Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

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Michael Boucher: Reject these 'substandards'

Michael Boucher: Reject these 'substandards'
Michael Boucher

Published December 9, 2003
As someone who has taught social studies for 12 years in Minneapolis, I am concerned about the reports coming from the rewriting committee for the new social studies standards.

Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke brought in some experts and gave them a mandate to improve some sections of the document. When it came to the civics/government standards, conservative members of the larger committee, such as Bruce Sanborn of the Claremont Institute, were selected by Yecke to rewrite and improve the old document. Yet the committee did not address these major problems.

• The standards have not taken into account the public commentary and are missing the canon of civic life.

There was an outpouring of public comment on the department Web site and at the public meetings. When I was there, committee members were openly antagonistic toward critics. Yecke announced in September that these standards were only a draft and would be improved; yet when I observed the revision process there was little change.

When critics talk about bias in the standards, it is a bias against understanding what citizenship means. The document is still missing important concepts, like the significance of the 14th Amendment and the promise of equal protection under the law. There is a pervasive emphasis on the Declaration of Independence and a deemphasis of constitutional rights.

Of course, the Declaration is vital to our national identity and should not be given a cursory treatment in a civics classroom. But the other basics of civics that are not emphasized in the Declaration, such as civic virtue and civil rights, are crucial, practical and necessary in the 21st century.

• The standards are based on the wrong models.

The social studies committee was handed standards from Alabama, Kansas, California and Virginia. Using national standards would have been a good idea, but using Alabama or Virginia as our educational model is ludicrous. Minnesota is consistently in the top of every educational measure, from standardized tests to grades.

Twenty thousand Minnesota students participated in National History Day competitions around the state last year. Virginia had 1,200. Alabama's ACT average score is 20.1; the national average is 20.8, while Minnesota's was 22.0. Our students are sought out for their academic excellence. The time has come for Minnesotans to stop listening to outsiders and see ourselves for the educational leaders we are.

• They would be very costly to implement.

These civics standards are so far out of the mainstream that no textbook manufacturer makes materials for them. We will have to allocate money for creation of a Minnesota civics textbook if they are to be met. Yecke has said that resources are available on the Internet, but the resentment will be palpable when teachers are told that they have to teach a new curriculum, full of factoids, with no support and no materials.

• The commissioner just doesn't get it.

Yecke has dismissed critics of the standards as revisionists and America-haters, but I am most frustrated when she tries to drive a wedge between parents and teachers. There are more than 70,000 teachers in Minnesota. We are parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and we stand for our children and our students. The job of the commissioner is to build bridges between parents and teachers. Her attempts to drive them apart are deplorable.

At this point, the Legislature will have to make a decision. Will we stand for these "substandards" or will we reject them and begin again with a new committee representing teachers, knowledgeable citizens and professors?

Minnesotans deserve standards that will be a model for the nation. We won't get them with the current committee.

Michael Boucher, Minneapolis, is a social studies teacher and department co-chair at South High School.