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

Editorial: Social studies -- Example of civic engagement

Editorial: Social studies -- Example of civic engagement

Published November 9, 2003
Minnesota's social studies standards brouhaha has been a good civics/social studies lesson in itself. When the first draft of proposed standards was released in September, concerned citizens spoke up. Now, it appears, their voices have prompted substantial changes.

Although this debate has sometimes been characterized as a "Hate America" and "Love America" argument, the process that will produce final standards reveals America at its best.

A proposed set of social studies standards was written this summer by a committee appointed by the state Department of Education commissioner, Cheri Pierson Yecke. The first draft immediately drew criticism that fell into four broad categories: The learning requirements reflect a conservative, ultra-patriotic agenda that omits controversial or negative events; they include hundreds more facts than children can reasonably absorb; they dictate too much of what educators should or should not teach, and they are often inappropriate to their age and grade level.

Those concerns brought a barrage of citizens into the fray. More than 800 mostly critical e-mail comments flowed into the department. Several school boards lodged complaints, as did the Parent Teacher Association and Education Minnesota, the state's teacher union. Members of the standards committee offered a critical minority report; a citizen group collected nearly 1,500 signatures in opposition, and a group of 32 University of Minnesota history teachers fired off a rigorous critique.
All Minnesotans can be proud of that response. It attests that Minnesotans care about education and want their children to have a balanced, fair approach to learning the nation's history.

As a result, when the committee reconvened last Saturday, Yecke directed members to make a "significant reductions" in the number of requirements. The committee worked on providing more flexibility to allow schools to move guidelines from one grade level to another.

Many of the dates, places, names and events that were requirements in the first draft became "optional examples" that teachers may use if they choose. That should give teachers more leeway to cover major historical events or eras without fear of leaving out a specific reference point in the standards. A teacher would not have teach about Lewis and Clark or World War II's Battle of Midway specifically or exclusively, but could use a variety of examples of people and events to discuss various eras.

In the final draft, the department needs to use language that does not hint so strongly at a political point of view. It should revisit such matters as the more numerous references to Ronald Reagan compared with other presidents, the influence of cultures other than white American and European, and the contributions of women. Children need exposure to more than pronouncements of America the Great. They must learn that the nation, warts and all, was shaped by dissent, rebellion and debate, not simply blind allegiance.

This local version of the so-called culture wars has Minnesotans thinking and talking about history, social science and society's development as seldom before. That engagement is welcome, at a time when too few adults exhibit awareness and appreciation of the forces that shaped modern life. As the standards-setting process continues, there will be more opportunity for citizen involvement; once the committee and department issue a final draft, the Legislature is expected to hold public hearings before they become law. Let the discussion continue.