Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

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Michael Boucher: Senate must reject new social studies standards

Posted on Sun, Jan. 11, 2004 St. Paul Pioneer Press
Senate must reject new social studies standards
Guest Columnist

Minnesota Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke has unveiled the proposed new social studies standard and teachers have had some time to review them. While these revised standards are less racist, less xenophobic and less unbalanced than the first draft, let us be perfectly clear, these standards will not help students achieve at a higher level and are an illegal intrusion into Minnesota classrooms.

The standards are 59 pages of items that students will be required to know in K-12. Most of these are discrete pieces of information and many of them are only covered once in the curriculum. There are now 541 benchmarks, according to the commissioner, a 36 percent reduction from the first draft. In the four years of high school, there are 264 benchmarks. Within those benchmarks are more than 600 distinct topics. That translates to one benchmark every 2.39 periods of instruction.

This rapid treatment is not a problem on benchmarks like, "Students will describe the function of the legislative branch and explain how a bill becomes a law." But it is the rare ninth-grader in a civics class who can, as a civic benchmark states, "compare and contrast the American system with different philosophies and structures of socialism, communism, monarchies and parliamentary systems; in terms of their economic, social structure and human rights practices," in 119 minutes. Even after weeks of study, most college seniors could not write an essay answering that standard in so little time.

If only this were an extreme example. But as we move through the standards, teachers can only conclude that the writers had little understanding of the way people learn or the social studies themselves.

When reading the standards, Minnesotans need to keep in mind that the purpose of an academic benchmark is the same as in any other field. It is a specific item that will be assessed. Each benchmark is put into law as something that all Minnesota students should know.

A good way to think of them is that each benchmark is at least one test question. These tests are not on the immediate horizon, according to the commissioner, but are three to four years away. It only makes sense that each of these benchmarks is important enough to be tested or there is no reason to make them law in the first place.

Dictating daily school curriculum is an intrusion into the state's classrooms and was strictly prohibited by the law that directed the Department of Education to create new standards. There is no other way to deliver this curriculum but one; to stand before students and tell them what they need to know for a test.

The Senate now has the chance to stop the juggernaut of these "substandards" and appoint a new committee to make Minnesota standards we can be proud of.

Boucher, of Minneapolis, teaches social studies at South High School and is on the executive council of the Minnesota Council Of Social Studies. This column was signed by five other social studies teachers.