Latest social studies standards draft urges ethnic studies focus

By: - November 19, 2021 6:44 am

Detroit Public Schools Community District student and teacher (Photo: Ken Coleman/Michigan Advance)

Minnesota is poised to join a handful of states requiring ethnic studies for all public school students.

In its third and final draft, a committee tasked with revising the state’s social studies standards included an ethnic studies focus area along with new requirements for the teaching of gender and religion.

That draft — coming after more than 18 months of work by the committee — has a greater focus on equity and the experiences of marginalized communities than the current standards. It’s a victory for advocates who have pushed for the change for years and likely to face opposition from Republicans amid the nationwide debate over equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives in schools, often erroneously referred to as “critical race theory.”

The revisions will determine what public school students learn in their social studies, civics, history and government classes for the next decade, so it’s no surprise the process has attracted both local and national attention — and no shortage of criticism from Minnesotans of varying backgrounds and political affiliations. 

“You get one shot at the apple, so to speak — this is once in a decade,” said Satjeet Kaur, executive director of the national Sikh Coalition. “Getting to a position where we’re doing it right (is important) so that these changes are implemented for the long term.”

With the committee’s work done, the draft now moves into the yearslong process of becoming law in Minnesota. The standards will likely be implemented in the 2026-27 school year, says the Minnesota Department of Education. 

What all students must learn 

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’re often 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.

Standards don’t mandate any specific curriculum or teaching style — in fact, state law prohibits it. Lesson plans and teaching methodologies are left to school districts and teachers.

State law requires MDE to review each set of standards every 10 years. This social studies review started in March 2020, when MDE began accepting applications for the review committee and selected a group of 36 teachers, college professors and community members who held a series of public meetings and issued three drafts open to public comment.

More focus on injustice, gender, race

The latest draft includes ethnic studies as its own “strand” — general content areas used to organize the standards. Existing strands are history, citizenship and government, economics and geography.

The ethnic studies strand would involve studying the roots of contemporary issues, the ways people across the world have “fought for freedom” from “exercises of power,” and how power and language influence social identities of race, gender and more.

Committee member Aaliyah Hodge, senior consultant for the Center for School Change, said the ethnic studies strand was a hard-won victory for advocates.

“As Minnesota and the world changes due to increased globalization, we need to ensure that we are recognizing the history and lived experiences of all our students,” Hodge said. “This strand gives space for students to wrestle and unpack complicated topics.”

The draft includes familiar subjects, too: the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions, the Civil War and world wars, economic models, democratic principles and more.

Draft three also includes more emphasis on contemporary life and culture of tribes in Minnesota. Ensuring Minnesota students have comprehensive Indigenous education has been a priority for Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Nation.

The existing standards primarily focus on Indigenous history and traditions from hundreds of years ago, exploitation of Indigenous people and relationships between tribes and the U.S. government. The third draft includes benchmarks about these subjects, as well as a requirement, for example, for students to “describe indigenous efforts today to revitalize and reclaim indigenous languages, traditions and sovereignty.”

Holocaust and genocide studies, religion

The first draft released in December 2020 was widely criticized for failing to mention the Holocaust, which MDE later said was an unintentional omission in an incomplete draft. There are four mentions of the Holocaust in the third draft — an increase from two mentions in the existing standards.

Ethan Roberts, director of government affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said the third draft addresses the Holocaust and genocide studies with more depth than the existing standards. The existing standards don’t mention “genocide” at all; there are three mentions in the latest draft.

The Department of Education took into account feedback from Holocaust scholars and JCRC in making those adjustments, he said.

“Minnesota would be improving upon how we teach about the Holocaust and genocide at the middle school and high school levels, so that’s great,” Roberts said. “Still, the work doesn’t end just because you get something in the standards or benchmarks.”

Religious groups were alarmed when MDE published the second draft in August with no mentions of specific world religions. The existing standards require students to learn about contemporary beliefs and practices in Shamanism/Animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as analyze the origins and development of several religions.

More than 150 faith leaders sent a letter to MDE requesting the agency replace the list of religions, citing concerns that students would receive an incomplete education and “members of faiths whose religions have historically been marginalized, erased, or ignored by society and in the classroom will continue to be unseen and discounted.”

The Department of Education implemented the feedback for the third draft, and also for the first time included Sikhism, the world’s fifth-largest religion. That was a victory for the national Sikh Coalition and JCRC, which advocated for the change.

Kaur of the Sikh Coalition said the organization has campaigned successfully for inclusion of Sikhism in academic standards in at least 12 states.

“If I ask the average American, ‘Where does a Sikh go to pray or worship?’ — most people will not be able to answer that question, whereas (they’ll know) for the other world religions. A lot of that understanding comes from school,” Kaur said. “Being able to have a full and richer understanding of individuals is really critical.”

Kaur said there’s still room for improvement. Sikhism isn’t mentioned in any benchmarks for high schoolers — just in an eighth-grade benchmark — which she’d like to see changed.

Roberts said he was disappointed to see that none of the ethnic studies benchmarks for high schoolers specifically mentioned religion. JCRC is hoping to work with MDE on that, he said.

“This is a really important thing for living in the 21st century where religion is still a huge part of people’s identity, and not just in a historic sense,” Roberts said.

Public input invited

The third draft is open for public comment until Jan. 14. Next, MDE will review the comments and develop a Statement of Need and Reasonableness, which is required by state law to show why all proposed administrative rules are necessary. That process can take up to 17 months, according to MDE.

Another round of public input follows, then an administrative law judge and the governor’s office review the proposal. After that, the standards are implemented. 

“This draft was developed by Minnesotans for Minnesotans, and now Minnesotans have an opportunity to comment on it,” said Bobbie Burnham, a Minnesota Department of Education assistant commissioner. “I really want to encourage all Minnesotans to take a look and engage.”

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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.