The State Board of Education has revisited the standards for social studies coursework for public schools, prompting praise by some teachers and opposition by board Republicans.
Every five to seven years, the NC Department of Public Instruction revisits the standards and provides updates in content and approach. In February, the State Board of Education approved updated standards for social studies courses designed to include different perspectives of American history.
Teachers in Guilford County say these updates came at a good time.
“The protests we saw this summer from Black Lives Matter activists are having an impact,” said Robbie Bean, a white male social studies teacher at High Point Central High School. “We’ve got to look honestly at our past and present to fix problems, so the future is brighter for our kids.”
State school board members represent eight districts across the state. Representatives from each of the districts worked together to create, write, revise and edit the new standards for students in K-12 public education, to be implemented in the 2021-22 school year.
Overall, the standards focus on telling American history beyond the perspective of white men, upon which it had previously solely been based. The approved standards begin with kindergarteners learning how to connect to the world around them; high school seniors will graduate with more in-depth knowledge of financial literacy, as well as the contributions of African Americans, Latinx and Hispanics, indigenous people, women and other historically marginalized groups.
Jill Camnitz, a white state school board member from the northeastern region of the state, said that while blame and guilt often underly the conversations about racial, ethnic and gendered experiences, the new standards aim to do neither.
“We’re seeking to draw on the richness of the American historical experience so our children can better understand their legacy and strengthen their sense of connection to each other and work together to improve the American experience for all,” she said at a special called board meeting on Jan. 27.
Rebecca McKnight, the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools social studies program manager, was part of the team that wrote the new standards and said she wanted to include some of the inclusive teaching philosophies that WSFCS has been using in the district’s curriculum for years.
“In order to understand any event, you’ve got to have the voices at the table who were part of the event,” said McKnight, a Black woman. “Kids need to be aware of all, and we can no longer leave out folks based on race and gender. These standards give a lot less leeway.”
Several versions of the standards were drafted and the fourth draft was taken to the board in January. Much of the state board’s discussion surrounding the new standards had to do with vocabulary; debating the existence of systemic racism and the use of the word “identity” when paired with gender.
State board member Amy White said that if the word “identity” was included in the final draft of the standards, she could not approve them.
“Gender is based on science which suggests that human beings are born either male or female,” White said at the Jan. 6 meeting.
The group tasked with writing the new standards went back to draw up a fifth draft. This draft removes the word “systemic” and the word “gender,” in hopes to include broader strokes of racism, discrimination and identity issues. The draft also features a preamble written by state Superintendent Catherine Truitt.
For some, including Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the changes were not enough.
“I don’t like the tone of these standards,” said Robinson at the Jan. 27 meeting. “I think they are politically charged and divisive and smack of a lot of leftist dogma. The things that we’ve added into these standards don’t serve a purpose.
“I don’t think these standards are for the benefit of our students,” he continued. “I don’t think they are age appropriate. There is nothing in these standards that I think is going to help our children succeed later in life. Nothing. I find them, quite frankly, unacceptable.”
The 52-year-old Black Republican, who was elected to lieutenant governor in 2020, said there was never a time when his education was not inclusive, and suggested keeping the previous standards from 2010.
Olivia Oxendine, a Republican board member and descendant of the Lumbee tribe, agreed with Robinson on the tone of the standards.
“I take away America the oppressor, not America the land of opportunity,” Oxendine said. “We have come a long way toward racial equality. When I began teaching many years ago, I could’ve never dreamt, as an American Indian, of the opportunity to serve on the state Board of Education. It wouldn’t have been possible.”
The standards and preamble meant to address the concerns on tone, as written in Draft 5, were approved at the board’s regular meeting on Feb. 4.
Northern Guilford High School teacher Courtnee Cox, who has been in classrooms for about 18 years, said that she — a Black woman — has included topics like racial and social justice in her social studies courses because she’s always believed in the importance of teaching history relevant to her students. The news standards, she said, will keep other teachers from shying away from tough topics on race and identity.
“When the Capitol riots happened, I was teaching in that moment,” she said. “I could’ve easily said, ‘We’re not talking about that right now, we’re talking about the judicial branch,’ but I immediately linked it to our civics lesson. The kids are eager to talk about it and people discount our children and their perspective and I refuse to do that. These standards give our children permission to say, ‘Let’s talk about this,’ and we can say, ‘Okay.’”
Cox and Bean agree that along with implementation and curriculum guidelines, the state is going to have to invest in other resources like new books and professional development.
“We have a number of outdated resources even for the old standards, so the state is going to have to invest in resources for these new ones,” Bean said.
Bean said that while he believes the approved standards could have gone further to be more inclusive, he is in full support of them and how they will encourage teachers and students.
“[The new standards] will take some teachers changing their mindset because you can’t teach antiracism without being antiracist,” Bean said. “Our students are craving the opportunity to connect to their material. Their lived experience doesn’t match up to what they’re being taught, and that is doing them a disservice. These standards allow them to dissect and debate and become better critical thinkers.”
The educational standards set by the state board are used to create school curriculums. The approval process for supporting documents like professional development plans and course specifics will begin in April and conclude in December, according to the NC Department of Public Instruction’s implementation timeline. The new standards are set to be implemented for the 2021-22 school year.
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