A monumental question: What forces are shaping North Carolina’s K-12 social studies standards revisions?

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by Angie Scioli and Justin Parmenter

A Red4EdNC special report on revisions to North Carolina’s K-12 social studies standards has detailed multiple cases where proposed changes “appear reflective of political, as opposed to academic, motives.” 

Those changes include a push to teach 3rd graders that the state’s monuments should be valued as well as removal of references to climate change and institutional discrimination from high school courses.

Background on revision process:

In April 2019, the North Carolina State Board of Education approved a request from the Department of Public Instruction’s Division of Standards, Curriculum, and Instruction to review and revise K-12 social studies standards.

DPI then assembled teams of educators from across the state to write an initial draft of the new standards.  (Interestingly, those educators are not paid for their work and are required to sign confidentiality agreements, which reduces transparency in the process.)

Draft 1 of the new standards was revealed, and the public was given an opportunity to provide feedback.

Timeline reversal surprisingly tone deaf:

When the COVID-19 crisis started, teacher volunteers writing the new social studies standards–while also making a Herculean effort to quickly transition instruction to new online learning platforms–were informed by DPI staff that the work was being postponed.  Many were relieved by that news. 

Shortly thereafter, someone overrode the postponement decision.  Teachers were told the standards revision project would continue after all, and they were given only a few days to complete edits.  

This quick about-face raises questions about who higher up in the chain of command might be interested in fast-tracking these expensive and disruptive revisions (teacher training will be needed for a new high school graduation requirement, for example) in the midst of a pandemic and why. 

The decision to proceed with revising the standards also demonstrates a lack of sensitivity about the challenges facing our educators and schools. Districts aren’t even sure how current courses will be delivered next year given social distancing requirements. How it is a priority right now to further complicate the K-12 education landscape by changing graduation requirements and adding new courses that require training and instructional resource purchases? 

It would be interesting to know whose priorities are being served by that decision and hear them articulate their rationale.

In early April, Draft 2 of the standards was posted, and public feedback on that draft was collected through April 27.

Most recent changes suggest political motives:

Between Draft 1 and Draft 2 of the standards, significant changes have been made at multiple grade levels which appear to be politically motivated.

Perhaps the most unexpected change is one which would require third graders to be taught that North Carolina’s monuments should be valued by their communities.

Here’s the evolution of that learning objective:

Current objective 3.H.1.3Exemplify the ideas that were significant in the development of local communities and regions.

Draft 1 of new 3.H.1.3:  Categorize ideas and contributions that different groups made in terms of influence on local history.

Draft 2 of new 3.H.1.3Summarize how monuments and memorials represent historical events and people that are valued by a community.

The newest version stands out like a sore thumb, especially in light of recent monument controversies in North Carolina, including the 2017 removal of Durham’s Confederate Soldiers monument in the wake of a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA and the toppling of the Silent Sam monument on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill in 2018.

Influential North Carolina policymakers such as Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest–who also happens to sit on the NC State Board of Education–have spoken out in defense of such monuments.  

In a 2015 radio interview about North Carolina’s monuments, Forest said, “If we whitewashed every offense that was out there to every American, there would be not much left out in this world.”  He later referred to protestors of the state’s Confederate monuments as “communist agitators.”

Additional eyebrow-raising changes to the North Carolina social studies standards have been proposed at the high school level.  

In World History, references to sustainability, climate change, natural resources and consumption of resources, and empathy have been removed.  

In Civic Literacy, an objective which read, “Determine the effects of institutional discrimination on cultural and national identity” has vanished.  Another which would have required students to learn about the idea of how governments maintain the welfare of the public and protection of citizens is also now gone.

It would be interesting to know whose feedback these revisions were based upon.  Are changes designed to ensure our children value North Carolina’s monuments but reduce their exposure to content about climate change and discrimination really indicative of what professional educators thought was best for students?  Or are influential individuals with access to the process reshaping North Carolina education to match their particular worldview? 

If there are shadowy forces at work, it’s worth noting that North Carolina State Board of Education Policy SCOS-12 mandates a revision process which is research-based, data-driven and built on feedback from stakeholders.  

For its part, the Department of Public Instruction has made a public pledge to “carry out a clear and open process in accordance to state law, state board policy, and agency processes.”  Instead we have teachers writing standards who are bound by confidentiality agreements, a pathway to making public comments which is buried deep within the bowels of DPI’s website, and data from public feedback that isn’t even made available to the public.  None of this process appears clear or open, and the lack of transparency leaves interested parties to come up with their own theories about who’s really in charge of what North Carolina students will learn in social studies.

Anyone with knowledge of (1) who issued the directive to fast-track these changes against conventional wisdom, (2) standards revisions that are occurring in violation of state board policy, or (3) content about monuments being added to objective 3.H.1.3 is encouraged to contact Angie Scioli at angelascioli@gmail.com or Justin Parmenter at justinparmenter1@gmail.com

According to DPI, at least one more draft and feedback cycle will occur before the finalized social studies standards are submitted to the State Board of Education for approval.  When Draft 3 is released, it’s going to be very important for the public–educators and non-educators alike–to take advantage of what will probably be their last opportunity to weigh in.

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5 thoughts on “A monumental question: What forces are shaping North Carolina’s K-12 social studies standards revisions?

  1. I spoke put about institutional discrimination because it was not vertically aligned. There was no verbiage about learning about what institutions are and no clear standard for teaching discrimination. It felt hodgepodge to throw it together and teach it in HS when students were not given ample background knowledge. Plus, we live in a state where some do not see it as a “thing” at all and others who are on the exact polar opposite, believing every slight they ever felt is a direct result of it, both of which need to be centered.

    Where you feel a tinge of conservative bias, a lot felt a tinge of liberal bias. There’s plenty, like me, that says keep it all objective and if the standard could potentially be used as an opportunity for a teacher’s pulpit, then it’s not a good standard, and depending where you are in the state, it will be taught different.

    I do think the list of topics is good to deter bias and encourage new teachers to stay “on topic” so to speak.

    • I don’t think you cannot see institutional discrimination and racism “as a thing” or not any more than you can see the existence of Congress or democracy as a thing or not. It simply has been and is. There are ample opportunities for exploring and teaching that in the history curriculum that comes before HS in everything from the Constitution itself (and the process for amending those wrongs) to poll taxes and literacy tests. For students to be able to recognize and comprehend institutional bias in our current society, they need for us to implicitly name it and help them to understand it in our history. Again, not a liberal or conservative or a rural or urban NC thing, just an actual “thing”.

  2. Monuments and objects do not define a place, community, people, or the culture of people. Ideas, thoughts, and counter-culture ideas or backlash is the foundation for erecting monuments and objects. Also, monuments and objects will only allow teachers to include many bias in instruction. We should always teach from a lens, with many perspectives.

  3. For years this path to remaking history and doctrinizing our youth has been in the works.It is coming to fruition now that the tidiots think we are distracted by this pandemic. We must stand strong and be the fighters for truth and dig for facts not fiction. If our democracy is to be completely destroyed it will happen because our people will lack a truth filled and complete world class education. We got a lot of work to do.

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