NC State Board of Education approves new social studies standards

Posted February 4, 2021 3:22 p.m. EST
Updated February 19, 2021 9:15 a.m. EST

— The North Carolina State Board of Education has approved new social studies standards for the state’s kindergarten through 12th grades that underscore the study of more diverse perspectives on history.

The board voted 7-5 in favor of the standards, which opponents feared did not emphasize enough the study of the country’s progress toward racial equity. Proponents argued the new standards would ensure a more comprehensive and honest history of the U.S. was taught.

Voting in favor were Chairman Eric Davis, Vice Chairman Alan Duncan, Reginald Kenan, Jill Camnitz, Donna Tipton-Rogers, J. Wendell Hall and James Ford.

Voting against were Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, State Treasurer Dale Folwell, Olivia Oxendine, Amy White and Todd Chasteen.

The difference between the current standards and what the board passed Thursday is largely the degree of specificity of the varying perspectives students should consider. Current standards frequently state a “variety” of perspectives. The new ones often specify different races, religions and other groups. Students will be asked to discuss racism, marginalized groups and the impact of policies on different populations. Students will 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 race riots, the Haymarket Riot and the Occupation of Alcatraz.

The social studies standards were being revised in preparation for the upcoming consolidation of American History I and II to just one course. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction began working on them in 2019 and sought public input on the fourth draft.

The motion approved by the board Thursday includes a new preamble to the standards written by Superintendent Catherine Truitt, which states that the standards are a framework intended to teach the full spectrum of history to best help students learn and use the information. It also stipulates the the board must approve the supporting documents that will help educators craft their social studies curriculum.

The board approved Draft 5 of the standards, which removed the terms "systemic racism," "systemic discrimination" and "gender identity" from the document and replaced them with "racism," "discrimination and "identity." Truitt replaced them, arguing that the broader terms allow for many types of racism, discrimination and identity to be considered.

Prior to the vote, Ford made a substitute motion to approve of the Draft 4 standards, which are identical to Draft 5 but for the term changes. That motion failed 2-10, with Ford and Kenan being the only votes in favor.

Ford has contended the existence of systemic racism in the United States isn’t debatable. As an example, he’s noted existing housing and home value disparities and and the co-existing histories of discriminatory actions and policies in housing.

“I’m really convicted on this,” Ford said, before making his motion.

The board has been debating the language change since early January, when Draft 4 was presented at their monthly meeting. The board spent nearly two hours debating it Wednesday morning, after extensive discussion at a specially called meeting last week.

Changing the three terms has the potential to negate some of what the writers of the standards intended, said Rodney D. Pierce, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Red Oak Middle School In Nash County. He volunteered to help revise the eighth-grade social studies standards in 2019.

Changing the three terms could provide leeway to some teachers to feel like they don’t have to address systemic racism, systemic discrimination or gender identity, Pierce said.

“It appears that certain members of the board do not trust the expertise or the intention of the people who are educating the children of North Carolina, but honestly I’m not surprised,” he said.

The debate

Many educators have argued before the board that students are asking to be taught more diverse perspectives on history.

Students will be better prepared to encounter their current society and future society with an education that’s inclusive of perspectives from different races, ethnicities, religions, abilities or other angles, Pierce said.

“If we don’t teach it, all they have to do is go to their phone,” he said. Educators and parents can’t stop children from watching videos, going on social media, learning things from the internet or talking about what they see and hear with their friends.

“So why not teach them about it and teach them to critically analyze the information they’re being presented about and to decide for themselves whether something is right or wrong or should be done or should not be done?” Pierce asked.

On Thursday, the board spent little additional time discussing proposed social studies standards, which were a discussion item on Wednesday’s agenda.

But Robinson, the state's first Black lieutenant governor, reiterated his concern that more than 30,000 people had signed his online petition stating their concern for what was in the standards.

People have just begun learning about the standards and have too many questions, he said, once again urging the board to start the drafting process over again.

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.

Oxendine, White and 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.

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.

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

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

But he said he trusts students to be able to handle the history taught to them.

What's in the standards

For the most part, the state’s social studies standards won’t change, but objectives within them have been added or expanded, particularly at the high school level.

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

For instance, the new 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 marginalization 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 new standards remove one objective from another high school-level course, American History, and replace 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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