Minnesota judge OKs new social studies standards

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 24, 2013 - 7:39 PM

Minnesota curriculum plan was challenged as “anti-American,” but judge found it reasonable.

Minnesota schools are free to implement new standards for teaching social studies after a judge ruled against critiques that the curriculum reflected a liberal and “anti-American” bias

Administrative Law Judge Barbara Neilson’s decision in the ideological battle over competing views of how to teach the American story called the new standards “needed and reasonable.” She ruled that they can be adopted as planned for the 2013-2014 school year.

Neilson was asked to mediate a dispute between the Department of Education and a group of mostly conservative critics, led by Education Liberty Watch and a number of Republican legislators.

In her decision, Neilson addressed the criticisms and the responses from the department on each point, such as whether the standards ignored the concept of “American exceptionalism,” removed the role of God-given rights from the discussion and unfairly called the U.S. a “democracy” rather than a “republic.”

In each case, Neilson found the responses by the Department of Education to be reasonable and based on current research, although she did not wade into the details of each controversy.

“It is inevitable that there will be disagreement between people about the content that should be included in academic standards, particularly where, as here, the subject matter involves such controversial topics as economics, history, government and ‘human’ geography,” the judge wrote. She said these are topics about which “reasonable minds may be divided.”

But she said the state agency is “legally entitled to make choices between possible approaches so long as its choice is rational.” And she ruled the Department “has shown there is a rational basis for the proposed standards.”

Charlene Briner, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the department is pleased with the decision and plans to put the standards into effect for the coming school year.

“We’re pleased the judge took time to review everything carefully,” said Briner. “I think it reflects the thoughtful and diligent process that we used to develop and revise the standards. It reflects the input of literally hundreds of Minnesotans who weighed in during the process. We believe the time involved, and their input, made the standards stronger.”

“We’re disappointed,” said Karen Effrem, president of Education Liberty Watch. “We are very sad that the judge ignored the concern of so many people — legislators, attorneys and experts.”

She said she felt there were “procedural and legal concerns” the judge did not address and added there is potential for a legal appeal. “We’re reviewing those options,” she said.

The standards form the backbone for social studies teaching around the state, setting out the concepts students must master. The existing standards grew out of the political battle over the old Profile of Learning in 2004, and break down subjects into four areas — history, geography, economics and citizenship. The proposed new standards cover the same topic areas, but are considerably longer and less acceptable to conservatives than the 2004 standards.

The standards were the result of a series of public meetings and consultation with social studies teachers and experts in the field, the department said.

But critics complained the standards do not describe citizens’ rights as “God-given.” The department responded that this is a religious belief and not widely accepted in the social studies community. The argument over “American exceptionalism” followed many of the same contours, with conservatives contending the standards downplay America’s strengths, while the department argued that students must learn of America’s struggles as well as its strengths. The critics found persistent “liberal bias” throughout, but the department said it relied on research, not interpretations of religious texts.

The judge noted the department’s response that the standards “provide a positive portrayal of America” while also asking students to study “the battles that have been won to provide greater political, economic and social equality.”

She said the department set up a committee that “afforded significant opportunities for input from members of the public, experts, consultants, targeted groups, teachers and special education professionals. The Department also sought the assistance of fifteen expert reviewers with expertise in the areas encompassed by the proposed standards, as well as postsecondary faculty and advanced placement teachers.”

“Accordingly,” the judge concluded, “the Administrative Law Judge finds that the Department has demonstrated that the proposed academic standards are needed and reasonable, and there are no other problems that preclude their adoption.”

Briner said the next steps are to submit the rules to the secretary of state and to Gov. Mark Dayton to be signed into law. Dayton was notified of the decision, she said, and he has previously said he is satisfied the standards were written with the consultation of social studies teachers and experts.

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