From Crisis to Civic Engagement: The Struggle over Social Studies Standard in Minnesota

Article excerpt

BEFORE MINNESOTA BECAME a hotly contested battleground state in this year's presidential election, our state recently concluded a highly controversial public debate regarding the creation of new social studies standards. This battle over required social studies knowledge in Minnesota was part of the larger "culture war" in the state and nation.

In early September of 2003, the Minnesota Department of Education made public the 56-page first draft document detailing 233 K-12 standards that were specified by 848 corresponding benchmarks dealing with U.S. history, world history, geography, economics, civics and government. Immediately, maW teachers, parents, professors, community leaders, and students raised serious concerns at public hearings, in the newspaper, and elsewhere.

Ultimately, the struggle centered on two questions: What knowledge is of most worth? and Whose knowledge is of most worth? These questions were new for the state because Minnesota has a long tradition of local control in matters of curriculum--before the mid-1990s, when the legislature adopted state-wide performance standards for graduation in various subject-areas, independent school districts, schools, and teachers determined what was taught and when. The system had served the state well by consistently producing top-rated scores on national assessments and strong showings in performance-based efforts like National History Day competitions. However, in this new era of accountability and No Child Left Behind, Minnesota was labeled as "failing" to have highly specific and testable content standards.

The struggle over social studies standards in Minnesota is a story about social studies in action and the intense struggle for democracy and diversity in our curriculum. It is a hopeful story about the power of teachers, parents, professors, and others uniting and engaging in authentic civic participation that actualized the best aspects of our democratic society. Numerous educators and parents (including us) who have taught and learned about freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and "government of, by and for the people" found ourselves enacting these freedoms and learning ways to hold our government accountable to public opinion.

Yet, our story is also sobering because we have learned that the battle over social studies and public education in our democracy is a constant struggle. We realize that the compromise standards finally adopted in law by the state are overwhelming in volume and still need improvement. Furthermore, we learned that our state cannot rest on its good reputation, and we learned that powerful, well-organized, ideological forces are persistent in seeking opportunities to control, diminish, and ultimately privatize public education.

What was Wrong with the Proposed Draft Standards?

Many critics found the first draft standards to be inaccurate, politically-biased, ethnocentric, racist, and sexist as well as age inappropriate, incoherent, too numerous, too costly and too focused on memorizing factoids.

Page after page of the draft proposed K-12 standards had basic factual errors that immediately undermined the credibility of the document. For example, the document stated that the Declaration of Independence described the specific structure and form of government eventually codified in the Constitution. Hitler was included in a list of American leaders during World War II. And, the proposed standards suggested Reagan was solely responsible for the fall of communism.

The proposed standards were also problematic for their omissions, distortions, and biased emphases. Missing were items such as due process, equal protection, how a bill becomes a law, separation of powers, federalism, unions, and all Democratic presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt. The standards suggested the role of government was limited to protecting individual rights (no mention of the common good) and that America was founded as a Christian government. …

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