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After concerns raised, Contreras plans review of social studies materials
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After concerns raised, Contreras plans review of social studies materials

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GREENSBORO — Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras said earlier this week she plans to review Studies Weekly social studies materials after Board of Education member Anita Sharpe raised concerns about them. 

At Tuesday's school board meeting, Sharpe shared a 2019 Education Week article that said an internal review by Studies Weekly — a Utah-based company founded in 1984 — found "more than 400 examples of racial or ethnic bias, historical inaccuracies, age-inappropriate content and other errors in the materials."

One example the article mentioned was an instance of Studies Weekly "describing Native Americans as 'troublemakers'" in materials for Arkansas fourth-graders.

"All 400 have been corrected," said Melody Anderson, chief marketing and support officer for Studies Weekly, in an email to the News & Record on Friday. "We conducted that internal review to identify articles for revision because we knew that the way history had once been taught was no longer acceptable." 

Guilford County Schools leaders were talking about Studies Weekly at the board meeting because it was part of a list of companies the district was asking the board to approve as "sole-source" vendors, a designation related to federal rules and regulations about grants. That means the district could use federal funds to purchase from companies that provide a unique product or service, rather than asking for multiple bids. 

Chief Academic Officer Whitney Oakley told board members that Studies Weekly provides a unique format for reading. The materials are designed to look like child-friendly newspapers, newsletters or magazines and cover topics linked to education standards for specific grades. 

Oakley said Studies Weekly materials have been used during summer school for several years and received positive feedback.

Sharpe told Contreras that she'd done her own research about the company and quoted briefly from the Education Week article. She said she was concerned about the 400-plus egregious examples flagged by Studies Weekly, 100 of which were deemed as "high-priority fixes."

Education Week asked Maureen Costello, the director at the time of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project, to review flagged issues in the materials. Teaching Tolerance has since changed its name to Learning For Justice. 

"We have a tendency to either erase or whitewash our difficult history, and this seems to be an excellent example of the way that starts," Costello said, as quoted by Education Week. 

Contreras told board members that Teaching Tolerance has a strong reputation and that she would pull Studies Weekly from her list of recommendations of companies to be sole-source providers so that she could review the company's materials.

The board voted 8-0 to approve the rest of the recommended list. Board member Pat Tillman was absent from the vote. 

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According to Education Week, Studies Weekly "came under fire" in February 2018 for fifth-grade materials that included a short fiction piece called "Cotton-Pickin' Singing." In the story, a white girl and Black boy go back in time to Georgia during the 1700s. The white girl explains the history of slavery to the Black boy, while also telling him to pick cotton to appease an overseer.  

The story also included "several historical inaccuracies — including the false statement that white colonists didn't also enslave Native Americans," according to Education Week. 

That year, according to Education Week, Studies Weekly started the internal review and "convened a diversity board, made up of K-12 administrators and social studies directors, education and history professors and advocates, all but one of whom did not work for the company." 

"This board reviewed incidents flagged as high-priority and made suggestions as to whether changes needed to be made" according to Education Week. 

Lavora "Gayle" Gadison, is the social studies content manager for Cleveland Metro Schools, and participated in the Studies Weekly internal review. She said her district is using the Studies Weekly Ohio materials in their upper elementary school grades.

"It’s a wonderful resource in my opinion," she said. 

For example, she said, Studies Weekly explains that the Northwest Ordinance outlawed slavery in what became Ohio, but doesn't just leave it there. Instead, the materials also get into the injustice faced by African Americans who were living, working and raising families in Ohio without the same rights as white Americans. 

"That’s a nontraditional way of looking at American History," Gadison said. 

Anderson of Studies Weekly said the 2018 review checked for "traditional eurocentric prejudices" in their older publications that had been written by freelance education writers. 

"We started rewriting them for greater cultural sensitivity and creating a foundational shift within our organization," she said in her email. "Based upon our internal review, we updated, discontinued or discarded select publications."

Anderson said the company has a completely new social studies curriculum for North Carolina's 2021-22 school year as well as many other states.

"It was created using only primary source documents and scholarly resources with oversight from curriculum specialists and directors that are subject-experts," she said. 

She added that the company also partners with scholars and consultants from different racial, religious and underrepresented communities and collaborates and consults with state experts. 

"Our goal is to give students a more complete and firsthand perspective of the complex history of our nation and world," she wrote. 

Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.​

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