New social studies standards criticized by conservatives on State Board of Education

A conservative wing of the State Board of Education objected Wednesday to new social studies standards designed to ensure North Carolina’s K-12 students learn “hard truths” about American history.

Those truths, supporters of the new standards contend, include complete and full-throated lessons about the nation’s original sin of slavery and the lasting racism and discrimination that followed.

“When it comes to facing the hard truths of our American narrative, what and how we teach history in our public schools matters, and it matters incredibly at this moment in history,” said state board advisor Matt Bristow-Smith, principal of Edgecombe Early College High and the 2019 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year.

Bristow-Smith said the new standards are needed to help students understand the past so they can navigate the future and become critical, independent thinkers.

Much of the objection to the new standards came from the board’s two newest members — State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, both of whom are Republicans.

Robinson, who is Black, called the standards divisive.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (center)

“I truly believe that you do not need to include this type of language in the standards in order to be able to teach history,” said Robinson, the first Black lieutenant governor in North Carolina. “I think we need to be teaching students about their common experiences as Americans, and in order to do that, I don’t think we need to separate into groups.”

Robinson pointed to strategies such as including the viewpoint of “marginalized groups” that he contends were already a part of history lessons when he attended public schools.

“I can remember all throughout my schooling I was taught about the American Indian, I was taught about slavery, all the things we are talking about,” Robinson said. “So, I don’t understand this need all of sudden to include these groups.”

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt

Meanwhile, Truitt applauded the process that led to new standards but questioned why explicit language is needed to help inform the standard’s guiding principles.

The explicit language was requested over the summer by state board members who wanted language in the standards that promote the inclusion of diverse voices. That was before Truitt won election to become the state’s top superintendent.

One example in the standard’s objectives for 8th grade ask teachers to “Explain how slavery segregation, voter suppression, reconcentration and other discriminatory practices have been used to suppress and exploit certain groups within North Carolina and the nation over time.

It would replace a narrower version of the objective that simply asked them to: “Explain how injustices and responses to them have shaped North Carolina and the nation over time.

“If we had what I believe to be adequate guiding principles to inform our standards that are grounded in the discipline of history, there would not be a need for explicit language to be used,” Truitt said.

She asked for more time to meet with N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCPI) staff members to “reframe the context” in which the standards were written.

SBE Chairman Eric Davis recommended that Truitt be given more time to propose additions and revisions before the board approves the standards.

“We should afford Superintendent Truitt this opportunity to work with her staff and bring ideas for consideration, but we need to make a decision in February,” said Davis, suggesting that the board hold a special meeting later this month to discuss proposed changes.

The new standards, whose adoption was delayed in July, has undergone several revisions. They were supported by 85% of the 1,572 people who responded to a NCDPI survey. The state reviews and revises standards in different courses every few years. Two U.S. History courses in high school will become one to accommodate a personal finance course required by lawmakers. The changes would take effect during the 2021-22 school year. 

“I hope that the overwhelmingly supportive public response, the 85 % number stands as an identifiable metric that your work has not gone unnoticed,” said state board member James Ford.

Ford noted that the new standards address the concerns students, teachers and parents had about the lack of diverse voices and different points of views in the state’s current social studies standards.

“The majority of our students now belong to many of the groups that have now been included in these standards,” Ford said. “We are a state public school system that is majority students of color. We are a United States school system that for the first time is majority students of color.”

Perhaps anticipating a backlash from state conservatives, SBE member Jill Camnitz offered these remarks before the discussion about the new standards:

“When we talk about the history of this country, particularly with regard to racial and ethnic experience, blame and guilt often underlie the conversation. Both of these are very human responses to our history and current reality. However, blame and guilt are not what these new standards are about, rather we’re seeking to draw on the richness of the American historical experience as a gift to our children so they can better appreciate their legacy; strengthen their sense of connection to each other and work together to improve the American experience for all. This is the spirit in which these standards were created.”

SBE advisor Mariah Morris, the 2019-20 Wellcome Burroughs Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year from Moore County Schools, said the new standards are an attempt to focus on the perspectives of all students.

“I think that when we have these hard conversations, it’s not about are we bringing blame or shame because that’s centering on one group’s perspective,” Morris said. “We have to center on all of our student’s perspectives and we have to understand that by having honest conversations, our students will hear us and know what we’re doing and respect us for that.”

SBE member James Ford said the new, more inclusive standards are necessary because Americans share a national identity but different experiences based on ethnicity and race.

“What we have done here is we’ve stitched together a patchwork of American world civics history that doesn’t just use one thread but uses a tapestry of various different threads and challenges individuals, as Mr. [Matt] Bristow-Smith said, not to believe one thing or the other or to feel a certain way or to engender a certain euphoric experience, but rather to think critically and arrive at their own conclusions thoughtfully about what they do as well as what they do not believe.”

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