An overhaul of what Minnesota's K-12 students learn in social studies classes has gained widespread attention as the state aims to update and expand the subject matter in a particularly heated moment in U.S. history.

The timing of the update is unrelated to current events. State law requires a review and revision of standards for each academic subject every 10 years, and social studies was due for its turn in the 2020-21 school year. Last fall, a 38-member committee of teachers, administrators, college professors and others began sifting through the state's decade-old standards. The goal: ensuring that what's taught in Minnesota classrooms is up to date and includes more people, perspectives and concepts.

Committee member Curtis Johnson, who serves on the Roseville school board, said he and others want schools and teachers to develop lesson plans that better reflect Minnesota's rapidly diversifying student population. And that, he said, requires much more than an extra mention of Black historical figures during Black History Month, or a discussion of Native Americans around the Thanksgiving holiday.

"I love 'Schoolhouse Rock!' but there's more than just the 'Schoolhouse Rock!' version of history," Johnson said, referencing the educational TV series.


In a first draft of the revised standards, released in early December, the committee makes those goals clear from the start. The introduction includes a pledge to highlight a group of people committee members say has previously been underrepresented in the subject.

"Minnesota is the contemporary and ancestral home of the Anishinaabe and Dakota peoples," it reads, "and social studies education on this land will acknowledge and honor their contemporary and historical voices."

The review focuses on the state's standards and benchmarks — the overarching ideas students are expected to learn and understand at each grade level. The proposed revisions emphasize broad concepts of civics, economics, geography and history, as well as critical thinking about how people's background and experiences shape their interactions with others.

For example: The new standards require students to understand the mechanics of how government and democratic societies function and to use economic models to construct an argument and understand personal finance. But they also ask students to dig deeper, learning not just how to analyze historical documents and sources, but to do so while "considering what perspectives and narratives are absent from the available sources."

The proposed standards include evaluating how people interact with the environment, including through climate change, and contemplating how current social and environmental problems are linked to events of the past "in order to imagine and work toward an equitable and caring future."

Matt Carlstrom, a longtime social studies teacher at Deer River High School in northern Minnesota and one of the leaders of the review committee, said the group has spent time discussing the addition of more ethnic studies to the standards. Carlstrom said he thinks about the changes through the lens of his own students, half of whom are Anishinaabe.

"How are they represented in the standards?" he said. "Not only how, but how much and where?"

Carlstrom said those kinds of considerations have made some people uncomfortable. Among the wave of feedback provided in a series of virtual town hall meetings and through e-mail has been both strong support for and vehement criticism of the idea of increasing the profile of groups that used to get little mention in history classes. Some of the biggest concerns have been from people who fear the revisions are overly political or aim to displace prominent historical figures.

'Building the future'

In a Minnesota Senate committee hearing last month, several Republican lawmakers said they'd been hearing from people with deep concerns about topics that appeared to have been left out of the initial draft released to the public. Among those topics: major historical events including the American Revolution, the Holocaust and World War II.

"There seems to be an awful lot of ideology involved, as opposed to knowledge and understanding," said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, who later introduced a bill that would delay the standards review and dissolve the existing committee.

Bobbie Burnham, assistant commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Education, said last week that the draft was never meant to be a comprehensive list of required subjects. Instead, she said, it was "just a reflection of the work done as of December 1."

"Rest assured that historical U.S. and world events like World War II and the Holocaust are being taught in Minnesota schools, and will continue to be taught," she said.

Many of the benchmarks that did make the first draft expand on the current standards, adding references to groups of people or ideas or tying them to current events.

Ninth-graders studying the post-U.S. Civil War era of Reconstruction, for example, would study the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution — and consider how historical efforts to disenfranchise Black people freed from slavery are linked to ongoing discrimination and inequities in U.S. society. Fifth-graders would learn to discuss historical events from the perspectives of who benefited — and who was left out. First-graders would learn about how to recognize stereotypes, biases and discrimination, and about how people have advocated against those problems through social justice movements.

Demetria Poe, a kindergarten teacher in the Osseo school district and a member of the standards committee, said those kinds of additions are a big part of why she joined the standards committee. In the past, she said, people of color were often asked only to give their stamp of approval toward the end of the process, if they were included at all. Poe said changes need to be made so students feel valued and can see the experiences of many groups as valid parts of history and the present.

"We are building the future," she said, "and if we're not giving them the tools and we expect them to build something better — that's not realistic."

The standards committee will meet next on March 25 in a virtual meeting that will also be livestreamed for the public. The group expects to release a second draft of proposed standards later this spring.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790