Education and political advocates throughout February gathered at Charleston County School District (CCSD) board meetings to vocalize support for a new reading curriculum that right-leaning education leaders have accused of teaching critical race theory and “woke culture.”
Teachers at Mount Pleasant’s James B. Edwards Elementary piloted the Expeditionary Learning (EL) Education program for CCSD in January 2022. With a year under their belt in the new program, some teachers using the curriculum say it is rigorous, but elementary school-aged students who now are writing poetry and essays are rising to the challenge.
“The students are capable of doing so much more than we ever thought,” said 3rd grade teacher Sarah Eckert. “When I was first looking at these lessons, I was looking at it like: ‘How in the world are our 8- and 9-year-olds going to write an essay …’ I couldn’t fathom it. But lesson by lesson it started to develop, and sure enough at the end, they started producing essays that are quality work.”
Fourth grade teacher Sarah Wilkinson said at first she had reservations about the program — the poetry module in particular — because she and her students had already covered some poetry. But, she said, the way the modules tackle larger ideas rather than focusing on simple subjects has helped her students find success.
“We hadn’t really hit nonfiction super hard,” she said. “But once we started diving into EL, we realized they are very thematic. You’re doing informational writing, reading nonfiction text within a poetry umbrella. Nothing is, ‘Oh you’re only looking at poetry.’ It’s all ‘main idea.’ ”
‘Toxic for teachers and students’
Other teachers and advocates say the EL curriculum has become politicized and could hurt students. In recent weeks, public comments at meetings sparked heated remarks about racism and other controversial topics. Others said the EL content focused more on emotional learning rather than academic study.
Jody Stallings, director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance (CTA), characterized the curriculum as politicized, saying political interference by conservative groups has made it difficult to critique the program fairly. Some teachers, he said, have been silent on academic concerns with EL Education for fear of being labeled as racist. And while he has his share of critiques for the curriculum, he is more against the politics that have been tied to it than the curriculum itself.
“I do not mix politics and education — I just don’t,” Stallings said. “It becomes a tribal thing: ‘I don’t want to lose.’ But we’re supposed to be teaching kids to read. [The politicization] has made the curriculum toxic for teachers and students in a really unnecessary way.”
Stallings, who also teaches middle school in Mount Pleasant, released a survey Jan. 9 that he said was completed by more than 200 CCSD teachers. One in eight respondents said they were excited about the EL curriculum. Just over 80% said the curriculum was not an improvement over what they used previously. And 69% said they did not expect to see significant growth and achievement from their students as a result of this curriculum.
“This was rolled out so poorly [that] we should be embarrassed,” an anonymous respondent said in the survey. “The training provided by EL is just a sales pitch for the curriculum. I spend hours nightly planning for lessons … This curriculum has potential, but we have not been given what we need to be effective … This curriculum will single-handedly drive teachers out of the profession.”
Stallings said teachers using EL Education prepare between 30 and 45 different lessons for their classes every week. Several teachers, he said, have complained that the workload has been way too much for how little results they’ve seen.
“The political angle was barely mentioned in the survey,” he said. “At that time, we didn’t even have an inkling that there were any talks about [critical race theory] or the political elements other people are hammering.”
CCSD leaders flip the script
At a Feb. 21 CCSD board meeting, 30 EL supporters took to the microphone during the public comment period. This included five young students who read poems, essay excerpts and other assignments completed under the EL curriculum. The board was expected to take a vote on the curriculum’s future in CCSD schools later that evening.
Every speaker was in strong support of the new curriculum, and they condemned board members who had spoken against it, with claims of “culture wars” and “anti-woke” attitudes.
“When I hear about those tough topics and people who are concerned about them, I like to talk about how the teacher manual is so sensitive with these touchy subjects,” Eckert said. “It’s OK to talk about hard things. It’s a productive conversation, not a divisive one.”
But five of the nine sitting board members had political backing from Moms for Liberty, a national right-wing political advocacy group that rose to prominence during the pandemic with anti-mask and vaccination stances. Board member Courtney Waters, a former language arts teacher, said she was in support of the new curriculum.
“Teaching reading is profoundly difficult, and it is even more difficult when students are reading text they are not interested in,” she said. “I think these claims are shallow and political.”
Despite politics, the board voted 6-3 in favor of keeping the EL curriculum in place, at least for now, to the surprise and excitement of many in attendance that night, but to the disappointment of many more teachers watching virtually from home, Stallings said.
Stallings said he was initially worried when he learned of board members’ political leanings, but hoped their goals might align.
“I thought, maybe it will work out, because there is a majority of teachers who don’t want the curriculum in place anyway, and even though I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the motivation, if the outcome is what we need, then fine. But we didn’t even get that.
“Nobody is listening to teachers and […] parents,” he said. “We’re all listening to the same bureaucrats we’ve all been listening to for 30 years. The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
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