What should Minnesota kids learn in social studies class? The bureaucratic review process has sparked fierce debate. Credit: Photo collage Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Growing up in Maple Grove, Danyika Leonard studied the history of different cultural groups. But she didn’t learn it at school; she learned it at home with her mom, who wanted to make sure she got a well-rounded social studies education.

“It wasn’t just about Black history,” Leonard said. “It was about the history of the Indigenous peoples, it was the history of the African diaspora, it was the history of the Great Migration.”

Last year, Leonard, the policy director of the Minnesota nonprofit Education Evolving, joined the state’s social studies standards committee for its 10-year review process. She hoped she could help more of Minnesota’s schoolchildren see themselves in their classroom materials. The committee to revise the social studies standards—a diverse group of 36 educators and parents—spent hours and hours updating the document, crafting examples, and even creating a new ethnic studies discipline.

But Leonard didn’t see the committee’s work fully reflected in the second draft of the social studies standards that the Minnesota Department of Education released July 30 for public comment. 

“It was incomplete. There were standards that were missing,” Leonard said. “And it was done without an explanation, nor a heads up, nor any sort of real justification.”

Here’s how the process is supposed to work. Under state law, standards for all core academic subjects face review and revision every 10 years. During the 2020–2021 school year, social studies came up for its decennial review, following language arts and science in recent years. By law, the commissioner must consider advice from stakeholders, including university faculty, teachers, and parents.

In practice, that process can look dry and bureaucratic. Committee members gather for day-long Zoom meetings to refine strands (core disciplines), standards (what students are expected to learn), and benchmarks (skills within standards that students should learn by the time they complete a grade). The committee does not determine curriculum, which educators determine at the local level to meet the state standards. 

But despite the slow and tedious grind of bureaucracy, the process has garnered plenty of public interest this year. The Minnesota Department of Education received more than 17,000 public comments for the second draft of the social studies standards.

After gathering extensive feedback, the committee for the first time added ethnic studies as a core social studies discipline. If adopted, ethnic studies would join the traditional four strands: citizenship and government, economics, geography, and history. 

“What is really important about this process is the academic standards are reviewed by Minnesotans for Minnesotans,” said Bobbie Burnham, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education.

But Minnesotans don’t always agree. The social studies standards review comes at a time when Minnesota, and the rest of the country, is grappling with deep divisions about how to teach history, whose stories merit inclusion in classrooms, and how the history of racial injustices connects to present-day inequities. 

The new ethnic studies strand is already facing threatened legal challenges and questions about compliance with state statute from state lawmakers and a conservative think tank. Even the committee members who created the new ethnic studies strand say they felt frustrated with the released draft.

The revised standards will form the backbone of how Minnesota schools teach social studies for a decade, starting no sooner than the 2024–25 school year. On a basic level, these standards will inform lesson plans in history, government, geography, and economics in K–12 schools throughout the state. 

But on a larger level, these social studies standards will shape the ways young Minnesotans learn to think about themselves, their state, and each other. Now those questions sit at the center of a political firestorm currently playing out on conservative media airwaves and in school board meetings across the state.

The debate over how to revise these standards can seem incredibly specific: Should Minnesota students be required to learn about major world religions, such as Sikhism? It can seem philosophical: Were there any benefits to colonization, or is colonialism inherently bad? It can resemble a Lin-Manuel Miranda lyric: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? 

The standards debate can also feel like a 2022 midterm elections strategy to fuel white grievance politics. All summer, parents have stormed school board meetings demanding the removal of critical race theory from their children’s schools, after hearing about it on Fox News and in town halls across the state. (Unless they studied it in graduate school, most of those viewers had probably never heard of critical race theory until the past year. An active misinformation campaign from Fox News has redefined critical race theory—a scholarly legal framework for understanding systemic racism—as a weaponized catchphrase for anything related to race.)

A 50-year movement

The origin of the ethnic studies movement is often traced to a student strike at San Francisco State University in November 1968, where students demanded a Black Studies department and a school of ethnic studies. Students wanted to learn about themselves and design their own educational experiences.

But in Minnesota, the movement began even earlier. In April of that year, days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the University of Minnesota formed a human rights task force. The student Afro-American Action Committee presented a set of demands to the task force, including an African American studies curriculum.

The following January, after an unfruitful meeting with the university president, 70 students from that committee occupied Morrill Hall in protest of the treatment of Black students on campus and the lack of an Afro-American studies department. After 24 hours, the protest ended with an agreement between the university and the students. The Department of Afro-American Studies (as it was then called) officially formed that fall—one of the first such departments in the country.

Half a century later, these courses are often available at the university level. Now, a coalition of students, teachers, and parents want to see a more culturally representative curriculum in grades K–12. A Stanford study showed that 9th graders who enrolled in an ethnic studies course saw significant gains in attendance, grade point average, and credits earned.

“Students should not have to pay money to go to college to get access to learn about ethnic studies,” said Jonathan Hamilton, a visiting professor at Macalester College who serves on the social studies standards committee.

The ethnic studies coalition has pursued a multi-pronged strategy: testifying at the legislature, advocating for ethnic studies requirements in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools, and pushing for changes through the social studies standards committee.

Under the ethnic studies standards included in the July 30 second draft, Minnesota students would study how the historical roots of oppression connect to present-day systems of oppression, and apply those lessons to take action against injustices.

But some committee members and their allies in the Ethnic Studies Coalition worry the new strand didn’t get the attention it deserved.

“Students should not have to pay money to go to college to get access to learn about ethnic studies.”

Jonathan Hamilton, visiting professor at Macalester College

Although the committee began meeting last September, the members didn’t reach an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Education to add an ethnic studies strand until June. That meant committee members had a compressed timeframe to develop standards and benchmarks for ethnic studies.

Burnham explained in an interview with Sahan Journal that the department and committee used this time to incorporate feedback from the first round of comments, which included many voices in support of ethnic studies. (That public comment period closed in January.)

On a shortened timeline, the committee members poured hours into developing benchmarks and examples for the ethnic studies strand. But none of the examples they crafted appear in the published second draft.

Should Sikhism be named in the document? 

One focal point for the controversy over examples centered on world religions. After receiving feedback from the Sikh community that they had been omitted from the first draft, the committee added Sikhism to the second draft in the examples section. But the second draft released to the public doesn’t name Sikhism—or other faiths that were included in the first draft.

In their letter to Mueller, 28 of the 36 committee members expressed disappointment in the removals.

“We received hundreds of public comments to include Sikhism in Draft 2,” the committee members wrote. “The committee added this reference in an example, so if examples are excluded, then the public will not see this revision, and will come to the conclusion that the committee did not integrate public comments.”

In a response letter to committee members, Burnham explained that examples are not required in the legislative and rulemaking processes. The Minnesota Department of Education wanted to solicit comments about the standards themselves, and the benchmarks for meeting those standards.

“The time and effort the committee put into providing examples will certainly not be lost,” Burnham wrote.

In an interview with Sahan Journal, Burnham stressed her respect for the committee’s work and said the examples will be provided in a separate document to explain how to implement the standards.

But some committee members did not find that argument convincing.

“White supremacy lives in the procedures and processes,” Hamilton said. “We’re starting to see that big time.”

Teaching the roots of modern policing

The examples weren’t the only major change to the draft the committee noticed.

One of the committee’s ethnic studies benchmarks focused on policing, said Aaliyah Hodge, a committee member who manages charter school authorization at the University of St. Thomas.  Hodge said the benchmark asked students to “examine contemporary policing and explore its historical roots in early America.” (According to historians, modern American policing has deep roots in slave codes and Jim Crow laws.)

Yet that benchmark was removed from the draft released to the public, she explained. Department leadership saw it as an example, not a benchmark, Hodge recalled, and cut it along with all the other examples.

Hodge, and several other committee members who spoke to Sahan Journal, disagreed with that distinction.

“The decision on the part of MDE leadership to remove policing as a benchmark shows a blatant disregard and a lack of understanding of our communities who feel the effects of a police state daily,” she wrote in an email to Sahan Journal.

‘Critical Race Theory in action’? 

The push to include ethnic studies faces not just bureaucratic roadblocks, but also an organized opposition campaign. The conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment has been encouraging feedback to the Minnesota Department of Education, calling for the removal of the ethnic studies strand and what it perceives as “critical race theory” hidden in the standards.

According to the Center of the American Experiment, more than 17,000 people submitted comments about the second draft using its online template. That’s more than 96 percent of the 17,583 overall comments the Minnesota Department of Education received on that draft. Sahan Journal requested those comments from the Minnesota Department of Education. And a review of 27,000 pages of feedback confirms that the comments overwhelmingly follow the Center of the American Experiment template.

“We think that students should absolutely see themselves reflected in the standards,” said Catrin Wigfall, a policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. “How the ethnic studies strand is currently framed, though, shifts the pendulum too far to one side. There’s only focus on systems of oppression, power structures, group identity, systemic racism.”

Positive contributions from multiple groups should be included, too, she said.

“There needs to be a balance,” Wigfall said. “We can absolutely look back honestly at the horrors of slavery and discrimination. But we should also pair that with celebrating Black excellence, and the contributions of the many racial and ethnic groups who have contributed to America’s history.”

The group’s online petition, called Raise Our Standards MN, took a more pointed tone.

“The new Ethnic Studies strand divides students by race, focuses on oppression, and is not allowed under state law,” the website for Raise Our Standards stated. 

The petition invited people to tell Governor Tim Walz’s administration “not to shove Critical Race Theory down our students’ throats during social studies class.” 

“Critical race theory” isn’t just dominating the comments to the Minnesota Department of Education. It’s also dominating the airwaves on Fox News and comments at school board meetings throughout the state.   

The Raise Our Standards website provided an online template for Minnesotans to submit letters calling for the complete removal of the ethnic studies strand, describing it as “Critical Race Theory in action.” It also objected to the standards’ “negative view of America,” the “imbalance” in the prevalence of Indigenous perspectives throughout the draft, and benchmarks to teach second graders about accepting the results of an election. The letter template did not mention the inclusion of Black excellence. 

“How the ethnic studies strand is currently framed, though, shifts the pendulum too far to one side. There’s only focus on systems of oppression, power structures, group identity, systemic racism.”

Catrin Wigfall, policy fellow, Center of the American Experiment

Many of the comments argued that the social studies standards should honor “Judeo-Christian heritage” and that there are no oppressed people in America, said MK Nguyen, a St. Paul Public Schools parent on the committee.

In some ways, these comments illustrate the previous ways social studies standards have failed, Leonard said. Too many Minnesotans still don’t know about the lynchings of African Americans in Duluth or the mass hangings of Native Americans in Mankato, she said. And because they don’t know that history, they don’t see a connection between injustices of the past and inequities of the present—including Minnesota’s well-documented racial disparities in homeownership, education, income, and employment.

‘To understand Tim Walz’s new social studies standards, just look at who wrote them’ 

The conservative campaign to reshape the social studies standards went beyond submitting public comments; it also took a personal turn. As part of its online lobby effort, the Center of the American Experiment published blog posts last winter detailing the resumes of committee members who are Indigenous or people of color. The headline: “To understand Tim Walz’s new social studies standards, just look at who wrote them.” 

Several committee members described this as “doxxing,” saying it led to some cases of online harassment.

One blog post criticized a specific comment Leonard, from Education Evolving, made in a January committee meeting. Breitbart and Alpha News picked up the story.

 Shortly afterward, Leonard received a message to her personal Facebook account: “I think you should stop spreading your racist bullshit around,” the message read. It went on to call her “a horrible person” and “frankly a piece of shit.”

Leonard said she isn’t sure whether the online harassment originated from the blog post. But she believes the Center of the American Experiment took her comment out of context, and that they did so “with malintentions.”

Bill Walsh, communications director for the Center of the American Experiment, pointed out that committee members were appointed to serve on a public committee, and said they should not fear their names being public. Walsh maintains that he shared details about certain committee members to show they worked for organizations that focused on equity.

Reciting the Lord’s Prayer at a Rochester school board meeting

In addition to its online campaign for social studies comments, the Center of the American Experiment hosted meetings across Minnesota throughout the summer encouraging parents to push back on the updated social studies standards, education equity work, and the “woke movement” in schools. At the town hall meetings, the Center encouraged community members to get involved in their local school board and run for office themselves.

And indeed, school boards in Minnesota and across the country have seen a surge in public interest in recent months. In part due to the critical race theory campaign, and in part due to divisions over COVID protocols like masking, school board meetings throughout the state have turned into marathon public complaint sessions with little relation to the actual meeting agenda. 

At a July meeting in Rochester, a group of white parents interrupted the meeting to loudly recite the Lord’s Prayer—a central expression of Christian faith—before leaving. One attendee brought a copy of a Dr. Seuss book with a Land O’Lakes cottage cheese lid taped to it. 

In some districts, meetings have gotten so out of control that school boards have considered curtailing public comment. Some school leaders need police escorts to their cars following unruly public meetings. And statewide, school board members are quitting in unprecedented numbers.

A recent Center of the American Experiment blog post touts the high quit numbers as evidence school boards are facing “far greater accountability” than in the past on both critical race theory and COVID restrictions. “Parents have become more hands-on in policy discussions over their children’s education,” the post says.

Yet Wigfall states that her group has promoted civil engagement on divisive topics.

“We always encourage participants to approach school leadership in a respectful way to voice their concerns,” Wigfall said. “The problem is that there are representatives from both sides who get involved and let emotions dictate, and that’s not good for anyone, particularly the students we’re looking to stand up for.”

Out: ‘derogatory references’ to whiteness. In: the Pledge of Allegiance

Have the heated political climate and the critical race theory campaign shaped the Minnesota Department of Education’s process for finalizing the second draft of the social studies standards?

That’s what Nguyen thought upon seeing the second draft. The Minnesota Department of Education should act based on love for Minnesota children, Nguyen said, rather than “based on fear of the Center of the American Experiment.”

Wigfall saw her think tank’s influence in the second draft, too. 

“We think that the committee and the Department of Education took the feedback from thousands of Minnesotans very seriously,” she said. 

As evidence of her group’s influence, Wigfall pointed to the second draft’s inclusion of the Civil War and World Wars I and II, the removal of “derogatory references” to whiteness, and the reinstatement of learning about the Pledge of Allegiance. She also noted that after feedback, the second draft removed preamble language that included a Native American land acknowledgment.

“Framing the documents through just the lens of the Dakota and Anishinaabe peoples we felt was limiting and excluded the multiple racial and ethnic groups that have contributed to Minnesota’s history,” she said. “So we felt like not starting the draft document with that language was more inclusive.”

Moving the process forward—slowly 

The fierce public debate over social studies standards is in some ways fitting, explained Burnham, from the Minnesota Department of Education. “It’s actually a key pillar of social studies standards that students are considering different perspectives, and use critical thinking skills to draw conclusions,” she said.

But she demurred on whether the campaign against critical race theory was influencing the standards.

“This process prioritizes taking public comments into consideration,” she said. “And MDE continues to prioritize the need for all students to see themselves in these learnings. MDE remains committed to ethnic studies and Indigenous education for all.”

Before the standards become law, a judge must approve them. Representative Sondra Erickson (R–Princeton) told the Pioneer Press that she intends to argue that adding ethnic studies does not comply with language in the statute. 

Minnesota law spells out that social studies education must include the other four disciplines, but does not specifically mention ethnic studies. The statute does not, however, specify that social studies must be limited to just those disciplines.

In a recent blog post, Wigfall also raised questions about whether the second draft of the social studies standards aligns with state statute.

The rulemaking process, overseen by the judge, also has a public feedback process, she noted. “American Experiment plans on submitting comments during that period and encouraging other Minnesotans to do so,” she said.

Burnham appeared to nod to this administrative process, and the likely political battle still ahead, in her letter to the committee.

“MDE is prioritizing decisions that we know will continue to move this process forward with a final result of having revised social studies standards that are representative of Minnesotans, approved by the Commissioner, and successful in the rulemaking process,” she wrote.

Building the future

Now a mother of two children in Hopkins Public Schools, Danyika Leonard sometimes finds herself in her mother’s old role, providing culturally relevant context for her children’s education. She recalled how in one fourth-grade reading passage, her son had to answer why 19th-century women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton was considered a “daring and dedicated leader.” He circled the second answer: that she attended the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London.

But his teacher marked this answer wrong. The correct reason that Stanton was daring and dedicated, in the teacher’s view? She led a women’s rights convention.

“What it said was white womanhood was superior to black personhood and black humanity,” Leonard said. “We had to tell him no, you got that answer right, son. That was a correct answer.”

She hopes that revising the social studies standards will help students of color see themselves better reflected in their curriculum. And she hopes it will help students see each other better, too.

“This is about our kids learning how to be with each other,” she said. “This is our kids learning how to build with each other in the future.”

The road ahead for the social studies standards still has many procedural steps, including targeted feedback from education, business, tribal, and community groups; review from social studies content experts; and commissioner approval of the third draft. Then, it will go to the rulemaking process before a judge, which includes an additional 60-day public comment period. The soonest the standards would be implemented is the 2024–25 school year, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

That lengthy process could mean more opportunities to contest the standards.

“We also don’t know who will be governor that year,” Wigfall said. “And so there are a lot of unanswered questions about whether or not the whole revision process will start over, or will continue to be revised.”

Hana Ikramuddin contributed reporting.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.