Colorado Schools Debate: Who Decides History?

Students and teachers in Jefferson County, Colorado, joined forces in the fall of 2014 to protest a school board decision to review the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum to ensure that it promotes patriotism and discourages civil disorder. In this lesson, students consider how the board's guidelines might change their own history texts, and what prompted students and teachers to protest the board's decision. 

Learning Objectives

Students will

  • analyze the controversial Jefferson County (Jeffco) School Board statement
  • apply the board’s proposed evaluation guidelines to selected events in U.S. history included in a history book they use
  • determine what effect, if any, it would have on them if stories of these events were told differently or omitted
  • read quotes from protesters and consider what led them to protest


In the fall of 2014, several members of the Jefferson County, Colorado, school board expressed concern that the school district’s Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum emphasized the "negative" aspects of U.S. history, and that it encouraged civil unrest. The board decided to set up a committee to review the curriculum.  What happened next surprised the board.

Students and teachers in Jefferson County were upset by the board’s decision to review the curriculum. They didn’t want the school board deciding what was acceptable—and unacceptable—for students to learn as part of U.S. history.

Students turned their feelings into action: They walked out of classes and held demonstrations protesting the board’s decision. Meanwhile, teachers staged a "sick-out"—meaning that they called in sick as a protest. Teacher absences led to four schools closing in the last weeks of September. The local Parent-Teacher Association and a group of local college professors supported the walkouts. Ten national anti-censorship organizations and the College Board, which designed the AP history curriculum, added their support.

What was it about the board’s decision that upset so many people? Why does the content of your history classes matter? That’s what you’ll explore in this lesson.

(Note: For further exploration of the Jeffco board's point of view, see this interview with board member Julie Williams by Denver Fox News.)



Tell students that in this lesson they will be learning about how a group of teachers and students protested a decision by their local school board about what should be taught in their classrooms. Either have them read the Background above or read it aloud to them so that they will have the information they need to complete the activities.


Does it matter what you study in history class?

1.  Have students, working in pairs, read the statement that caused the conflict, and highlight the parts of the text that they believe caused the problems. Ask a few students to tell the class what they highlighted and explain why they thought it was perceived to be controversial.

Board Committee for Curriculum Review

The committee [to review the curriculum] shall be seated by the Board. Each director may nominated [sic] up to three candidates for the committee and the entire board then will vote to select the nine (9) members of the committee. The charge to the committee is to review curricular choices for conformity to JeffCo academic standards, accuracy and omissions, and to inform the board of any objectionable materials. The committee shall regularly review texts and curriculum according to priorities that it establishes, however, at any time, the Board may add items to the list for review. The committee shall report all comments (majority and minority) to the board in writing on a weekly basis as items are reviewed. Board members may move for discussion or action on items reported when matters warrant public discussion or action. The committee’s initial projects will be a review of the AP US History curriculum and elementary health curriculum.   

Review criteria shall include the following: instructional materials should present the most current factual information accurately and objectively. Theories should be distinguished from fact. Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage. Content pertaining to political and social movements in history should present balanced and factual treatment of the positions.

2.  Give student pairs a chance to look over a U.S. history book and find topics there that they have studied that the Jeffco school board’s review committee might question. Have student pairs share the events they have identified with the rest of the class and explain why they think they might be up for review. Make a list on chart paper or the board of what students share.

3.  Have each student pair choose one of the events to explore in more depth. Each pair will consider together:

  • How might this event be told differently to conform to the Jeffco committee’s proposed guidelines?
  • How would this different version of the story affect students’ understanding of the event?
  • What might the effects be of omitting the topic entirely?

Give students the following example. What might happen to the story of Rosa Parks if it were reviewed by the committee? Perhaps the story would be omitted because Parks broke the law. Or perhaps a different way of telling the story would emphasize that her action was criminal, and deemphasize the fact that she consciously broke a law that she considered to be unjust as part of a movement to change that law. How would they feel about Parks’ action depending on each telling of the story?

After pairs discuss the bulleted questions above, ask them to share their analyses of the event they chose with the class.

4.  Give students a chance to think about what they and their peers have presented. Have them answer the following questions in writing: Do you think it’s important that the events the pairs selected be taught? If so, why? If not, why not? You may collect the writing or have students share their answers.


Why protest?

Have students read the following quotes from protesters.

Student quotes: 

"Students at my school plan to walk out of classes in protest of the Jeffco school board’s new proposed Advanced Placement U.S. History Curriculum Revision Committee which aims to teach students to become more ‘patriotic’ and less ‘rebellious’ by portraying the history of our country in a better light." - Jack Shefrin, Arvada West High School senior

"I don’t think my education should be censored. We should be able to know what happened in our past." -Tori Leu, 17-year-old student 

"Everything that [Americans have] done is what allowed us to be at this point today. And if you take that from us, you take away everything that America was built off of." - Tyrone G. Parks, Arvada High School senior

Five professors from the University of Colorado at Boulder wrote the following:

"We applaud the students of the Jefferson County School District for their civic engagement in demanding an honest and balanced curriculum in U.S. history. They are insisting that their education not erase important struggles to hold this nation accountable to its principles of liberty, equality and justice. Their participation in the cherished American tradition of civil disobedience, advocated and practiced by figures such as Nathan Hale, Henry David Thoreau and Rosa Parks, demonstrates their commitment to the often-contentious practice of American democracy. They know that learning a whitewashed version of American history will not provide them with the historical knowledge or critical thinking skills to effectively address the problems that they, and our nation, will face going forward."

Response from Jeffco PTA President Michele Patterson

"My board voted unanimously to oppose the formation of this Curriculum Review Committee. Jeffco Schools employs professionals, educational experts, who should be making these decisions. Additionally, Jeffco Schools has a Curriculum and Text Book Review Committee which includes a variety of community participants. I have participated in the text book review process myself and find it to be thorough and adequate and I believe it would irresponsible of the school board to form a committee of citizens chosen solely by a board majority vote." If the board moves forward with this committee, they will be wading into dangerous territory. Censorship is not an issue parents or our Jeffco community will take lightly."

Suggest that students use the quotes from protesters to help them answer the following questions:

  • Why did so many students, parents, and teachers protest the school board’s proposed committee?
  • What would you have done in the same situation?

Allow students to answer the question with a partner or in small groups. Then have each pair or group report out to the whole class. Summarize what students have concluded.


Ask students to write down the most important thing they learned from this lesson. Ask them what issue would move them to protest the way that Colorado students did?