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‘Religious indoctrination’ bill could restrict teacher autonomy beyond social studies

Nicholas Garcia

A Tennessee bill aimed at addressing concerns about “religious indoctrination” in seventh-grade social studies classes also could impact the teaching of all core academic subjects in grades 6-12.

The measure, prompted by concerns from activists and parents that students are being “indoctrinated” into Islam while studying world geography and history, would require that any inclusion of religion in textbooks, instructional materials and curriculum “be for educational purposes only and not be used to promote any religion.” In addition, each district must “make publicly available a syllabus” for math, science and English language arts subjects in middle and high school that includes major assignments and field trips.

It’s the second part of the bill, which doesn’t have to do with religion, that concerns teachers who view the legislation as a license to impede their creativity in the classroom.

The bill is scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor on Wednesday after sailing through the House 83-2 last week. Debate thus far has focused on whether the bill would remove mentions of religion. (It would not, according to the sponsor.) However, little has been discussed by lawmakers about how it might limit teachers’ ability to teach.

Currently, all Tennessee public school teachers use the same academic standards, which prescribe what students at each grade level should know. But districts do not create a syllabus for each subject and grade level to dictate to teachers how to teach to those standards — for instance, what to read or assign and which field trips to take.

It’s unclear if, by mandating districts to post “a syllabus” for each core academic course in grades 6-12, every teacher would be able to design their own syllabus, as they do now. Teachers say they value making their own lesson plans and crafting their own assignments.

“I follow the standards to a T, but I can maneuver within them according to what my students need,” said Nashville teacher Nick Rossi, who teaches seventh-grade social studies at Apollo Middle Prep School. “I know my students. I want to make the decisions on what I teach.”

Rossi noted that teachers have an outline of what they’ll teach throughout the year, but it’s not set in stone and allows for flexibility. Assignments can get scrapped, or ideas for new engaging assignments can emerge from conversations with other teachers. “No one knows what March will be like in July,” he said. “You don’t know what the kids are like yet.”

Nationally, teachers’ freedom to be creative in the classroom is closely associated with their job satisfaction, according to a 2015 report from the National Center on Education Statistics.

Others say that a districtwide syllabus could be helpful — if thoughtfully done.

Robert Pondisco, a senior fellow for the Thomas Fordham Institute, points to the Core Knowledge Curriculum, which briefly set the curriculum in Nashville elementary schools in the mid-2000s, as an example of a strong shared curriculum. “It needn’t be an affront to the profession,” he said. “It could be an opportunity to share best pracitices.”

Rep. Matthew Hill of Jonesborough, who is sponsoring the bill in the House, said the measure ultimately is about lessening the influence of religion — any religion — in classrooms. “This is a direct response to concerns across the state about the way religion is taught in Tennessee public schools,” he told colleagues last week.

In part due to concerns about the issue, the State Board of Education launched a review of the state’s social studies standards in January, two years ahead of schedule.

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