My Thoughts On The Minnesota Social Studies Standards And The REAL Outrage…

[WARNING: It's really long but I hope you will stay to the end!]

It’s time once again to fight about social studies standards for Minnesota schools. To have arguments about how much or how little patriotism these standards contain. To be outraged that this person/group/event isn’t mentioned or that person/group/event isn’t mentioned enough or the even pettier argument comparing the number of mentions of this vs. that. It’s time once again for the most tiresome arguments and accusations of INDOCTRINATION to be hurled around, including a particularly hyperbolic statement made by conservative jack of all trades Mitch Berg (who appears to be claiming some expertise in education policy because he has family members who are educators and that makes him a dynasty or something), who labels public schools “the enemy” because of some perceived threat within the changing standards and also his own anecdotal biases.

These are tiresome arguments not just because they are largely hyperbolic and silly but because they distract from real problems with this version of the standards and their implementation that schools and parents really ought to be concerned about. I made a comment on a recent MPR Newscut article about the new standards that sums up my feelings about this whole debate but I decided to go into a bit more detail.

The reactions are largely hyperbolic because I suspect that social studies teachers across the state are looking at these new standards and making mostly small adjustments, if any adjustments at all, to the actual materials and events and people that we cover in the classroom. Like I stated in the above Newscut article, the pilgrims will remain in the curriculum of schools across the state regardless of whether they are specifically listed in the social studies standards. Chances are your children will continue to color pilgrim pictures and bring home pilgrim hats just as mine have throughout their school careers. I noticed some comment or tweet recently about the absence of the Articles of Confederation in the standards but I can assure you that most schools, including myself, will continue to teach about the Articles in contrast to the Constitution. As an aside, however, the Articles are in the standards on page 126 so we can breathe a sigh of relief on that crisis averted.

Maybe, just maybe, the standards need a little more America HELL YEAH and a little less America BAD but in my reading of them (yes, I understand all you conservatives reading this will dismiss my opinions as just another liberal indoctrinator) I see the greatness and HELL YEAH of America loud and clear in the standards. Why? Because to borrow a phrase from Morgan Freeman in this video about the Declaration of Independence that I use in my classroom, the real greatness of America…

… has been our nation’s epic struggle throughout history to close the gap between the ideals of this remarkable document and the sometimes painful realities of American life.

That’s how I choose to teach my class and interpret these standards. Is America perfect? No, but our greatness isn’t in perfection it is in honestly addressing our shortcomings and trying over and over again with varying levels of success to keep and spread the idea of freedom. So, take it for what it is worth that I and most likely every other social studies teacher in the state will read these standards not as some opportunity to indoctrinate anyone into some perceived anti-America club. We will take these standards and try to convey the story of America in a way that gets kids excited about the history of this country as well as excited about history in general. Because the reality is that there is no secret plot to indoctrinate your children. There is no organized effort by myself or other social studies teachers to create more liberals which would be an interesting feat given about half the social studies teachers I know are conservatives. Frankly, the only thing I want my students to do is be able to appreciate where this country has been and where it might be going and find a way to participate in making it better.

Unfortunately, because we have to waste all of our time convincing each other that we aren’t in the middle of some sinister plot to wreck America we lose out on the real outrage of the newest version of the social studies standards.

The problem with these standards is more structural than it is in the content. First, the state intends to move in a direction in which every school in the state will have the same social studies classes in the same years as every other school in the state. The logic in this, which has been conveyed to me and my colleagues, is that if a student moves from one district to another they will be able to plug into the same courses that they found in their prior school. While I can certainly understand the reasoning I don’t necessarily agree that our system should be built around whether someone MIGHT move in or out of the district.

Second, the way I understand things and the way it has been portrayed to my social studies department is that within this new proposed framework in which all schools would teach the same subjects during the same grades there is an even more concerning change. That change involves reducing the credit of and placement of the Economics and Government courses to the lower grades (9th or 10th grade) and increasing credit of and placement of World History to the 12th grade year.

De-emphasizing both Government and Economics is outrageous enough given how important it is that students understand the world we live in but placing them in the lower end of the high school career is just developmentally wrong. Students in 11th and 12th grade have a difficult enough time wrapping their heads around these sometimes complex topics. 9th and 10th grade students certainly are not ready for their complexities. In addition to their complexity, the relevance of government and economics is mostly lost on students in these younger grades. In my early career I taught 8th grade Civics and it was a challenge to get students to understand civic participation when they were 4-5 years removed from any opportunity to participate. While I have never taught economics, I cannot imagine trying to get a 9th or 10th grade student to understand the vagaries of micro or macro economics. On the other end, I believe World History has value and I don’t have a problem expanding any social studies course (I’m a little biased that way) but I cannot understand why it would be placed in the senior year when far more relevant and meaningful classes could be taught (i.e government and economics).

So, rather than bickering about the same old stale culture war and patriotism and super mean liberal enemies or super mean conservative enemies we are missing a real opportunity to talk about the structural problems with these standards. Anyway, until then us social studies teachers will wait patiently while the pundits and activists shout it out hoping and praying for some common sense but likely getting none and then we will get back to the work of teaching social studies until next time we stand in the middle of this kabuki theater.

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  • Rich

    Good review but …the grade specific standards were required by state law, all of the revised standards are. The choice about which courses are taught when in high school is a local decision, not specified by the standards. For example, government is in 12th grade in my district.