Students must see themselves and their peers in what they learn. Even when it gets messy.

February 17, 2021 • Marcus Penny

Minnesota is reviewing its K-12 Social Studies Academic Standards—a once in a decade opportunity to scrutinize and revise what students learn in social studies. Education Evolving policy director Danyika Leonard serves on the 38-person review committee along with other parents, teachers, and school and community leaders.

The first draft of new standards was released late last year, with a new draft expected in the coming weeks. The first draft has drawn criticism for its shift toward equity.

We state here our view.

Rooting standards in an inclusive, honest, equitable lens

EE believes that social studies standards must be inclusive of more lenses, narratives, and histories—and honest about both the achievements and atrocities that mark our nation’s story.

In other words: the standards must be rooted in equity.

Only then can all students find relevance in what they’re learning, feel recognized for who they are and what they bring to their community, participate in an increasingly globalized world, and develop a patriotic commitment to the American promise of liberty.

HF 704 would require Ethnic Studies be included in MN social studies standards.

Inequitable social studies standards disservice not just students from marginalized groups but students of the dominant culture, who benefit from an appreciation of their peers’ contexts. Exposure to the cultures and histories of marginalized groups nurtures stronger community ties inside the school and a richer understanding of the past.

The first draft of new social studies standards makes a bold shift in the right direction. In the draft standards, students would be required to:

  • Recognize diverse points of view and develop an informed and empathetic awareness of how identity, class, and geography influence historical perspective.
  • Evaluate historical sources and evidence by considering what perspectives and narratives are absent from the available sources and interpreting the historical context, intended audience, purpose, or author’s point of view of these sources.

Pushback on the draft standards

Despite positive changes, the draft standards are not perfect. They omit explicit references to important historical events that should not have been left on the cutting floor—like the Holocaust, 9/11, and the Secret War in Laos. This is a fair sticking point for critics. But we believe other criticisms are not as well founded.

Other critics took issue not just with the draft standards but with the makeup of the review committee itself, which has the most diverse population of members in the history of this decennial revision process. These critics cited overrepresentation of Indigenous groups on the committee relative to their share of the state population.

But part of our history is the history of the land we occupy. The inhabitants of Minnesota’s geography were once 100% Indigenous. That the same group comprises only 1.1% of the population today is precisely why Indigenous people are crucial to shaping what students learn about how that change came to be.

Stripping the varnish from our nation’s history compels us to grapple with its complicated legacy.

Critics also found fault in language used in the draft standards, arguing that forceful terms to describe past atrocities like the displacement and genocide of Indigenous people or the abduction and enslavement of Africans and their descendants leave little room for learner interpretation. Some suggest applying modern sensibilities to our past—essentially, adjusting for moral inflation—teaches kids to hate America.

We argue differently. Instead, stripping the varnish from our nation’s history compels us to grapple with its complicated legacy. Offering nuanced, frank historical context doesn’t squelch critical thinking, it enhances it.

Aaliyah Hodge, another member of the standards review committee, wrote in the Star Tribune last week, “Showing our BIPOC students that their people are resilient and have made lasting impressions on history isn’t being ‘woke.’ It’s being honest and owning our history.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” When a brutally honest lens on our history throws its trajectory into sharp relief, we argue learners will better understand and appreciate America.

The draft standards do not proscribe love of country but demand a different kind of patriotism: enduring and earned. Not blind allegiance to a national mythology, but active participation in the democratic process and reverence for the promise of equal justice under law.

What’s next?

Gov. Walz’s Due North education plan shares a priority to root teaching and learning in equity.

We look forward to good faith engagement on this topic as the work of the review committee continues. A second draft of standards is expected to be released for public comment soon—though the committee is seeking more time for the review process to play out.

It’s not lost on us that this debate is playing out during Black History Month—an observance to celebrate Black contributions to the American story, itself a lightning rod for criticism. The debate over social studies and the teaching of our difficult history is not new. And it’s not close to over. But these standards are a chance to set Minnesota further down the right track.

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