Second social studies standards draft again meets criticism

By: - August 5, 2021 6:00 am

Detroit Public Schools Community District students and teacher at Ronald Brown Academy (Photo: Ken Coleman/Michigan Advance)

The Minnesota Department of Education recently published the second draft of proposed social studies standards, the latest step in a contentious monthslong revision process.

This draft is comprehensive, the department says, unlike the widely criticized first draft published in November. It’s the product of a year of work by a committee tasked with determining what public school students will learn in their social studies, civics, history and government classes for the next decade.

The first draft was criticized by Minnesotans of varying backgrounds and political affiliations for perceived bias and historical omissions — it didn’t mention the Holocaust, which the department said was unintentional. The draft became political fodder, with lawmakers inserting language into education budget bills this year to delay the review. 

And now many members of the social studies standards committee — made up of 36 teachers, college professors and community members — aren’t pleased with the new document. They say the Department of Education changed the committee’s draft and left out several content areas, as well as details intended to help educators and families understand the standards.

“There’s been a lot of miscommunication,” said Jose Alvillar, a committee member. “The second draft (that was published) is not necessarily reflective of the work we’ve been doing.”

This newly released social studies draft is nearly 170 pages, a significant expansion from the first 30-page document. In a major change from existing standards and the first draft, it includes ethnic studies as a “strand,” which are general content areas used to organize the standards. Standards are broad requirements for what K-12 students need to learn in public schools.

History, citizenship and government, economics and geography are the existing strands. Under the proposal, ethnic studies would be another. 

This is likely to stir up opposition among Republicans. The conservative movement against equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives in schools — often erroneously referred to as “critical race theory” by activists opposed to the efforts — has swept the nation this year.

Progressives respond that for too long Minnesota students have not been taught the accurate history of their state and nation, especially regarding the experiences of marginalized communities. Standards also haven’t reflected the cultural diversity of Minnesota’s student body, they say.

For Alvillar, director of youth programming at the nonprofit Navigate Minnesota, the emphasis on ethnic studies is a win. Alvillar has been part of a coalition advocating for schools to require ethnic studies for several years.

Alvillar said he was frustrated, however, to see that the standards published by the department didn’t match the ones developed by the committee.

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A standard the committee had written for ethnic studies wasn’t included, and a history standard was moved to the ethnic studies category in its place, according to a letter to the Department of Education signed by 28 committee members. The letter requested the department leave the standards as the committee wrote them.

Additionally, the department struck from the published draft examples for each benchmark, which are intended to clarify requirements and illustrate how educators might cover them, Alvillar said.

Many benchmarks in the existing standards include examples. For instance, a fourth grade history benchmark that requires students to use maps to compare and contrast regions over time includes the example “The United States, Canada, or Mexico in 1800 versus 1900; population centers over time; natural resource use over time.”

The Department of Education said in a letter to committee members that it combined an existing standard with a new ethnic studies standard, as well as most of their benchmarks, to maintain 24 standards for educators to implement, rather than increasing the number to 25. The examples will appear in the final version, but they were removed from the draft because they are not open to public comment, the letter says.

“We recognize and acknowledge the tremendous efforts of the committee, including the hundreds of hours each of the members have dedicated to this process,” the letter says. “We know changes to this process have been unexpected and, as with most our guidance this past year, MDE is prioritizing decisions that we know will continue to move this process forward.”

Many examples in the committee’s draft were a result of their work to incorporate feedback from the first document, Alvillar said. He said he worries omitting the examples doesn’t show the scope of the committee’s efforts and gives the impression that they didn’t make changes based on public comments.

“We received hundreds of public comments to include Sikhism in Draft 2. The committee added this reference in an example, so if examples are excluded, then the public will not see this revision, and will come to the conclusion that the committee did not integrate public comments,” the letter from the committee members to the Department of Education says.

“I do hope that in the next draft we can work with the Department of Education to be more reflective of the work we’re actually doing,” Alvillar said.

Jess Winkelaar, a committee member and Mounds View middle school teacher, said the process has been intense and complicated but rewarding so far. Their priority is ensuring all students have access to the most honest, accurate and comprehensive social studies education possible, and being a part of that is exciting, she said.

But it hasn’t always been easy, said Winkelaar, who also helped teachers implement standards after the last revision in 2011. The committee is meeting virtually to finalize a few dozen standards and hundreds of benchmarks, with educator experiences, student needs, expert advice and community feedback in mind.

“There’s so many moving parts and pieces,” she said. “When we’re working in these isolated groups and never having a chance to be together, it’s just really an additional challenge to weave in all these parts to one cohesive document.”

Alvillar said the political climate is an added difficulty. Many of the public comments to the first draft were constructive, and committee members took that feedback seriously, he said. But the committee also received a number of personal attacks, fueled by the spread of misinformation about the standards revision process.

“History tends to be a really heightened topic because, you know, whose history are we talking about? And the reality is that there’s a lot of history that’s been omitted, and that’s been convenient for some folks,” Alvillar said. “What we want to do is provide a more holistic history.”

The social studies standards revision started last year, in line with state law requiring the Department of Education to review standards for language arts, math, science, social studies, physical education and arts on a 10-year cycle. 

The goal is to make sure standards are based on the most recent research, knowledge and best practices for each content area, department officials have said.

The second draft is open to public comment through Aug. 16. The Department of Education expects to release a final draft this fall, and the new standards will be implemented in 2025 at the earliest. 

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native 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.

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