The latest batch of social studies curriculum standards, issued by a committee selected by the Minnesota Department of Education, is making waves in Belle Plaine and across the state among parents and the public.
The draft released last December was not intended to provide a “comprehensive view of the final product,” according to the MDE website. Instead, it focused on standards and the summaries of content areas, not specific benchmarks.
Benchmarks make up standards and the specific knowledge or skills that a student must master to complete part of an academic standard by the end of a grade level, per MDE.
In an editorial published by the Star Tribune, Katherine Kersten of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative public policy organization, argued that the standards first released at the end of 2020 signal an acute and growing wave of liberal values entering the educational sphere.
Wendy Hatch, Director of Communications at MDE, noted that in response to a spike in public comments regarding the standards, Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker delayed their second draft to March 25 to facilitate adequate review of the comments.
Hatch said that the standards published in the 32-page document Kersten referenced were stand-ins for a final product that is not yet formed. The standards drew backlash for omitting topics such as the Holocaust, but the MDE website states: “Historical U.S. and world events like WWII and the Holocaust are being taught in Minnesota schools and will continue to be taught.”
The social studies curriculum came under review last March as part of a routine 10-year revision process, which each segment of the curriculum undergoes on a staggered basis.
Over the last four years, MDE has reworked arts, language arts, and science to reflect the latest educational research and best practices available. Social studies standards were last updated in 2011.
Last December, the Minnesota Social Studies Standards Committee, who are not employees of the department, released their first draft of the social studies standards.
A public comment period concluded in January, drawing voices from all ends of the ideological spectrum out in droves, many critical of MDE itself.
Hatch, meanwhile, argues that the openness of the process and the delay of the second draft signal MDE’s willingness to hear from Minnesotans of all backgrounds.
Specific comments were not publicly available because MDE had not redacted private information in time for publication.
“For anybody who is critical of the process, we really welcome people’s feedback. We have some of the strongest academic standards in the country because we do it this way. The standards are made by Minnesotans for Minnesotans,” Hatch said.
Many, including Belle Plaine parent of five, Amy White, are not so convinced. White is concerned that the standards, while possibly well-intentioned, stand to do more harm than good for students.
White, who raised the topic publicly on a parents’ Facebook page, said many of the sample topics seek to segment students along racial lines, amounting to an exercise that harms, not helps, an already ailing American population.
Two of the drafted standards would task sixth graders to “describe the goals of activists in their quest for their voice to be heard, especially anti-war, racial minorities, immigrants/refugees, women, LGBTQ, and Indigenous people” and “describe the goals, offenses, penalties, long-term consequences, privacy concerns of Minnesota’s juvenile justice system and evaluate the impact on Black, Indigenous, Persons of color (BIPOC) communities.”
The language standards like these, white contends, are rife with political implications. White, like many who have criticized the proposed versions of the standards, believes much of the content teaches students of color to be “victims,” adding that the drafted standards celebrate values of organizations such as Black Lives Matter.
White argued that a better approach would be to celebrate authors, scientists, and other BIPOC leaders in the classroom.
Beth Tepper, Education Director for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, who serves as a co-chair of social studies standards committee, noted that she, like the rest of the committee, applied for her position and that the application process was open to all qualified Minnesotans.
Last June, MinnPost reported that the MDE received over 200 applications. She said her goal in applying for her position was to bring to light the treatment of native peoples during the European settlement of the United States and onward, an arm of state history she believes is often ignored in schools despite state law requiring the opposite.
“I think social studies is such a unique area of study. It’s an opportunity to teach our students critical thinking and reasoning and develop how they look at society as a whole,” Tepper said of her wish to add more areas of Native American study to curriculum standards.
Amanda Gregory, an English as a Second Language teacher for nine years who also serves as a member of the Belle Plaine School Board, said that updated standards could provide students of color, whose narratives she believes have not been adequately conveyed in the classroom, a chance to hear history through another lens.
“I don’t think it is right to deny any groups of people’s narrative,” Gregory said in an email. “As a white person, my narrative has been taught. Other groups of people deserve to have their narrative heard and for students to see their racial and cultural group’s narrative in the curriculum.”
As Minnesota and the world brace for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with murder for his involvement in the death of George Floyd last summer, educators are sure to bear some burden in sorting out how students will process the events around them.
Hatch said that it is up to individual school districts to interpret how the standards laid out at the state level would best serve their students in such times, noting that the standards serve as a framework for districts to model their curricula.
“Decisions are made at the local level,” she said. This is a sentiment echoed by Belle Plaine Superintendent Ryan Laager, who said that Belle Plaine has a rigorous, public curriculum building process.
He said that he was concerned with the specificity of some of the standards because they might reflect some current attitudes but may not stand the test of time.
He said his goal is to teach a holistic social studies program for all students.
Laager believes the classroom is a fine place to have conversations about contentious topics and encourages parents to get involved in the process. He urges the public to not shy away from thinking about how these topics are brought up at school.
“As much as people don’t want to talk about these topics, one of the most dangerous things we can do is not talk about these topics,” Laager said.
Standards committee meetings are held at the MDE office located at 1500 Highway 36 west in Roseville, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., unless otherwise determined. The meeting on March 25 will be streamed live on youTube.
Belle Plaine’s curriculum and assessment webpage can be found at https://www.belleplaine.k12.mn.us/page/3142.