Curriculum History

2011 MN Social Standards: a step forward

I just submitted a letter supporting the proposed 2011 standards.  Guidelines for submitting are here.  While the standards are not perfect, in my view, they are definitely an improvement over what we have now and what we would get if the process becomes politicized.  Since there is organized opposition to the new standards I wanted to voice my strong support for the current standards a step forward.  Here is my letter:

To the Honorable Judge Barbara L. Nielson

Thank you for accepting written comments regarding the proposed rules of the MDE Social Studies Academic Standards (OAH Docket No. 11- 1300-30011). I am a veteran social studies teacher, and I strongly support for the 2011 Social Studies Standards. These standards are a significant improvement over the current standards, and I believe that they will be better framework within which to prepare students for citizenship and academic success in the 21st Century.

These improved standards were the product of an improved process that included more than thirty social studies teachers. I believe that as a result of this inclusion the 2011 standards are more realistic and more in tune with best practices in teaching and in the social studies disciplines. Specifically, I applaud the committee for emphasizing historical thinking, limiting the number of benchmarks, and maintaining an inclusive curriculum.

As a history teacher I am glad that the 2011 standards, particularly Substrand One of the history standards, emphasize historical thinking along with specific pieces of historical knowledge. The discipline of history can help students develop crucial reading, writing, and critical thinking skills; or, it can numb their curiousity with rote memorization of specific facts. I am glad that the new standards acknowledge the possibility of the former and decrease the risk of the latter. Our students will need to work with information as adults, whatever their career, and teaching historical thinking can help to prepare them for this future.

These critical thinking skills will be easier to emphasize with fewer benchmarks.If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Covering fewer topics makes planning more clear, facilitates collaboration between staff, and allows for greater depth of coverage. Too many benchmarks can defeat the purpose of standards by allowing every individual classroom teacher to make their own priorities, because no class can come close to standards that are too broad. The 2004 World History standards for high school, for instance, contained so many specific benchmarks that no course could come close to covering all of them, so individual districts and teachers were simply picking topics from a very long list.

The smaller number of World History, and other, benchmarks in the 2011 standards fits better with the movement of education toward teaching to mastery, then the voluminous 2004 standards. All of the social studies teachers in my district, and all of the social studies teachers whom I know in other districts, are organized into professional learning communities whose task it is to assess student mastery of specific learning targets, and provide opportunities for remediation or enrichment for individual students. This difficult, but potentially revolutionary, work is made much easier by a more limited set of targets. Put simply, the current best practices in education encourage limiting the number of learning targets, but insisting that students hit them. Long strings of notable information, such as the 2004 standards, are essentially wish lists. Being serious about mastery means making hard choices about what topics to cover. In fact, I would advocate limiting the benchmarks even more than the current standards do, but I recognize that this is a very difficult task.

Finally, I am very glad that the 2011 standards emphasize inclusivity and the experiences of a broad range of people in the US and in the world. All of our students should see themselves reflected in the curriculum. The US and Minnesota History standards rightly represent our richly diverse history, and the World History standards present the full world. In these cases the standards reflect changes in the discipline of history that began half of a century ago. Our students will soon be entering an increasingly globalized economy and culture. They will if outdated assumptions about American exceptionalism are blinders to the experiences of others.

Thank you for your consideration of my comments on this matter. Crafting Social Studies Standards is inherently contentious in a free society, and I know that these standards are not perfect. I do think that the 2011 standards represent real progress for social studies education in Minnesota. As a father of a school age daughter, a social studies teacher, and a citizen of Minnesota, I believe the 2011Social Studies Standards should be adopted as is.

Very sincerely yours,

Eric Beckman

Social Studies Teacher Anoka High School

Member of District 11 grade 11 World History Curriculum Writing Team

Member of the Board of Directors for the Minnesota Council for History Education

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

Let me know what you think!

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