Sunday, July 14, 2024

Educators discourage use of ‘unrealistic’ quality checklist for classroom books, materials

The NHCS curriculum committee recommended doing away with a quality review checklist used for selecting instructional materials on Sept. 25, 2023. (Port City Daily/file photo)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Teachers stressed the importance of their time and professional opinions on Monday when speaking against a quality review checklist for books and other supplementary materials used in New Hanover County Schools. 

READ MORE: School board temporarily bans book on American racism from NHCS classrooms

The New Hanover County school board tasked its curriculum committee — made up of teachers, principals, and district staff — with making recommended changes to policy 3200 on selecting instructional materials. The committee was also asked to review the district’s current quality review checklist, completed for outside materials used in classrooms and often reviewed by school principals for approval.

The requests were made in the wake of the board’s first-ever hearing on a challenged book on Sept. 1. 

The board’s conservative majority voted to temporarily ban Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s book “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You”; there were concerns the book misrepresented history and was not rigorous enough for the AP English class it was taught in. 

The removal will stay in effect until the board updates its policies on supplementary materials and can choose what some members called “a balanced book” to add to the class syllabus. 

At Monday’s meeting, school board vice-chair Pat Bradford called the hearing “enormously painful and enormously destructive.” She argued for clearer “boundaries” for controversial subjects so as to avoid future challenges. 

Though at the meeting, the teachers and principals on the committee described the checklist as overbearing rather than inadequate at addressing concerns over controversial topics. 

Many committee members also expressed confusion on what material necessitates a checklist and when to bring the material before their principals. The policy technically applies to all supplementary materials, but teachers are not completing a checklist for everything.

“It’s impossible,” Castle Hayne Elementary principal Christianne May said. “You’d probably have to have a meeting every day if it were really being followed.” 

Policy 3200, which applies to classroom and library materials, states educators should consider whether the material in question is accurate, authoritative, well-balanced, technically qualified, and if the author or source is reputable. It encourages teachers to take recommendations from other educators and question whether the material will add to the collection’s breadth and variety of viewpoints.

The quality review checklist asks a series of yes or no questions, such as whether the material aligns with state standards, is tied to an assessment, promotes critical thinking, or builds cultural competence. It also includes the following questions:

  • Is the content free of stereotypes? There should not be any elements of the task that could be considered to reflect a stereotypical view of, or offensive to, a subgroup.
  • Does the task contain material that might be considered inflammatory, controversial, demeaning, offensive, or emotionally charged for particular subgroups?

While other school districts have similar policies to 3200, NHCS Chief Academic Officer Patrice Faison, said her team could not find another North Carolina school district that required teachers to complete a checklist. She said that was most likely intentional. 

“I say others do not have it because it is unrealistic,” Faison said. 

She was drawing on reports from her meeting with 30 NHCS educators in preparation for the committee discussion.

A few teachers questioned if the checklist process, if followed for every outside material brought in, discourages the use of current events as real-world connections. Teachers also desire the latitude to respond in real-time to student questions or gaps in knowledge with outside sources, but worry they will be breaking the rules by not getting pre-approval. 

Many elective courses in secondary schools are not provided with core curricula, meaning the entire class relies on outside materials. Filling out checklists for each item and getting them approved can take weeks; sometimes teachers are pointed to a school’s monthly professional learning community meeting to gain the green light.

Bradford, board liaison to the committee, suggested the material only needs outside approval if it contains a “controversial topic.” She named off sexuality, gender, racism, politics, religion and social justice as examples. 

Several committee members asked who will get to decide what is controversial, as the topic is subjective to particular demographics, cultures and individuals.  

NHCS Director of Curriculum and Instruction Lo DeWalt noted teachers are hesitant to teach on religion; however, not teaching certain topics that could be controversial to readers could violate state standards. Religion is a large component of world history curricula, the educators pointed out, along with sensitive happenings like the Holocaust. 

“How do you dance around that, I don’t know; I’d love to come in and understand it,” Bradford said in response. “I didn’t realize the Holocaust was as controversial as y’all say it is.” 

One teacher noted that students should learn about complex and nuanced topics, not be shielded from them.

“They are going to grow up and go in the world; they’re not going to say, ‘I can’t talk about that. I’ve never known how to discuss that issue,’” Ashley High School’s Teacher of the Year Fatima Sail said. “Our role is to prepare them for the future.”

The committee examined a policy on material selection from Cabarrus County Schools, which serves a similar demographic as NHCS. Committee members and Bradford, agreed to use the easier-to-read, clear-structured policy as a template for a revised policy 3200. Board members Melissa Mason and Stephanie Kraybill — non-committee members in attendance Monday— also approved of the Cabarrus policy.

Instead of a checklist, the committee reached a consensus on utilizing guiding questions that educators are encouraged — not required — to answer individually or in group discussion. One of the suggested questions asks if a piece of material could be controversial for some and if so, is it the best way to reach the standard? If it is, another question asks how the educator is being proactive about addressing the controversy in a sensitive and well-balanced way.

Faison is now tasked with putting the committee’s recommendations into a formal policy; the committee is scheduled to review the final product in late October to early November.

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