The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 14, 2013

Controversial social studies standards have local backers

By Amanda Dyslin
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — The state Department of Education’s plan to revise the social studies standards has caused some controversy over whether the new lens focuses too much on slavery and oppression and not enough on “American exceptionalism.”

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West High School social studies teacher Bob Ihrig sent testimony to a judge on behalf of Mankato Area Public Schools, which supports the implementation of the new standards.

 Cindy Amoroso, Mankato Schools director of curriculum instruction, said the district already has been preparing for the changes to go into effect this fall if Administrative Law Judge Barbara Neilson approves them.

“We support the standards as proposed, and we’ve been working on our course revisions since last year,” Amoroso said.

In Ihrig’s testimony he said he focused on the group of critics whom he considers to have a political agenda with intent to “indoctrinate students with ideological religious values.”

He said a broad-based statewide committee of experts in the field put together the standards that reflect “what students ought to know” without any kind of agenda or political slant.

Critics oppose standards

Some critics — including Julie Quist, an education activist from St. Peter — say there isn’t enough focus on “inalienable rights” in the standards. Quist declined to comment, but she provided public oral testimony to the judge that emphasized the need to highlight the principles of freedom and liberty in the standards.

“... I would like to call attention to a serious flaw within these proposed new social studies standards which, I believe, goes to the heart of many other objections within the document,” she said. “Inalienable rights are given short shrift. In fact, inalienable rights are almost completely erased from existence within the new standards.”

Instead, she said, the standards continually refer to “individual rights.”

“A world of difference exists between individual rights which are created by government, which may be legislated away, and rights with which we came into this world,” she said. “... Will we really leave inalienable rights behind in our standards? Will we really refuse to teach that revolutionary American core of freedom to the next generations?”

State Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, agrees and adds that the standards “promote an anti-American world view.”

 Some controversy has arisen in part over the emphasis on slavery and on oppression of American Indians, such as the circumstances surrounding the Dakota Conflict.

Marjorie Holsten of Education Liberty Watch testified that the standards have “an incredibly out-of-balance emphasis on the concept of America as an oppressive culture with an almost obsessive focus on racism, slavery and the wrongs done to indigenous peoples,” according to a Star Tribune article.

Ihrig is among those who disagree.

“The emphasis was on what professionals in the field of social studies thought was most appropriate for students to learn,” Ihrig wrote in his testimony. “... Students need to be taught critical thinking skills to discern and understand the various controversies involved with the social studies disciplines rather than being taught what to think and believe.”

Committee made up of experts

The overhaul of the standards has been two years in the making. State law requires a revision schedule to update standards of various subjects every few years.

Beth Aune, director of academic standards for the Minnesota Department of Education, said because social studies covers four disciplines — history, economics, civics and geography — a large committee of more than 40 people from a variety of backgrounds was formed to take on the task over the course of a year.

The department takes applications, and the education commissioner makes selections based on specifications of law, Aune said. Those who must be included are parents of school-age children throughout the state, currently licensed teachers, and teachers knowledgeable and experienced in each of the disciplines, including post-secondary instructors. Representatives with experience in special education, English Language Learners, students in need and design technology also are included.

At no point is the applicant’s political background or religious beliefs considered, Aune said.

“We have no idea what their leanings are,” she said.

Aune said the process is completely transparent, and teachers and the public are invited to weigh in throughout and provide feedback. With social studies, there were two public comment periods, focus groups were convened, and opportunities were presented to provide online feedback to give the public a chance to influence the standards, Aune said.

The final draft usually goes to panel of three to five nationally known expert reviewers. In this case, because of the number of disciplines, 13 experts from across the country reviewed the standards, including representatives from the World History Association, Society of American Historians, Center for the Economic Education and Entrepreneurship and numerous universities, among other affiliations.

Due to the number of requests from critics to hold a hearing, a 30-day window was opened for Neilson to receive testimony. She is expected to make her determination mid-February.

District making changes

Currently, the state’s 80-page history and Social Studies Academic Standards set mastery goals for students in history, geography, economics and citizenship, according to the document on a Minnesota Department of Education website. The revision is 146 pages and covers the same four main topics.

Amoroso and Ihrig agree the new standards move toward more conceptual learning, rather than just listing dates and facts. With 40 years of teaching experience, Ihrig said students learn best that way.

“I think it’s far more interesting, stimulating and instructive for them to do a conceptual approach,” said Ihrig, who incorporates debates, simulation exercises and digital learning tools into his classroom. “We’ve moved beyond the days of teachers standing up there and lecturing.”

If the judge rules in favor of the standards, many changes will take place in Mankato schools, in mostly grades 7-12, during the next couple of years.

Instead of teaching all of American history in fifth grade, the lessons will include the history up until 1800 and then seventh-grade social studies will pick it up from there. Eighth grade will no longer just cover geography but also include strands of economics and civics.

World history will now be taught in ninth grade. And a semester of geography also will be taught in 10th grade, which is also new. Ihrig said this new emphasis on geography will pose a challenge because there aren’t adequate textbooks on the market, so a new curriculum will need to be written.

But he said the changes will benefit the students.

“It’ll be positive for them,” he said. “(The committee) covered a lot of bases.”