Minnesota Teachers, Parents Criticize ‘Awkward’ Tribal References in Proposed Math Standards

By Josh Verges, Pioneer Press — March 30, 2022 6 min read
Representatives from St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) administration, faculty and staff, students, and the Indigenous community raise a healing pole in a ceremony at the SPPS headquarters in St. Paul, Monday, Oct. 11, 2021.
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The first draft of new K-12 math standards for Minnesota schools has received overwhelmingly negative feedback from parents and educators over its frequent references to the state’s American Indian tribes.

A committee appointed by the Minnesota Department of Education proposed 20 new “anchor standards,” which summarize what students are expected to learn and be able to do in math.

Five of those 20 standards ask students to apply math concepts to examples “found in historical and contemporary Dakota and Anishinaabe communities and in other communities.”

Since the document was released last month, parents and educators have called the tribal references “awkward,” “forced” and “ridiculous,” according to 265 survey responses the education department provided to the Pioneer Press with identifying information redacted.

“Our MN students are failing math readiness for college. Please prioritize basic math concepts uncluttered by attempts to mix math with social studies and politics,” wrote one respondent who is identified as a school administrator.

“Stop the disingenuous virtue signaling,” wrote a parent. “It is very insulting to us Anishinaabe people.”


A Pioneer Press analysis found 162 respondents to the state survey were clearly critical of the tribal references, while 15 were mostly supportive. The rest either were neutral or unclear about their views on the issue or did not address it in their comments.

Teachers, who accounted for roughly half the survey respondents, were somewhat more supportive of the tribal references than were parents, school board members and school administrators.

But even among educators who liked or had mixed feelings about the language, many wondered what training or curricular resources would be provided to help them teach those standards.

“I like the incorporation of the Native American tribes, but will we get some resources?” a secondary math teacher wrote.

“I absolutely adore teaching geometry and proof and I am looking for more examples from native communities that are not just about beauty of pattern,” wrote another math teacher.

In future drafts, the standards committee will be adding benchmarks that explain specifically what students are expected to learn under each anchor standard.

And, as schools begin to integrate the standards into their classes, the state education department will publish an implementation guide for teachers.

2007 state law

The state statute that governs K-12 standards has required since 2007 that they “include the contributions of Minnesota American Indian tribes and communities.”

As the education department understands it, that statutory language applies to every subject area for which standards are required: language arts, math, science, social studies, physical education, health and the arts.

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Standards are supposed to be reviewed every 10 years, but the 2015-16 math rewrite was postponed. So, this is the first time since the law was adopted that the math standards are being revised.

Bobbie Burnham, the assistant education commissioner who oversees standards revisions, said the committee will “definitely integrate” the critical feedback it received as it writes its next draft.

“It’s all part of the process the committee is going through,” she said.


The second math standards draft is due to be released in May, and the final draft in August. After further opportunities for public comment, an administrative law judge must approve the standards before they must be implemented a few years later.

Meanwhile, the education department is adding American Indian expertise to its staff to help implement standards as they relate to tribal communities.

“Educators and school leaders have expressed that a hurdle to successfully implementing the academic standards includes access to and availability of curricular resources specific to the cultural heritage and contemporary contributions of American Indians, with an emphasis on Minnesota’s tribal nations,” Gov. Tim Walz’s administration said in a document describing $1.3 million in “Indigenous Education for All” spending this biennium.

That money will pay for curriculum development, two new education department employees to work on standards implementation, and an improved consultation process with the Tribal Nations Education Committee.


The state’s science standards have been updated twice since the statute changed in 2007, and each time they’ve given relatively little emphasis to tribal contributions.

The 2009 rewrite featured several dozens of learning standards, only one of which mentioned the state’s American Indian tribes: “Men and women throughout the history of all cultures, including Minnesota American Indian tribes and communities, have been involved in engineering design and scientific inquiry.”

Within those standards were six specific learning benchmarks.

The 2019 science update, which is scheduled for implementation in 2024-25, featured the tribes in nine benchmarks.

But again, they all fell under a single anchor standard, one of 13 in the document: “Students will be able to gather information about and communicate the methods that are used by various cultures, especially those of Minnesota American Indian Tribes and communities, to develop explanations of phenomena and design solutions to problems.”

‘Tough conversations’

Brook LaFloe, one of three tribal members on the math standards committee, said the group considered giving tribal communities their own standard but instead embedded those references where they made the most sense.

The 38-member committee, she said, talked a lot about equity, diversity and inclusion, and they understood as a group why those things are important.

“But I do think that we did struggle in some ways with how we do that, how do we write that inclusion in,” said LaFloe, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. “We’re still having tough conversations.”

LaFloe said the committee anticipated criticism after seeing a flood of comments pour in for the social studies standards in 2020 and 2021.

The Center for the American Experiment, a conservative Minnesota think tank, toured the state to criticize the social studies standards, which elevated ethnic studies. The think tank’s senior policy fellow Katherine Kersten said the standards had a “relentless fixation” on American Indian tribes.

The think tank paid little attention to the math standards beyond urging its social media followers to provide public comment to the state less than an hour before the comments were due.

Low grades

The state’s current math standards, which were written in 2007, were rated “weak” in 2018 by the Ohio-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

David Griffith, Fordham’s associate director of research, reviewed the state’s latest math standards draft at the request of the Pioneer Press and said they “call for significant revisions.”

“They are overwrought in their attempt to connect mathematics to ‘real-world examples’ in two American Indian tribes. Unfortunately, they read like a political box-checking activity – likely because they are. Let’s hope common sense prevails,” he said.

LaFloe said critics of their draft should talk to state lawmakers, because the statute defines what the committee must do. But she personally likes the statutory language.

“I do find our inclusion extremely important and valuable, especially as the original stewards of this land that allowed us to have this educational system,” she said.

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LaFloe said tribal inclusion in the standards also holds promise for closing the state’s wide gaps in achievement between groups of students.

American Indian students, who make up 3 percent of public school enrollment in the state, typically perform worse than any other racial or ethnic group in on-time graduation and math and reading tests.

“The gaps won’t change if we don’t start with our lowest-performing learners,” LaFloe said.

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Copyright (c) 2022, Pioneer Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.


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