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What are Minnesota’s social studies standards — and does critical race theory have anything to do with them?

The Minnesota Department of Education is in the midst of a review of the state’s social studies standards, which will set the framework for what students will learn in their social studies classes for the next 10 years.

The Minnesota Department of Education is in the midst of a review of the state’s social studies standards that will set the framework for what students will learn in their social studies classes for the next 10 years.
The Minnesota Department of Education is in the midst of a review of the state’s social studies standards that will set the framework for what students will learn in their social studies classes for the next 10 years.
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

School board meetings across Minnesota are experiencing an unusually heightened level of scrutiny.

From across the state, reports have emerged of meetings in overflowing gymnasiums, of enraged parents shouting at board members, and of disagreements between school board members.

At the center of this surge in interest is the term “critical race theory” – a legal theory that originated in the mid-1970s that seeks to critically examine U.S. law as it intersects with race through a social, cultural and legal lens and maintains that racism is embedded in the legal system. The authors include legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who told the American Bar Association that the term is to be used as a verb and not a noun. She created the framework, along with Derrick Bell, Richard Delago and several others, to understand how racism is embedded in U.S. laws and institutions.

In the current national dialogue, some conservative outlets and organizations have conflated the theory with efforts in schools to teach students about systemic racism and diversity.

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Here’s a look at what the social studies standards are for Minnesota’s public school students, and what the controversy is about. 

Minnesota’s standards

In accordance with state statutes, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) establishes academic requirements and standards for K-12 education for language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, physical education, and the arts.

MDE is now in the midst of a review of the state’s social studies standards that will set the framework for what students will learn in their social studies classes for the next 10 years. The revision process, which began last summer, occurs once a decade, with implementation of the revision taking five years after the process begins. 

Currently, social studies includes four core disciplines: civics and government, economics, geography and U.S. and world history. But according to members of the social studies review committee, an additional core discipline, ethnic studies, will be added for an upcoming draft, as was instructed to the committee in June by the Department of Education.

Examples from the current standards

Standards from the last round of revisions were completed in 2012 and the 133-page compilation of current standards can be found here. Relevant examples from 2012 include the following for the U.S. history:

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  • rivalries among European nations and their search for new opportunities fueled expanding global trade networks and, in North America, colonization and settlement and the exploitation of indigenous peoples and lands; colonial development evoked varied responses by indigenous nations, and produced regional societies and economies that included imported slave labor and distinct forms of local government.” 
  • “Regional tensions around economic development, slavery, territorial expansion and governance resulted in a civil war and a period of Reconstruction that led to the abolition of slavery, a more powerful federal government, a renewed push into indigenous nations’ territory, and continuing conflict over racial relations.”

 The review process

The current review committee consists of 38 individuals from varying backgrounds and according to MDE is the most diverse committee group selected to date. Originally, the committee consisted of 44 individuals selected from a pool of 200 interested applicants from across the state. Per state law, selection of the committee must meet certain requirements and include parents of school-age children, teachers throughout the state, members of local school boards and charter schools, business owners and members of the general public.

Bobbie Burham, an assistant commissioner at the Department of Education, says the goal of the review is to “ensure each standard and benchmark aligns with the current college and career readiness standards, as well as up to date information in the particular subject area.”

Burham says the review committee follows a national framework called the College and Career and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies Standards, that is developed by the National Council for Social Studies, an organization affiliated with the regional and state social studies associations. And while the committee advises the education commissioner on standard revisions, it is the education commissioner that gets a final say. 

The actual curriculum that is taught in schools is set up at the district or individual school level.

We don’t have power or authority to dictate or design any curriculum; that’s up to the schools and the districts to do,” says committee member Danyika Leonard. “That’s not in our directive, nor is it in our ability to do it.”

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Of particular note is the addition of ethnic studies as a new core discipline to the social studies curriculum.

What would ethnic studies entail?

Ethnic studies is the interdisciplinary and comparative study of the role that ethnicity, race and racism play in the construction of the United States history, culture and society.

“It promotes unity and cross-cultural understanding by teaching about the North American values of democracy, freedom and equality through the historical struggles of one nation to achieve liberty and justice for all,” Leonard said. “And so I say that intentionally, just because ethnic studies is a place where you get to learn multiple perspectives, it’s not just the Eurocentric perspective that has been taught in American public schools for decades.”

As a Black woman, Leonard says she received two educations.

“I had the one I went to school with, and then the one that my mom made sure augmented my learning. History for me was different because I had my mom at home who made me read books, watch movies and documentaries, the things that I was not learning in school. I would learn at home,” Leonard said. 

That students aren’t being taught a wider spectrum of history is a disservice, Leonard said. “I really want our students to have access to all this information because it will help guide their critical thoughts and help them learn to become a world citizen.

Talk of adding ethnic studies as a core to the social studies curriculum in Minnesota isn’t new and dates to before 2011, according to both Leonard and Carlstorm.

In October, a number of community members were asked to take an informal poll about whether ethnic studies should be added as a fifth core discipline or if it should be embedded into the current standard. Leonard says the overwhelming majority of the committee said that ethnic studies should either be embedded into the curriculum or be created as its own strand.

“There was an overall agreement that ethnic studies needed to be a part of this next iteration of the standard,” Leonard said.

Until June, MDE had directed committee members to embed ethnic studies into the standard curriculum, but then reversed course and decided that it should be made into its own core discipline.

The current revisions include an addition of curriculum on the LGBTQ rights movement, an expanded curriculum on Minnesota tribes and the Native American perspective of U.S. history, in addition to more in-depth instruction on systemic racism.  

The controversy

Conservatives and liberals alike have expressed disappointment in segments of a first draft that was released in December, with Minnesotans of varying ideologies expressing concern over the omission of key historical events from the examples in the draft, namely the Holocaust, World War I and II, and the Civil War.

The conservative Center of the American Experiment published a series of articles calling the draft “woke” and criticizing the parts of the curriculum that included recognizing bias and institutional injustice. In June, the organization organized a statewide tour of events in 17 cities, dubbed the “Raise our Standards Tour,” to push back on “critical race theory” and to “learn how parents can push back against the politicizing of our schools.”

Critical race theory emerged in the public discourse after the New York Times published the 1619 project, a series of essays that per the publication aims to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United State’s national narrative.”

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Since the inaugural essays, lesson plans and reading guides using the 1619 project have been introduced to classrooms, and were met with swift backlash from conservative commentators and from former President Donald Trump.

But it wasn’t until the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent racial reckoning that the conversation spiraled, with the Trump administration sending a memo to the head of federal agencies instructing that they cease any training on “critical race theory.” The term then evolved into something of a catchphrase among conservative outlets and organizations using critical race theory as a term to refer to any attempt to teach equity and diversity. As of now, some 26 states have introduced bills or legislation that take steps to  restrict the way educators can teach students about racism and sexism. The subject is gearing up to be an issue for the GOP in the upcoming midterm elections in Minnesota. 

‘They’re not synonymous’

Matt Carlstrom, a veteran social studies teacher of 29 years and a co-chair of the social studies standards review committee, says prior to May he had never heard of critical race theory.

I can say with a hundred percent full confidence that critical race theory is not in the K-12 social studies standards,” Carlstrom said. “But the standards we are currently working on will be more diverse than they have been.”

With the second draft set to be released soon, Leonard hopes that the public understands the difference between ethnic studies and critical race theory.

“They’re not synonymous; they’re not the same thing,” Leonard said. “Ethnic studies is broader and larger than race theory and also critical race theory comes out of legal studies, whereas ethnic studies, they come out of their own discipline. We’re talking about Asian, Latin, African African Americans. We’re talking about Indigenous studies.”

Carlstrom, who drew from his own experience in the classroom, says that it is important for all Minnesota students to see themselves reflected in the curriculum.

“One of our goals with this review of the social studies standards is to create standards that are more diverse because we know one way to engage kids in education is for them to see themselves in the teaching and in that education,” Carlstrom said.

The committee is not alone in this opinion of wanting more diversity. Last May, MDE sent out a survey to parents and teachers about how social studies standards can be improved.

“One of the big pushes coming out of the survey was that there needs to be more diversity. That we need to do a better job of being representative of the state as a whole,” Carlstrom said. “And it’s with an understanding that our state has changed in the last 10 years as it had changed in the tenth year before that. So the standards should not remain a static document, which is why by law we would need to review them every 10 years.”