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President Heafner's Message: "NCSS's Position on an Inclusive Curriculum"

If we desire a society of peace, then we cannot achieve such a society through violence. If we desire a society without discrimination, then we must not discriminate against anyone in the process of building this society. If we desire a society that is democratic, then democracy must become a means as well as an end. -- Bayard Rustin

As president of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), it is my responsibility to communicate directly and transparently with social studies teachers across the United States, to help educators better understand the various positions that NCSS supports and why. The purpose of my contribution to this edition of TSSP is to share on behalf of the Board of Directors two actions by NCSS in support of the LBGT+ community and to advocate for an inclusive social studies curriculum. 

Recently I had the opportunity to deliver remarks at the California Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference.  In my comments, I noted the metaphorical merit of their conference theme, “Vision for Social Studies,” and the significant role of California as a trailblazer in confronting controversial issues.  California is not only a national and global leader in a green economy but also a sanctuary for inclusivity. Moreover, California is a leader in rethinking curriculum to reflect a diverse democracy, pluralistic society, and global community. As a case in point, California became the first state to mandate the teaching of the “contributions of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people,” or LGBTQ history with the passage of the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act in 2011. The History-Social Science Framework (HSS), adopted in 2016, expanded social studies curriculum on civic learning, financial literacy, voter education, genocide, and the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans and people with disabilities to the history of California and the United States. Chapter 20 of the Framework entitled “Access and Equity” states that “All of California’s children and adolescents have the fundamental right to be respected and to feel safe in their school environment ...” The FAIR Education Act ensures the historical contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are accurately and fairly portrayed in instructional materials by adding [LGBTQ+] people to the existing list of under-represented cultural and ethnic groups already included in the state’s inclusionary education requirements. The actions of California are leading indicators of educational reforms. 

As pioneers of inclusive curricula, California is one of five states that require public schools to teach LGBTQ history. Colorado and New Jersey added state-mandated language in 2019 to include history and civil government instruction including but not limited to the history, culture, and social contributions of American Indians, Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals within these minority groups; the intersectionality of significant social and cultural features within these communities; and the contributions and persecution of religious minorities. Oregon passed similar legislation in 2019 which expanded the scope of historical content to geography, economics and civics and requires curriculum to sufficiently include instruction on the histories, roles, contributions and perspectives of “individuals who: are Native American; are African, Asian, Pacific Island, Chicano, Latino or Middle Eastern descent; are women; have disabilities; are immigrants or refugees; or are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.” Illinois law, which goes into effect July 2020, states that textbooks must be non-discriminatory, and "the teaching of history in the United States shall include a study of the roles and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the history of this country and this state."   

The rationale behind this movement has acknowledged that history has not been honest and has intentionally erased the contributions of marginalized individuals and silenced the examination of the oppression of these people. Putting cultural groups’ collective experiences at the margins of the historical narrative disempowers them, and fails to consider how those who have been marginalized in society have influenced changes to the systems which were built to subjugate or oppress them. It is critical that these representations be corrected, including within the system of curriculum. The aforementioned laws which prohibit discrimination in education also ensure that the important contributions of Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life are included in our history books and curriculum. They argue that children and youth deserve to know and study the complexity and diversity of American history, civics, economics, and geography.  At the heart of concerns for the well-being of all students, particularly LGBT+ students, proponents contend students need to see representation in social studies curriculum of individuals who are like them. 

Despite this wave of efforts to integrate LGBT+ content in PK-12 schooling, many states have been reticent to take action on behalf of the LBGT+ community and have state or local laws that restrict or prohibit the discussion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender issues in the classroom.  Six states – Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas – still have laws prohibiting the "promotion of homosexuality” in public schools. Yet, today schools face greater concerns around school safety as well as higher rates of adolescent bullying, depression, and suicide for LGBT+ students. According to data from the 2015 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), of surveyed LGBT+ students:

  • 10% were threatened or injured with a weapon on school property
  • 34% were bullied on school property
  • 28% were bullied electronically
  • 23% of LGBT+ students who had dated or went out with someone during the 12 months before the survey had experienced sexual dating violence in the prior year
  • 18% of LGBT+ students had experienced physical dating violence
  • 18% of LGBT+ students had been forced to have sexual intercourse at some point in their lives. 

Schools can implement evidence-based policies, procedures, and activities designed to promote a healthy environment for all youth, including LGBT+ students. LGBT+ inclusive curriculum ensures that a school fulfills its mission of educating and preparing students. Curricula that ignores the existence of LGBT+ students, or worse, stigmatizes them, disregards the needs of those students. At a time when LGBT+ youth are being bullied, and suffer from depression and attempt suicide at higher rates than other students, LGBT+ curricula play a crucial role in educational efforts to encourage tolerance of differences, to humanize curriculum, and to teach empathy.

One of the best ways to overcome intolerance is through education and exposure to different people and viewpoints. An inclusive curriculum contributes to a safer school environment for not only LGBT+ students but all students. LGBT+ inclusive curriculum is also integral to teaching accurate information. Americans are presently situated within a political, cultural, and social context where collective values and legal rights are being challenged by those who hold power and privilege. While this is not unique to contemporary times, it is a time in which we, as a society, must recognize the critical importance of historical accuracy and the need to build the skills necessary to discern facts about who we are collectively and as individuals. LGBT+ people have made important contributions in history, art, science, literature, and countless other areas. Schools should be in the business of revealing and recognizing those individuals and their contributions. 

NCSS’s vision is of a world in which all students are educated and inspired for lifelong inquiry and informed civic action. To achieve this vision, NCSS advocates and builds capacity for high-quality social studies by providing leadership, services, and support to educators. The vision and mission of NCSS are enacted through five strategic priorities. One of which is inclusiveness.  

Priority #4 Inclusiveness

NCSS encourages, promotes and ensures inclusiveness that reflects society and strengthens civic life.

a. Provide opportunities for multiple viewpoints to be shared, supported and respected.

b. Develop and regularly review policies and practices to ensure opportunities for underrepresented groups to actively participate in NCSS.

c. Support efforts that ensure the social studies teaching profession are inclusive and diverse.

In early March 2020, NCSS signed onto a statement, National Groups Condemn Increasing Attacks on LGBTQ Books. Together we argue that books featuring LGBTQ characters and issues are under attack in schools and libraries across the United States and when queer stories are silenced in this way, LGBTQ youth and children from LGBTQ families get the message that their own stories—their very lives—do not have value, that they are shameful. Most concerning is when public schools or libraries yield to pressure to remove, red-flag or limit access to LGBTQ books, they undermine free speech principles, further isolate LGBTQ youth and deprive all young people of opportunities to increase their empathy and tolerance of differences. Reading stories that acknowledge LGBTQ experiences, in which students can recognize themselves and their families, reinforces all students’ sense of self-worth and helps them overcome feelings of social marginalization. 

NCSS states in the Code of Ethics for the Social Studies Profession (2016), “It is the ethical responsibility of social studies professionals to provide to every student the knowledge, skills, experiences, and attitudes necessary to function as an effective participant in a democratic system.” NCSS’s commitment to inclusiveness and its ethical obligation are the foundations for any dialogue about LGBT+ history and its rightful place in the social studies curriculum. The social, cultural, and political implications of sidelining, omitting and/or misrepresenting certain cultural groups are damaging and antithetical to a true democratic education rooted in our collective code of ethics to “do no harm.”

In September 2019, the NCSS Board of Directors approved a position statement that was co-authored with Debra Fowler, Co-founder & Executive Director of History UnErased, Inc., and Dr. Steven LaBounty-McNair, Executive Board Chair of History UnErased, Inc.,  Contextualizing LGBT+ History within the Social Studies Curriculum asserts that “contextualizing LGBT+ history within the story of America through an inquiry-based, non-judgmental critical analysis of primary sources is a reflection of what unifies caretakers of the social studies, irrespective of their political affiliations or ideologies: the inexorable call of professional accountability to advance the ideals of American democracy through the process of social studies education.” Anchoring the study of LBGT+ history with primary sources provides an opportunity to include the efforts of marginalized cultural groups who have fought for extensions of liberty and the ongoing civic struggle for liberty and justice for all. Like, History UnErased, we want to make sure that the students and educators who come after us are not just better off, but are better than us, better at understanding, better at empathy, better at creating a world where all people belong.

Not only has NCSS engaged in promoting an inclusive curriculum, but the association also recognizes that few educators have ever learned or had reason to learn about LGBTQ history. This content was largely absent from K-12 history textbooks until 2017 and best practices regarding how to approach teaching LGBTQ content, and how to support LGBTQ students in the classroom when such content is addressed, were traditionally absent from educator preparation programs. Moreover, although well-intentioned, mandated education policy calling for the inclusion of LGBTQ history is far removed from the realities of classroom practice and fails to take into account the inherent complexities of implementation—the what, where, and how—especially considering the fact that most educators have not had the opportunity to engage with LGBTQ history within their own academic experience. According to J.B. Mayo, a prominent social studies scholar, “While many of our textbooks and classroom materials pay lip service to LGBTQ inclusivity, the reality is that it’s often the unintended messages we send to students that are the most powerful. While teachers likely don’t intentionally send negative messages about identifying as LGBTQ to their students, their worldview assumes that straight, conventionally gendered people are the default.”

Embracing its mission to build capacity for high-quality social studies, NCSS offers research-informed curricular guidance and inclusive instructional materials.  Here are a few LGBTQ/LGBT+ content and pedagogical ideas PK-12 educators can find in NCSS publications: 

NCSS also shares specialized materials from other organizations that are beneficial to helping social studies educators seek answers questions, such as:

  • How do you teach something you have never learned?
  • Who are you? What is your identity? What differentiates people? 
  • Now that you know LGBT+ history, what will you do next both personally and professionally? 
  • How are LGBT+ history and LGBT+ students being discussed? How do we talk about cultural proficiency? 
  • What is my role, as an individual, in advancing the social studies towards a more complete, contextualized—and thereby more accurate and empowering—curriculum?
  • How can we, as caretakers of the social studies, create a sustainable model for a more complete, contextualized—and thereby more accurate and empowering—curriculum?

Some useful resources recommended by NCSS can be found at:

The study of the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and events in history provide opportunities for educators to reveal stories that few have learned about, and provide students with a new lens by which to understand a diverse democracy, pluralistic society, and global community. LGBTQ/LGBT+ stories can be shared in every classroom at every grade level alongside the many diverse stories and histories of all people. In closing, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) “fully recognizes and supports the civic, ethical, and moral imperatives to advance a more historically accurate, complete, and empowering social studies curriculum that contextualizes LGBT+ history—and the histories of other marginalized cultural groups.”

Tina L. Heafner, Ph.D.

National Council for the Social Studies, President