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

Jim Davnie: How will Minnesota kids see the world?

Published October 5, 2003

How important is it that Minnesota middle schoolers know who the founder of Chico, Calif., is? Very, according to Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke, who included Annie Bidwell in the initial draft of the state's proposed social studies standards.

How important is it that those same students know Presidents Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton? Not very, as those presidents receive no mention. Ditto the concepts of due process, equal protection or judicial review of laws, or many other important concepts left out of Yecke's detail-oriented, facts-, people-, places-and events-heavy standards.

These standards, and more importantly the benchmarks that specify what is to be taught, are a dramatic departure from what is taught in most Minnesota schools and from any national consensus on what students should learn. These standards will place Minnesota out of the educational mainstream, poorly develop students' critical thinking abilities, and fail at a core mission of social studies education: preparing the next generation for citizenship.

No one disputes the need for statewide standards that are rigorous and challenging. However, many of these benchmarks are not developmentally appropriate for the grade levels indicated. They also amount to a statewide curriculum, a sharp undermining of both legislative intent and the traditional Minnesota concept of local control.

With the release of this draft of the new social studies standards, it becomes obvious that the administration of Gov. Tim Pawlenty was guided more by politics than sound educational judgment. Within the 54-page document lies a biased and deeply conservative view of history, coupled with a libertarian view of civics and economics. Most Minnesotans will not find their values reflected there.
While proponents of the new standards will argue that they simply tell teachers what to teach -- not how to teach -- the reality in Minnesota classrooms will be quite different.

Relying on those ever-present apocryphal stories of students unable to find the United States on a map or recognizing Beavis and Butt-head instead of Gen. Charles Cornwallis, the drafters loaded the standards with so much detail that the drama, energy and inspiration of American history get squeezed out.

History, well taught, is a great story. It is a story that informs, illustrates and inspires. The drama and emotion also deepen students' understanding of the facts, moving classroom activities past rote memorization to deeper learning of the facts and larger lessons.

In that sense, these standards fail at their core mission: inspiring students with our country's history and preparing them for citizenship. Traditionally, one reason that we teach history is to help us apply its lessons to current and future challenges.

Not so with these standards. The standards as proposed rely heavily on the ideals contained in the seminal documents of our history for inspiration. But America's greatness comes not just from those glorious words we say, but also from the stories of her people striving, as fallible humans, to make the promise of those words real.

The commissioner, since the release of these standards, has deflected any criticism of them by consistently pointing out that these are simply draft standards. However, these standards -- and the hundreds of associated benchmarks -- are so politically skewed, educationally unsound and poorly thought out that it is clear the Pawlenty administration is placing its own political agenda ahead of the goal of strengthening Minnesota's K-12 education system.

When the committee comes back to refine its work, those members who placed their own political agenda first should be thanked for their service to the state and then replaced by parents, teachers, administrators and others who will instead bring mainstream Minnesota values and the needs of our state's children to the table.

Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, is a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives and a social studies teacher.