Rewriting History (Standards)

DC’s office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE) is giving the public just a bit more time to comment on newly revised social studies standards promulgated on December 16, 2022.

Specifically, the public now has until February 10 to provide comment—see here and here for how to comment (but ignore any mention of the former deadline of January 30).

That 2-month public comment period–squeezed amid major holidays and school closures (and literally just extended from the old deadline of January 30)–stands in stark contrast to the 2 years OSSE took to get these standards out, after the DC state board of education (SBOE) passed along guiding principles to the agency in December 2020 for this purpose.

Now OSSE appears particularly urgent about getting these draft standards finalized and approved by SBOE in time for their adoption for next school year (SY23-24). Once the board approves them, all LEAs are required to follow them (although as far as I know no one is checking compliance because freedom . . . or something).

While the timing to implement these in time for next school year appears to be tight, at best, it’s only natural to ask: why the rush after 2 years?

To answer that requires a dive into how we got here.

While creating education standards is not always (or ever) easy, the process by which these draft standards came into being is most definitely not straightforward.

The SBOE guiding principles were created in a few months by a committee of 26 teachers, students, and researchers selected by SBOE by way of specific criteria. Once it had those SBOE guidelines in December 2020, OSSE then formed its own technical writing committee (TWC) to draft the actual social studies standards.

I could find no specifying criteria around who was selected (and how) for that TWC committee. Nonetheless, the TWC apparently put out its own version of social studies standards that, according to a public witness (who was a member of both committees), hewed closely to the SBOE guiding principles.

But here’s where it gets sticky:

That same public witness also testified that OSSE deemed some of the TWC’s work as not “instructionally sound, historically complete, or factually accurate.” She went on to note (my italics) that “if OSSE is being honest, I think the real issue they had with those [TWC] standards is that they were too progressive for DC politics.”

As far as I can determine, at some point in 2021 OSSE hired consultants, and some portion of the TWC’s work was changed to what is now out for public comment. The SBOE has an excellent compendium of actions to this point (see here), while this is my scorecard of documents:

–The old (but still in effect!) 2006 social studies standards;
–The SBOE guiding principles (given to OSSE December 2020);
–The original TWC draft standards (apparently unavailable to the public); and
–The new draft standards out for public comment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the relatively short time the current draft standards have been available for public comment, reactions have not been entirely mild.

For instance, at SBOE’s public meeting on Wednesday January 18, public witnesses provided vivid testimony about problems with the new draft social studies standards, including but not limited to

–Areas, actions, and events around the world often framed or presented only in relation to Western, American, and/or European actions and events;

–Not enough specificity in content, such that mention of entire areas of the world and their history are now at the discretion of teachers and LEAs for some grades and content areas;

–Ignoring of recommendations to have more content around Asia, Asian history, and Asian Americans;

–Removal of prior content standards that were both necessary and content-rich; and

–Too much nonspecific conceptual material with too little historical, geographic, and cultural content and context. (See the written testimony of teacher Laura Fuchs for good examples.)

Given such problems, the newly extended comment period is welcome news.

But that not very long extension was first publicized, per my own observations, only sometime in the afternoon of Friday January 20–and then, only after SBOE had asked OSSE for it in the wake of that not exactly positive public testimony on January 18. (Here’s a screenshot from OSSE’s webpage from early on 1/20/23 compared to a screenshot of the same page hours later, in the afternoon. Fair warning: Not all the web pages mentioning the old deadline have been updated as of this blog post.)

All of this suggests that OSSE is determined to forge ahead, with few if any changes–which may be the point.

That is, the more social studies standards are specific, multifactorial, and content-rich, the more material that must be conveyed to teachers and implemented in curricula—all of which is time-consuming and requires more staff work and training. As it is, robust standards, and so-called “hard history,” demand difficult conversations at every level of a school at the best of times.

And this is hardly the best of times for DC’s publicly funded schools!

Notwithstanding a global pandemic’s dire effects, our publicly funded schools have long had some of the highest staff turnover in the nation. At the same time, there is immense pressure among all DC’s publicly funded schools to enroll the most students and get the highest standardized test scores, because the very existence of our schools depends on one or both. Yet that pressure has only increased as the number of students in DC stagnates and the number of schools and seats grows.

One result is that for most of DC’s 60-something LEAs, it may be far easier and appealing to implement social studies standards that are less, rather than more, demanding—especially in a subject that isn’t on the standardized tests used to rate our schools and teachers.

This context also underscores how different DC’s school landscape in 2023 is from that in 2006, when the current social studies standards were first implemented.

A team of educators that DCPS assembled helped draft those 2006 standards; as 2021 testimony provided by NASBE explained, at that point DCPS functioned as a state education agency, in a city with less than 20 charter LEAs. That work was done with the oversight and approval of the elected state board of education, which then had real (as opposed to mainly moral now) oversight authority because mayoral control and OSSE were a year away from existing.

Now, almost 20 years later with almost half of DC’s students attending charters (which have no directly elected oversight and no staff protection–by design), our state education agency is contemplating social studies standards that are in some ways less rigorous and detailed than what they would replace—and certainly not provided now in a manner to allow for substantive change before they are implemented.

It’s hard to take in the educational loss this represents if SBOE approves these revised standards in their current form—even beyond what one public witness characterized as a “missed opportunity.”

That’s because all of this is occurring amid rampant denials and distortions of history, facts, and even existence itself, including

–Virginia’s governor purposefully ensuring less mention of Martin Luther King Jr. in schools;

–Florida’s governor putting forth rules on what can, and cannot, be mentioned in schools about Black history, including banning an AP course on African American studies;

–AI writing distorting facts (see here and here);

–Resurgence of hate crimes and unchecked police crimes against Black citizens; and

–Social media lies about actual events, perpetuated by unseen, anti-democratic actors.

It is patently obvious that our kids are coming up in a world in which powerful people, and armies of online and on air propagandists serving them, are determined to rewrite history itself to suit their world views. This may not be a new world, but it is their world, in which the civic bulwarks of democracy, justice, and education are constantly challenged and threatened.

In this context, DC needs more, not less, rigorous social studies standards to ensure our kids have the knowledge and tools to counter the blunt force trauma of such anti-history.

Instead, it appears we have a rush to support adults’ education business ventures. “Too progressive” indeed.

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