Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

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Rod Skoe: Standards need facts plus analysis

April 30, 2004
Star Tribune

I relish a good debate, but the Star Tribune got it wrong in its social studies standards editorial (April 18). The piece oversimplifies the issue and creates a nonexistent either/or situation between competing social studies standards.

If you read only the editorial and study nothing else about the social studies standards now under discussion in the Legislature, you would conclude the only options are the Department of Education's "fact-heavy" standards and the Minnesota Council for Social Studies' analytical, "fact-lite" version. The Senate Education Committee supports the council's standards because they go one step further than just the facts: They help students apply those facts while giving teachers and school districts latitude in what specifics they teach. The devil is in the details, but that level of detail makes all the difference.

Let me state the obvious: The Senate Education Committee has not given up on facts. Students need to know the facts if they are required to apply their knowledge. Students can't be expected to analyze the Declaration of Independence if they haven't read it and don't understand the basics. However, having students not only know the Declaration but also be able to explain it and how it fits with our country's other founding documents is essential to broad knowledge. Facts give a solid basis but provide only half the equation.

Within both sets of proposed standards are "benchmarks"; the difference between the two versions lies mainly here. The department's benchmarks include specific details students need to know and teachers have to teach. They leave very little room for deviation. The council's benchmarks don't insist that the state dictate which details of U.S. history should be taught -- partly because it assumes that for students to explain the impact of emancipation, they have to know the who, what and when of emancipation. The council's standards trust that schools and teachers can make the best decisions about what details to teach our students. That's their job, not the job of state legislators or the Department of Education.

Following is a short example of what the Council's benchmarks require for students in U.S. History, Civil War and Reconstruction:

• Students will identify and explain the economic, social and cultural differences between the North and South.

• Students will identify key turning points of the war and analyze how the differences in resources of the Union and Confederacy affected the course of the war.

• Students will describe and explain the political impact of the war and its aftermath in Reconstruction, including emancipation and the redefinition of freedom and citizenship.

Attached to these benchmarks, not within, are suggested, but not required, discussion topics that include the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address. Conversely, the department's benchmarks include specifics students need to know, such as the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and Frederick Douglass. The distinction is subtle, but important.

The average American worker will change jobs nine times in a lifetime. This means that workers must be able to learn new things and apply their knowledge in a range of situations throughout a varied career. That is what the council's social studies standards prepare students for -- to master essential facts but also to be able to analyze data and come to logical conclusions so that they can be successful far after their formal education has ended.

This important and complicated debate will have a profound effect on students and the future of Minnesota education. It's not to be taken lightly. We must do better for our students.

Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, is a member of the Minnesota Senate and vice chair of its Education Policy Committee.