Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

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Joe Nathan: Protest is basic to social studies. Activism needs place in civic standards

Posted on Sun, Jan. 04, 2004 St. Paul Pioneer Press

Protest is basic to social studies. Activism needs place in civic standards

How ironic. The latest draft of Minnesota's proposed state social studies standards was produced after intense, lively, difficult debate and confrontation. But this draft, while a clear improvement over previous efforts, seems to promote a rather passive, quiet form of citizenship.

First-graders are expected to "define what it means to be a citizen in terms of loyalty, membership and self-government." Examples given are "hard work, generosity, self-reliance, love of America, gentleness, even temper, friendliness." Those are important values — but so are things such as thinking and questioning.

It's the same approach in third grade, where students are expected to "understand the importance of citizens having certain character traits. …" Examples include "responsibility, courage, self-reliance, trustworthiness, accountability, generosity, honesty, courtesy, cooperation, patience, patriotism (and) self-restraint."

In grades nine through 12, students are expected to "explain the inherent rights and resulting responsibilities of citizenship … (and) to describe activities of civic life." But examples offered do not cite protesting or questioning government policies.

They do include things such as obeying the laws, paying taxes, becoming informed and voting, participating in political campaigns, communicating with government officials, defending the nation, and serving in court.

Opponents vigorously, passionately and persistently protested the now-departed Profile of Learning. That was their right.

The latest draft of Minnesota graduation requirements includes numerous examples of people who battled for changes by protesting and using civil disobedience to obtain voting rights for women and minorities. They even used violence to sever this country from Great Britain.

But the current draft standards don't seem to praise or promote this type of activism as part of citizenship for today's students. It's an important omission.

Here's a second concern about the draft: The amount of information students are required to study is huge, and in some cases, not critical. For example, does every high school student need to:

• "Describe how the technological and managerial changes associated with the third agricultural revolution have impacted the regional patterns of crop and livestock production."

• "Explain the internal spatial structure of cities in the United States."

• Master 47 benchmarks in economics, including things that economists debate intensely such as how "monetary policy influences employment, output inflation and interest rate."

I'm sure that a geographer or economist can argue that these standards are important. But piling so much on teachers, schools and students makes it less likely that students will have time to do more important things, such as understand basic principles of democracy, examine different approaches governments use to regulate companies, and research/debate the wisest policy of taxation for the federal government and for states.

Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke deserves credit for listening to critics. The current draft represents a much more balanced, inclusive approach to history, government, economics and geography. It also includes information and analysis.

But I hope Minnesota's legislators will recognize the strengths of this draft and then make a few revisions.

Joe Nathan is director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. He can be reached at jnathan@hhh.umn.edu.