Someone’s story will be told, but whose? | Opinion

The social studies fracas shows how the adults seek to own the narrative

February 15, 2021 6:00 am

John Casper Wild, Fort Snelling, 1844. Following the war, indigenous noncombatants in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 were held in a concentration camp at Ft. Snelling. The teaching of history has become a flashpoint in the debate over social studies standards. Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

It’s that season again for Minnesota’s K-12 schools. Obviously I don’t mean spring. Nor am I talking about the perennial discussion at the Legislature about Minnesota’s education budget and whether or not it’s too big or not enough. That answer pretty much depends on whether or not you have an R or a D after your name, not on any objective measure of the actual cost of educating students who live in various parts of the state or have distinct and unique learning needs.

What I’m talking about is academic standards season. That’s the process by which a committee of education officials, teachers, parents and other interested parties get together to determine what public school kids in public school classrooms should learn. 

For those of you who don’t follow education policy (I mean, why would you), Minnesota is required by federal law to create academic standards in core subject areas. These standards define what a student should know and be able to do in each grade level from kindergarten through grade 12 to earn a diploma. There are standards for the four core areas of math, English, science and social studies, as well as for subjects such as arts, physical education and computer science. 

Minnesota’s current scheme of standards and testing originated in 2003 when the Legislature threw out the much maligned “Profiles of Learning” and replaced them with the current system of academic content standards. The idea behind standards-based education is to define a body of knowledge, skills and concepts in each grade that students must master by the time they finish high school. Doing so theoretically ensures the student is prepared for success in his or her next phase of life, whether that involves going to college or straight into the workforce. 

To assess whether or not a student has mastered the standards, the state must conduct annual tests to every student in grades 3-10 in math and language arts, and semi-regular tests in science. There’s some nuance in the test administration schedule for students in high school, and alternate tests to accommodate students with disabilities or who are learning the English language. But you get the idea. Tests are based on the standards themselves, and over time have become high stakes, used for everything from determining student placement to evaluating teachers to assigning ratings to individual schools and districts.

This time around, it’s the social studies standards that are up for review and revision. And if you think it’s money that is the hot button issue in education, you haven’t watched a social studies review process play out. The business of deciding which elements and events of world history, which concepts of civic engagement, or whether or not to expand the story of our nation’s founding is one of the most contentious debates in the education arena. It’s also fraught with peril for the people in charge of developing the document. To get the stakes, you only need to look to Cheri Pierson Yecke, the former education commissioner who was booted by the Senate for her handling of the social studies standards process.

Generally speaking, I agree with the idea that there should be a consistent set of expectations for what students should be learning, although I’d much prefer that they be able to demonstrate their competency and readiness to advance in a variety of ways instead of relying on the limitations of standardized tests. And I appreciate educators and policy-makers who understand that our vision for what is taught will change over time. It makes sense to do regular check-ins and updates as a necessary function of ensuring the standards capture our continued progress as a nation, reflect evolving cultural shifts, and eliminate or address biases that are remnants of outdated norms. 

Among the changes and additions to this year’s draft social studies standards are expanded references to the history of Indigenous people in Minnesota, LGBTQ civil rights struggles, and the inequitable impacts of climate change on people and communities of color. A lot has happened in the 10 years since the standards were last updated, and it makes sense to expect that our kids will learn it, both in a discussion of real time current events and through the lens of recent history. 

But predictably, now that the draft standards have been released, sharp battle lines are already emerging. There are criticisms from educators and Black, Indigenous and other communities of color who say the revised standards don’t go far enough to depict an accurate view of history, that even with updates and additions they still overemphasize a Eurocentric version of our nation’s founding. On the other side, traditionalists claim the new standards are too “woke,” that they push out important pieces of history that are critical to understanding and appreciating the American experiment, or worse, that they will indoctrinate children with a leftist belief system.

I’m not here to take a position on the current version of the standards which will inevitably undergo additional revisions before they are finally adopted later this year. I’m not even sure any more that a standards-based education is the right way to go. But the current system is what we’ve got. So the question at hand is what will come of the pitched battle for the minds of our students, a battle that reflects the cultural and political debate happening across the country in real time? I can’t help but wonder about the opportunity cost as a result.

As a previous member of a standards committee, I saw how the process became a political struggle that was less about helping kids learn and more about owning a narrative. As a former state education official, I understand the intense pressure my former colleagues are under to get it right, to try to accommodate or appease the loudest voices on both sides, sometimes accepting compromise at the expense of quality, rigor or full context. I always wrestled with the knowledge that creating a finite set of expectations to serve as a roadmap for classroom instruction might stifle the very creativity and spontaneity that defines great teaching. And I always wondered if settling the debate in the political realm was actually a disservice to our students. That rather than making sure they were exposed to a wide variety of thought, opinion and historical accuracy that reflects the nuance of our complicated path as global citizens and residents of this nation, we were sacrificing important concepts and content in the reductive quest for a win.

“History is written by the victors” is a quote sometimes apocryphally attributed to Winston Churchill. Nowhere is that more evident than in the culture wars about what our kids will learn in our public schools. The question in this academic standards season is which victor’s history will emerge? Can we, or should we, be satisfied with it?

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Charlene Briner
Charlene Briner

Charlene Briner lives in Saint Paul. She is a storyteller, mother of three adult sons and formerly served as deputy commissioner at both the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota Department of Human Services.