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.

1/26/2004

Lisa Norling, Department of History, University of Minnesota: Senate Hearing Testimony

Lisa Norling, Associate Professor
Department of History, University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Senate Hearing Testimony 23 January 2004

I am an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota. My research and teaching focus on early American history.
I agree with my colleague Jim Tracy that knowledge is crucial.
That is why it is so very important to get it right, to get the facts straight.

At first glance, the revised Social Studies standards look quite different from the first draft. But closer reading reveal serious problems of pedagogy and content – and new problems have been introduced. The great majority of my colleagues and I believe that these standards are not acceptable, as 36 of us detailed in the letter we sent earlier this week to you, Senator Kelley, and to Representative Barb Sykora.

There are still factual errors in the revised standards. But these kinds of errors are relatively easy to fix.

Much more serious and difficult to fix, though, is the disturbing omission of many extremely important topics. For just two examples: the revised World History standards are entirely silent on all of Latin American history from 1500 to after 1945, between the end of the Aztec and Incan empires and the middle of the 20th century.

In the U.S. History standards, the significant immigration of Mexicans and other Latin Americans to this country, as well as the historical experience of Hispanic Americans, now appear in just two optional examples: a reference to Cinco de Mayo as a holiday (Grade 1) and the inclusion of Hispanics as one of several recent immigrant groups in Minnesota history (Grade 6).

The selection of what topics were included and which were not appears to have been more ideological rather than intellectually justified. So, for instance, students hear about slaves in U.S. history but do not study the SYSTEM of slavery until high school – perhaps in part because, as one writing committee member said, “we can’t teach grade schoolers about slavery – they would find the idea of human beings being bought and sold very disturbing. It would prejudice them against the free market.”

Clearly, historical accuracy took second place to other concerns.

The overwhelming amount of material already in these standards requires making tough decisions about what to cut in order to add anything new. But there is NO intellectual rationale for deciding which topics are included and which are left out, at what level of detail topics will be covered, or for what should be required as a benchmark and what should be an optional example. Rather than a body of “foundational knowledge,” these standards are, instead, a hodgepodge collection of random facts without the context, the intellectual framework, to make them understandable or meaningful.

A third area of concern is the misuse and distortion of early American history in the Government & Citizenship. The version of our nation’s founding in the U.S. History standards has now been mostly (not completely) corrected to reflect the mainstream consensus among specialists in the field. But the Government strand retains a particular ideological bias that is reflected in the standards’ fixation on the “Founding Fathers” and two documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The Declaration and the Constitution are, of course, extremely important and students should certainly study them carefully.

But, in these standards, students are required to study these two documents over and over again – in Grades 1, 2, 3, 5, and 9-12. As a result, students never have time for a long list of other important topics: the specifics of government structure and practice at the local and state levels, and the full range of ways people have in the past and do now participate in politics and governance.

Worse still (from my perspective as an historian) is that the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are taught with a questionable and indeed error-filled historical interpretation. The standards suggest that the two documents express the same principles and concepts, and have the same meaning for today’s Americans as they did two hundred years ago. This understanding is simply wrong, as all mainstream historical scholarship agrees.

So too with the standards’ presentation of the Founding Fathers and Mothers. These standards present them as flat cardboard cut-outs, two-dimensional paragons of virtue, rather than the complicated and thoroughly human individuals they actually were. I would suggest that, with a more realistic rendering – by acknowledging and examining their limitations and shortcomings as well as their creativity, passion and sacrifice – we can learn so much more from them and so much more fully appreciate their achievements and their legacy.

As a professional scholar and as a parent of two young children in a Minneapolis public school, I am disturbed and offended at the sheer sloppiness of this document – a sloppiness that reveals the flawed process by which it was produced. One of my colleagues, Professor Kirsten Fischer, and I observed (between the two of us) every one of the writing committee meetings to revise the standards from Nov. 1 to Dec. 16. It was obvious that the committee members were not given enough time, enough guidance, or enough access to professional expertise and scholarship in the subject areas or in pedagogy. The process was haphazard, intellectually deficient, and ideologically charged.

In sum, these standards offer an incoherent, inaccurate, and unteachable version of the past. The students of Minnesota – your children and mine – deserve better than this.

Thank you.