Three years after a bill prioritizing Holocaust instruction in Pennsylvania schools was signed, the state Board of Education reported that a commanding 90 percent of schools now provide age-appropriate education on the Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations as a standing part of their curricula.
A survey on the bill, Act 70, conducted by an ad hoc committee, reported that 710 of the state’s 775 school entities are in compliance. Many districts and charter schools offer instruction on multiple levels. While the instruction was not mandated, it was “encouraged,” said board officials, providing further evidence of schools’ willingness to take up the cause.
Through the state Department of Education, Act 70 made educational guidelines, free resource materials, a website and free training available for all schools through Holocaust and human rights organizations and volunteers.
Act 70 was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in April of 2014. Its intent was to educate students on the importance of protecting human rights and the potential consequences of unchecked ignorance, discrimination, and persecution.
State education officials lauded the effort to enact Act 70’s provisions at a press conference on Nov. 9 arranged by the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, which represents Jewish communities throughout the state. Had 90 percent saturation not been reached by the end of this year, the state legislature would have had to mandate the provisions, said officials.
The statewide survey, “Report on Instruction in the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Violations: Findings and Recommendations,” was conducted by the Board’s Ad Hoc Committee on Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Violations Instruction.
“We were delighted to see that school districts have taken Act 70 seriously and that they were willing to integrate education into their courses,” said Karen Molchanow, the board’s executive director. “The one thing we do not have is a baseline, so we don’t have an understanding of the growth that occurred in this area since the act was passed. But we know that the districts have really taken it to heart.”
Board Chairman Larry Wittig pointed out that the real figure is most likely higher than 90 percent because some of the surveyed school entities — vocational schools, for example — are not in a position to offer Holocaust education in the first place and may have been inappropriately counted in the total.
“With any great initiative, it’s the people behind the scenes who do all the work,” Wittig said. “We want to acknowledge them.”
“As a Holocaust educator, my concern is as much with the quality of Holocaust education in Pennsylvania as the quantity,” Boyette said. “The advisory committee worked carefully and thoughtfully with the Department of Education on the Act 70 guidelines, using the guidelines of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as inspiration, in the hope that the quality of Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations education in Pennsylvania would be as much a focus as increasing the number of students reached.
“At its heart, Act 70 wants teachers to teach these subjects in a way that is historically accurate, age-appropriate, and ultimately resulting in students being inspired to ask not what they would have done had they lived in those times, but rather, ‘What can I do now to challenge the kind of bias and bigotry that, unchecked, can ultimately lead to violence?’ ”
She added that the ADL’s Echoes and Reflections workshops have been taught since 2005. Act 70 helped grow their impact.
Act 70’s criteria stipulated that educators attempt to impart the breadth of the history of the Holocaust, including the Third Reich dictatorship, concentration camp system, persecution of Jews and non-Jews, Jewish and non-Jewish resistance, and post-World War II trials.
School districts were also encouraged to encompass the definition, history, response and actions taken in the face of genocide, including the Rwandan genocide and other genocides committed in Africa, Asia and Europe.
Resources were developed to accommodate these goals by a committee of volunteers brought together by the Department of Education.
“From an oversight perspective, the resources were like a Chinese menu of things, definitions that individual educators could choose to develop,” said Craig Snider, chair of the ad hoc committee. “We very specifically did not mandate what they teach. Pennsylvania is a local-control state for education, and we leave it to the professionals in the field who are empowered to create and deliver that instruction.”
At the press conference, officials noted that the work of the ad hoc committee will continue, strengthening Holocaust, genocide, and human rights education throughout the state.
“The Board of Education’s recommendation for the Department of Education and the Act 70 Task Force to continue its efforts shows that this subject needs to be taught to our youth,” said Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition.
Joshua Sayles, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Community Relations Council and vice chair of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, agreed.
“We must strive to ensure that every school district has the resources to properly educate its students about the Holocaust and other forms of genocide and human rights violations,” he said. PJC
Wendy Plump is a freelance writer for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.