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State officials get an earful on proposed social studies standards

Hearings extended for more input before final adoption


Proposed changes in what your kids learn in their social studies classes are drawing fire from some Kent County parents and teachers, as well as many others around Michigan.

About 80 people turned out at the Kent ISD last week for a hearing hosted by the Michigan Department of Education on proposed changes to the state’s K-12 social studies curriculum standards. They include deleting references to gay rights, climate change, and the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion; decreasing references to organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and the removal of the word “democratic” from the phrase “democratic core values.”

No one spoke out in favor of the new standards at the hearing, while some claimed the changes are politically motivated. The standards are the state’s expectations for what students are to learn in each grade, though teachers are free to devise their own lesson plans for teaching them.

“To accept the standards as proposed would validate their politicization. You don’t want to go there,” said Jeff Johnston, a Wyoming resident and father of four. “It is a mistake from which we will not easily recover and we cannot afford to make.”

Educators and university experts have been working on the new standards for more than four years. However, some of the changes now under consideration were instituted by a 21-member focus group that included state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor in next month’s primary election. Colbeck was invited to join the group after submitting 13 pages of suggested changes, though no Democratic legislators were, according to Bridge magazine.

“This whole thing reeks of someone running for governor,” said Caitie Oliver of Lowell, a social worker for Grand Rapids Public Schools. “I don’t appreciate the education of my students and my children being held captive by people who are using it as a political maneuver.”

Jeff Johnston, a Wyoming parent, said adopting the proposed social studies standards would be “a mistake”

Interest Prompts More Hearings

The hearing was held June 28, the day before state officials extended the deadline for receiving public comments on the standards. The deadline was to have been June 30, but has now been extended to Sept. 30, with a projected spring 2019 date for the standards to be presented to the state Board of Education. Interim State Superintendent Sheila Alles said the extension reflects “the great level of interest” in the changes, and that more “listen and learn” hearings will be added to the 11 already conducted.

However, an official with the state superintendent’s office says the end date is not set in stone.

“There is no deadline. We’ll keep going until we get it right,” said Linda Forward, a senior executive policy administrator with the superintendent’s office. She noted that the current standards approved in 2007 went through three rewrites before being presented to the state board, and additional changes were approved by the board itself.

Forward and Jim Cameron, a consultant who helped write the new standards, agreed the proposed removal of the word “democratic” from the oft-repeated phrase “core democratic values” has generated the most common objections at hearings around the state. Forward says the writers were trying to strike a balance between the use of the words “democratic” and “republic.” The proposed standards add the words “a constitutional republic” in several places to describe American democracy.

“We are a democracy, because we make decisions via democratic process,” Forward said. “We are a constitutional republic, because we are a republic and we were designed by a constitution. All three of those words have real meaning, and getting them in the right place with the right meaning is critical in the process.”

Colbeck was quoted by Bridge magazine as saying the phrase “core democratic values (is) not politically neutral. I’m not proposing core republican values, either.”

Deleting History?

Madelyn Cox, who teaches world history and U.S. history at the West Michigan Aviation Academy in Grand Rapids, spoke out against proposed changes to high school standards that would eliminate references to individual minority groups, including people of color and those who are LGBTQ.

“A lot of these groups are already marginalized in textbooks,” Cox said, noting that she often has to do her own research to address the lack of information in textbooks on these groups. “I think if we continue to write these groups out of our textbooks and our standards, we’re going to write them out of history. I don’t think we can let that happen.”

The new standards also added in language, backed by Sen. Colbeck, on “how the expansion of rights for some groups can be viewed as an infringement of rights and freedoms of others.”

Cameron, the MDOE consultant and a former social studies teacher in Saline, issued a word of caution about the proposed standards, saying just because something is not included does not mean an individual teacher cannot teach the subject matter.

“How you teach, what you teach is a classroom decision, an instructional decision,” Cameron said. “Those are left up to local schools, local districts to decide which examples to include or not to include.”

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Proposed changes to Michigan K-12 social studies standards

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