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State ed board members weigh in on controversial social studies standards

Teacher standing in front of a classroom of children.
A draft of the revised standards was criticized last year for being too conservative. Now, another round of revisions has some conservatives saying the standards have a liberal bent.

This week, the public can start weighing in on the latest draft of revised social studies standards for Michigan's K-12 schools.

The standards lay out guidelines on what content should be covered in social studies classes and lessons for different grade levels. State officials have been working on revising them for the past five years. 

Wrapped up in that process has been a lot of political arguing over what should and shouldn’t be included in the standards, particularly when it comes to controversial topics like abortion rights or the influence of Christianity on United States history.

Those arguments came to a head last spring when draft standards received major public backlash for what critics said was a clear conservative bias. Now, another round of revisions has conservatives crying foul. 

Tom McMillin is a former Republican state representative and current treasurer of the State Board of Education. Democrat Casandra Ulbrich serves as the Board’s president. They joined Stateside to share their differing perspectives on the updated standards.

McMillin says that social studies are inherently political because the subject covers topics like history, civics, and of course, politics. But he says the state standards themselves shouldn't be influenced by political bias. 

“It’s important — if we’re going to have standards at a statewide level — that they are as neutral as possible, and I think [the current proposed standards] start very far left,” McMillin said.

Ulbrich notes that there’s a difference between standards and curriculum. The former focuses on “what a student should be able to do and know” at any given grade level, but individual teachers create their own curriculum. While the standards do include examples of specific topics a teacher might cover, Ulbrich says they are not meant to be an exhaustive list. 

“So, when someone says that they’re left-leaning, what they’re really saying is, ‘We don’t like the examples that are being put into the standard,’ not necessarily that the standards themselves are inappropriate,” Ulbrich said.

McMillin says he wants the state standards to be more “balanced.” He cites the history of climate change science and the tension between LGBTQ rights and religious freedom as examples of topics that are not holistically represented in the current draft.

“I think that in order for kids to make decisions, they have to have clear facts,” McMillin said. “There’s a lot of things, a lot of facts, that are left out.”

Ulbrich says that she hopes to hear from people “all over the ideological spectrum” during the ongoing public comment period.

“We open a wide net so that anyone who has any thoughts or opinions is welcome to share them and give us feedback. The feedback is what makes the standards better,” Ulbrich said.

If you want to read the revised social studies standards, click here. If you'd like to leave a comment about the standards online, click here

The department has scheduled nine public meetings across the state to gather feedback on the new draft of social studies standards. All meetings are scheduled from 6:00pm to 8:00pm on the dates listed below. 

April 24, 2019: Detroit Historical Museum, 5401 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48202

April 25, 2019: Saginaw ISD Transition PD Center, 3860 Fashion Square Blvd, Saginaw, MI  48603

April 29, 2019: Oakland Schools, 2111 Pontiac Lake Road, Waterford, MI 48328

April 30, 2019: Kalamazoo RESA, 1819 East Milham Ave., Portage, MI 49002

May 2, 2019: Michigan Historical Center & Library, 702 W. Kalamazoo Street, Lansing, MI 48915

May 6, 2019: Kent ISD, 2930 Knapp Road, Grand Rapids, MI 49525

May 7, 2019: University Center Gaylord, 80 Livingston Boulevard, Gaylord, MI 49735

May 8, 2019: Eastern Upper Peninsula ISD, 315 Armory Place, Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783

May 9, 2019: Delta Schoolcraft ISD, 2525 3RD Avenue S., Escanaba, MI 49829

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas. 

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