Conservatives, liberals fight over Michigan social studies standards – By John Wisely (Detroit Free Press) / April 15 2019
New social studies standards for Michigan schools are reviving an old controversy about what kids learn.
Supporters applaud the proposed new standards for being more inclusive of topics including LGBTQ rights and climate change. But some conservatives insist they promote a left-leaning world view, shortchanging topics such as Ronald Reagan and the influence of Christianity on American history.
“I don’t know that anybody in the state of Michigan who would agree with all of it,” said Jim Cameron, a social studies consultant who chaired the revision process for the Michigan Department of Education. “But at some point, you have to get to the critical mass and move forward.”
The State Board of Education last week agreed to move forward with the draft, sending it out for public comment that will be gathered at nine meetings around the state in late April and early May. The board also will allow residents to weigh in on the standards through an online survey.
After gathering that input, the board hopes to vote on a final version of the standards in June. If they are approved, the new standards would replace a set Michigan has been using since 2007. The approval also would end a years-long process that has been marked by partisan infighting over their content.
State education officials take pains to note that the standards are used to guide, but not dictate, school curricula, which are developed at the school district level. The standards do affect every student though, because they are used to develop standardized tests.
The effort to update the standards began in 2014, while the state was reviewing other subjects with increased attention given to so-called STEM topics — science, technology, engineering and math.
The 2007 social studies standards were due for an update and officials initially thought they could be done in a year. Social studies covers topics including civics, history, geography and economics.
In 2015, a new set of standards was drafted and included references to things like LGBTQ rights and climate change. Some social conservatives thought they went too far.
Patrick Colbeck, a Republican state senator from Canton who later ran unsuccessfully for governor, was a leading critic. He and other legislators complained the standards sought to “blame America first” and offered an incomplete picture of American history.
“If you’re going to talk about gay rights, you also need to talk about the rights of religious conscience,” Colbeck told the Free Press this week. “That’s a conversation we need to have as a nation. That’s where all the litigation is.”
Colbeck’s criticism and those of others prompted the board to pause the approval of the standards and form a task force to review them. Colbeck served on the task force, which released its own version in May 2018.
But those standards quickly drew criticism from liberals whose complaints included fewer references to the Ku Klux Klan and Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s right to abortion.
When that draft went out for public comment in a series of listen-and-learn meetings, the department was inundated with responses, said Venessa Keesler, a deputy superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education.
“The responses were overwhelming negative,” Keesler told the State Board of Education last week.
That prompted another round of public sessions, an online comment system and more review by new committees. The Department of Education also hired Public Policy Associates, a Lansing-based research firm, to help compile and summarize the public input.
Six separate committees, including one specifically searching for bias in the standards, worked on the new draft and invested more than 30,000 hours of work, Keesler said.
Back in are references to climate change, LGBTQ rights and other items that had been reduced or removed from the 2018 versions.
“Most of these changes are a result of the 18 listen-and-learn sessions we conducted,” Keesler said. “I don’t think too many people would argue that human activity hasn’t had an impact on climate. It’s just a question of to what degree.”
But the controversy over the standards was far from over.
Oakland County Circuit Judge Michael Warren, a self-described conservative who has been involved in the process for years, wrote an 11-page memo ripping the latest iteration of the standards and the process that was used to complete them.
Among his complaints were the exclusion of subject matter experts who’d been involved in previous versions, teams being placed in “silos” where they couldn’t interact with other teams and a lack of communication with members of the task force.
Warren said he was never notified that a draft was being sent to the board for advancement until a friend forwarded him a news story.
“The lack of timely and complete information was anything but professional,” Warren wrote.
Warren also critiqued the standards themselves, noting that his evaluation was rushed because he learned so late that the draft was in. Among the omissions, according to Warren, were Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Hitler, Stalin, FDR, Mao and Martin Luther King Jr.
“If Michigan wants to set the bar for political bias, historical inaccuracy, confusion, and standards that fall far short of (national standards), then by all means usher this proposal forward,” Warren wrote to the state board. “If Michigan wants to lead the nation in quality, innovation, clarity, breadth, depth, historical accuracy and critical thinking, the standards need a major improvement.”
David Harris, a retired social studies professor at the University of Michigan and a self-described liberal Democrat, served on a committee with Warren and agreed with some of his critique.
“The communication was very poor, the basis for making changes was never explained,” Harris said. “Some conservatives thought it was biased, that the content skewed to the left. I think that’s mostly just politics, but I think there might be a reasonable concerns that the examples might be more on the liberal side.”
Harris said the standards should be reworked by a smaller group, instead of a large, unwieldy one.
“I would rather that they took more time and did it right and addressed the concerns that have been raised,” he said.
The state Department of Education defended the new draft and the process used to create it. Two people Warren had said were excluded from the process were actually not able to participate, the department said.
“The MDE has worked hard to develop an inclusive process that allows many voices and viewpoints to be captured,” the department said in a statement. “It is fair to say that not every individual comment submitted by committee members were reflected in the final proposed standards, but every attempt was made to reflect the breadth of viewpoints. We also had a separate bias review committee that interacted with the content committees to help us achieve a set of standards that was as unbiased as possible.”
The department also noted that some of Warren’s complaints were inaccurate.
Hitler, FDR and Martin Luther King Jr., are in the standards explicitly and others are there by implication, the department said in a statement. Ronald Reagan is mentioned in the standards on the rise of the conservative movement, though not explicitly in the section covering the Cold War.
But those kinds of things come down to curricula developed at the local level, said Anne-Lise Halvorsen, an associate professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, who was a critic of the 2018 version.
“Even if Reagan and Gorbachev aren’t mentioned specifically, how could you discuss the Cold War without mentioning those two?” she said.
Halvorsen said the current standards are an improvement.
“I don’t think there is liberal bias to these standards at all,” she said.
Cameron said a scoreboard of references is the wrong way to evaluate standards.
“Counting the number of times a word or a person is in the standard is only one way of determining how important that term might be,” Cameron said. “The grain size matters, the point at which it’s mentioned matters.”
The department thanked Warren for his contributions over the years and said it takes concerns seriously.
“While this represents an important opinion, it is only one opinion and it is our job now to seek the opinions of others and to understand how to integrate those points of feedback into a cohesive set of standards,” the statement said.
Call the vote
Cameron and others lamented the politicization of the standards, saying the teaching of history and civics ought not be political.
But the body that must approve them, the State Board of Education, is composed of members elected on a partisan basis. Tom McMillin, a former state legislator and self-described conservative, said it’s impossible to keep politics out of the standards.
“I think most people would agree that these standards are going to be about politics,” McMillin said. “It’s obvious what you put in, what you take out, has a bias.”
McMillin asked the board to delay putting out the standards for public comment until they could be reworked.
When his motion was put to a vote, it failed 6-2. McMillan and fellow Republican Nikki Snyder voted for the delay. The board’s six Democrats all voted no.