversations puts our students at a significant disadvantage,” a teacher in Orleans Parish said. “This downplays the role that the history of slavery and segregation continue to have on all of Louisiana's citizens.”

The state’s current standards received middling scores from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute when the organization reviewed and rated them as part of a national survey conducted last year.

“Louisiana’s history standards, when combined with various well-wrought companion documents, offer extraordinary depth,” reviewers said. “However, its civics standards are mediocre, due to some organizational flaws, particularly the absence of a companion document for high school civics.”

The state’s new civic standards offer a separate five-page document for high school, including topics ranging from early philosophers, the reasoning behind more than 20 key Supreme Court cases and how to make sound personal finance decisions.

Reviewers were also concerned with Louisiana’s decision to start high school U.S. history without revisiting content from earlier eras, something the new standards also rectify.

History at the high school level will now start with the nation’s founding in 1776 and extend through the election of President Barack Obama in 2008.

The new standards are set to take effect during the 2023-24 school year, and the department said it will provide more details regarding implementation with teachers in the coming weeks.

“Once we approve these, this is when the hard work really begins,” board member Doris Voitier said. “Every teacher in the state who teaches social studies will have to revise and review their entire curriculum.”

The current standards have been in place since 2011, even though changes were supposed to be made in 2017.

This story was updated at 2:45 p.m., March 10, 2022 to correct a misquotation.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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