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Minnesota social-studies standards take a knock

Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center released the results of a study finding that U.S. students’ ignorance of the basic history of the civil-rights movement has worsened. One major cause: states’ poor academic standards.

Based on data drawn from the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the report found that only 2 percent of the 12,000 high-school seniors who took the test could correctly identify the condition that prompted the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Students didn’t even have to identify Brown v. Board of Education as the source of the quote they were given, yet “fully 73 percent either supplied an answer deemed ‘inappropriate’ (by parroting phrases from the question or providing irrelevant information) or simply skipped the question altogether,” according to the report.

Lest you suspect this is an ideologically loaded data set, often referred to as “the Nation’s Report Card,” the NAEPs are the closest thing we have to a gold standard in terms of standardized tests capable of delivering apples-to-apples comparisons of student performance from one state to another. They have been given to a random cross-section of the nation’s student body every year since 1969 by a statistical division of the U.S. Department of Education. 

Minnesota earns an F
Minnesota is one of 34 states that earned an F, meaning our standards include none or less than 20 percent of recommended content. Indeed, as outlined by the report the standards are maddeningly vague.

Fourth- through eighth-graders, for instance, “will explain the changing patterns of society, expanded educational and economic opportunities for military veterans, women and minorities,” and “will explain how Minnesota has both affected and been affected by the events, people and changes in the nation and the world.”


Further states the report: “Minnesota’s existing standards, with its sets of unrelated examples (Malcolm X, the Clean Air Act and Phyllis Schlafly appear in one list without explanation of their relation to one another) lacks clarity.”

(What do Malcolm X, the Clean Air Act and Phyllis Schlafly have to do with one another? As a proud graduate of St. Paul Public Schools, I’m risking serious personal embarrassment here, but I have no idea.)

The benchmarks battle
Dull though they sound, standards are one of the more superheated ideological hot potatoes flying around the education sphere these days. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and most other education-arena folks would like states to adopt a widely applauded, state-developed set of benchmarks known as the Common Core Standards. The Tea Party and religious conservatives fear they are a crack in the door toward a national curriculum.

The battle has been waged, albeit out of view of most people, in Minnesota, too. Bad though it finds our current standards to be, the Southern Poverty Law Center suggests that a proposed set of standards that would take effect in 2013 will be a step backward.

“The state would do better to identify a set of core personalities, events and concepts and organizing [sic] those into a coherent group of standards rather than trying to group all post-World War II movements into a hodgepodge of suggested knowledge,” the document recommends.

 “When it reorganizes these standards, the state would serve its students better by including elements of opposition to avoid conveying the message that the movement was largely inevitable. Omitting the Ku Klux Klan, racism and disenfranchisement tactics, Jim Crow laws and other obstacles seriously distorts the nature of the struggle.”

Do you remember Education Liberty Watch, the advocacy group with deep ties to Rep. Michele Bachmann that played a major role in scuttling a revenue-neutral bill promoting quality in early childhood education because it smacked of — not kidding — a nanny state? Their small but vocal membership has had a lot to say about the proposed new standards.

Lobbying campaign
A taste of their position: “The social studies standards are revisionist, anti-American and anti-capitalist. The national standards are an unconstitutional, one-size-fits all means of eventual federal control of curriculum.” 

The group lobbied (at 39:50 mark on audio link) against them, and the education omnibus bill that passed during the 2011 Legislature’s regular session barred the state from adopting any Common Core Standards. The prohibition disappeared during the special session.

Education Liberty Watch is every bit as disgusted with the way the civil-rights movement is handled as the Southern Poverty Law Center — just from the opposite stance:

“Students then move into the Civil Rights era, complete with a requirement that they ‘analyze’ different movements including African American, Native American, Women, Latino American, and counter culture,” an Education Liberty Watch board member who reviewed the standards posted on the group’s website. 

“Students must also ‘understand the changes in American Indian policy’ and ‘analyze its impact on indigenous nations.’ My guess would be that there would be inadequate coverage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based upon sex and race. I would also surmise that no mention would be made that it was the Republican Party that fought for civil rights for all, the Democratic Party that fought against such rights, and that civil rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican.”

Struggling with the truthiness of this last assertion? Remember, this was the advocacy group that launched a homeschooler who recently signed a public proclamation that asserted that during slavery, African-American kids at least had two parents.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by John Hakes on 10/03/2011 - 10:26 am.

    Here’s one take: http://tinyurl.com/4cwfkyx

    Though written in May, it’s advice still timely.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/03/2011 - 11:00 am.

    As a former practitioner, and someone who’s actually done historical research in both academic and “on the ground” contexts, I’m ambivalent about standards. On the one hand, as long as educational “progress” is going to be judged to any significant degree by standardized tests, having standards as guidelines seems like a no-brainer. On the other hand, standards typically either impose a particular worldview, which seems sure to provoke outraged reaction from a differing worldview, or they’re so vague as to be meaningless, thus of no value at all.

    Education Liberty Watch provides a nice example of the former, Beth’s quoted example is a nice example of the latter.

    Either way, social studies standards – if we’re going to have standards – are representative of “humanities” courses of study in general, and are among the most difficult to write precisely because there’s a worldview involved. Efforts to avoid antagonizing pressure groups at various points on the political spectrum, often at opposite ends, usually end up providing “standards” that mimic the 4th-through-8th grade example that Beth provided – they don’t mean anything, and measuring “progress” toward achievement of those standards ends up being more an exercise in semantics than actual knowledge gained.

    The ELW board member is both correct and not-so-much in the quoted comments about the civil rights movement. The notion of civil rights for blacks certainly DID begin, and for some time remained, as the province of the Republican Party, while being staunchly opposed by Democrats. We did, after all, fight a bloody civil war over the question of slavery, though some southerners still insist, disingenuously, that the conflict was over “states’ rights.” Neither party’s position necessarily had much to do with any genuine commitment to, or aversion toward, legal and social equity among the nation’s various ethnic and racial groups, especially blacks. “Slavery” and “equality” were two different issues.

    Without launching into a lecture on post-Civil War history, I’ll just say that there’s some truth to the notion that northerners favored equal treatment of blacks as a group, but not so much for individuals, while southerners tended toward the reverse, finding equal treatment of individuals to be relatively natural, but equal rights for blacks as a group to be more than most could even contemplate.

    And all of that history ignores the most recent generation, during which those positions have largely reversed themselves, with Democrats supporting the actual application and expansion of civil rights while Republicans opposed the trend. Martin Luther King, Jr., may have been a Republican when the Civil Rights Act was passed, but if he had lived, I have a hard time seeing him as a supporter of any of the current crop of Republican candidates, including Herman Cain.

    “Revisionist” historical accounts can sometimes be problematic when they’re following a particular ideological agenda, but they can also sometimes be more accurate than the more widely-accepted view. Historical accuracy is neither pro-nor-anti anything, necessarily, and if the story that ELW wants told to Minnesota children has to be strictly pro-American and pro-capitalist, then it’s not history.

    It’s propaganda.

  3. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 10/03/2011 - 12:05 pm.

    “Minnesota is one of 34 states that earned an F, meaning our standards include none or less than 20 percent of recommended content. Indeed, as outlined by the report the standards are maddeningly vague.”

    Just to clarify, Minnesota earned an F from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s standpoint, not the nation’s report card, right?

  4. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/03/2011 - 12:42 pm.

    The last bit about the stance of the two parties is true. However, they were very different parties, then. They no longer stand for the same values they did at the time of the Civil Rights movement.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/03/2011 - 12:58 pm.

    Struggling with the truthiness of this last assertion?

    Not at all, but apparently you are. The 1964 civil rights act was passed by a greater percentage of republican legislators than democrat, with Al Gore’s father being only one of the more famous democrats to fight against it.

    The original House version:[12]

    Democratic Party: 152-96 (61%-39%)
    Republican Party: 138-34 (80%-20%)

    The Senate version:[12]

    Democratic Party: 46-21 (69%–31%)
    Republican Party: 27-6 (82%–18%)

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/03/2011 - 01:11 pm.

    Rachel, up until the 1960s, most of the black population voted republican, the party of freedom. The party that freed the slaves. The party that voted overwhelmingly for the civil rights bill in 1964.

    The party of moral values, religious liberty, 2nd amendment rights, self-reliance and entrepreneurship that attracted the black community to the party hasn’t changed at all. What changed was that the Left convinced a majority of the black population that their future lied, not with self-reliance and entrepreneurship, but with big government anti-poverty programs.

    The result has been a disaster. Older black Americans like Herman Cain were raised and educated before the Left hijacked the public schools, which explains why his views reflect the commonly-held political views of black people of his generation.

    And you’ll never read THAT in the “modern” social studies standards, will you?

  7. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 10/03/2011 - 01:40 pm.

    Peter: Yes, the F was handed out by the SPLC, but it was calculated using objective data.

    And Dennis, et. al.: You are correct about the Civil Rights Act votes. But I do think that asserting that asking for standards that cast the pursuit of civil rights as a Republican effort opposed by Democrats, period, is not telling the capital-T truth. Rather, this seems to underscore Ray’s point about standards and worldview.

    Another item, while we’re on the topic: A couple of years ago I sat in an elementary school cafeteria in a western suburb and watched as my younger son’s second-grade class, in honor of African American History Month, which somehow got recast as civil rights month, sang a ditty sung to the tune of “Day-o” that credited George W. Bush with “bringing the civil rights era to a close.” It was quite clear that his music teacher did not mean putting an end to civil rights, but eliminating discrimination altogether. My boy and I have been waiting in joyous anticipation.

  8. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/03/2011 - 02:11 pm.

    Black history is an important piece of American history; but this story needs some context.

    A 2005 survey by the ABA found that nearly half of all Americans were unable to correctly identify the three branches of government.


    And I’m sure everyone has, by now seen the pathetic understanding of issues as displayed by folks that contributed to ’08’s huge voter turnout.


    Problems? Oh yeah, we got ’em.

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/03/2011 - 02:54 pm.

    Mr. Tester is quite correct in tallying up the votes for the 1964 Civil Rights Act in #5. Some of us, of course, don’t read condemnation of one party or glorification of another party into those results. Both parties supported that legislation with substantial majorities, and yes, more Republicans voted for it than Democrats – pretty much in line with what I suggested earlier.

    I think, however, that Mr. Tester is off-base in #6. Indeed, up until the 1960s, most of the black population voted Republican precisely BECAUSE it was seen, correctly, as “the party of freedom” from slavery. Only a few years later, however, the Republican party began its drift away from its historical positions of fiscal conservatism and gradual social change to its current one of fiscal irresponsibility and social reaction.

    “…The party of moral values, religious liberty, 2nd amendment rights, self-reliance and entrepreneurship that attracted the black community to the party hasn’t changed at all. What changed was that the Left convinced a majority of the black population that their future lied, not with self-reliance and entrepreneurship, but with big government anti-poverty programs…

    And you’ll never read THAT in the “modern” social studies standards, will you?”

    As I suggested earlier, the “…party of moral values” paragraph above represents a worldview. What moral values does serial adulterer Newt Gingrich represent by divorcing wife #2 as she lay in a hospital bed suffering from cancer? To what moral value should we ascribe Michele Bachmann’s aversion to facts? What religious liberty is implied by statements from several prominent “conservative” figures that this has “always” been a “Christian nation” when the Constitution is profoundly silent regarding Christianity? Are there none but Republicans who own guns, or believe the 2nd Amendment means just what it says? Does everyone who’s not a Republican rely on charity or government? Are there no self-supporting Democrats? Are none but Republicans entrepreneurs? And so on.

    As for Mr. Tester’s last line, I’m inclined to agree. You won’t read his paragraph about “moral values” in social studies standards – at least I hope not – because it doesn’t represent “history” or “truth,” but a particular, and in my opinion, a particularly narrow, worldview. Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” presents a quite contradictory worldview. Derrick Jensen’s “Endgame: The Problem of Civilization” differs from both in suggesting a worldview profoundly different from both.

    For a change, I almost agree with Mr. Swift, who correctly points out that we’re a nation of historical and political illiterates. In a political system that requires public votes in order to function, that’s a big problem. For every corrupt and inept politician from the left, there’s an equally corrupt and inept politician on the right. Ignorance on the part of people who vote Democratic – the sorts of people that Mr. Swift would prefer not vote at all – is easily matched by ignorance on the part of people who vote Republican – the sorts of people that others would also prefer not vote at all. It’s the ignorance of both groups that gets us into trouble – and that Thomas Jefferson and numerous others over the years have found worrisome. That same ignorance works to the benefit, alas, of demagogues of many political persuasions and worldviews.

  10. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/03/2011 - 05:05 pm.

    Dennis, you certainly get an F in history.

    While you are right about the civil rights votes, you are very wrong about what happened afterwards. A lot of those Democrats who opposed civil rights left the Democratic party and became Republicans, while those who stayed came around. African Americans became Democratic voters because the Democrats stood for civil rights and the Republican party – at least the southern version – stood for racism.

  11. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/03/2011 - 10:22 pm.

    Dan, it’s true that many conservative democrats from the patriotic south became republicans, but it was because their democrat party was becoming the home of those opposed to the war against communism in SE Asia and they feared the party was drifting too far left towards socialism in their big-government domestic proposals. Most of the racists didn’t switch parties. Democrats like senator and KKK member Robert Byrd of West Virgina, Gore of Tennessee and Fulbright of Arkansas, were all too comfortable staying right where they were.

    Even today, black people of Herman Cain’s generation would rather own a small business than work in government, are more likely to be Christian than godless athiest, are more likely to believe in self-defense than support gun control, more likely to support school choice through vouchers than mandatory government schools, more likely to support individual retirement accounts that can be passed on to the next generation, than social security benefits that most black men will never see because they don’t live long enough.

    Mr. Cain said the other day that he would probably get 30% of the black vote if he got the GOP nomination. I’m guessing he’s referring to those, like himself, who were raised and educated prior to 1970.

  12. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 10/04/2011 - 09:48 am.

    dennis, by your last post the biggest reason you get an “F” is confusing opinion with fact. You’d probably agree with the conclusions of “revisionist, anti-American and anti-capitalist”, even though these are just opinions.

  13. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/05/2011 - 08:33 am.

    Jackson, since you don’t know me or my history, I’ll simply dismiss your comments and give you an “Incomplete” because I’m a generous grader.

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