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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Social Studies Opinion

Overhauling Social Studies in a Polarized Era. One State Chief Tells the Tale

By Rick Hess — April 21, 2022 5 min read
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Louisiana passed new social studies standards for K-12 schools last month. State schools chief Cade Brumley led the push, encountering plenty of bumps and bruises along the way. He explains what it was like to tackle social studies in the midst of political polarization, raging debates over critical race theory, and in a state with a Democratic governor and Republican legislature. I recently had the chance to chat with Brumley about the experience of forming the standards and what’s new about them. Here’s what he had to say.

— Rick

Rick: You just stewarded the adoption of new social studies standards in Louisiana. Can you tell me a bit about this process?

Cade: Sure. Louisiana’s social studies standards had not been revised since 2011. The content sequence in these old standards was incoherent, which made it difficult for students to think chronologically and to build knowledge. For example, students in the 4th grade learned about the American Revolution but did not learn about the French and Indian War until the end of 5th grade. Many believed that any attempt to revise these standards was destined for failure. However, when I took the job as state superintendent, I didn’t sign up to take the path of least resistance. I came here to do what is best for our students. This work is too important. So, we decided to take the standards head on. We looked at a variety of analyses of Louisiana’s 2011 standards, states that received high marks on their social studies content and organization from the Fordham Institute, publicly available resources, and our assessment data of social studies content to form the new standards.

Rick: What’s notable about these new standards?

Cade: They’re built around what we’re calling the Freedom Framework. Our goal is that every student has the opportunity to understand America’s founding principles and our country’s continuous effort to become a more perfect union. Furthermore, the new standards introduce historical content in a more precise, coherent, and chronological manner while also ensuring students develop essential skills like analyzing evidence and contextualizing sources.

Rick: You wound up enacting these with a unanimous vote from a state board of education that has six Republicans and five Democrats. That seems like a surprising outcome given current politics. How’d that happen?

Cade: For most of 2021, a committee of teachers, educators, parents, and students worked to draft new standards based on goals laid out by our department. The committee did valuable work, but the draft they produced received overwhelmingly negative public feedback. In response, our department’s teaching and learning team made significant revisions to address the extensive concerns by the citizens of Louisiana. We then put the revised standards up again for public comment and received positive feedback on the balance the new standards achieved. Shortly afterward, our ideologically diverse board unanimously approved our revised standards.

Rick: You mention receiving a lot of negative feedback about the first cut at the proposed standards. Can you talk a bit about the concerns?

Cade: The original steering committee’s draft received over 1,800 comments via our online portal. In general, the broad nature of the committee’s draft left the standards open to a variety of interpretations, many of which were upsetting to Louisianans. The major themes of those comments were that the draft standards incorporated critical race theory, were developmentally inappropriate in some grades, and integrated action civics.

Rick: How did you go about addressing those concerns?

Cade: From the beginning, I very publicly committed to ensuring that critical race theory and action civics would not be included in these standards. So, during our revision process, we made sure that there was not a single standard that could open the door for critical race theory or action civics to make its way into Louisiana classrooms. To remedy the concerns around the overly broad standards, our team went in and added much more specificity. For example, instead of just mentioning the War of 1812, our standards go into detail about key events, turning points, and the outcomes of the war.

Rick: Louisiana is often considered a red state, but you’ve got a Democratic governor. How did that affect the politics of doing this?

Cade: As you might imagine, this was an emotionally sensitive and politically combustible issue, from beginning to end, with fierce debate on what should and should not be taught in social studies classrooms. However, there are a few strategies I believe helped us successfully navigate this process. One: Prioritize accessibility. We were open to meeting with anyone about the proposed social studies standards. You tell us who, where, and when, and our team would be there. The second strategy: Embrace confrontation. The sooner you accept that confrontation is going to be a constant during the process, the better off you’ll be in finding solutions to issues as they arise. Because I promise you, many issues will arise. And the last: Pursue purpose. At times, the process felt impossible, but nevertheless, it always seemed like a more than worthy endeavor. We knew our hard work would ultimately result in higher-quality standards and better outcomes for kids.

Rick: I frequently hear concerns that conservatives want to ban certain topics in history and social studies classrooms. How much of that did you encounter?

Cade: Throughout the entirety of this process, I was not asked once, by any individual that I would label as a conservative, to exclude factual content from the standards. Conservatives overwhelmingly encouraged me to tell the entirety of the American story, including the accomplishments and the shortcomings. And that is exactly what we did.

Rick: As a former middle school teacher yourself, what lessons do you take away from this whole experience?

Cade: Raise expectations. Too few of our kids have a foundational understanding of social studies content. Somewhere over time, we simply lost our way. I believe the correction in Louisiana begins with the passage of these new, rigorous social studies standards. We can and will get stronger outcomes. Another lesson: Have courage. If you believe our kids deserve a high-quality education, have courage to tackle the tough issues. It takes thick skin—I’ve been called some pretty awful names regarding my work and positions, but I knew our kids deserved better standards. And finally, be unapologetic. For too long, students have been taught to apologize for American exceptionalism. These standards shine a light on how we have self-corrected along the way and have become the greatest country in the history of the world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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