Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

Minnbest is a non-partisan, broad based coalition of parents, educators and school advocacy groups who believe excellent public education is a foundation of democracy in America.

12/30/2003

Bruce C. Sanborn: Haunted by Profile's ghost

Bruce C. Sanborn: Haunted by Profile's ghost
Bruce C. Sanborn

Published November 7, 2003 SANBORN1107
It took me a while to understand Jim Davnie's Oct. 5 Commentary column. It's easy to see that Davnie makes unsupported, contradictory criticisms of the social studies standards proposed for Minnesota's schools. It takes longer to see Davnie is still trying to restore the discredited Profile of Learning to consciousness. He's like a hoary Civil War rebel who just keeps fighting and won't face facts: Rep. Davnie, the war is over. Minnesota has weighed the Profile of Learning and found it bad for kids.
Davnie is a DFLer on the House Education Policy Committee, a social studies teacher and a past president and governor of the teachers' union. I used to be a teacher and am on the Social Studies Committee Grades 6-8 that the Department of Education established to help draft the proposed standards. I believe that the Profile was bad and that the new standards are good. Let's consider the case for and against them.

Back in 1997 the old Department of Children, Families and Learning invited Diane Ravitch to assess Minnesota's Profile of Learning. Ravitch got her Ph.D. from Columbia University, has a national reputation in education, and has both written and reviewed standards for other states.

She studied the Profile and provided her assessment: "I will be candid because I don't have time to be diplomatic. In the area of social studies, the Minnesota standards are among the worst in the nation. They are vague; they give no direction to teachers, assessment developers, students or parents. They do not indicate what is to be studied. They lack specifics. They are not testable. They cannot be considered standards because they lack content and clarity."

Ravitch noted the standards were especially weak on content: Students could graduate knowing nothing about America's statesmen and important events, from George Washington to the New Deal.
Ravitch could not make those criticisms of the new, proposed standards. The new standards are clear, testable statements of what a moderately well educated citizen ought to know about America's and Minnesota's history, geography, civics and economics. Unlike the Profile, the new standards do not call for students to perform activities and projects in order to evoke feelings and give them experiences.
The new standards are not perfect. Davnie opens his article by mocking the standards for asking students to know about Annie Bidwell, a woman involved in America's Westward expansion. Being charitable, I'd say Davnie's point is that the standards ask students to learn too much, risking that they may not learn the most important things. That would be a fair point, one that I believe will be addressed as the public reviews the standards - just as a similar point was addressed when the proposed math and reading standards went to the public and were shortened.

Davnie makes other less specific criticisms, but offers only shreds of evidence. For instance, he seems to rest his assertion that the standards are biased and "deeply conservative" on his allegation the standards don't require knowledge of "Presidents Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton."
Wrong. Just as the standards ask students to know about the Monroe Doctrine (and so to know something about President James Monroe), they ask students to know about the Truman Doctrine (Truman) and about the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War (Kennedy). Not all America's statesmen are specifically named but the great ones are (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and King, for example).

Davnie's most serious charge is that the standards don't prepare students for citizenship. They do call on students to know America's founding documents and the principles and practices of free government (in particular, the principles of human equality, natural rights and rule of law) that describe the United States and its attempt to prove that ordinary human beings are capable of self-government.
But Davnie questions what he calls America's "seminal" documents as guides for dealing with "future challenges." It is difficult to square Davnie's argument that the new standards don't prepare students for citizenship with his criticism of the standards for requiring the study of the documentary foundation of America.

Questioning the founding documents as guides, Davnie in effect questions whether they are grounded on truths -- truths that Abraham Lincoln said are "applicable to all men and to all times." Rather, Davnie speaks of history as "a great story" full of "drama, energy and inspiration" and, again, "drama and emotion." There! Look! In the mist of feelings and vague notions about life as story, do you see what I slowly came to see - the ghost of the Profile of Learning? No troublesome documents there!

Bruce C. Sanborn, of Mahtomedi, a former middle-school teacher, is chairman of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship