Social Studies

Writing Social Studies Standards: A (Dramatic) Year in Review

By Ileana Najarro — December 23, 2022 4 min read
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Political debate and pressure took center stage this year when it came to states’ expectations for how history and civics are taught in K-12 schools.

Social studies standards help guide instruction in the classroom, both in terms of what content to cover and how to do so. State boards of education typically oversee the process of drafting and approving new standards. In a best-case scenario, this process is informed by and inclusive of the expertise and the best practices of educators and scholars, not partisan views, said Lawrence Paska, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies.

But a review of what happened with social studies standards this year illustrates that conservative policymakers and organizations made a concerted effort to shape policy action around social studies curricula.

These actions often upended efforts to make history instruction—never particularly progressive to start off with—more inclusive and promoted American exceptionalism in civics. It’s something educators connect to the growing number of legislative attempts to restrict how topics of race and sexuality are taught in schools.

“Historically, the challenge has been how to be inclusive,” Paska said. “Now, what we’re seeing, though, is not mandating inclusion, but the opposite, mandating exclusion: ‘Here’s what you can’t talk about, here’s who you can’t talk about.’”

Several policymakers purposefully came into the revision process intending to resist progressive social studies instruction, said Jonathan Collins, an assistant professor of political science, education, and public policy at Brown University.

Many of them wound up realizing that the task of actually shifting standards isn’t as easy as merely opposing them. It means doing all the work that writing standards involves, and then getting teachers to adhere to them, Collins said.

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That’s perhaps why growing numbers of book bans are taking hold in districts.

“It’s much easier to step in and superimpose a ban on a specific book than it is to rewrite or restructure the entire curriculum,” Collins said.

Here’s a recap of a few state efforts to revise social studies standards that took place this year.

Louisiana

Louisiana approved social studies standards this spring that differed greatly from earlier proposed drafts by educators attempting to make the standards more inclusive. For instance, while the new approved standards cover topics such as slavery and civil rights, mentions of LGBTQ people from earlier iterations are gone.

They place a greater emphasis in teaching American exceptionalism, and educators reported concerns about the level of specificity in the new standards and the challenge that creates in making room for teaching historical inquiry.

Florida

Educators in Florida attended summer training sessions on civics education as part of supporting the upcoming implementation of new civics standards revised in 2021 and taking effect next school year. The more patriotic—and at times prescriptive—standards came about after Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed a law calling for revisions.

The standards and their associated training have drawn criticism from educators and the public for how they downplay hands-on instruction and for the focus on religion’s role in the founding of the country.

Texas

The state board of education delayed its social studies standards-revision process until 2025, following pressure from conservative groups in public testimony and emails to board members.

Opposed to existing drafts that sought to include topics such as the more global history and the history of the LGBTQ Pride movements, these groups called for delays in moving forward until their concerns were met.

The resulting decision also upended the process of implementing new Asian American and American Indian/Native studies courses as part of the broader revised standards.

Other developments of note

EdWeek didn’t cover every state’s social studies developments individually, but we kept an eye out for themes that kept cropping up. Here are some short roundups of those developments.

Virginia’s board of education delayed its standards-revision process this year after schools chief Jillian Balow asked for more time for five new board members, appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, to take part in the process.

In November, the board delayed the process again,with the latest draft drawing criticism, especially when compared with earlier, lengthier iterations, according to local reports.

Opponents argue the new draft omits historic perspectives of communities of color and the LGBTQ community. They also question the drastic change from the detailed work of educators and scholars involved in earlier proposed drafts.

Balow said some of the excised content would be put into more detailed “curriculum frameworks” to be released later.

In Colorado, the Democrat-controlled board of education approved standards that included perspectives of various ethnic, religious and LGBTQ groups, though its process was also mired in political back and forth, according to Chalkbeat Colorado. Utah, similarly, approved new expectations for 5th and 6th graders that expanded some of those topics despite heavy lobbying from conservative groups, according to local news reports.

And in South Dakota, the latest public meeting on the standards-revision process had politically polarized public comment taking center stage. Most in attendance opposed the latest drafts and process overall, according to local reports.

Opposition focused on the increased difficulty for elementary grades, questions over how well Native American history is covered, and questions over the role educators were able to play in the drafting process.

South Dakota’s draft comes after state leaders rewrote, and then threw out, a draft set of standards written largely by educators in 2021.

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