Education commissioner talks Islam in schools issue
Local schools have the freedom to tailor teachings as long as they align with state standards, but altering the curriculum to remove religious studies would put students at a disadvantage during test time, education officials said. Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who has been in the position since January, visited Maury County schools Friday on the heels of a curriculum controversy over teaching the tenets of Islam as part of seventh grade world history. Dr. Jan Hanvey, Maury County Public Schools middle school supervisor, said during a Thursday school board meeting the district is following state curriculum guidelines. Students are then tested on those standards, she said. McQueen clarified those statements during a tour of Randolph Howell Elementary in Columbia. The Tennessee Board of Education and state educators help develop the curriculum before it is adopted, she said. “The department (of education) helps with the training on those standards, and the assessment of those standards, and then the locals, whether that’s the principal level or the teacher level, are making decisions around the curriculum that’s used, instructional practices and strategies that are used,” McQueen said. “Certainly, we are setting that expectation, but how’s it done, what instructional practices are used, what strategies are used, what curriculum is used is absolutely a local decision.” Because of the recent uproar over the Five Pillars of Islam being taught in schools, state social studies standards will be reviewed in January 2016, instead of 2018 as originally slated. Educators and state officials will examine whether the instruction is appropriately balanced and review teaching standards, McQueen said. She anticipated the process will last through the spring. “Our intent has been to use the standards to actually look at world religions and world cultures and see how it impacts world history,” McQueen said. “The way a parent can then talk about that at home is certainly an approach that will be individualized. They should take that information and have those conversations with students through their own belief system and weigh that appropriately inside their own homes.” Hanvey was unable to talk by phone Friday but answered The Daily Herald’s questions by email. She echoed McQueen’s statements that the state sets the standards, and the local districts develop the curriculum based on those standards. The district sets the curriculum through pacing guides and can tailor the instruction through teaching strategies and activities in the classrooms, Hanvey said in the email. “We cannot remove the historical content regarding Islam or any other religion,” she said. “As we discussed (Thursday) during the school board meeting, removing religious references would handicap the instruction of history. Religion has had a tremendous impact on the world’s people.” The district would support changing the pacing guides, as long as it meets the standards by which students and teachers are measured, she wrote. Maury County schools review curriculum throughout the year and make revisions as needs are identified, Hanvey added. Parents should engage school officials when they have concerns about what is being taught in schools, as they did during last week’s meeting, she wrote. “At our individual schools, as always, we welcome parents’ questions and want them to bring classroom concerns to their child’s teacher and their child’s principals,” Hanvey said in the email.