NC Board of Education vote expected on changes to social studies classes

Posted February 3, 2021 5:41 p.m. EST
Updated February 4, 2021 8:12 a.m. EST

— North Carolina’s 1.5 million students should study their nation’s past achievements and failures “so we can understand where it might lead us today,” Superintendent Catherine Truitt has written in a new preamble to the state’s proposed social studies standards.

After a week of calls and emails from the public — sent to both Truitt and the 12 state Board of Education members — about the state’s proposed new social studies standards, Truitt stuck with the state’s proposal but drafted the preamble to outline the purpose of social studies education in the state.

During their meeting Wednesday, board members continued to debate the standards, which repeatedly emphasize the study of history from the perspective of a variety of groups, including traditionally marginalized people.

The board will vote Thursday on adopting new social studies standards.

Five of the board members said they favor the proposed standards, while four voiced opposition Wednesday morning. Alan Duncan, who expressed concern about the standards last week, said Wednesday he believes the proposed standards would allow for teachers to address the things board members have brought up in discussion.

Among those who favor the proposed standards, some have still favored the earlier draft of standards — “Draft 4” that kept the terms “systemic racism,” “systemic discrimination” and “gender identity.” The only difference between Drafts 4 and 5 are the uses of those terms. Draft 5 changes the uses of those terms to “racism,” “discrimination” and “identity” — a change Truitt made after board pushback against the terms’ use in Draft 4. The shorter terms are more inclusive of different types of racism, discrimination and identity, Truitt has said.

Debate over the proposed standards has been heated, as divisions over the changes have reflected national divisions on how history should be taught in schools.

At issue is whether the proposed standards teach enough of the negative history of the United States to inspire progress or whether they do enough to encourage students to feel positively about their country to inspire unity.

The proposed standards emphasize teaching history from multiple perspectives, including discussing racism, marginalized groups and the impact of policies on different populations. Students may be asked to compare narratives of different perspectives, critique systems and practices or explain how inequities continue today.

Example topics for students to compare perspectives on include — according to a snapshot of supporting documents to be delivered to the board later — the Trail of Tears, the Wilmington Coup, the Haymarktet Riot and the Occupation of Alcatraz.

Truitt emphasized that the standards are not curriculum and that the board will vote separately, as previously agreed upon, to approve supporting documents that guide districts and teachers on forming social studies curriculum.

“They are not a curriculum and do not limit individual teachers’ or district decisions about what historical events to explore,” the preamble reads.

Truitt herself listed Native American oppression, anti-Catholicism and Jim Crow laws as ills to address in classrooms. Yet, she said, schools should also teach about how the U.S. Constitution formed the first organized democracy since Ancient Rome and that the U.S. eventually ended its own practicing evil of slavery.

Question of divisiveness

Much of the opposition Wednesday concerned whether the additions to the standards — of more study of diverse perspectives and continuing inequality — skewed the standards too far.

Olivia Oxendine, Amy White and Todd Chasteen opposed the proposed standards, saying that they wanted more history added to them.

Oxendine and White said they want more references to the more recent progress the country has made toward racial equity, including advancements in the diversity of people holding public office.

Oxendine said was “so pleased” the Native American perspective is repeatedly emphasized throughout the standards.

However, she said, “the standards do not explore and examine and raise to the right elevation the progress this country has made past the Civil Rights era.”

Todd Chasteen said the proposed standards were slanted as written and were specific only in references to diverse perspectives and inclusion. If the standards want to go over history’s ills, he said, they should also include specific references to fascism and socialism.

Others in favor of the proposed standards weren’t as fearful of how students would react to being taught under the proposed standards’ framework.

Board member James Ford called the idea that adding to the social studies standards would create a division a “paradox.”

Board Chairman Eric Davis said he understood how negative history can stir up negative emotions.

“I must admit I do get angry for being blamed for what happened before my lifetime,” Davis, who is white, said.

But what makes him even angrier is the idea that he wouldn’t be able to handle the truth, or the idea that he could find out the truth and realize authorities above him had kept it from him.

Davis supports the most recent draft of proposed standards and said he trusts students to be able to handle the history taught to them.

“I have no doubt they will respond with increased admiration…increased love for their country and each other, if we first believe in them,” he said.

Ford said he’s gotten emails from people who want students to be taught to love their country and emails from people who want unbiased truth from which students can draw their own conclusions.

Ford, a social studies teacher, said many people seem to fear that teaching non-dominant perspectives on history will turn students’ love of their country into hate for it and “we will lose our country as we know it.”

“I get that. I do,“ Ford said. “But I want to tell you that the notion that if you don’t blindly gush with unquestioning adoration for your nation then you are un-American, un-Democratic or teaching hate, that these are extremist positions.”

Those positions only see “poles on each end of the debate without seeing complexity or nuance.”

Telling other people’s stories requires students and educators to think critically about them, Ford said. The nation is more diverse now than it used to be, making teaching more diverse perspectives imperative, he said.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, however, cited the concern of the general public as one of his reasons for opposing the proposed standards. He’s aid several thousand people have signed a petition on his website declaring concern with the standards. The state needs to “go back to the drawing board,” he said.

“There are enough people in this state that have questions, concerns about these standards,” he said.

Background on proposed standards

For the most part, the state’s social studies standards wouldn’t change under the proposal, but objectives within them would be added or expanded, particularly at the high school level.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction develops the standards, which are the framework under which school districts and charter schools develop their own curriculum. The North Carolina Board of Education must approve new standards. The department additionally provides supporting documents for implementation, which department officials will present to the board, but the board doesn’t vote on them.

A new state law requiring students to take a personal finance and economics course in high school prompted the social studies standards revision.

Current social studies standards, reviewed by WRAL, repeatedly state that students will study the history from a variety of perspectives. The proposed standards expand instances to do so and specify different groups to include. The proposed standards broaden topics for students to master and evaluate, such as slavery, forced migration and other discriminatory practices in U.S. history.

For instance, the standards add more objectives for students in the high school-level Founding Principles course. To meet the standard of being able to understand how individual rights and the U.S. system of government have evolved over time, educators now have two more objectives for Founding Principles students:

“To explain how the experiences and achievements of minorities and marginalized people have contributed to the protection of individual rights and ‘equality and justice for all’ over time.”

“Exemplify ways individuals have demonstrated resistance and resilience to inequities, injustice, and discrimination within the American system of government over time.”

That’s in addition to four existing objectives for students. One objective — to explain what led to the Founding Fathers’ development of the nation’s democratic republic — has not been altered. Three others have been altered to be more specific:

”Summarize the historical development of the governments of both the United States and North Carolina” has been changed to “Compare competing narratives of the historical development of the United States and North Carolina in terms of how each depicts race, women, tribes, identity, ability, and religious groups.”

”Interpret historical and current perspectives on the evolution of individual rights in America over time” has been changed to “Interpret historical and current perspectives on the evolution of individual rights in America over time, including women, tribal, racial, religious, identity, and ability.”

“Explain the impact of social movements and political groups on government changes, both current and in the past” has been changed to “Explain the impact of social movements and reform efforts on governmental change, both current and in the past.”

The proposal removes one objective from another high school-level course, American History, and replaced it with two new objectives, under the standard of understanding movement, settlement and expansion:

“Explain the impact of movement and settlement on the environment and culture of various place and regions” has been removed. Two new objectives have been added under that standard:

“Explain the reasons for and effects of forced and voluntary migration on societies, individuals and groups over time.”

“Explain how slavery, forced migration, immigration, reconcentration and other discriminatory practices have changed population distributions and regional culture.”

In eighth grade, the objective to explain injustices and response to injustices in North Carolina and the U.S. has been changed to specify injustices: “slavery, segregation, voter suppression, reconcentration, and other discriminatory practices.” The objective also stipulates that students be able to explain how those practices have been used to “suppress and exploit certain groups” rather than explaining how those practices have “shaped” the state and nation.

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