Georgia education panel votes to cleanse teacher lesson plans as school culture wars rage on
“Words matter” – that’s what several of the dozen or so educators and parents gathered in a downtown Atlanta boardroom had to say Thursday in a bid to persuade the Georgia Professional Standards Commission not to change the state’s rules for training K-12 teachers.
The commission had on its agenda a slew of proposed revisions, removing words like “diversity” in favor of less politically fraught verbiage like “differences.”
For example, one change for elementary school educators would call on them to get to know the “unique contexts of children and families,” rather than their “diverse cultural contexts” under the previous rules.
But the speakers’ words did not sway the commissioners, who voted unanimously to approve the changes without discussion.
“History remembers white supremacists,” shouted one speaker as the commissioners voted.
Commission Chair Brian Sirmans said the changes came at the request of the University System of Georgia and are intended to clarify language that had picked up unintended negative meanings over the years.
“These proposed rule amendments are not intended to redefine or remove the care preparation providers place on meeting students’ needs or prescribe the way (education preparation providers) choose to meet the program standards,” he said. “We still expect EPPs to prepare educators who are well-equipped to address the learning needs of all students that they may encounter and who are well-prepared to meet the students where they are within a positive and welcoming learning environment.”
But speakers including Sarah Hunt-Blackwell, First Amendment policy advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, said they view the changes as more than a mere swapping of words.
“I’d like to remind the commission, most of you educators, that words matter,” she said. “As such, we cannot be simplistic in believing that these amendments merely replace one word with another. Changing language does change intent. Replacing the word ‘diverse’ with words like ‘different’ and ‘unique’ implies that there is a norm, a sameness, which excludes those who do not fit in.”
Ruth M. Youn, second-generation Chinese-Taiwanese-American writer and parent who lives in metro Atlanta, said she felt like she did not fit in at school as a child. Although her teachers were well-educated and her schools were well-resourced, she said her heritage, language and physical appearance were not welcome and her peoples’ history in the U.S. was never discussed.
“I was not only minoritized, but I de facto learned to adopt negative mentalities towards communities different from mine,” she said. “There’s a pervasive misconception that teaching about diversity perpetuates racism and divisiveness in the classroom. I argue that by pretending that diversity does not exist, by not equipping educators to teach in a culturally sustaining way, we inevitably create entire cohorts of educators and therefore student populations who are uninformed, ill-informed, and potentially racist, even if they do not realize it.”
Christopher Andrews, a DeKalb County educator who has worked in social studies and science classrooms in middle and high schools, said his latest assignment was in Georgia’s most diverse middle school, and his diversity, equity and inclusion training came in handy to help him make connections with children from different religious and social backgrounds.
“A lack of intentional DEI training would have left me vastly unprepared to serve students from diverse backgrounds and ability levels, ultimately ignoring the essence of who they are and failing to equip them for the real world around them,” he said.
The changes, which are set to go into effect July 1, would apply to positions including elementary education and reading and literacy specialists, who teach up to grade 12, as well as educational leaders like principals and superintendents.
They follow another controversial change last month, which stripped the definition of diversity from teacher training rules.
Some teachers complained not only about the changes, but about what they described as a streamlined process that skipped over opportunities for them to weigh in. Commissioners said they received a record amount of emails about last month’s changes, but admitted to ignoring or filtering them.
Others said requiring in-person access to a mostly-digital meeting in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday prevented many interested parties from weighing in.
“As I stand here speaking in front of you all and those who are with us virtually, there are parents here across the city of Atlanta, across metro Atlanta, who cannot be here because they’re picking up their children from summer camp, from summer programs, from summer school,” said Jason B. Allen, national organizing director for the National Parents Union.
Fights over CRT, DEI
School board meetings across the country have seen heated debates in recent years over so-called wokeness in the classroom as some white parents accuse teachers of trying to make students feel guilty about their race.
In 2021, the Cherokee County School District hired Cecelia Lewis, a Maryland principal, for a new position as an administrator focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. But Lewis, who is Black, would step back from the offer after a group of white parents rose up against the decision, with many arguing without evidence that Lewis planned to bring critical race theory to the county.
Once a niche academic term, critical race theory has become a catch-all for lessons on race that put U.S. policy in a negative light or make connections between past discrimination and current inequality.
Following the first wave of outcry, the Georgia Board of Education approved a resolution against a list of opinions members found unpopular, including that the United States is a racist country or that anyone ought to be made to feel bad for things people belonging to their race did in the past.
Last year, Gov. Brian Kemp signed bills aimed at keeping ideas like critical race theory out of schools and strengthening parents’ rights to review classroom materials.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education ruled that proposed book bans in Forsyth County may have created a hostile environment for some students and ordered the district to come up with a plan to fix things.