Advocating for an Accurate, Well-Rounded Curriculum

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Episode 77 │ Advocating for an Accurate, Well-Rounded Curriculum

Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024

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Show Notes

Denise Forte

How is the political climate shaping the curricula in schools today? From book bans to censorship, our guest Denise Forte, president and CEO of the Education Trust, delves into the tensions facing education today. Tune in to discover current challenges and bright spots and to explore where we go from here.


  • Read EdTrust’s article about state-level opposition to teaching honest history.  

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Like this episode? Share your thoughts with us via social media @National PTA and by using #BackpackNotes. Be sure to visit for more resources from today’s episode.


Helen: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I am your host, Helen Westmoreland, missing my co-host who is not able to be with us today, Kisha, but I am very much looking forward to diving into this important topic. For quite a while now, education headlines have called attention to growing censorship in schools. From book bans to revising curricula, educators and school leaders are facing obstacles as they work to provide kids with a factually accurate and well-rounded education.

And this past summer, the Education Trust took a closer look at these issues in Florida with a focus on the state's new social studies standards, and they identified multiple problems in their portrayal of black history. Florida is not alone. Since 2021, 44 states have taken some sort of step to censor how race can be talked about in schools.

We are gonna dig into these issues and more today with Denise Forte, President and CEO of the Education Trust. Denise joined Ed Trust in 2019 as senior VP of Partnerships and Engagement, and was named President and CEO in January of 2023. Prior to Ed Trust, Denise held senior leadership roles at the Century Foundation and Leadership for Educational Equity. Her lifetime of public service also includes 20 years in senior congressional staff roles on Capitol Hill and a stint in the Department of Education as acting Assistant Secretary in the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development. She lives in Washington, DC with her family, including her two school-age sons.

Denise, thank you so much for joining us today.

Denise Forte: I'm so excited to be here with you and to talk with you about this really compelling issue.

Helen: Yes. And I could not think of anyone else I'd rather have this conversation with. So tell us and our listeners a little bit about your journey, what you're doing at EdTrust and what got you interested in educational equity.

Denise Forte: Oh, I always love this question, but sometimes I answer it differently each time because there are so many things. Yeah, there are so many reasons.  I think number one is our students are so brilliant in so many ways. Yet there are so many challenges that are being laid at their doorstep and mostly by adults, by the different systems that are out there.

And what I've always really been focused on is how we can ensure that all children have the most opportunity, that all children are really seen for the brilliant children and young minds that are there, and that's what the Education Trust is really all about. For over 25 years, we have been lifting up the data that shows that our young people, but in particular students of color and students from low income communities, can succeed, are succeeding, and I love that. I love that, being able to show that there are many students out there that are being served well, but we need more students to be served well. And that really takes both, more adults being focused on that, but a policy landscape that sets up these conditions for success. And that's what we're doing across the country.

Helen: Well, we are grateful for your work and your commitment to this work, too. EdTrust has a bunch of great reports and sets of data around this issue, so we'll touch on a few of those. But I do wanna start with giving our listeners an overview because it has been in the news of what is happening now when it comes to current objections and concepts like critical race theory and social-emotional learning.

What's really happening in places like Florida and Arkansas where they're banning a wide variety of content, and what do you see as sort of the objections and and reasons behind that and implications of it, right?

Denise Forte: Yeah. Yeah. So look, let me set some context here. What I do think it's important to realize, particularly at this time, particularly as we are coming out of the pandemic, that there are lingering effects of this pandemic on our nation's students.

And as a result, they need extra support, so much more than we're giving them. According to reports by the CDC, about 37% of students in a nationally representative sample, grades nine through 12, experienced poor mental health during the pandemic. Others, a higher percentage, persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

One in five seriously considered suicide, and about one in 10 attempted suicide. Those numbers are staggering. And so we also know that the pandemic had a particular impact on students of color, students from low-income communities, but in looking through the data, we found that students who fared better and are faring better as they come out of the pandemic are those who had a close relationship with someone at school.

Those students who felt a sense of belonging felt included in their school. But what we're seeing right now is students really being subjected to very hostile learning environments. And that's not due to them. It's due to some other things that we should all be concerned about. We have some extreme conservative groups out there that have used terms such as critical race theory, a really ambiguous catchall term, honestly, to object to diversity in curriculum, object to the teaching of honest history, object to insights on race and how race contributed to the success of this country. And so we've got about 44 states, I think you mentioned that earlier, who've now passed laws prohibiting or restricting the teaching of honest history to our young students. And again, when we know from the research that students perform better in school when they have a sense of belonging, when they feel included, why then is this extreme group trying to actually restrict young people from feeling included? Reduce their ability to feel included, reduce their ability to see themselves, feel appreciated, feel a sense of belonging? It makes little sense.

We know when in fact, PEN America found that about a third of the books that were being banned, and this is how it's being effectuated across the country is through restrictions on what children can read and what teachers can actually teach in the classroom. So actually banning literature, about a third of it was about race. Another third was about books that might include a transgender character. It's already the case that many books are not inclusive. And when we did another report looking at representation in curriculum, not only were books not inclusive of students of color and students from different backgrounds, but the lessons were even reductive, meaning the characters weren't showing up as full characters.

Helen: Could you talk more about that? Because I was recently reading that report and was really struck by some of the findings that you uncovered. We’ve talked and we've had great guests on this show talk about diversity in literature. And just general, we should have more characters of color, more characters showing a whole range of diversity experiences. But you really also dove into not just who, but how they were portrayed. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

Denise Forte: Yeah, it was really quite interesting. We looked at about 300 pieces of literature in grade school materials. And what we found was that in the majority of instances, voices of color, so students of color that were represented in the literature were very simplistically described, very narrow in the way they were represented. That even within the story, that character did not have a full sense of agency in the story. A very limited representation of who that character can be. And what's troubling about that is when you think about how you want our young students to be able to think critically.

 How you really want to challenge them with the curriculum so that they can participate in their own learning. You want robust characters, you want robust narratives so that students can actually use that information for their own learning. And teachers wanna do this too. Teachers, they know that their students do better when they are able to present a really challenging curriculum. And they work hard to make sure that the books in their room and the syllabus and the curriculum that they use can offer this diversity of subjects. And we should want more of that. We should want all of our students to have access to a really robust, rigorous and inclusive education.

Helen: Hey, now. I like that. I heard you sharing does come down to really a lot of politicization of public education and we've seen in surveys, parents are wary of that. From your perspective at EdTrust, what do you see, politics aside, as the important issues we really should be focusing on now, and what are you seeing as the impact of some of these political battles that are playing out and resulting in things like so much book banning?

Denise Forte: Yeah, I mean, I think we've lost the point of a few things, honestly. If you look at the international achievement scores that are reflected in the PISA assessment, showed that U.S. kids are struggling in math, continue to struggle in math. Reading it's less so, but they're still struggling there as well. And this is just another reflection of some national scores we got and received in the fall, the National Assessment of Education Progress, which is called the Nation's Report Card, that also showed that our children continue to struggle since the pandemic.

And probably what's most alarming is in that report, we've lost a significant number of years. We've gone back, I think in one instance the scores were what they were in the 2000’s. I mean, that really should be eye-opening to folks. And then you combine that with these really challenging and harmful environments that are being politicized by so many adults.  You can really see how we've lost the thread on what's important.

Helen: And I know you've also done some work finding examples where things are going well. And it's easy to feel very scared and angry and upset about the state of our education system and what's happening now. Where do you find hope? Where do you see hope when you look at school districts and what's happening from your vantage point?

Denise Forte: Yeah, I don't want us to feel hopeless. I don't want us to feel helpless because there are some amazing efforts going on across the country. Really exciting work in a number of states where they are providing intensive tutoring. In fact, there was a report just released, I think I read it in the Times yesterday, about some work in early literacy in California where they are providing intensive tutoring to young children and seeing some real success there. We have other places that are really trying to increase the number of educators of color in their school districts, recognizing that all students do well when we increase and have access to diverse educators, a diverse workforce. And then there are other places, that because of the federal investment from the American Rescue Plan, have been able to use those dollars to, as I mentioned, do more intensive tutoring, but also summer learning programs. Extending the day, all of these things, which the research shows, helps with the unfinished learning that many of our students received during the pandemic. So we should not be hopeless. We should not feel helpless.

Helen: Yeah, and many of our listeners are advocates for their children, all children. What about on the side of pushing back against some of these issues with book banning, with curricular representation? Any examples you could share where that has been successful?

Denise Forte: Well, there are several ongoing court cases. So shout out to the ACLU and other organizations who are fighting the good fight in courts. And then just this last November we saw a number of school boards that previously had introduced book bans, many of the school board members who were supportive of those types of antics and that cultural war actually lost their seats.

And then lastly, I just also want to really give many, many thanks to the many parents and teachers who have lifted up their voice and are working together in schools to make sure that their children have access to robust and challenging curriculum that has diverse characters that speaks to the true history of our country with both its wonders and yes, also some of its faults, but both together. I want to applaud the many librarians across the country.

Helen: Oh man, what a tough job right now.

Denise Forte: It's a tough, tough job, but they are showing up. And they are doing what they've always done, which was to make sure that the literature that children have access to is engaging, that's stimulating, allows them to think critically and allows their minds to grow.

There are many communities that have chosen not to engage in cultural wars, and I think we should highlight them as well. And are focused on doing what's right for students.

Helen: Oh, I love that. That's right. Shout out to all these wonderful folks. And for those parents, caregivers, educators who are feeling a little caught in the political crossfire too, what sort of encouragement or advice would you offer them about how to navigate these waters these days?

Denise Forte: Yeah. Well, as you mentioned in my intro, I am the mom of two amazing boys.

Helen: How old are they?

Denise Forte: I've got an 11-year-old and a 15-year-old. And every day they just make my life better. But one thing that I personally have found really important, is staying connected with their schools. I was a PTA member. For my 15-year-old when he was in middle school I was on a school advisory team. And honestly, it was some of the most exciting, fun, also challenging work that I did.

Just fully appreciated seeing our teachers and our school leaders really come together to support students and being able to volunteer in that way, or just show up for your school, that makes a difference for the school community. And I think that's really important. The school community has an impact on the way your children are treated, the way your children learn and everybody, as much as we want a healthy child, we also want a healthy school. So the more that you can engage with your school, engaging in email exchanges with the teacher. If possible, making it to school night. I know it can be tough. But when you can I think that's tremendously important.

Helen: Oh, that's such good advice, 'cause I think, as you said, it's important to stay hopeful. And part of how we do that is putting our head down and locking arms with our educators and folks right around our kids and saying we can focus here. Like, we can make a difference here. So I think that's wonderful advice.

I'm also curious, Denise, when you look ahead. There's an election year coming up, what do you see as some of the other big issues in public education that are likely to be debated in the year ahead?

Denise Forte: Well, I think it, it goes without saying that our teachers need a tremendous amount of support from parents, from their school leaders and from the community at large. I really hope that more elected officials will be talking about the value of teachers. It wasn't that long ago where the teachers were the center of community. That the teacher was the person you could always rely on, and that is still the case, and I think we need to just make sure we're elevating that more. I also hope because we're seeing a lot of success with early literacy that that is an area that more people would be paying attention to.

We have what is called the science of reading now, and more state legislatures are endorsing that, more schools of education are focusing on it. More school districts are making sure that their teachers have professional learning about the science of reading and with the reading scores being what they are, that's a really good thing. I will say that one immediate concern that a lot of people are talking about is that schools are about to lose a significant amount of dollars.

Helen: Yeah. I was gonna ask, could you tell our listeners a little bit more about that and what you think the impact of that will be?

Denise Forte: So it's been three years now since the American Rescue Plan was passed into law, which offered schools a significant investment to support their students in recovery from the pandemic. That law had an end date on it, so to speak, and that end date is rapidly approaching, which means in the next year, those dollars will no longer be available to schools across the country. And sadly, schools are gonna have to make some tough choices about how they're gonna reallocate their dollars. And I think this is a place where parents and teachers in the communities can have and play an active role in being really clear with school boards and their superintendents and the communities at large about what the priorities should be as they reallocate those dollars. In many instances, school districts have hired new school counselors and school nurses, have added additional opportunities for students to learn.

Helen: You mentioned the tutoring programs.

Denise Forte: The tutoring programs. And after school. A community should have a voice in what should be available to their students. So now is really the time for advocates that are listening today. Parents, teachers who are listening today, start asking some questions. Start getting together in coalitions and identifying what you want to have as a priority for your school. Because there are only so many choices that will be able to be funded and you really wanna make sure that we don't lose any of the progress that has been made.

Helen: Yeah, I agree. I could talk to you all day. I know I can't. Thank you for joining us. Before we leave, I wanna give you a chance, anything that we've discussed or we haven't discussed that you really wanna leave our listeners with, any parting words that are really top of mind for you.

Denise Forte: Yeah, I think I started with talking about some of the challenges our young people are facing as a result of the pandemic and it's really upon us. It's really an obligation that we have not to think about these young people as broken or in need of fixing, but really focusing on what they need to thrive.

How we focus on the systems and the policies and the practices that, as I mentioned earlier, make students feel included, make students feel a sense of belonging. And it can be done. It is being done in many states. We have a report on our website that is called, “The Social, Emotional and Academic Development through an Equity Lens” that I invite folks to check out, and check out those webpages.

You can learn about how your state is doing and you can also look at some of the questions that you might wanna ask your school leaders or your state policy leaders about whether they are investing in ways that are supporting students and supporting policies that are equitable, just and inclusive.

Helen: Excellent. Well, we will be sure to link to those resources in our show notes. Thank you again, and social media handles. Actually, I don't wanna forget that. Any other, you mentioned your website, any other social media handles that people should look for?

Denise Forte: I know X is @EdTrust and I think they might also all be @EdTrust.

Helen: So check out @EdTrust to learn more. Thank you again for joining us today. Thank you. Really enjoyed it. Likewise.

Denise Forte: Glad to be partners with you all. You're so important to this effort.

Denise Forte: Thanks so much. Really appreciate y'all.

Helen: And to our audience listening, thank you for joining us. For more resources related to today's episode, check out Thanks for tuning in and join us next time.