Local educators and students weighed in on the proposed revision of State Social Studies Standards — under debate and hotly contested for the past five years — during a session hosted recently at Kent ISD by the Michigan Department of Education.
Teachers said despite controversy and disagreement about what’s in the standards, once in the classroom, instruction is mainly up to them. Rockford teacher Tiffany Sjoerdsma spoke of the importance of public comment, but stressed the process shouldn’t be so lengthy it holds up educating Michigan students.
“I’m here to hopefully get us moving forward,” said Sjoerdsma, a sixth-grade teacher. “I think as we spend our time looking at all the little, tiny pieces, debating things back and forth and letting politics dictate overall what is happening for education, it will take us forever to agree.
“I feel that it truly does come down to the local district,” she stressed. “We do have to have the basic understanding of certain things, but the examples of some of the things they list there will be determined in the individual curriculums in each district.”
Approval in the Near Future?
For the past five years, the social studies community has updated and reviewed the Michigan Social Studies Standards. MDE consultant Jim Cameron hopes they are in the final stretch toward approval. The state board has hosted 27 public comment sessions and numerous committee and focus group meetings with experts from all corners of the state.
Standards in different content areas are typically examined every seven or eight years, but this round of updates has been atypical, said Cameron, who taught 37 years of United States and Michigan history and economics at Saline High School. Public comment is now closed and the framework could be adopted at the State Board of Education meeting June 11.
Cameron’s team has faced the board other times and left with orders to regroup and try again. “This is much longer than any other (standards revision) in any content area,” Cameron said. “I was part of the 1995 social studies standards and that didn’t take anywhere near this long.
“We made a few changes the first year and over the next couple years it got very political; went back and forth — too conservative, too liberal,” Cameron explained. “It’s kind of hard to hit that middle sweet spot.”
Partisanship seeped in. Things were taken out, and placed back in. Debates over Roe v. Wade, climate change, and many other left vs. right political battles lengthened the process. Last fall’s comment sessions resulted in more than 800 participants and 5,000 responses.
“What this group says tonight can influence what we change,” Cameron explained at the Kent ISD session. “Are we a democracy or a republic? I bet we could spend the next year debating that. Different people define those words in different ways.”
Considering it at a Classroom Level
Linda Forward, senior executive policy adviser at the MDE, explained the local angle of social studies instruction.
“As any teacher knows, you modify it for the group of kids that are sitting in front of you,” said Forward, who spent many years teaching as well. “The department takes care of standards and the rest is done at the local level.”
Session participants spoke about what they want to see highlighted and included. Forest Hills Northern High School sophomore Channi Mangat spoke about his religion, Sikhism, and how it should be included in the new standards.
“I’m here today because I want to let other people know there’s a difference between Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam,” Mangat said. “We have a completely different message. There is only one God and the only thing that matters is the connection with God.”
Similar to other commenters who wanted their religions stressed, Mangat wants people to know the facts of his religion.
Other attendees spoke about the deep roots of Christianity in the formation of the United States and didn’t want social studies textbooks to lose sight of that. Others asked why standards need to be written/revised by big government and wondered why they can’t be handled on the local level.
Gertrude Croom, retired Grand Rapids Community College professor, said she attended because of a concern for Michigan students overall, and spoke about the global economy they need to work and live in.
“I’m here to say that I want to at least contribute something,” said Croom, a retired political science and anthropology professor. “What happens to students in the community and overall in the world? … I was a little surprised at when this is going into effect. As fast as our society is evolving, some of these standards are going to be questioned.”
Grandville eighth-grade teacher Blake Mazurek agreed that educators, themselves, make instruction relevant.
“When it comes to the standards, they are the anchor, the core, but then it goes to us, the teacher, to take that and make it understandable to young people,” said Mazurek, who teaches U.S. history. “This is the craft of teaching. We need to make sure we are empowering teachers with the proper skills, training and passion to take those standards and basically bring the understanding to the kids. We collaborate and talk about how to take a difficult concept and make eighth-graders understand and care about it.”
He said history and social studies has been put in the “backseat” of education
“We are also helping to foster and create better citizens. They can be a whiz at math, but if they don’t understand their civic duty, and responsibilities to themselves, their families and their communities, then we’ve missed a big portion of their education.”
Is the U.S. a Democracy? A Social Studies Battle Turns on the Nation’s Values