Management & Labor

Tinkering With History Books

The Minnesota House and Senate went home for the summer a few weeks ago, having concluded a legislative session that left just about everyone disappointed.
by | July 2004
 

The Minnesota House and Senate went home for the summer a few weeks ago, having concluded a legislative session that left just about everyone disappointed. They didn't close the state budget gap, they failed to pass a public works bonding program and they couldn't decide what to do about new stadiums for the Vikings and the Twins. The House speaker said it may have been the least productive session of his 25- year career.

They did manage to accomplish one thing, though: They rewrote the social studies curriculum for every public school pupil in the state.

If you had been at the Minnesota Capitol in the closing days of the session in mid-May, you could have sat in the gallery and watched legislators arguing over what to tell children about the Civil War. The State Senate had approved a curriculum that stressed instruction in the broader causes of the war--sectionalism, racial ideology, industrial development. The House was insisting on standards that included memorizing names, events and places: Lincoln, Lee and Stonewall Jackson; "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Fort Sumter and the Gettysburg Address.

Ultimately, they compromised. Lee, Grant and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" stayed in, but only as "examples" that teachers could cite at their discretion. The Gettysburg Address was given higher standing. Henceforth, all high school students in Minnesota will be required to read it and "analyze its significance."

If this entire debate sounds a bit surreal to you, it does to me as well. Here's a legislature that can't agree on a budget, and it's spending weeks arguing over how to teach American history. Why would a legislature even be making that sort of decision? Why isn't the social science curriculum a matter for social scientists to worry about?

Those seem to me reasonable questions, but public officials in Minnesota have all but ceased asking them. Over the past decade in their state, the most specialized questions of pedagogy and curriculum have wormed their way into the center of the political process. It is unlikely that anyone will get them out anytime soon.

How did things get to this point? There's a short answer and a long answer. The short answer can be expressed in three words: Profile of Learning. This was the set of standards implemented by the state in 1994 to measure how much students had progressed in social studies and other subjects.

Profile of Learning was meant to be constructive innovation--a step away from rote memorization and toward intellectual substance. Instead of learning facts and basic skills, the idea was for individual pupils to put together "performance packages" demonstrating their mastery of challenging interdisciplinary tasks. If the subject in 12th grade was the Civil War, for example, the task might be to examine original Northern and Southern sources, construct arguments for each side, assess the motives of the players and investigate the possibilities of an alternative outcome.

It sounds stimulating in the abstract, but in real life, it was a total mess. The students had no idea what to do, the teachers weren't trained to help them, and both were clueless about how such an exercise could ever be objectively graded. By 1999, a survey showed that only 9 percent of the state's social studies teachers were satisfied with the way things were going.

Given numbers like that, it was perhaps inevitable that the legislature would choose to get involved. In 2000, the Republican- controlled Minnesota House voted to suspend implementation of the Profile, but the Democratic Senate fought off the proposal. In 2002, the program came within a single vote of repeal in the Senate as well.

That year, Republican Tim Pawlenty was elected governor on a platform that was fairly explicit on the question of the Profile. "The problem with our current standards," he declared, "is that they stink." But Pawlenty said he would support some new form of standards if they were "rigorous" and "focused." Within a few months of his inauguration, the governor had appointed a 44-member blue-ribbon panel of teachers, parents, administrators and business executives to give him a more "contact-based" curriculum for the state's public schools.

By last fall, they had done that. They had written new standards laced with requirements for learning names, dates and places, and avoiding conceptual demands almost entirely. The Profile of Learning had asked, for example, that students show an understanding of how the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence relate to the events of World War II. The new document ordered them to identify the Battle of Britain, the Battle of Midway, and D-Day.

I have mixed feelings about this. It's a significant challenge to ask a high school senior to discuss the constitutional implications of a world war. Anyone who can do that really has learned something. Memorizing battles is easier, and less interesting. But if you're the teacher, at least you can tell what the correct answer is. You know how to grade them. There's something to be said for that. Besides, if a student is unfamiliar with the basic facts of a historical event, how far is she likely to get conceptually? It's important to know how to think, but it's also important to have something in your head to think about.

The Pawlenty social science standards were simpler, clearer and more objective. But critics noticed some rather controversial choices in their fine print, especially when it came to the later decades of the 20th century. Students were expected to learn copious amounts about various symbols of patriotism, but relatively little about civil rights or the women's movement. The Vietnam War was described as an exercise in "defending freedom." Ronald Reagan's role in ending the Cold War was conspicuously mentioned, but Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty was played down. As far as most Democrats in the legislature were concerned, they had been asked to trade in a cumbersome curriculum for a batch of Republican historical propaganda.

Pawlenty and his education commissioner, Cheri Pierson Yecke, agreed to send the committee back to the drawing board. The committee members seemed to get the point right away. Pawlenty II was a not-very-subtle effort to fix some of the political correctness problems of Pawlenty I.

The War on Poverty was now found to be deserving of inclusion on the list of required topics. The Supreme Court's Miranda ruling also made it, as did Betty Friedan and Jack Kerouac. Material on mill workers and lumberjacks was added to make the document more union-friendly. And the reference to the Vietnam War was rewritten to reflect the fact that it also involved "secret wars" elsewhere in Indochina.

But if the second version was more politically correct, it retained the "nuts-and-bolts" emphasis the governor had promised during his campaign for office. It was largely unsatisfactory to those who felt that the Profile of Learning, despite its flaws, had represented a laudable step away from mindless memorization. The Pawlenty reforms, said one Democratic legislator who also happened to be a social studies teacher, "squeeze out the creativity teachers want to bring to the classroom."

From that point on, it was strictly a political fight: Pawlenty, Yecke and the Republican House, determined to erase most vestiges of the hated Profile of Learning, against the Democratic Senate, willing to accept some change but fearful of a return to the pedagogical methods of the 1950s. And it went down to the very last night of the 2004 session, when a House-Senate conference committee brought in legislation described as a split-the-difference compromise, with more names and dates than the Democrats wanted, and more themes and issues than the governor preferred. The House passed it easily, while the Senate agonized a bit more openly before approving it on a strict party-line vote. After swallowing the deal, Senate Democrats engaged in a rather graceless act of retribution by firing Yecke from her job as commissioner, something that the Minnesota Constitution gave them the right to do.

In the end, though, the interesting question isn't which side won or lost, or even whether the state's new curriculum is an improvement over the old one. It looks like an improvement; I'll give them that. The real question is whether this is the sort of work that a partisan legislature ought to be in charge of.

In the perfect political system, it wouldn't be. Writing a history curriculum is technical work, and it's hard to imagine that many legislators had more than a casual familiarity with the details of the subject. In the perfect system, this is a task that a nonpartisan advisory group would have been able to complete on its own. Such a commission would reach a consensus, send its product to the legislature, and the legislature would endorse it with gratitude and minimal debate.

But any "blue-ribbon" commission appointed these days, in the field of education perhaps most of all, is going to be scrutinized in minute detail for the partisan and ideological leaning of its membership. No one expects it to be apolitical: What's expected is that the ultimate makeup of such a group reasonably reflect all major points of view. Pawlenty's social studies commission didn't quite meet that standard- -it tilted rather noticeably to the right--but public pressure forced it to go back and produce a revised version most of the state could live with. The legislature ended up as the ultimate decision maker, not because it was highly qualified to play that role but because there was essentially no one else. "There ought to be some insulating entity," says Democrat Steve Kelley, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. "But I don't think there's enough trust at any level right now to do that."

One other point might be made in favor of Minnesota's rather unusual system of curriculum design: It actually gets non-specialists discussing knowledge--not just test scores or teaching strategies, but real knowledge--asking what an educated person should know about the history of his society. The Minnesota Legislature, clumsy as it was, somehow managed to consider what an educated person ought to have as a cognitive starting point.

So I'm forced to conclude that it may not have been as bizarre an exercise as it first appeared. And lawmakers did end up agreeing on something. Now maybe they can formulate a budget.

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