Minnesota's academic standards for social studies debuted seven years ago after a highly publicized tug-of-war between social conservatives and liberals over what should be in them -- especially the U.S. history standards.

Now, as required by law, the standards are up for revision. That means a committee of citizens must plow through countless facts, concepts and topic headings to come up with a new, improved version of the standards. Social studies covers U.S. history, world history, economics, civics and government, and geography. As with the standards in other disciplines, they set expectations of what Minnesota teachers are supposed to teach at various grade levels.

Some areas of the standards will get special attention this time around, said Beth Aune, who directs the academic standards process for the Minnesota Department of Education. American Indians will get more attention. Personal finance and financial literacy will be introduced. One objective is to reduce the hundreds of social studies "standards" and "benchmarks," and hundreds more "examples," all of which set out areas of study for students in varying degrees of detail.

"We know that when we have too many standards in any one subject, we're making it difficult for teachers to provide good learning experiences," Aune said. "What happens is they try to cover too many topics at the expense of deep levels of understanding."

Beyond those, it's pretty much up to the committee to decide what to change and what to keep the same. In 2003 and 2004, the standards committee fought over what should be included in the standards, and U.S. history was the focus of much attention. Committee members, many of whom were not teachers, tussled over whether the emphasis should be on facts or concepts. There were sharp differences over what facts should be taught.

For instance, should you concentrate on such American Indians as Chief Joseph and Tecumseh, who fought against the whites, or Sacagawea and Pocohontas, who helped them? A compromise eventually was reached, and the standards were signed into law as part of the 2004 education bill.

Quieter debate expected

This time around the debate is likely to be milder. For one thing, many more teachers are on the committee than there were in 2003 and 2004. The first committee had a much greater representation of nonteaching parents, businesspeople and other community members. Also, standards are already in place.

Still, that doesn't mean there won't be debate.

"I think debate is really an important part of the process," Aune said. "I don't want to suggest that there won't be some very spirited debate. But what we're focusing on are the larger concepts, principles and processes. We're not going to focus on the name of every individual the students need to know in history."

The committee will meet several more times before May 11, when the final document is to be sent to Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius for her approval. There will also be a public comment period on the first draft of the standards between Feb. 25 and March 14.

Meetings are open to the public. The next one is from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday on the second floor of the Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul. Future meeting locations and times will be posted on the state Department of Education website, under "academic standards."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547