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State Board of Education to vote on changes to social studies classes

Posted February 2, 2021 5:30 p.m. EST
Updated February 3, 2021 1:52 p.m. EST

— On Wednesday, the North Carolina Board of Education discussed changing the way students in North Carolina public schools learn about diversity and inclusion in social studies classes.

Under a new proposal, public schools in the state would include topics like the oppression and contribution of women, racial groups and religious groups in social studies classes. The board will vote Thursday on changes discussed Wednesday.

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.

This is the latest draft of the standards, which the board directed in July to address diversity and inclusion.

On Tuesday, the North Carolina Family Policy Centers, which focuses on preserving the Judeo-Christian values associated with western civilization, released a letter opposing the proposed standards, arguing the language of some of the new objectives implies the U.S. is indifferent to racial inequities and that they fail to acknowledge that progress has been made.

“In addition, many of the proposals call for a 'critique' of certain areas of study, which can be read to imply or suggest a negative or critical perspective,” the NC Family letter reads. “Instead, we suggest replacing this word with 'evaluate,' which would encourage a more neutral, open-minded approach."

The criticism echoes comments made last week by state Board of Education members who opposed the proposed standards.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a board member, held a news conference Tuesday afternoon arguing that systemic racism, which believes is implied in the standards, doesn’t exist and shouldn’t be taught in schools.

The North Carolina Democratic Party has condemned Robinson’s comments on the proposed standards. Party representatives contend systemic racism — the idea that systems have racism built in them intentionally or unintentionally — does exist and that teaching painful parts of U.S. history is essential for making the country better.

But also on Tuesday, Equality North Carolina, an LGBTQ rights advocacy group, released a letter in support of the proposed standards. They would encourage North Carolina educators to discuss “systemic discrimination, systemic racism, gender identity and the perspectives of marginalized groups,” the group wrote.

“Historically, institutions, including education, have erased histories of marginalized groups, namely Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ histories,” Equality NC wrote. “These erasures have a lived impact on our communities both from a policy perspective and within our day-today-lives.”

Last week, state board members and advisors favoring the proposed standards contended they were honest to U.S. history and that they would help facilitate challenging conversations students already want to have and better prepare them for the future.

The proposed standards don’t include references to “systemic racism,” “systemic discrimination” or “gender identity,” although those terms were initially included. After state Board fo Education feedback, the terms were changed to “racism,” “discrimination” and “identity,” with broad glossary definitions for each. Opponents of the terms as previously written argued that “systemic racism” didn’t exist, but state Superintendent Catherine Truitt said the terms were changed because they needed to include different types of racism, discrimination and identity.

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 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 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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