Updated: Since the publication of this article the State Board of Education voted 6-5 on to approve the “unpacking documents”. The new guidance documents and K-12 social studies standards will go into effect for the 2021-22 school year.
North Carolina students could find themselves listening to Vietnam War protest songs, detailing how Cesar Chavez unionized farm workers, and talking about how to assure that eligible voters aren’t disenfranchised.
Those activities are some of the suggested assignments included in new social studies documents for middle schools and high schools that will be voted on Thursday by the State Board of Education. The “unpacking documents” are meant to give guidance to teachers who are scheduled to begin using the controversial new K-12 social studies standards this fall.
Supporters say the new standards are more inclusive because they give more attention to the the perspectives of historically marginalized groups.
“If we’re going to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, why wouldn’t we want their minds to be liberated so they can think critically about the systems that perpetuate injustice?” Rodney D. Pierce, an 8th grade social studies teacher in Nash County Public Schools, said an interview.
Pierce helped write the new social studies standards and unpacking documents for 8th grade teachers.
But the new guidance documents are likely to face the same criticism that’s been leveled at past meetings by Republican state board members who say the standards are too divisive.
Critics have pointed to a national report released last month from the Fordham Institute that gave North Carolina a D- grade for its new civics standards and an F grade for its U.S. history standards. The conservative think tank called the standards inadequate and said they should be rewritten.
“The standards document is just plagued with poorly worded gobbledygook that doesn’t mean anything or are unclear,” David Griffith, one of the authors of the Fordham report, said in an interview. “That’s the opposite of what standards should be.”
New social studies standards debated
The new social studies standards have been a source of controversy even before their adoption in February in a split 7-5 vote by the state board’s Democratic majority.
Critics accused the social studies standards of incorporating “Critical Race Theory,” a “scholarly framework that describes how race, class, gender, and sexuality organize American life,” according to the UNC-Chapel Hill history department. This view holds that systemic racism has been and continues to be a part of the nation’s history.
In June, a divided state board voted to approve the unpacking documents that will be used in elementary schools. The board’s Republican members raised concerns such as how Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice, was omitted from a 5th grade list of women “who have contributed to change and innovation in the United States.”
The state board adopts the standards in each subject, but curriculum decisions are left up to individual school districts and charter schools. It’s even more so the case in social studies, where there are no longer any statewide exams for the subject.
Teachers aren’t required to use the unpacking documents. But the documents offer suggestions on topics to cover and examples of assignments that can be given.
Studying discrimination in America
The new middle school and high school unpacking documents contain multiple examples for how teachers can carry out new standards that look at the experiences of women, minority groups and marginalized groups.
For instance, one of the 8th grade standards calls for explaining how discriminatory practices have been used to suppress or exploit certain groups. Example topics include “broken and unfulfilled treaties with American Indian tribes,” internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II and redlining — the practice of refusing to offer mortgages to certain areas of a community.
In high school civics, one of the standards has students compare strategies used by different groups to address discrimination. Event examples include the the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins, the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York that sparked the LGBTQ movement and “organized protest for environmental justice movement.”
In high school U.S. history, one of the standards looks at how discriminatory practices have changed population distributions and regional cultures. A suggested assignment is to have students discuss the impact of “discriminatory practices and policies that Latinx faced during the 1990-2020 period of migration.”
The documents are filled with examples of topics such as Voter ID laws, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), undocumented immigrants, affirmative action, gerrymandering, the LGBTQ movement, the Flint water crisis, and the 1898 Wilmington Coup.
The documents also offer different ways for reaching students such as suggesting the use of TikTok style videos for projects and incorporating hip-hop culture as one of the examples for studying multiple perspectives of American identity.
“We’re going to take something they love to assess them,” said Pierce, the social studies teacher. “They’ll think, ‘I’m going to have fun making a TikTok video.’ But they’re learning at the same time.”
Too much focus on equity?
Pierce said the unpacking documents don’t provide everything suggested by the teachers who worked on them. But he said they will provide a more “honest education” to students than the old standards.
But Griffith of the Fordham Institute is more skeptical of the unpacking documents. He said the documents should list which of the examples should be required to cover.
Griffith also said the standards need to have a better balance between equity and teaching substantive content.
“It’s entirely valid and important at some point in 13 years to ask the big questions,” Griffith said. “How is our history related to what we’re seeing today or not and to put the equity glasses on at least once. Having said that, there are many other things that we expect U.S. history and civics teachers to cover.
“Due process is important, the executive branch is important. I could go on. If you care about equity, you should care about substance.”
John deVille, a high school social studies teacher in Macon County, says the documents can be transformative, especially for younger social studies teachers who take them to heart. But the veteran educator thinks it’s likely only metropolitan districts such as Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg will use the unpacking documents to direct teaching.
“Teachers teach as they were taught, so unless you’re digging and constantly challenging yourself, you’re going to teach American History this fall the way you taught it the last 10 years,” deVille said in an interview.
Lawmakers question what’s taught
The standards come at a time when the state’s Republican elected officials have become more vocal in their criticism about what’s being taught in public schools.
The state House approved a bill to delay the use of the standards until 2022. The bill is stalled after the Senate rejected the changes made by the House.
The House has also passed bills putting new rules on how racism can be taught and requiring teachers to post their lesson plans online. Neither bill has been acted on by the Senate yet.
Republican Senate leader Phil Berger and GOP Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson have pointed to how “anti-racism” professor Ibram X. Kendi spoke at a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools event to argue that Critical Race Theory has crept into the state’s public schools. Critical Race Theory made up less than two minutes of the 40-minute speech, the Charlotte Observer reported.
“This fear that North Carolina social studies teachers are going to become allies of the Black Panther Party or teach the way that Ta-Nehisi Coates or Nikole Hannah Jones would teach is nuts,” said deVille, a self-described progressive educator. “That’s just not going to happen.
“North Carolina teachers are center, center-right. They’re going to teach their courses center, center-right.”
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