A committee is now hearing Minnesotans’ opinions on the new ethnic studies curriculum

By: - November 17, 2023 7:30 am

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As culture war issues over race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality roil every level of government from school boards to the U.S. Congress, Minnesota is revisiting its social studies standards, including the highly contentious issue of how to teach ethnic studies. 

Implementation of a bill mandating ethnic studies as a required course for Minnesota students is now reaching its final stages. The plan is undergoing one more round of public scrutiny before an administrative law judge signs off in January. 

The new standards as currently written require high schoolers to take an ethnic studies class to graduate, while younger students could be offered the course as an elective. Should the standards be approved, high school students can expect a rollout during the 2025-26 school year.

Advocates cite research showing ethnic studies classes increase student engagement and improve outcomes for students of color especially.

The state Department of Education gave Minnesotans the opportunity to chime in on the proposed changes to diversify the social studies curriculum via an online discussion forum opened to the public in October. Participants have been roughly evenly divided: 122 comments voiced explicit support for the changes as written, while 107 comments opposed the standards and called for them to either be abolished or rewritten.

State law does not allow ethnic studies to be abolished, but Minnesotans can still propose changes to the standards. 

Some Minnesota schools have already implemented ethnic studies into their curriculum as elective courses, including Roseville High School and high schools within the Saint Paul School District. 

Lizette Martinez Boelk praised her ethnic studies courses in the discussion forum.

“As a high school student that is currently taking ethnic studies as an elective, I really wish it would be included as a requirement for social studies. In this class I am free to voice my opinions and feelings on historical topics. This class isn’t political, we aren’t taught to all have the same opinion over a topic unlike in an average history class where we learn to hate other countries,” Boelk wrote.

Keith Mayes argued that social studies education has always considered the history of social justice activism: “When we criticize ethnic studies, we have to bear in mind that when we teach any of the wars, especially the American Revolution and the Civil War, social justice and activism sits at the core of all of them,” Mayes wrote. 

Opponents say the new curriculum would encourage divisiveness amongst students; 50 Republican members of the Minnesota House signed a petition in opposition to the new standards, saying the proposed rules are “not necessary, nor are they reasonable.”

Kofi Montzka, a state government attorney, told the Legislature that the new ethnic studies bill will teach Black kids “hopelessness.” 

“The bill tells kids of color that they are stuck in a caste system based on their race. I’m sick of everyone denying the enormous progress we’ve made in this country, acting like it’s 1930. We used to have a race-based system, we got rid of it, and now you’re all trying to bring it back,” Montzka said. 

Theresa Donovan, who says she’s a parent of Puerto Rican children, called the bill “ill-defined,” and believes it would encourage students to become politically active. 

“The standards move away from a genuine focus on social studies and are not clear, measurable and grade-appropriate. The topics of identity, resistance, and ways of knowing are upper-level concepts that are taught in graduate-level courses. (All courses/course-work I have taken in my MA and PhD studies). I am not confident that K-12 teachers could (or even should) teach these concepts,” Donovan said.

State Rep. Samantha Spencer-Mura, DFL-Minneapolis, lead author of the bill mandating ethnic studies, said her 9th grade world studies class at a Minneapolis public school was limited to just European history. 

“The best education should offer students mirrors and windows. Mirrors to be able to see themselves reflected in the curriculum and windows to be able to understand other experiences, other cultures. Currently so much of our education is lacking those windows and mirrors,” Spencer-Mura said.

The process of reviewing Minnesota’s social studies standards started in 2020 by a committee of 44 Minnesotans representing different schools and education organizations. The education commissioner approved a final draft of the proposed standards in 2021, but the implementation process is still ongoing. 

The Department of Education started the first public comment stage in October and recently held two public hearings. 

Since last week’s hearings, the public comment stage has reopened. Community members now have until Nov. 29 to give their input in a new post-hearing forum, and comments will be reviewed by the Office of Administrative Hearings. Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman will allow the standards committee to tweak parts of the proposed standards after hearing community input, and the final ruling will likely happen in January.

A working group made up of teachers, parents, and community members will develop the potential framework for the new ethnic studies curriculum and help advise the Department of Education on upholding content and standards. 

Advocates for the curriculum cite Minnesota’s education gaps, which are among the worst in the nation. In 2019, the graduation rate for white students was 88%, but Black students significantly lagged behind at 67%, Latino students at about 67%, and Native American students at 51%. Curriculums in the United States have historically focused on white people, which can lead to alienation among students of color. Researchers believe that the implementation of ethnic studies can curb these effects, leading to better test scores and increased attendance and graduation rates.

“I believe that one of the reasons we lose students of color within our school system is due to disengagement that comes when you don’t see yourself reflected, when you don’t see your history, your culture, your people, valued or taught,” Spencer-Mura said

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Nafi Soumare
Nafi Soumare

Nafi is an intern reporting for the Minnesota Reformer. Her interests in reporting include social justice, reform, and issues in the Minnesota education system.