Date: November 3, 2003
Subject: Social studies smackdown!

It's going to take me a few sessions over the next couple of days to debrief you on Saturday's meeting of the Social Studies Academic Standards Committee. I will be giving you the nitty-gritty eyewitness detail from the inside, including some of the esoteric technical minutiae that you have grown to expect (and love) from this blog, including the dish but no dirt (there really wasn't any "dirt" to report, sorry).

The bottom line is that we won't really know who the "winners and losers" will be until the standards are approved by the legislature during the 2004 session. "Winners and losers" may be the wrong way to look at it, since all sides of the debate are ostensibly on the same "side" (public schools and their students), unless you define the "sides" as those who favor keeping the current process versus those who want to dump the standards-in-progress and start over with a new committee and process.

The Academic Standards Committees have finished or are in the process of finishing their second draft standards. The second draft will go to a writing committee, appointed by the Commissioner from among the committee members. The writing committee will polish and integrate the various strands into a complete social studies standards document, which they will submit to the Commissioner on or before December 15. Department of Education staff will then edit the draft at their discretion before the Commissioner presents the final version to the Legislature.

The Legislature will hold hearings on the final version. Sen. Steve Kelley, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has announced that he will hold public hearings in January, prior to the start of the legislative session in February.

Having said that, since I sit on the Government & Civics subcommittee, I can say that, as of Saturday, the integrity of our strand was maintained and quality increased. We carefully considered a large volume of public comment. Comments from the Hopkins school district and the Minnesota Civics Group were most prominent in our discussion, since they provided well-organized comments in writing that followed the structure of the standards. In the days and weeks before the meeting, I read hundreds of pages of public comment, plus many standalone letters, "expert" reviews, and other documents, and the MAPSSS web site.

Most of the public comment received was directed at the history standards (both U.S. and world). Most of these comments were repetitive and fell into categories: there are too many standards, the standards are politically biased, why did you leave out this person/event, why did you overemphasize this person/event, too much memorization, you overemphasize "trivial factoids" at the expense of higher order thinking skills, where are the research skills, this benchmark is not age-appropriate.

On Saturday, the various strands (U.S. History, World History, Economics, Geography, and Government & Citizenship) chopped standards and benchmarks, moved many of the names and events out of the benchmark statements to a new "examples" category, and formed a new strand committee called Historical Skills to create the skills standards. A new recommendation to the legislature was approved that would give school districts flexibility to group standards by grade "bands" (K-2, 3-5, 6-8) if they wish, rather than grade-by-grade as they appear in the standards document. (The 9-12 standards are already grouped into a band.) The standards framework was also modified based on comments received from school districts.

So the standards were not merely "tweaked" on Saturday. As Marc Doepner-Hove, a vocal critic of the first draft, said in the Star Tribune yesterday, "We are rewriting the document."