As curriculum controversies rage, new law pushes Nevada schools to tell broader range of stories
There was a time in Mia Albright’s life that she cringed when her grandmother spoke Spanish in the grocery store. Instead of cultural pride, she felt shame.
The now-16-year-old traces those feelings back to school. Classroom lessons and reading material did not include enough diverse perspectives.
The Reno High School student, whose dad is white and whose mom is from Nicaragua, told state lawmakers this spring that the lack of Central American perspectives in her education left her with “serious questions” about her identity and culture and “fervently wishing to only be white.”
“No student should feel the way I felt, ostracized and alone, and no student should formulate or fall victim to those racist ideologies the way that I did,” Albright said at the Assembly and Senate Education Committee hearings for AB261 in the spring. Albright said textbooks with a wider range of viewpoints could mitigate or eliminate the issues she faced.
The change Albright advocated for is on its way. Earlier this year, AB261 passed along party lines in both the Assembly (26-16) and the Senate (12-9), with all Republicans opposed. The bill amends existing Nevada law to make sure those diverse perspectives are a core part of the K-12 curriculum. The law also prohibits the State Board of Education from selecting instructional materials that don’t accurately portray the history and contributions made by Native Americans, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants and refugees, people with disabilities and those from various racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds.
Nevada is one of 16 states that has made efforts to expand such education this year, but it comes at a time when many states are going in the opposite direction. The national debate over how the history of various groups of people are taught at schools has led to backlash and confusion over terms such as “critical race theory” that proponents of inclusive education reform said have been conflated with others such as equity and social justice.
Nevada students who testified during the legislative session said they felt the need to lobby for more inclusive instructional materials after discovering a slew of events they had not learned about in their U.S. History classes.
Those included the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, in which a white mob looted the predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and killed an estimated 100 to 300 of its residents, and the 1969 Stonewall uprising, in which New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village, New York City, sparking a riot among bar patrons and neighborhood residents.
Jonathan Moore, deputy superintendent of student achievement at the Nevada Department of Education, believes that while there have long been efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in the Nevada school system, social justice movements that have recently gained more national attention — such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate — have accelerated changes that were already underway.
Many of the groups of people that “are globally under attack” are reflected in the Nevada school system, Moore said.
“I think the recent events have just accelerated the urgency [to take action],” he added.
The potential impacts of the bill
Proponents of the bill point to the wide variety of benefits it may have on student performance and well-being.
While existing social studies standards include multicultural education – which includes “information relating to contributions made by men and women from various racial and ethnic backgrounds” – Nevada law did not specifically outline the other groups included in AB261 to be represented in the teaching of science, the arts, and the humanities. AB261 also places an emphasis on the accuracy of the portrayal of the included groups of people.
The changes made by the bill will be funded by existing school district budgets and will only apply to textbooks adopted in the future, not textbooks currently in classrooms.
Even curricula with minimal culturally relevant content can improve student achievement, according to Geneva Gay, a professor of education at the University of Washington and author of “Culturally Responsive Teaching.” She defines culturally relevant content as anything that “uses the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning more relevant and effective.”
Doing so, she said, can lead to higher test scores and grade-point averages as well as an improvement in students’ self-confidence and engagement with the subject matter.
Culturally relevant content improves student achievement by relating academic knowledge and skills to students’ lived experiences, making it easier for students to find meaning and interest in content and thoroughly learn it, Gay argued.
Sheila Weathers, a fourth-grade teacher at Tanaka Elementary School in Las Vegas, agrees that culturally relevant material “opens the door” for teachers to teach students the necessary skills to be successful in the classroom.
“I see my kids. Their eyes light up when they see someone who looks like them [in a text],” Weathers said.
Proponents assert that the bill will help foster a safer learning environment in which students can learn more about their own backgrounds while helping students build critical thinking skills that are necessary for navigating a diverse world.
“Do we want our kids to think critically? Do we want kids to have an accurate understanding of history? Do we want kids to know and appreciate a variety of cultures and backgrounds and know how to engage with each other appropriately? Who wouldn’t support that?” said Rebecca Garcia, president of the Nevada PTA and parent of four students in the Clark County School District.
Garcia said she believes that there are groups spreading misinformation to influence parents to fight against causes that will actually benefit their children and that parents are often unaware of these efforts.
The bill became effective upon its passage in May for implementation and will be fully in effect in mid-2022. The bill kicks off a multi-year process of approving and adopting textbooks for various subject areas across all grade levels in each district.
Albright said that although she will no longer be in the Washoe County School District by the time the bill is implemented in schools, she recognizes the effect it may have on her younger sibling.
“I do have a little brother, and I really hope that he will be able to … feel included and heard and seen in a way that I wasn’t,” she said.
The Background of AB261
This isn’t the first time that Nevada lawmakers passed a bill to diversify school curricula. In 2015, Nevada lawmakers passed a bill that required the statewide standards for social studies to include multicultural education. Similar bills passed this legislative session. Among them:
- AB19, which removes government from the list of subjects included within social studies and adds civics, financial literacy and multicultural education.
- SB194, which requires the state department to develop content standards for ethnic and diversity studies for high school students that include various perspectives that are similar to those listed in AB261.
Unlike those bills, AB261 specifically pertains to instructional materials rather than content standards and focuses on science, the arts, and the humanities, including English.
Albright and Katie Hawley, another student who testified at an Assembly Education Committee hearing for the bill, both belong to youth activism organizations – the Las Vegas Youth Power Project and Washoe County Students for Change. Those organizations inspired Assemblywoman Natha Anderson (D-Sparks), an English teacher in Washoe County, to sponsor the bill. She had met with and listened to both organizations as they advocated for more diverse curricula at their local school board meetings in the fall of 2019.
Anderson pointed to her background as an educator as the second source of inspiration for creating this bill.
“There was an article that came out and it stayed with me, [saying] that our literature should be both a mirror [and] a window,” she said. “And what that means is you want to be a mirror, a reflection of [who] our students are in their lives, but also a window into a different world.”
In a Senate Committee on Education hearing, Anderson said the intent of the bill was to give teachers more “tools in the toolbox” to teach diverse perspectives in their classrooms.
Luanne Wagner, a government and U.S. history teacher at Clark High School in Las Vegas, also teaches a class called “The African American Experience” for juniors and seniors. She said she often uses outside sources and supplemental materials to compensate for the lack of culturally relevant content in textbooks.
When she discusses discrimination and civil rights in the United States, she tries to incorporate the histories of various groups of people such as the World War II history of Felix Longoria, the Mexican American soldier who was buried in Arlington National Cemetary after being denied burial alongside other veterans in Texas; the Japanese American unit that fought for the U.S. despite some of their family members being in internment camps; the Navajo Code talkers who used their language to develop a code that turned the tide of the war for the U.S.; and the Filipino people who risked their lives to offer food to American prisoners in Bataan, Philippines.
AB261 will signal to textbook vendors who wish to sell their materials in Nevada that they must holistically and accurately portray the contributions and history of the groups of people outlined in the bill, Moore said. It will also provide legal support for teachers who want to promote diverse perspectives in their classrooms.
“It’s nice to know that we have the state legislation that now backs us up and justifies us,” said Alyson Henderson, an English teacher at Clark High School in Las Vegas. “With it being law now, there’s going to be more teachers who are doing it.”
Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R-Reno), who voted for the bill in committee but ultimately voted against it, feared the language of the bill was too restrictive.
“I am for the premise of this legislation. My only concern was that … [the language may] create a situation where if a textbook did not include all of the different [groups outlined] … it would create a barrier for adopting new textbooks based on availability,” Tolles said. She emphasized that she was very supportive of multicultural education.
The intent of the bill is to ensure the accurate portrayal of those groups rather than to ensure that all of the groups are included in every instructional material and lesson, Anderson said at an Assembly Education Committee hearing. Tolles said she was later assured that the state will follow that intention in implementing the bill.
Opponents of the bill
Although there were significantly more people who called in support of the bill during public comment at the committee hearings, some spoke against it.
At the Senate Education Committee hearing, Alida Benson, the political director of the Nevada Republican Party, said that there has been “a focus on revamping [the] curriculum to quietly insert backdoor critical race theory into our schools.”
Anderson rejected that assertion. So did Addie Rolnick, a professor at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law with expertise in critical race theory (CRT) — she said CRT is primarily taught in law school or in some undergraduate- or graduate-level courses but does not see it included in AB261.
CRT is a legal academic theory that examines the relationship between race and law. Rolnick said the theory argues that racism is not just demonstrated by individual people with prejudices, but that it can be unconscious and embedded in structures like the law. It is centered on the idea that race is not merely a biological trait, but a social construct that the law has helped define. Critical Race scholars argue that the legal system is not a set of neutral “colorblind rules,” but a system that perpetuates racial inequality.
It does not encompass everything that involves a discussion on race, Rolnick said. She believes the term has been inaccurately used as a catch-all phrase for a slew of loosely related topics including more inclusive history education.
“The teaching of real history and the acknowledgment of various people's experiences is part of what this bill is doing, but that's [the only similarity] at a very basic level, and CRT is a lot more than that,” Rolnick said. “And so they are not really related at all.”
Rolnick believes the nationwide anti-CRT backlash is part of “a carefully orchestrated campaign” in which conservative activists are deliberately attempting to conflate the CRT with other topics.
Albright said she is concerned that the spread of misinformation about CRT will cause public backlash for the bill, just as it did at a Washoe County School District board meeting in June 2021, when a new social justice curriculum was discussed. But Moore and Kindra Fox, the Washoe County School District’s director of secondary curriculum and instruction, said that districts will continue to follow the academic content standards, which also do not include CRT.
Bob Russo, who called to offer public comment in opposition to the bill, expressed his concerns that the bill will be “divisive.”
“Personally, I believe that recognizing one’s accomplishments in accordance with their gender, race, or religion is divisive and undermines the recognition and honor a person deserves for what they have done,” Russo said during the Senate Education Committee hearing for AB261.
Rolnick said she understands the view that it is always dangerous to classify on the basis of race, but that she doesn’t agree with it.
“It’s not the act of noticing [the] hierarchy that creates the hierarchy. And in fact, you have to notice it in order to undo it,” Rolnick said.
Arguing that classifying people on the basis of race is divisive also requires the assumption that race is merely one’s skin color or ancestry, rather than something that has determined how resources have historically been distributed, Rolnick added.
Proponents of the bill argue that the measure may help foster empathy and prevent bigotry.
“I met countless students who have entered the world unprepared because they weren't taught about the past properly,” Nathan Noble, a UNR student and graduate of the Nevada public school system, told lawmakers in the spring. “And I've witnessed firsthand how an incomplete view of the past breeds ignorance and how in turn that ignorance can sow the seeds of bigotry.”
The Funding and Timeline of Implementation
AB261 is an unfunded mandate, meaning that the state will not provide districts with the funds to fulfill the requirements of the bill. Rather, new instructional materials will draw from existing school district budgets.
But the bill does not require districts to adopt new textbooks immediately. Instead, districts will adopt them whenever they are scheduled to purchase new textbooks.
What that means: It will be years before districts’ instructional materials live up to the bill’s intent.
Washoe County and Lyon County school districts, for example, follow a seven-year textbook adoption cycle in which they try to adopt a new set of textbooks every year for a particular subject area. Sometimes, it takes longer than seven years if districts do not have sufficient funds at the time they are scheduled to adopt new instructional materials.
Lyon County Superintendent Wayne Workman expressed his concerns about funding in an interview. However, funding for instructional materials has always been a concern for districts, even before this bill was passed, Fox said.
Moore believes that funding will be less of a concern moving forward because AB261 only affects future textbook adoptions. That means districts will have more time to plan their funds to meet the requirements of the bill. Also, the state Department of Education has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funding during the pandemic that can be leveraged to provide new instructional materials, Moore said.
The bill only applies to state-approved core materials, not supplemental materials that individual districts, schools, or educators may use in addition to the core materials. Core materials can include a variety of materials such as standard textbooks, novels, and more.
What does the instructional material adoption process look like?
Both Workman and Fox are eager to hear back from the state department about what the new standards will look like and what their next steps will be in integrating the new standards into the existing ones.
Before the state begins the lengthy instructional material adoption process depicted below, the state department has to review the existing statewide standards and rubrics for evaluating instructional materials to ensure they meet the requirements of the bill. There is no set date for when they will begin this process given the other developments they are implementing, but they will be working on it soon, Moore said.
Anderson said she hopes students are involved in the process of implementing this bill. Albright agrees.
“I’ve been used to adults speaking about what I want for almost like my whole life. Well, they aren't in school anymore,” Albright said. “They don't know what it's like to be growing up in a time like this, all the confusion that's going on … I think, as students, we're the most qualified to tell other people what we need and what we want from our education.”
Implementing the bill in the classroom
Adopting the instructional materials is only step one. Anderson said the most important step is teacher training and implementation.
Some are skeptical about how well the new changes will be implemented and enforced. Garcia, the president of the Nevada PTA, is among those who are skeptical about the implementation and enforcement of this bill. She said she has seen “incredibly inconsistent” practices across the Clark County School District.
“I feel that will be a problem with this particular piece of legislation,” she said.
But teachers in Washoe County regularly implement changes in their classroom and the district’s curriculum and instruction department is used to providing lesson planning and professional development support, Fox said. She said the past multicultural standards have been “fun and interesting to implement” for some Washoe County teachers.
As a teacher, Henderson said she hopes training sessions related to AB261 include a diverse set of staff or educators. She recalled a multicultural education training session she attended in the past that was run by two white women and organized by the Clark County School District.
“If you’re trying to be more multicultural, I think maybe you shouldn’t have two white women running this training,” she said.
Weathers emphasizes the importance of having teachers be at the forefront of the process of implementing education bills.
“[AB261] will be successful, number one, if there’s teacher voice there. Teachers need to be involved in how the bill will be delivered to schools … because teachers are going to need training,” Weathers said.
Some teachers may be hesitant to teach about perspectives they are unfamiliar with out of fear of offending students. However, by engaging students in conversations and admitting that they do not know everything, teachers can help establish trust with their students, Henderson said. They must also do research about the texts that they are teaching beforehand, she added.
Both Henderson and Wagner said they have not experienced backlash and have received overwhelming support from parents, students, and administrators in teaching diverse perspectives. They attribute that support to creating a safe learning environment and trusting relationships with students.
“I always tell the students, ‘Look, you know, [the] bottom line is a fact is a fact is a fact, and this a fact, not my opinion. But this happened, and so now we need to look at it, and we need to have a courageous conversation about it, and how do you feel about this topic?’” Wagner said. The key to ensuring students are comfortable is trusting students and creating a safe, respectful, and culturally responsive learning environment.
She told a story about a white student who asked her if he could share something with his classmates in a U.S. history class she taught at Clark High School decades ago.
The teen boy said he was raised as a white supremacist in Texas but his teachers at Clark High School changed his beliefs, Wagner said. His classmates were surprised but very accepting.
“If I can create an environment where students feel safe enough to say something like that, and to be accepted by their peers, I think we’re on the right track,” Wagner said.