Schools fear lawmakers will cram in more courses
By Grace Aduroja and Erika Slife
Chicago Tribune, IL
May 8 2005
Tribune staff reporters
Published May 8, 2005
As far as students this year in teacher Lionel Allen’s history
class are concerned, the 1920s were nearly non-existent. Same for
The Oak Park and River Forest High School educator says he’s had
to make some difficult curriculum choices to ensure that students
receive a smorgasbord of historical topics.
“Why does it have to be a give and take? Time,” said Allen, who focused
on both World Wars, including the Holocaust, and the Vietnam War. “I
think that’s a challenge that every history teacher has to deal with.”
It’s a common dilemma among Illinois educators who must incorporate
a slew of required topics into already jam-packed curriculums. This
legislative session, Illinois lawmakers have proposed more than 40
bills that could require even more of schools, including several that
would lengthen the list of must-teach subjects.
One proposal, which the House passed, would broaden an existing
mandate that requires that high school students get a unit on the
Holocaust. The measure, which is awaiting Senate action, would also
require schools to add instruction on other recent occurrences of
genocide, including the slaughter in Rwanda in the 1990s and the
atrocities done to Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
“Every year they add new requirements that teachers have to teach,
and students have to learn and they never increase the school day or
school year,” complained Ben Schwarm, associate executive director
of the Illinois Association of School Boards. “That’s why they have
to impose each one, one by one. It’s drip by drip but pretty soon
the bucket gets full.”
Out of bounds?
The genocide bill has educators discussing how far lawmakers in
Springfield should be allowed to step into their classrooms and if
they are qualified to legislate teacher curriculums.
“It’s always an interesting quandary when non-professionals
consistently dictate what professionals in the field are doing,” said
Lorie Cristofaro, a Glenbard East High School teacher for 11 years,
said. “That’s our job as social studies teachers, to make (students)
more aware of things going on in the world.”
What is especially frustrating to some educators is that, while
districts are wrestling with budget deficits and overcrowded classes,
legislators are talking about adding more things to teach.
Already swamped by the pressure to comply with state testing standards,
some teachers say added teaching mandates will only siphon off more
time from classroom instruction.
But supporters of the genocide bill argue that failing to teach
students about the prevalence of ethnic and political killings would
be more detrimental than the strain of increasing teacher workloads.
Awareness could be a key factor in stopping future acts of genocide
and curbing indifference, they say.
“This is a lesson that has never been learned. It’s entirely
appropriate guidance,” said Steve Buenning, a world history teacher
at Fremd High School in Palatine. “I don’t think it’s unnecessarily
burdensome at all.”
Illinois was at the forefront of national education policy in 1990
when it required schools to incorporate study of the Holocaust into
curriculums. If the new measure is passed, Illinois will join select
states, including California and Rhode Island, trying to broaden
education about genocide.
In addition to Cambodia and Rwanda, the bill would require teaching
about genocide in Armenia and Ukraine as well as more recent atrocities
in Bosnia and Sudan. Proponents say that schools should not limit
discussions to those tragedies but include others as well, such as the
disappearances of political dissenters in Argentina and Chile; or human
rights violations that have occurred in places such as El Salvador.
Movie highlights issue
The recent Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda” highlights this problem
in its depiction of the United States and much of the world turning a
blind eye a decade ago to the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandans by their
countrymen during a 100-day killing spree.
“Genocides are still happening, and we need to expand our knowledge
on it, ” said Katya Mischenko-Mycyk, a board member for the Ukrainian
Genocide Famine Foundation, a Chicago group that supports the bill.
“It’s almost unfair to students just to see a small piece of the
Rep. John Fritchey (D-Chicago), the bill’s sponsor, said incorporating
recent events into classroom lessons would resonate with students
who live in a fast-paced world where today’s technological advances
are ancient history tomorrow.
“I have a 9-year-old daughter. In her mind, learning about something
that happened 60 years ago is the same as learning about something that
happened 200 years ago,” he said. “This brings the reality of genocide
much closer to home for them and they’re much more able to grasp what
it is they’re being taught and that’s really what this is about.”
Other lawmakers argued that schools already desperate for cash would
have problems covering the costs of supplies for new topics. However,
Fritchey said that non-profit organizations already have pledged to
donate literature and volunteer speakers.
Instead, some opponents suggest that lawmakers consider more sensible
solutions that wouldn’t bog districts down with unfunded rules.
Rep. Suzanne Bassi (R-Palatine), a former educator who was one of the
11 House members to vote against the bill, said she agrees with the
spirit of the legislation but is against the lack of funding to help
carry it through. She suggests educators be taught how to incorporate
the subject of genocide in their lessons as a more reasonable fix.
“They can bring it into our classroom without writing a state law
for it,” she said.
Glenbard East’s Cristofaro says that she and many of her peers are
already doing this. At the beginning of each class, she engages her
students in a brief discussion on current events, including the ethnic
strife in Sudan.
“It is imperative that we treat educators as professionals and trust
that they are teaching these human-rights issues in the classroom,”
While many educators say that is a laudable goal, they also say it
is made that much harder every time the legislature orders schools
to teach something specific.
“We’ve not extended the school day, we’ve not extended the school
year,” said Deanna Sullivan, director of governmental relations for
the Illinois Association of School Boards. “When is it too much?”