The controversy over Minnesota’s social studies standards, explained

By: - February 12, 2021 6:00 am

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A debate over Minnesota’s social studies standards is burning up editorial pages and grabbed the attention of legislators this week.

The Minnesota Department of Education is partway through a review of the state’s social studies standards, which will determine what public school students learn in their social studies, civics, history and government classes for the next decade. An early draft in December was criticized by Minnesotans of varying backgrounds and political affiliations for historical omissions and perceived bias.

The row over the process is not surprising given the country’s recent social upheaval and acrid politics. What’s taught about America’s past is both a reflection of that conflict and a venue for it, as both sides battle to tell the American story. 

Which explains why a guest commentary in the Star Tribune attacking a first draft of the new standards drew lots of attention, and the Republican-controlled state Senate grilled the Department of Education on it this week. 

Here’s what you need to know about the review.

What are academic standards?

The standards are requirements for what K-12 students learn in public schools. State law mandates all students master standards in language arts, math, science, social studies, physical education and arts.

They can be pretty broad — for example, a current social studies standard is “Public policy is shaped by governmental and non-governmental institutions and political processes.” Each standard comes with a set of “benchmarks,” which are specific skills and knowledge related to the standard.

“These are the expectations for what knowledge students need to have,” said Ashleigh Norris, a Minnesota Department of Education spokesperson. “As far as what is taught outside of that, or how it is directed or achieved at the school level, that would be up to the districts.”

Why is the review of the social studies standards happening?

The review is required by state law. The Minnesota Department of Education follows a calendar set by the Legislature that mandates review of each subject every 10 years.

In the past four years, the department has tackled arts, science and language arts standards. The current social studies standards were last reviewed in 2011. 

What is the goal of the review?

The review is intended to make sure standards are based on the most recent research, knowledge and best practices for each content area, Mary Cathryn Ricker, Minnesota Department of Education commissioner, told legislators in early February.

State law requires the revisions add technology and information literacy where appropriate, consider college and career readiness and include the contributions of Native American tribes.

Members of the review committee assess the strengths and weaknesses of the current standards based on public feedback, new research, student achievement data, national academic standards and model standards, according to the Department of Education

How does the review work?

The review and implementation process is lengthy — it can take up to five years. The social studies review started in March 2020, when the Department of Education began accepting applications for the review committee. Schools won’t start teaching the new standards until 2024 or 2025.

Applications for the review committee were open to all Minnesotans, and more than 200 people applied, MinnPost reported. State law requires the education commissioner consider advice from parents, teachers, school board members, college professors, business owners and members of the public during the revisions; the department also requires representation from the Tribal Nations Education Council.

In July, the department selected 44 applicants to form the committee. It’s a diverse group representing a range of races, ethnicities and areas of expertise. Of the members, 15% are Native American, 7% are Asian, 24% are Black, 10% are Latino, 56% are white, and 5% identify as mixed race, MinnPost reported.

The committee started reviewing the standards in September and held three public meetings about their work through November. They released the first draft in December and hosted three public comment town halls that month. The open comment period closed in early January.

This spring, the second draft will be published, and there will be another open comment period and more meetings. Experts will also review this draft. This cycle could repeat several times before the committee sends a final draft to the commissioner for review and approval, which is expected to happen later this year.

After the commissioner reviews the final draft, she begins the adoption and implementation process, which can take up to two years.

What’s in the first draft?

The first draft includes 22 standards and more than 200 benchmarks. There are lots of familiar subjects, like the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions, the Civil War and world wars, economic models, democratic principles and more. 

There are also some new topics. This draft is intended to be more “culturally affirming” than the existing standards, the department has said. Compared to the current standards, it has more emphasis on inequity and the experiences of marginalized communities.

Three benchmarks mention LGBTQ history — current standards don’t reference LGBTQ populations at all — and another says students would analyze the influence of media on gender identity. While learning about financial planning, students would gain an understanding of how  “systemic inequity has been a barrier to accessing credit.” 

There’s also more focus on the history, culture and contemporary life of Minnesota’s tribes. For example, one benchmark requires students to learn how “Dakota and Anishinaabe nations use storytelling to pass on ways of knowing.” The 2011 standards require lessons primarily focused on tribal governance and pre-20th-century tribal history.

What’s not in the draft?

A few subject areas and technical adjustments were deliberately left out of the first draft and will be implemented in the second, the document says. These include the contributions of Minnesota tribes, “full attention” to diversity and equity, computer science concepts and refinement of how the benchmarks fit together and flow from grade to grade.

The draft doesn’t mention the Holocaust, which was met with resounding criticism amid the growing threat of white supremacist extremism in the United States. The department has said that was an unintentional omission. 

The Department of Education has seemed to retreat some from the first draft. It was not a representation of what the completed standards may look like, said Bobbie Burnham, a Minnesota Department of Education assistant commissioner.

Rather, she said, it was intended to “give a flavor of what the conversations were like in the committee up to Dec. 1.”

“It was very, very preliminary. We totally acknowledge that there were some major topic areas not included in this first draft, but by no means was that an indication that they would not be inserted throughout the process,” Burnham said. 

The Department of Education met with Jewish leaders and Holocaust scholars in December, TC Jewfolk reported, and committed to strengthening Holocaust and genocide studies requirements compared to the current standards, as well as holding a feedback session to discuss these standards in the second draft. 

What other feedback has the department received?

The draft has received a lot of comments and critiques since it was published in December — so many that the committee is extending its revision timeline to ensure it can consider all the feedback, Burnham said.

“We are being very intentional and taking time to review all the public comments and really ensure that they inform the process moving forward, as well as the second draft,” she said.

Some Minnesotans worried that the length of the draft — 30 pages, compared to the 133-page current standards — meant the state was easing up on history requirements. State senators in February questioned Ricker about whether teaching important historical events like World War I would still be required in schools.

“I feel confident that we will see a second version — that will still be up for public comment — that will be much more filled in, that will be much more robust, much more detailed,” Ricker said.

Some committee members have said the draft standards are a good start but don’t go far enough in including perspectives outside the “Eurocentric” narrative, the Pioneer Press reported. They hope to see more emphasis on ethnic studies and people of color’s experiences in subsequent drafts. For example, the Sikh Coalition has also advocated for inclusion in the standards after Sikhism was left out of the world beliefs standards in the first draft.

The draft has also been met with a wave of criticism from conservatives who say it does not accurately reflect American history. The conservative Center for the American Experiment launched a campaign in opposition to the updates, encouraging Minnesotans to tell the committee that there is too much emphasis on Indigenous history and cultures, and the framing of racism in the draft is “political” and “comes at the expense of more important topics.” 

What’s next?

The committee was scheduled to publish a second draft in February, but that will be delayed until later this spring because of the volume of feedback on the first draft, Burnham said. The department has not set a specific date yet.

From there, the open comment, revision and new draft cycle may repeat a few times before the final version goes to the commissioner for final approval.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.