Lack of standards invites politics into Wyo civics classes, critics say
One afternoon this spring, educators around Wyoming logged onto Zoom for a voluntary lesson on 20th Century U.S. history featuring a “live presentation from an esteemed scholar expert.”
For the next two hours, College of the Sequoias history professor Stephen Tootle led roughly a dozen high school and college-level educators through a lecture on American foreign policy.
The lecture drilled down on the legacy of Republican President Ronald Reagan and the post-war, anti-interventionism of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Tootle derided partisan hardliners like the anti-communist Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and criticized the foreign policy stances of Democrats like John F. Kennedy.
Event organizers clearly outlined Tootle’s experience as a scholar of U.S. history. They were less forthcoming about his political background. Tootle has held leadership roles in local Republican politics and as a conservative commentator in California. His resume also includes positions at numerous organizations aligned with conservative causes, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Ashbrook Institute.
The webinar, according to a review of social media posts, was one of a series of events in western states to promote civics curriculum created by the Bill of Rights Institute.
The Koch brothers-backed venture promotes a conservative interpretation of American history in elementary and high school classrooms, according to left-leaning media watchdog Center for Media and Democracy. That curriculum covers a number of hot-button conservative topics, including affirmative action, the L.A. race riots and the rise of “Democratic Populism.”
A representative from the Bill of Rights Institute said the organization seeks to offer perspectives from both sides of the political spectrum in its curriculum. Its curriculum does ideologically sit “right of center,” said BRI spokesman Chris Janson.
“We really strive towards viewpoint diversity,” Janson said. “We get that the reputation that we have comes from our donors, because we do receive funding from a couple of the Koch foundations. But none of our donors tell us what to write. All of our material is written by scholars from all across the ideological spectrum.”
Such efforts from special-interest groups across the ideological spectrum stand to have an outsized impact in Wyoming classrooms, critics contend. Without a defined civics education standard, and with little guidance on developing curricula, some educators fear that politics and personal perspectives can creep into the void — particularly as the national debate heats up over critical race theory, American exceptionalism and other interpretations of history.
“If you sat down and were to look at the standards for science or computer science, you would see this magnificent roadmap of what we expect to do and where we expect to go,” said Nate Breen, an outgoing trustee with the Wyoming State Board of Education and the 2009 winner of the American Civic Education Teacher Award, one of the nation’s top honors for civics educators. “But social studies is a cacophony of vagaries. And no one has wanted to change it.”
Unlike most states, Wyoming has no specific curricula requirements for teachers looking to teach civics or U.S. history in the classroom. That policy choice, critics say, has had severe implications.
Wyoming’s civics standards rank among the weakest in the nation, according to a report released by the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank. Wyoming received “F” grades in both civics and history standards for being “inadequate,” lacking in detail and offering little guidance to educators.
“Wyoming’s paltry collection of civics benchmarks provide almost no useful guidance to educators, and a dearth of essential content is compounded by poor organization,” the report says.
That lack of guidance can also lead educators to seek out materials from other sources, including partisan organizations like the Bill of Rights Institute, whom several educators interviewed by WyoFile described as among the top resources available. One attendee of the April event, who advises on curriculum for several school districts in eastern Wyoming, said the information from the webinar could eventually make its way into classrooms there.
This as the nation’s classrooms have become the latest battlefield in the culture wars between Democrats and Republicans.
Wyoming’s lack of a U.S. history curriculum standard often leaves educators to evaluate the bias of the information they receive.
“The dilemma that we have now is what is politicized,” said Matt Strannigan, a former high school principal in Wyoming and the state coordinator for The American Heritage Center in Cheyenne. “I think you’ve got to be critical [of these organizations]. You have to do a critical analysis of what the presentation entails to discern what path they’re taking us down.”
Wyoming has not been spared the type of politicization of civics and history education that has come to dominate school board meetings in Virginia’s Loudoun County and Bozeman, MT.
During the 2021 legislative session, freshman Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, introduced legislation to implement a controversial set of civics education standards as a response to a system he said was “very much tilting more towards a liberal view of education.” That legislation failed. (Haroldson did not respond to a request for an interview.) In Laramie County School District 1, a dust-up took place over textbooks some perceived to be teaching critical race theory. The books turned out to be copies of a type of curriculum called “Wit and Wisdom,” an English language arts curriculum that has drawn the scorn of some conservative groups.
And after the Biden administration proposed a rule change encouraging the use of curriculum like the 1619 Project (which hypothesizes America’s wealth was derived largely from the marginalization of Black people), Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow released a statement decrying the attempt to “normalize teaching controversial and politically trendy theories about America’s history.”
Balow later denied her statement was intended to be political, telling WyoFile she believes classrooms should be teaching a “diversity of thought and perspective.”
While she believes the federal government has a role in bolstering requirements for civics and social studies education, she said she disagrees with the government proposing specific curriculum without offering a measure for social studies proficiency. Until such a yardstick is available, Balow said, she believes that decisions about what gets taught and when are best made by community members and education officials at the local level. That method, she said, is the best way to build community consensus around what some perceive to be divisive issues.
“When the federal government incentivizes one theory, one ideology over another, then that narrows the gap for us to be able to achieve that,” Balow said. “And that bothers me.”
She also praised the work of civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and antiracist historian Ibram X. Kendi (whose work was also cited as curriculum in the Biden administration’s incentive program) as perspectives that “should be taught” in classrooms.
“I am absolutely for teaching social studies, civics education and U.S. history, better,” she told WyoFile. “And that means that we go into more depth and more breadth in the content that we deliver, and the discussions that we elicit in our classrooms.” Critical race theory, however, is an “oversimplified” interpretation of American history Balow later told Cowboy State Politics.
To fill the gap in Wyoming’s civics and social studies education standards, educators like Strannigan and Breen have long participated in the Center for Civics Education’s We The People Program, an elective student organization that promotes teaching and learning about the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights. (The Center has worked with the Bill of Rights Institute.)
The program has its limits, however. Strannigan, the organization’s Wyoming coordinator, said We The People is active in fewer than two dozen schools in the state, and while the program does assist with professional development, state standards fail to encourage teachers to offer students a broad and nuanced view of American society.
Some educators interviewed by WyoFile point to an increasing emphasis on STEM fields, the corresponding de-emphasis on testing for social studies, and the reduced number of social studies courses required for graduation as key culprits.
“If you’re in education long enough, you’ll tend to see the pendulum swing back one way or another,” said Mike Thomas, a We The People affiliate and government teacher at Sheridan High School. “But I think we’re at that point right now where we’ve had a lack of social studies, and now people are shocked that our students don’t know their history or government.”
For a time, students could make up for that lack of understanding through elective courses at the post-secondary level. Though the state’s lone four-year public university, the University of Wyoming, has begun to expand its offerings in civics and cultural competency, Wyoming’s community colleges in recent years have followed the course of Wyoming’s K-12 education system, tailoring limited resources to career readiness programs while de-emphasizing training in the humanities.
That trend could continue as community colleges cut budgets in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, the Wyoming Community College Commission’s updated its strategic plan focused primarily on meeting the needs of industry and economic diversification, with little mention of bolstering studies in the humanities.
Ben Moritz, Deputy Director and Chief Academic and Student Services Officer for the WCCC, said each college’s upcoming spending reductions depend on factors beyond the programs they value. However, Moritz said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if humanities programs — including civics, history, and sociology — are ultimately impacted, largely due to the fact fewer students are enrolling in humanities-focused degree programs at the community college level.
Aura Newlin — an anthropology and sociology professor at Northwest College in Powell whose position was eliminated this spring after nine years — was awarded statewide faculty member of the year by the Wyoming Association of Community College Trustees in 2018. Before becoming a budget-cuts casualty, she taught social science courses at the college, including a course she had personally developed on race and ethnic relations.
If the college was committed to teaching social justice issues, Newlin said, it would have invested in them. By eliminating her position, she said, courses on race, if taught at all, will likely lack the breadth of expertise they once did.
“In my mind, if the college actually cared about ramping up their education on race — like the rest of the country is realizing they need to — they could have justified keeping me on by saying it was a required course for students,” Newlin said. She has since taken a part-time position at UW.
As social unrest around race relations in America continues to escalate, Newlin said, her position is more relevant than ever.
Balow acknowledged that the Wyoming Department of Education has room to improve on its social studies requirements. Teachers need to be equipped with adequate professional development to be able to interpret the materials they receive, she said and to enable students to “build their beliefs,” rather than have their beliefs built for them.
“The school should be a safe place from judgment about how you feel about politics as you grow into your own principles,” Balow said. “But it also should be a place that flourishes with lots of ideas and lots of discussions that engages students so they can build their own set of ethos before they graduate. That’s what I want for our kids.”
Balow’s critics, however, say that the DOE has done little to realize that vision, leaving Wyoming to the status quo and the potential for legislative action.
Balow said she believes Wyoming needs legislative guidance on civics education and that it should involve difficult conversations about parsing facts and theories, and acknowledge the need to teach America’s atrocities alongside its accomplishments.
“America is at a very strange crossroads right now, and it’s really hard to have these conversations,” Balow said. “But most Americans believe that history can be taught in ways that don’t categorize or divide students in a way that upholds all Americans as Americans, celebrates the progress that we’ve made and acknowledges that we have more growth to make as a nation.”
However, Wyoming is a politically and ethnically homogenous state. Whether it will be willing to address the ugly side of its history without decrying those lessons as divisive remains a question.
“Just because 1.4 percent of Wyoming’s population is African-American, doesn’t mean that Wyoming kids shouldn’t learn about the whole history,” Breen said.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.