Pleasantville school board, teachers reject social studies textbooks over diversity concerns | Local News | #Education

PLEASANTVILLE — Local teachers have drawn statewide attention for their work to diversify district curricula at Pleasantville Public Schools — and now they have successfully challenged proposed textbooks as part of that effort.

On Tuesday, the Pleasantville Board of Education voted down a resolution to purchase McGraw Hill social studies textbooks. The decision came after teachers and parents said the textbooks would fall short of the state diversity standards for education they were working to introduce into classrooms.

Tamar LaSure-Owens, director of the district’s Amistad, Holocaust and Latino heritage — or AMHOTINO — curriculum, spoke at the school board meeting against the textbooks. LaSure-Owens, who is responsible for implementing state standards for the district, said she did not have confidence the textbooks appropriately taught the histories of marginalized groups and that they would be incongruous with the district’s broader curriculum.

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Two other speakers echoed LaSure-Owens’ thoughts. The school board was receptive to their concerns and voted to reject the textbooks without extensive debate.

“Why are we buying books that just don’t meet our standards?” LaSure-Owens said after the meeting. “We do not teach a textbook, we teach a standard.”

McGraw Hill did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company website does include a section for its “commitment to diversity, equity & inclusion” and highlights the work of its PreK–12 Equity Advisory Board.

“Diverse and inclusive teams are critical to helping us be more creative in our approach, better understand our customers’ needs, and develop programs and materials that address equity issues and reflect the students we serve,” Terri Walker, McGraw Hill’s head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, said in a statement posted to the company website.

The Pleasantville school district has received statewide recognition for its AMHOTINO curriculum, which incorporates lessons about history, tolerance and diversity into all school subjects. It places a special focus on the histories of African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanic Americans; the legacy of slavery in North and South America; and the events of the Holocaust and other genocides in world history.

LaSure-Owens said members of the New Jersey Education Association met with representatives from McGraw Hill to discuss its textbooks in 2020. The NJEA members highlighted instances where they believed textbook material was inaccurate or incomplete, such as sections concerning Native American history and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. While there was an understanding between the company and the NJEA about the need to produce more diverse materials, LaSure-Owens said she believes the textbooks currently in use still fall short of state standards.

LaSure-Owens said she particularly wanted to avoid the use of euphemisms when discussing historical atrocities. She cited a curriculum change proposed to the Texas state Board of Education for second graders in which slavery was described as “involuntary relocation.” McGraw Hill in particular attracted controversy in 2015 when it described slaves as “workers from Africa” in a geography-textbook caption. Company leadership apologized for the caption shortly after students called attention to it. She added that she wanted textbooks to reflect other district standards, such as its study of slavery throughout the Western Hemisphere, and was concerned the books could otherwise confuse students.

The school board and New Jersey Department of Education agreed in March to have LaSure-Owens assist the Amistad Commission, which works to incorporate Black history into New Jersey classrooms. The NJEA awarded LaSure-Owens its Urban Education Activist Award in December for her efforts at Pleasantville.

Critical of the processPleasantville Education Association President Joe Manetta took issue with how the textbooks were selected. He said the district officials who made the decisions about the curriculum should have consulted with LaSure-Owens first, given her status as AMOHOTINO coordinator.

“They should have had a conversation with her because that directly involves what she does,” Manetta said after the meeting Tuesday.

New Jersey recently expanded curriculum mandates designed to promote diversity and tolerance in education. Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill in January requiring schools to teach about the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It follows the passage of a 2019 law requiring schools to teach students about the history of the LGBTQ community and that of persons with disabilities.

Recent efforts to promote diversity have precedent in past decades. The state Legislature created Black-history standards and the Amistad Commission in 2002. Eight years earlier, in 1994, the Legislature mandated that students be taught about the Holocaust and other genocides.

Parents both in South Jersey and across the country have taken exception to LGBTQ education mandates as well as the sex-education standards. Much of the national debate has centered on state-government efforts in Florida to regulate classroom discussions about LGBTQ topics. Some conservatives have argued that such efforts help ensure lessons are age appropriate, while liberals and LGBTQ-rights advocates have decried the regulations as bigoted.

Attendees at an Ocean City Board of Education meeting in April said the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education encroached upon the role of parents to teach their children about values and morals. Advocates for LGBTQ-rights in Cape May County said they were concerned about being harassed for their support of the standards.

Some Republican lawmakers, including state Sen. Michael Testa, Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, had asked that the standards be revised. Murphy promised in April to review the standards and said his administration wanted to include parental input into education. The governor did emphasize that he believes New Jersey schools should prioritize academic performance, mental health and making schools inclusive for all, including LGBTQ students.

Public controversy has not stopped the launch of other, similar education projects. The National Education Association awarded the NJEA a Great Public Schools grant to launch a consortium for New Jersey educators. The consortium will partner with more than 25 colleges and universities, museums, historical commissions and advocacy groups to train teachers to make their classrooms more inclusive and help everyone involved in education “to understand, embrace and celebrate New Jersey’s diversity.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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