Commentary: Preparing students for civic life shouldn't be so controversial
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By Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, St. Paul, MN
There are many answers to the question, “Why offer a free public education to every Minnesota student?” For me, the most important response is to prepare our students to be informed citizens and good neighbors in the multiracial, multicultural democracy they will inherit.
People have told me that answer is corny, but I never thought it would be controversial. The fact that the proposed changes to the state’s K-12 social studies standards have touched off so much outrage and disinformation shows our schools are at a crossroads.
The proposed standards offer students a more diverse view of history, economics, geography and other social studies disciplines. I believe they are part of how schools should change to prepare students to live and lead in a state that grows more diverse every day.
The website of the Minnesota Department of Education includes a thorough description of the process for updating the standards. But for a quick summary, state law says Minnesota’s academic standards will be reviewed and revised on a 10-year cycle.
This year the social studies standards are up. A 36-member committee of educators, parents, school board members and businesspeople met last year and released their draft recommendations in December. The second draft is expected at the end of July.
The complete first draft is available on the department’s website, but it’s fair to say the proposed changes are more thought-provoking and recognize more of the state’s racial and cultural past than the existing standards. There is more Native American history, for example.
The first draft presented the new standards and a few examples under each. It was never intended to be a comprehensive list of what would be taught in public schools. Nonetheless, several commentators seized on the document and starting spouting nonsense.
Maybe they were just confused when they reported that Minnesota schools would stop teaching about the World Wars and the Holocaust – a falsehood that has been repeated by the Center of the American Experiment, Fox News, Alpha News, Breitbart and other cogs in the perpetual outrage machine of right-wing media.
I doubt it was such an innocent mistake.
When the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus sent out a press release Feb. 11 about a bill to delay the standards for two years, the caucus made clear their opposition was to standards "tailored to social justice and equity.”
The caucus objected to a list of specific proposed standards, including:
Learn to recognize unfairness, stereotypes and bias on the individual level (e.g., biased speech) and injustice at the institutional or systemic level (e.g., discrimination).
Define freedom and democracy, and examine how different groups have been included or excluded from the ideals over American history.
Explain how systemic inequity has been a barrier to accessing credit.
This debate is really about whether certain politicians and millionaire-funded advocacy groups will let educators and parents update Minnesota’s schools to better educate and prepare all students – white, Black and brown – to pursue their dreams in the 21st Century.
It’s easy to understand why some groups are spending so much time and money to deny students a more truthful look at Minnesota’s history. If you rely on blaming and shaming people based on how they look, where they were born, or how they pray to win elections, these updated standards could be a disaster.
Imagine if a generation of young voters learned about how different groups have been excluded from democracy. They might see ugly parallels in one party’s campaign for voter I.D. laws and other voting restrictions. “Jim Crow in new clothes,” as Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia called them.
Hypothetically, high school graduates with some lessons in red-lining, racist housing covenants and predatory lending aimed at Black families might be less willing to believe the racist trope that people living in poverty are solely to blame for their situation.
But those political considerations are irrelevant to most Minnesota educators. We just want the freedom to present a fuller, more honest picture of our state and nation – the kind and cruel, the generous and noble – because we’re educating the leaders of tomorrow.
We can’t let the prejudices of a few billionaires, who fund the right-wing media and the advocacy groups with their road shows, deny the next generation the education they will need to bring Minnesotans together to make a state where everyone can thrive, no exceptions.
Maybe that’s corny too, but it shouldn’t be controversial.
Denise Specht is president of Education Minnesota, the labor union of more than 89,000 current, aspiring and retired educators in Minnesota’s E-12 schools and colleges. A version of this essay first appeared in the April edition of the Minnesota Educator, the bi-monthly magazine of Education Minnesota.