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.


Eileen Johnson, PTA Minnesota: Senate Testimony

Comments made to the State Education Committee concerning the proposed Social Studies Standards.
January 23, 2004

Thanks you for you time and attention. My colleagues and I are here to comment on the new Social Studies standards. Many others share our viewpoints and so if/when we reiterate them, know that these are widely held concerns by teachers and professionals across the state.

When you meet to discuss these standards in your committee the first and most basic question we hope you ask is, “Do we need and state standards for social studies at all?” I fear we have gotten so distracted by answering the “how” (how the standards will be implemented in schools) that the important “why” question has been forgotten. So the first question has to be “why” have social studies standards at all. The No Child Left Behind legislation has required assessments for reading, math and science so standards in those areas are essential. However there are no required assessments for social studies. Therefore as a starting point, we hope you reconsider the decision to provide state social studies standards. Yes, the state has the responsibility to determine graduation requirements, however rather than micromanaging district curriculum by demanding essentially a checklist of facts in particular grade levels, a more helpful and I believe more appropriate role for the state would be in providing curricular guidelines for districts. Workable and helpful guidelines could be similar to the concept the Commissioner has endorsed for grades 9-12. She has suggested she is open to supporting a more flexible position for HS graduation by supporting 3.5 years of social studies in grades 9-12. Students must take courses which include strands in US and World history, geography, physics and economics. The state can provide direction but allows districts the flexibility to place and teach the content in the fashion that best matches their needs and resources. Because NoChildLeftBehind does not require assessments in social studies, I believe that your first discussion should be to reexamine the purpose behind creating state standards in the first place.

However I know that you are interesting in receiving feedback on the present standards. Our district has done some careful work on examining the standards and I will share some of our concerns. I will first comment on the elementary standards and my colleague will address the secondary standards.

The National Council for the Social Studies and extensive educational research support a “maturation” approach in social studies curriculum. Children in the early elementary grades learn about themselves and how to treat others, their family, their homes and the community they live in as well as their role within the community. Next they begin to learn about their city, county, then state and the greater world around them. The social studies curriculum in our district, across the state and the nation follow a similar progression of skill development. The common strand or progression is as follows: the study of home and communities in grades 1and 2, Native Americans in grade 3, state studies and US regions in grade 4, explorers and American history in grade 5 and ancient studies and world geography in grade 6.
Textbook companies have responded with a diverse number of resources at appropriate readability levels. Our school district, and most others across the state, has purchased maps, globes and textbooks that support this approach. Districts have invested in social studies units that integrate with other core subjects such as reading, science, or math to promote interdisciplinary instruction. In addition, our district, and others, has invested thousands of dollars to develop nonfiction-leveled libraries that are used to develop nonfiction reading comprehension skills. Subsequently, students develop their literacy skills reading topics that support key social studies concepts.
As they stand today the proposed standards ignore this thoughtful and developmentally sound approach, essentially shuffling the deck and dropping standards into grades without making sure that the students in those grades are ready to learn the material.

No material exists today to teach many of the proposed standards and no effective material is likely to be created because they are not developmentally appropriate. A blatant example of the developmentally inappropriate standards can be found in fourth grade where students, under the proposed standards, are required to learn World History from 1000BC to 1500AD. Even if you assumed that was reasonable for fourth-graders to achieve - and I've yet to talk to a fourth-grade teacher who does - there is no material that can adequately get the job done. Textbooks, web sites and other materials that cover ancient studies and world religions are not written at a 4th grade level for good reason. Although we have taught Ancient history in 6th grade for years there are many 6th graders who have difficulty conceptualizing time frames and comparing and contrasting ancient cultures and world religions. These concepts are developmentally inappropriate for the average 4th grader who is just ten years old.

Examples of standards that are developmentally inappropriate:

Grade 4
II. WORLD HISTORY World Civilizations, prehistory to 1000 B.C.
The student will demonstrate knowledge of ancient civilizations.
1. Students will describe and analyze archeological evidence of early cultures using maps and timelines.
2. Students will compare and contrast characteristics of ancient cultures.

II. WORLD HISTORY World Civilizations, 1000 B.C. to 500 A.D.
The student will demonstrate knowledge of world civilizations.
1. Students will identify and explain highlights of classical Greek, Roman, and Meso American
civilizations of this era, and compare and contrast significant aspects of these cultures.

II. WORLD HISTORY World Civilizations, 1000 B.C. to 500 A.D.
The student will demonstrate knowledge of the history and rise of major world religions.
1. Students will locate and map areas of major world religions and how they have changed geographically, including Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, and note the presence of multiple indigenous religious traditions.
2. Students will identify major tenets and key figures of these religions.

II. WORLD HISTORY World Civilizations, 500-1000 A.D.
The student will demonstrate knowledge of world civilizations and cultures.
1. Students will compare and contrast characteristics of Eurasian cultures in this era, including the Byzantine Empire, Medieval Europe, Japan, and the Middle East.

The students will demonstrate knowledge o Early African kingdoms, knowledge of interactions among Eurasian civilizations, knowledge of civilizations of the Americas, knowledge of the Renaissance.... The list goes on and on.

And remember...this is only the World History strand. Fourth grade also contains geography, economics, government and citizenship and local history strands each with multiple standards and benchmarks.
And even more mind-boggling...this is all to be taught and learned in a daily time frame of 45 minutes at best, by a teacher who does not necessarily have training or expertise in social studies (elementary education teachers are generalists, not specialists....), without grade-level appropriate materials!!!

Our district and others will have difficulty simply because there is no existing infrastructure (textbooks, curriculum, teacher training) to use to meet the standards. As they presently stand, the proposed standards fail to take into account the complexity of the task you are asking districts to implement.... especially in the era of tight money in districts across the state.

In Edina and elsewhere, we have excellent resources already in place to teach our district social studies curriculum. It doesn't make good educational sense to penalize districts that have done a good job of building a social studies curriculum. And it certainly doesn't make good economic sense to make district taxpayers pay over and over again for new materials.

It does make sense to allow districts local control over how the social studies standards are met so that we can take full advantage of our curriculum and resources. It does make sense to empower our teachers to carry out the plans they've worked so hard on. And it does make sense to use district funds for teaching rather than for bureaucratic micro-management by the state.