The need to educate primary and secondary students on Islam and the Middle East has far outpaced teachers' own knowledge since September 11, 2001. Teachers find that they need new materials to educate themselves and their students.
What one critic calls a "stealth curriculum" is filling the gap. Strongly pro-Muslim, anti-Israel groups have provided supplementary curricula on the Middle East for American classrooms. Muslim groups financed by the Saudi Arabian government have poured money into the creation and adoption of materials that reflect their point of view.
Stanley Kurtz analyzes this development in a National Review article titled "Saudi in the Classroom: A fundamental front in the war." The trail follows alternative pathways to curriculum adoption that bypass safeguards and public oversight.
Under Title VI of the Higher Education Act, the federal government subsidizes Middle East Studies centers and programs at a number of American universities. Centers receiving federal funds under Title VI must participate in "public outreach" through designing and/or distributing lesson plans and teacher training materials on the Middle East to K-12 teachers. Since most K-12 teachers need professional development credits to maintain their certification — and most also need extra training if they are to teach on the Middle East — teacher training materials and seminars on this topic serve a dual purpose. But such professional development could affect teachers' perspectives on the issues, especially if the materials present information from a subtle but definite bias.
Saudi Arabian groups currently fund several organizations that create curricula and teacher training materials for K-12 social studies classes in the United States. As Stanley Kurtz reveals, "outreach coordinators or teacher-trainers at a number of university Middle East Studies centers have themselves been trained by the very same Saudi-funded foundations that design K-12 course materials. These Saudi-friendly folks happily build their outreach efforts around Saudi-financed K-12 curricula."
Kurtz reports on a 2005 investigation by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). JTA investigated, among other groups, the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC - formerly the Arab American Affairs Council) and Arab World and Islamic Resources (AWAIR). Audrey Shabbas, one member the two groups have in common, is employed by MEPC to conduct seminars for teachers, and is also the founder of AWAIR. Shabbas describes the mission of AWAIR in this way: "Believing firmly that teachers are the vanguard of change in any society, AWAIR has taken as its mandate to impact the very resources chosen and used by teachers as well as the training and sensitizing of teachers themselves."
According to the JTA report, Saudi Arabia funds MEPC directly. It also funds AWAIR through Saudi Aramco, the government-owned oil company. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz has donated at least $1.1 million to MEPC for teacher training. As Stanley Kurtz points out, "this is the same Prince Alwaleed whose $10 million post-9/11 gift was returned by Rudy Giuliani because that gift was accompanied by a letter blaming American foreign policy for the attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Center."
AWAIR's Audrey Shabbas is also editor of the Arab World Studies Notebook, a Title VI resource promoted by Harvard's outreach program. The Notebook is one of the most controversial resources on its subject, with many critics claiming it is deeply biased and inaccurate. It made that impression on education analyst and researcher Sharon Stotsky, who has worked for both Harvard, as director of a professional development institute for teachers, and for the Massachusetts Department of Education, where she was a senior associate commissioner from 1999 to 2003.
Stotsky called the Notebook a "piece of propaganda." (See sidebar.) She also brought to light further problems with Harvard's outreach program, especially through her study, published by the Fordham Foundation, The Stealth Curriculum: Manipulating America's History Teachers. Her experience with Harvard's program of teacher training in Middle East Studies led her to call the entire program "a barely disguised" attempt to "shape . . . attitudes on specific political issues." Past materials and training celebrated Islam uncritically and prompted teachers to introduce their students to a wholly positive view of Islam's religion and culture.
Curricula such as the one Harvard endorses have made their way into an unknown number of schools, only occasionally raising a hue and cry among students or parents. Set aside for a moment the questions of accuracy and objectivity. When teachers, prompted by materials they received as professional development and supplemental curriculum under Title VI, ask students to appoint imams, don Muslim dress, memorize the five pillars of Islam, make prayer mats and bow toward Mecca, it is doubtful whether basic legal standards for education on culture and religion in public school classrooms are being upheld. Each of these activities actually appears in one or more curriculum guides for children as young as kindergarten.
In his introduction to Sandra Stotsky's study, Chester Finn, president of the Fordham Foundation, calls teacher-training seminars and materials a "vast dark continent within our public (and private) educational system."
"This part of K-12 education rarely gets examined or evaluated," he writes. "We know staggeringly little about how good these materials and workshops are — how accurate they are, whether the information they present is balanced and accurate. We know even less about the efficacy, value, or intellectual integrity of innumerable workshops, institutes, and training programs in which teachers participate."
Whenever course materials fall below the public radar, interest groups have the opportunity to introduce their own opinions into the classroom. "The semi-covert agenda varies, of course, by topic and group," writes Finn. "But most of its specimens share these features: under the guise of heightening teachers' and students' awareness of previously marginalized groups, they manipulate teachers (and, thus, their pupils) to view the history of freedom as the history of oppression, and to be more sympathetic to cultures that don't value individual rights than to those that do."
Interest groups will be all the more eager and able to do this if they continue to receive federal funds subsidizing their efforts.
Efforts such as Stotsky's have succeeded in bringing this issue to the attention of a much wider segment of the public. In her study, Stotsky suggested the creation of a grievance procedure to address some of the problems with the "stealth curriculum" financed by Title VI.
Congress may move this session to enact such a plan: Senators Kennedy and Enzi have drafted a bipartisan plan to reform Title VI. The higher-education lobby and other opponents of Title VI reform have argued that reforms would give the federal government control over universities; but Stanley Kurtz counters that the problems with Title VI involve K-12, not college, curricula. All legislation seeking to reform Title VI to date has included a provision specifically preventing the government from interfering with college curricula.