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Classroom Crossroads: Ohio Wesleyan Education Professor on Impact of ‘Divisive Concepts’ Laws

This article was originally published by Ohio Wesleyan University.

Ohio Wesleyan University’s Sarah Kaka, Ph.D., has testified before Ohio lawmakers, collaborated on research, and presented to peers on the impact of so-called “divisive concepts” teaching laws now adopted in more than half of the nation.

The chair of OWU’s Department of Education, Kaka also has been discussing the topic with multiple media, including The Columbus Dispatch, Education Week, and the “TeachLab with Justin Reich” podcast.

“I think it depends on who you talk to what they say the goal of the legislation is,” Kaka told Reich during their June 8 podcast, “but the reality is that all of the laws – divisive issues concepts – seek to limit what teachers can say or do in their classes.”

The national podcast also discussed the research that Kaka and higher education colleagues have conducted in eight states with divisive concepts laws in effect.

“One of the big things that we found at this point is that teachers are afraid,” said Kaka, who joined the Ohio Wesleyan faculty in 2017. “Teachers are afraid of doing what they know they should be doing. They feel like they’re limited in what they can teach, they’re limited in how they can teach. …”

“Obviously, that’s not true of all teachers, but … if you’re afraid to go to work and do your job well, then the love of teaching – the reason, that passion that you had at one point – it’s going to fall away,” Kaka said. “And so, we’re seeing one of the direct consequences of this is it’s exacerbating the teacher shortage.”

Kaka anticipates the group’s research will be published soon in three articles now in review with different professional journals. She also has made four presentations based on the work, including one in February at the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and another in April, when she presented “These Laws Allege That We Can’t Be Trusted: The Culture Wars and the Teaching Profession” at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

In addition to studying the impact of divisive concepts teaching laws already in effect, Kaka has been monitoring pending legislation, especially Ohio House Bill 103. In May, Kaka testified about her concerns with the bill, drawing upon expertise that includes serving as vice president of the Ohio Council for the Social Studies and as executive editor of the Ohio Social Studies Review. (Watch the testimony, starting at 25:45.)

Of the pending bill, Kaka said: “I think one of the most important things to know about it is that it is a Trojan Horse brought in by hyper-partisan players in this latest stage of the culture wars. The American Birthright Standards seek to eliminate all critical thinking and skills in social studies and return us to an era of rote memorization and drill-and-kill history, all while only learning only one version of ‘America’s common language of liberty, patriotism, and national memory.’”

Kaka is scheduled to discuss House Bill 103 at 11:50 a.m. June 26 on the public radio show “Cincinnati Edition,” broadcast on NPR-affiliate WVXU-91.7 AM. She also has discussed concerns about the future of social studies education with both The Columbus Dispatch and Education Week.

Dispatch reporter Anna Staver writes that if House Bill 103 passes, “the legislation would create a task force to develop a new set of academic standards for Ohio’s K-12 history classes using the American Birthright model. The model is a conservative set of standards from the National Association of Scholars that emphasizes teaching Western history over civic engagement.”

Kaka is grimmer in her assessment, telling Staver: “This bill cheats students of a quality education. Instead, (it) promotes an incomplete, inadequate, reductive education that shuns intellectual curiosity and closes minds rather than expanding them.”

In speaking with Education Week, Kaka told reporter Sarah Schwartz: “The things that I was teaching in my social studies methods courses back when I started in 2012 are vastly different than what I’m teaching now.”

As Schwartz explains: “Kaka still covers social studies standards and methods of assessment. But now, she also coaches prospective teachers on how to square best practices in social studies education with the growing collection of state laws across the country that restricts how teachers can discuss race and LGTBQ+ issues in the classroom. She tries to help them understand and prepare to respond to potential challenges to the content they teach from parents and community members.”

“Now that social studies is under attack around the country,” Kaka said, “we’ve had to defend our profession.”

For parents, lawmakers, and others concerned that, without divisive concepts legislation, teachers will indoctrinate students with anti-white, anti-male, or similar perspectives, Kaka tackles the topic in the TeachLab podcast:

“That’s not happening,” she said. “Every teacher I’ve talked to has said, ‘My classroom is an open door. You want to come and see the lesson plans? Here that’s fine. You can see what I’m doing.’ I don’t know any teacher who’s going to say ‘no’ if a parent were to reach out to them and say tell me what you’re doing today.”

Despite the chilling effect, Kaka said, teaching topics such as critical thinking, media literacy, and the ability to support arguments with evidence are so important that “some teachers are willing to take chances, to stand up and keep doing what they are doing – even in the face of the laws.”

Another way Kaka is helping teachers to navigate today’s educational waters is through a book she edited, “Hollywood or History? An Inquiry-Based Strategy for Using Film to Teach About Inequality and Inequity Throughout History.” The book is specifically designed to help middle and high school teachers provide standards-based lessons that address issues of historical inequity and inequality while meeting mandates.

Read Kaka’s Columbus Dispatch interview, “Republicans want to replace Ohio’s K-12 social studies standards with conservative lessons”; read her Education Week interview, “Social Studies Groups Are Training Teachers to Navigate ‘Divisive Concepts’ Laws”; and listen to her TeachLab podcast interview, “Teacher Speech and the New Divide: Episode 1.”

Learn more about Kaka and Ohio Wesleyan’s Department of Education at owu.edu/education.

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