Cooking the Books

Right-wingers divine new education standards

Of all of the education standards that have been proposed to replace the now-repealed Profile of Learning in the Minnesota public schools, the most widespread criticism in recent weeks has been directed at proposed social studies requirements. Four members of the 44-person social studies committee chosen by the Minnesota Department of Education to concoct the standards issued a scathing "minority report" on the committee's handiwork. School boards in Buffalo and Minneapolis have passed resolutions rejecting the standards. Thirty-two history professors from the University of Minnesota wrote a 13-page rebuttal, and public hearings have been dominated by rebukes.

At a November 1 reconvening of the committee, the feedback compelled Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke to downgrade many of the standards into optional examples for the core curriculum. Even so, state senators such as Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar) and Steve Kelley (DFL-Hopkins) said last week that negative feelings about the standards were still running high among their constituents.

That the social studies standards are so hotly contested a subject is understandable, and not only because their broad purview includes history, government, geography, and economics. As Joe Nathan, a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute and director of the Center for School Change, puts it, "Social studies goes to the heart of the debate in this country about education and how we view America."

As such, the topic is a lightning rod for the culture wars between lefty progressives and right-wing conservatives. But what is striking is how much the composition and preliminary work of the committee reflected a hard tilt to the right, sometimes at the expense of fact.

It was hard to pick the most egregiously right-wing standard set by the committee. Was it that all seventh-grade students are to know the significance of the four references to God in the Declaration of Independence? Or maybe that first-graders must understand the definition of "opportunity cost"? Entrepreneurship is cited in the standards more than three times as often as anything regarding the nation's labor movement. The Declaration of Independence is erroneously referred to as "the founding document that sets forth the principles for our nation" (that would be the Constitution), and the committee claims that the framers of the Constitution "secured the equal rights of all citizens" (which would have been news to women and slaves, among others).

How were these and countless other claims outside the political mainstream approved? According to committee member Mark Doepner-Hove, the group was "forced and encouraged" by Yecke's department to use standards already enacted in five other states. The standards in these states all received either an "A" or "B" grade from the conservative Fordham Foundation. The group's weekly newsletter, Education Gadfly, always contains a commentary by right-wing education reformer Chester Finn, a proponent of vouchers and "back to basics" classroom learning. (Minnesota's old social studies standards made it one of 23 states to receive an "F" from the foundation.)

The composition of the committee reflected the political bias of Yecke--who has ties to the Bush administration--and the foundation. Just one resident of Minneapolis, home of the state's largest school district, made the committee, while Plymouth, an affluent western suburb in the heart of Republican country, boasted five representatives.

The backgrounds of some committee members are also notable. There's Bruce Sanborn, listed on the education department's website simply as a parent and, long ago, a schoolteacher for two years. But Sanborn is also chairman of the board of the Claremont Institute, whose mission is to "restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life." The institute will present Rush Limbaugh with its Statesmanship Award at a dinner in Los Angeles on November 21 and has recently named Reagan-era education commisioner William Bennett its Washington fellow. (In a fundraising letter for the conservative Heritage Foundation, Bennett once wrote, "Armed with public opinion, we can wear down the [teachers'] unions.")

Matthew Abe is similarly listed on the website as an involved parent. There is no mention that Abe runs the Minnesota Education Reform News website, with a mission to "inform Minnesota citizens about the shortcomings of performance-based, anti-knowledge, behavior-, and attitude-based education." The site links to EdWatch, the new name for the conservative, Christian-oriented Maple River Education Coalition.

Then there is Warren Anderson Jr., a Republican-endorsed candidate for the St. Paul School Board, who made his membership on the committee a part of his campaign--and finished last among eight contenders in last Tuesday's election.

Although Commissioner Yecke has indicated that some of the committee's initial standards will be scaled back or thrown out, the new incarnation of the social studies benchmarks won't be made public until December 15. But those concerned about a right-wing takeover of classroom learning should pay attention. Two of the 15 committee members Yecke has assigned to compose the second set of standards are Sanborn and Anderson.

 
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