May 7, 2004

Minnesota Senate Pulls The Switcheroo on Social Studies

The Minnesota Senate, working against time to complete their business before a mandated adjournment date, thumbed its nose at the House by passing an alternate set of Social Studies requirements that conflict with those passed weeks ago by the House:

The DFL-dominated Senate gave its approval Thursday to a set of social studies requirements for all Minnesota students that goes lighter on the facts and heavier on the analysis than its more knowledge-based counterpart passed by the House in March. ... The chief author of the policy bill, Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, said he didn't think differences in the general principles of what's required in the two versions were that big.

But a major difference is in the number of people, places and events kids are required to know. In the Senate social studies standards, those are generally left up to the teacher, though numerous examples are provided. The House version, which has stirred up controversy over what critics contend is its Republican-white-male bias and Trivial Pursuit-like emphasis on meaningless facts, has a more extensive list of specifics that kids need to know.

For a detailed analysis of the competing policies, read Prof. King Banian's excellent series at SCSU Scholars. However, the article tells us all we need to know about the sellout job the Senate passed yesterday. First off, the "requirements" wind up being nothing but guidelines that don't require teachers to instruct anything specific regarding people, places, and events. I understand the effort to teach to grand themes, but unfortunately you cannot build the comprehension needed to cover grand themes unless you have at least some grounding in the people, places, and events. Try teaching about the evils of American slavery and its eventual bloody end, for instance, when your students don't understand the significance of the Missouri Compromise, Harper's Ferry, or any of the economic issues that fed slavery for generations.

But even more than the specifics, the process used to develop the Senate version fall back to the typical, corrosive paternalism that the education industry demonstrates on every issue. The House used citizen groups and education professionals alike to develop their proposals, giving parents significant input into the final product. The Senate, engaging in a political war to discredit Governor Tim Pawlenty's education commissioner Cheri Yecke, instead had their proposal drafted in a short period of time by UM professors, without any formal process of review by the communities that will wind up bound by them. It is a naked partisan ploy with no purpose except a tactical method of keeping pressure on Yecke and Pawlenty, and it rejects the long and grueling effort by their constituents that led to the House version.

Arrogance and paternalism have been the hallmarks of the DFL's engagement with state politics and the Minnesota electorate. Perhaps their constituencies will finally understand that the DFL stopped listening to parents on education issues a long time ago, having sold them out to the teachers' union, and make some long-overdue changes in November.


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