Tennessee Education Association

Great Public Schools for All Students


An Islamic controversy and passing the buck

Political tempest over seventh grade social studies standards has a key lawmaker scapegoating teachers

Over the past months, middle school teachers have watched with concern as a controversy erupted about how Islam’s role in history is taught in schools. Fanned by a variety of groups with anti-public school motives, the controversy hit the airwaves and spilled into school board meetings, claiming an overemphasis on Islam and even charges of indoctrination. Educators and state education officials say it’s a misconception that Islam is emphasized more than other religions in social studies classrooms. The topic of Islam has been part of seventh grade social studies for years. And teachers are adamant that they are not proselytizing for any religion. We teach history, not faith. That is a job only for parents.  

But the controversy will continue because politicians have found political gain in keeping it alive. And when Tennessee teachers come under attack from out-of-state special interest groups, we see some politicians join in. That is unacceptable, and TEA members will not forget.

A prime example is Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham. She sent a letter to Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to make sure teachers aren’t indoctrinating students and encourage teachers to exercise “prudence” when teaching world history as it relates to Islam. She sent out excerpts of the letter to the state press in a news release. 

The underlying assumption, of course, is that some Tennessee’s teachers have been indoctrinating students instead of teaching them history. It is an insinuation that hurts the reputation of schools and teachers.

“I was disappointed in the senator’s response to the controversy. It did nothing to dispel rumors or stand up for teachers,” said Jim Wrye, chief lobbyist for TEA. “In fact, the reporters I talked to clearly get the wrong idea of who sets social studies standards and what goes on the state tests. Lawmakers who oversee education have a special responsibility to let their constituents know it is a state decision on standards, and the state makes the approved textbook list.“      

Gresham’s omission of the process by which standards are developed and textbooks chosen is notable. The staunchest supporter of Common Core and the use of the nationally aligned PARCC test that the General Assembly discarded in 2014, Gresham only tamped down her support when it became politically problematic to other Senators.

Gresham’s reaction is in response to a large, multi-million dollar, out-of-state outfit with a political operation and headquarters in DC.  Instead of talking to her local teachers, she sends a letter to Commissioner McQueen that essentially calls on the state’s top education official to keep teachers in line and pushes the special interest fiction that public schools are not to be trusted.

“Tennessee communities love their public schools and support them strongly. The privatization industry has two weapons to try and weaken that support, saying our schools are failing and that schools are somehow different than the communities they serve,” said Wrye. “Pushing the storyline that schools are promoting Islam and indoctrinating students is meant to sow distrust of schools. After the tragedy in Chattanooga, the special interests see an opportunity.”

On July 16, 2015, five servicemen were killed in Chattanooga by Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who migrated to the city with his family in 1996.

The subject of seventh grade social studies is not going away anytime soon. Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia,has filed a bill that would prohibit any public school course from including anything deemed “religious doctrine” unless the course is taught in 10th, 11th or 12th grades.

“I think that probably the teaching that is going on right now in seventh, eighth grade is not age appropriate,” Butt said. “They are not able to discern a lot of times whether it's indoctrination or whether they’re learning about what a religion teaches.”

TEA has a long standing policy opposing legislative action on curriculum and standards. It certainly will be a key topic in the next legislative session.

“Our main goal is to dispel any notion that teachers are teaching faith rather than facts,” said Wrye. "Facts and knowledge is our business; faith is the purview of families only.”

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