Isabelle Wong

An Asian-American, Isabelle Wong says she’s taken it upon herself to seek out varied historical perspectives. (Photo by Danielle Wong)

Isabelle Wong, 16, has only ever had one Black teacher — and he taught social studies during her freshman year in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools district. He introduced her to Malcolm X, didn’t skirt around the fact that George Washington owned slaves, and tied Richard Nixon’s war on drugs to issues of systemic racism that persist today.

“Teachers of color can help students comprehend experiences in their life and connect them to systemic racism and how it’s not just them — it’s been happening throughout history,” she said.

In her opinion, this is how social studies should be taught. But her other classroom experiences have fallen short — not looking much beyond Martin Luther King Jr., and often framing historical figures of color and other nations as antagonists.

“Often times when we would talk about Asia, we’d talk about communism and how that was a bad thing. Or we’d talk about the Korean War and how the U.S. was trying to help,” Wong says, adding these lessons perpetuate a narrative that “the U.S. is better than everyone else.”

An Asian-American, Wong says she’s taken it upon herself to seek out varied historical perspectives. For future high schoolers, though, she’d like to see a major shift in how social studies classes are taught.

“It needs to be a conversation with the students — on what their thoughts are and how they can back their points up,” she said. “A lot of times we just look at the textbook. It’s very one-sided.”

Wong’s frustrations with absent narratives and Eurocentrism embedded in many school curriculums are shared among students, educators and community members across the nation who say education reforms are key in addressing issues of systemic racism and educational inequities.

Varied expertise and backgrounds

Coincidentally, the Minnesota state social studies standards are up for review. This process only happens once every 10 years, and it kicked off last month when the state Department of Education announced a list of 41 review committee members. No students have a formal seat at the table, but the group is notably diverse — both in terms of race and ethnicity, and area of expertise. And committee members who share Wong’s concerns say major reforms are needed.

The State Department of Education ended up extending the review committee deadline twice to broaden its applicant pool, and give folks more time to consider whether they wanted to take on this considerable volunteer commitment in the midst of a pandemic.

In the end, more than 200 people applied. Those selected to serve on the committee have expertise that spans all of the required social studies disciplines: citizenship and government, economics, geography, and history. They also come from a mix of grade levels — including post-secondary institutions — of areas of the state, and of racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Offering a breakdown of committee members, Doug Paulson, the department’s head of academic standards, says 15 percent self-identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native, 7 percent are Asian, 24 percent are Black or African-American, 10 percent are Hispanic or Latino, and 56 percent are white/Caucasian, with 5 percent identifying as two or more races.

About 30 percent represent schools and communities in Greater Minnesota; and the rest represent the Twin Cities metro area, he added.

“We do not have any students who applied to be on the committee,” he said, noting the time commitment and travel can become barriers for students, in particular. “But we do have a bunch of opportunities to engage student voice. And we’ll work with the Minnesota Youth Council to get feedback throughout the year.”

‘Framing the way we teach social studies’

The full committee is scheduled to meet — either virtually or in-person, pending current public health guidance — about once a month, beginning Sept. 16 (full timeline here). By Nov. 23, they’re scheduled to have a first draft of the social standards revisions ready for public review and comment. A second draft comes due by Feb. 8, when Paulson says they’ll be engaging in another round of public engagement to collect feedback. By the end of May, the committee will send a final draft to the commissioner to approve, before it’s sent off to an administrative law judge to undergo the rulemaking process.

In this stage of the process, the department must respond to all comments and critiques of the new proposed standards that come in during public comment periods and public hearings. Ultimately, the department needs the administrative law judge to sign off on it. This entire stage of the process takes anywhere from 12 to 18 months. Implementation of the new standards likely won’t happen until the 2024-2025 school year, at the earliest, Paulson says.

Asked what level of detail the committee will be tasked with providing in the social studies standards, Paulson said this is something these sorts of committees wrestle with. State statute does provide some parameters, including that the commissioner may not dictate “the delivery system, classroom assessments or form of instruction that school sites must use,” he explained.

“With that we try to look at the standards from a time period perspective, or from a conceptual perspective. We may identify some examples to give a teacher,” he said. “But to actually call out specific names, dates or events themselves … that really is beyond the role of standards.”

Based on the department’s records detailing the last round of revisions — an update to the 2004 standards undertaken in 2011 — committee members focused on making the standards less prescriptive, and they waded through criticism over a perceived liberal bias in the standards.

Critique and criticism are part of the process. And this round of revisions — given how divided folks are when it comes to political and social justice viewpoints — could shape up to be particularly controversial.

This work also holds a lot of potential, says Wendy Hatch, spokesperson for the department. “This committee is framing the way we teach social studies,” she said. “That backbone is incredibly important, even if we’re not getting down to some of the nitty gritty details.”

‘I’m gonna push’

Dana Goodwin, an Anishinaabe woman and a licensed K-6 teacher, applied to serve on the social studies review committee in her role as assistant director of education for the White Earth Nation. In sharing some of her vision for this round of revision, she talked about the many ways in which Native Americans are omitted or misrepresented in many social studies courses today — whether it be omitting events or stories because they’re deemed spiritual, rather than honored as truth; or neglecting to incorporate a lesson on how tribal governments function in Minnesota; or skipping over the fact that the largest mass execution in American history claimed the lives of 38 Dakota men and took place in Mankato.

“I just feel like there’s an exiguous knowledge. That has all led to this lack of understanding, compassion, empathy, communication with us and towards Indigenous and other Black and brown communities,” she said. “I feel that absence of truth has been a foundation for racism.”

She says she applied to serve on the review committee “out of love for my ancestors, and the idea of equity and hope for a better educational foundation for all our students.” That requires showing up at the table, and refusing to be tokenized, as she fears Native American participants often are on these sorts of committees.

“I’m gonna push because there’s always gonna be some pushback, or ‘Well, we have to do it in phases,’” she said. “But for hundreds of years these things have been glossed over or absolutely ignored. I think our students can handle it, so our teachers better be able to handle it.”

Teacher preparation programs are in need of reforms as well, she adds. And the revised social studies standards should help dictate those reforms. Goodwin’s vision for reforms is informed by personal experiences as recent as this past school year, when her daughters had a lesson about Native Americans in their predominantly white high school. It began with a video about poverty at Pine Ridge — a reservation located in South Dakota — and then students were told to report back on three major issues impacting a local tribal nation. The assignment focused narrowly on things like addiction and poverty, taking the focus off of anything positive, “as if there wasn’t anything to be found.”

“Something has to change with how that young teacher learns and what that young teacher is required to teach,” she said. “It’s obviously too vague, too bland, that an educator today would think that’s all right. How do you think those people … felt about us after that? How do you think they felt about my kids?”

Addressing absent narratives

For Curtis Johnson, an African-American man serving his first term on the Roseville Area Schools school board, diverse representation in the public education sphere matters a great deal — especially when it comes to fighting systemic racism. He’s also a self-professed history nut.

In his work in the Roseville district, he says he’s proud of the work they’ve done to address absent narratives. For instance, they’ve added a popular U.S. history course that’s taught entirely through an African-American lens. It’s the sort of thing he’d like to see baked into the new standards.

“Sometimes these conversations are not going to be comfortable. But we have to be able to come to grips with this idea of being able to talk about what happened to Native Americans, what’s happened to African-Americans, what happened to the Chinese when they came here, what happened to a number of different immigrant groups when they arrived here to make America — and not simply shoehorn it into a month or a small part of the curriculum,” he said, adding these narratives should be “part of what is taught everyday, or every week. That’s when people start understanding.”

Courtney Bell, an African-American woman who taught social studies at North High in Minneapolis for four years prior to launching her own education consulting company, says she’s hopeful about her upcoming work on the review committee because she was very clear about her expectations in her application. “I believe in educational equity — at all costs. And I believe that it can’t be forfeited for what’s politically correct,” she said. “I believe in centering the scholar that is in the classroom and that is learning. And making their education relevant to their lived experiences, and their cultural perspectives.”

The current standards, she says, are not only Eurocentric, but they are also very teacher-centered and they lack the level of specificity needed. “Right now, it’s a very limited scope of whom these courses — who these state standards — are benefiting, and whom they reflect,” she said. ‘There needs to be a transformational shift.”

She plans on bringing a real sense of urgency to this round of revisions because the stakes are incredibly high. The current standards and curriculums perpetuate false notions of racial superiority and inferiority that are damaging to not just students of color, but to all students, she says.

“It’s way more than just standards. This is affecting people’s perspectives of themselves and of those around them and of the world that they live in,” she said. “This ultimately impacts their life chances. It either increases them based on the privilege that comes from this superiority complex, or it diminishes life chances. That comes from this false inferior complex.”

Erin Hinrichs is MinnPost’s education reporter. 

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