By Abby Carroll | Community News Service
Guidelines for Vermont school districts’ curricula and reading materials may be changing for the first time in 10 years as a working group looks to push the state education board to put greater focus on racial and ethnic diversity and historically persecuted groups.
The proposed changes to the state’s Educational Quality Standards came last April from the Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Advisory Working Group, a 23-person committee established in 2019 by Act 1, to “recognize fully the history, contributions and perspectives of ethnic groups and social groups” and to eliminate discrimination against those groups in schools.
The group is made up of advocates from those underrepresented communities and stakeholders in education.
The changes proposed by the group look to make education and classrooms more representative of the full spectrum of cultural identities, more equitable and inclusive and explicitly anti-racist.
Group members said that might look like this: Officials could make sure that students with disabilities, for example, aren’t more severely punished than students without disabilities for the same offenses. Classes might have more discussions about the treatment of all cultures throughout history, and students could be encouraged to talk more about their own experiences with identity. Teachers could consider discussions about when science has served people and when it has been used against certain groups, such as eugenics. And there could be changes to school calendars to give students more days off to celebrate more cultural and religious holidays.
The group’s aim is to transform schools into places where all identities and perspectives are taught, represented and valued.
“The overarching goal is to ensure that all of our students receive equitable, anti-racist, cultural, responsive and anti-discriminatory and inclusive schooling,” said Amanda Garces, the working group’s chair and an official with the state Human Rights Commission. “That’s what we hope our schools become.”
The process of seeing these changes adopted, if the state board of education choses to do so, is a long one. The proposed changes have been in the board’s Educational Quality Standards Rule Update Committee since April 2022 for a review and public comment period. Garces said it could take four to five more months or longer for the state board to have a full meeting and begin the rulemaking process, and legislative committees might also want to take a look at the proposed changes.
That result, if and when it comes, would mark one of the main achievements of an effort that began years ago.
The working group’s mission had its roots in 2017’s Act 54, which commissioned an examination of disparities in state systems between people of different races. Education was one of the five systems legislators found had consistent and pervasive disparities in how people from different races were treated and serviced. Lawmakers concluded that the state needed to do more to serve children from underrepresented backgrounds. That would include reworking curricula to “proudly” represent the contributions made to society by people of color, indigenous people, people with disabilities, women and LGBTQ people, Garces said.
By 2019, when the group had formed, its members wanted to expand upon the work in Act 54 and push for changes in classrooms based on its findings, the experiences of many members of the group and the perspectives of education administration leaders.
The group found a way to do so through the Educational Quality Standards, rules authorized by the State Board of Education that articulate the state’s vision for school objectives and values and provide districts direction in developing curricula and establishing learning materials and practices.
“There’s a chance for school districts to look around and see what is celebrated, what is on the walls, how is the calendar organized,” said Mike McRaith, a member of the working group and the assistant executive director of the Vermont Principals Association.
He added: “If you go into a music class and there are only white men like Bach and Mozart that are on the walls, and those are the only songs that anyone ever learns, it’s like, well, there’s a lot more music in the world, and there’s a lot of other fantastic musicians that we can honor, right?”
A key aspect of the proposal involves aiding students with disabilities. The group wants schools to more widely adopt technology that could make it easier for neurodivergent students to learn.
Group members emphasized that the changes would lift up all students.
“Even though the work is really focused on the wellbeing of all the marginalized students who have been left out for so long, really this benefits all students,” Garces said. “We really want schools to prepare students to work, train and learn in a socially and culturally inclusive space.”
McRaith hopes the changes will be adopted before the working group’s legislative mandate ends in June this year.
“We feel positive that there is momentum there for adoption at the state board level,” McRaith said. “We are optimistic and encouraged by the amount of energy and time that they have dedicated to it.”
The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.