Proposed new standards would change how Minnesota students learn social studies

Teacher interacts with students in classroom
Natalia Benjamin, Minnesota's 2021 Teacher of the Year, asked her students at Rochester's Century High School to think critically about where they see different languages in their school. Benjamin's ethnic studies approach to teaching may soon be more common in Minnesota if a judge approves a new set of social studies standards.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal 2022

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal through a partnership with MPR News.

By Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

Minnesota’s social studies standards are getting a long-awaited makeover — if an administrative law judge approves them this winter.

On Sept. 25, the Minnesota Department of Education released a document outlining the “need and reasonableness” for the new standards.

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That may sound dry and bureaucratic. But the document marks the beginning of the end of a sometimes contentious three-year process that could result in major changes to the way Minnesota students learn social studies.

If approved, the proposed changes will incorporate ethnic studies into state social studies standards for the first time. Those standards would go into effect in the 2026–2027 school year.

Minnesota law requires the revision of academic standards every 10 years. A 36-member committee that included teachers, parents, university professors and tribal representatives developed the proposed social studies standards. They consulted a wide range of materials, including national frameworks and social studies standards from other states.

One member of the committee was Danyika Leonard, policy director of the Minnesota nonprofit Education Evolving.

The biggest changes, Leonard said, are the addition of ethnic studies and increased contributions from Indigenous communities. The standards were also updated overall to keep up with the latest approaches, Leonard said.

public comment period about the proposed new standards is open through Oct. 25. If at least 25 people request a public hearing, an administrative law judge will hear public testimony on Nov. 8 and 9.

Judge’s decision expected by Jan. 3

The job of the administrative law judge, Eric L. Lipman, is to determine whether the Minnesota Department of Education followed the proper process in updating the standards, as well as whether they are “clear, concise, objective, measurable, and grade-level appropriate.” He may approve the standards, reject them altogether or approve them with some recommended or required changes.

Lipman will make a final determination by Jan. 3, unless an extension is ordered, said Minnesota Department of Education spokesperson Kevin Burns.

In the statement of need, Minnesota education commissioner Willie Jett said the new standards “incorporate the leading research and developments from the last ten years.” Social studies standards have not always kept up with research best practices, he said; they have often emphasized rote memorization of facts rather than teaching students to ask questions.

In one study Jett cited, a national researcher found that many students characterized their experiences with social studies classes as “boring.” The study invoked the teacher from the 1986 comedy film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” who droned on about tariffs in the 1930s as students’ eyes glazed over; the title character, meanwhile, skipped out of school.

The new standards will engage students by encouraging inquiry rather than memorization, Jett said.

As an example, the 2011 standards required students to learn that “the United States is based on democratic values and principles.” The revised standards say they should learn to “explain democratic values and principles that guide government, society and communities and analyze the tensions within the United States constitutional government.”

“The rephrasing allows and encourages critical thinking versus leading students in a certain direction to a certain conclusion,” Jett wrote. “It also allows students to examine multiple perspectives, evaluate the strengths of arguments towards shared understandings, determine their own stance, and investigate ways in which democratic principles could be improved.”

The standards have also been updated to better address today’s students’ needs, Jett said. For example, Minnesota’s student population is becoming much more racially diverse than in previous generations.

“The standards committee considered it important for all students in Minnesota classrooms to see how the standards relate to them, regardless of their various backgrounds,” Jett wrote. “All students need to see themselves as a vital part of Minnesota’s future, particularly Minnesota’s economic future.”

Opposition to the proposed new approach

Catrin Wigfall, a policy fellow at the conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment, questioned the shift to an inquiry-based model. Her organization is asking the administrative law judge to reject the new standards.

“There’s less focus on foundational knowledge and content,” Wigfall said. “In order for students to critically think about, say, President Abraham Lincoln and his role in the Civil War, they need some foundational knowledge and content leading up to that.”

Wigfall also said the ethnic studies standards have a misplaced emphasis. 

“Students should absolutely learn about the cultures and the histories of the different people who have helped shape our great state and our country,” she said. “Unfortunately, this is not that version of ethnic studies.”

Wigfall pointed to an ethnic studies standard about resistance, which includes the goal: “The student will organize with others to engage in activities that could further the rights and dignity of all.”

“These are action words that are requiring students to get involved in activism,” Wigfall said.

Another standard asks students to “apply lessons from the past in order to eliminate historical and contemporary injustices.”

“That is a huge ask,” Wigfall said. “How do you measure whether or not a student has eliminated a historical injustice?”

Resolution follows long process

The years-long process to develop new standards revealed tensions between committee members and the Minnesota Department of Education. At one point, committee members questioned whether the agency was disregarding large parts of their work about ethnic studies.

But in an Oct. 9 interview, Leonard looked back at her committee’s work with pride.

“I’m proud of the brilliant scholars that came together to create the standards and just support and offer their expertise,” she said. “I’m proud of the community’s support around ethnic studies specifically.”

The new standards, she said, will help kids develop an “understanding of how to become a citizen, how to engage in society, how to advocate for social change.” The standards will leave them better prepared to work together and learn from each other, she said.

And if the standards are not adopted?

Rejecting the standards would have consequences for students, families, and the business community, Jett said.

“If not adopted,” Jett wrote in conclusion, “all students will receive a less rigorous, complete, and competitive social studies education.”

How to make your voice heard on Minnesota’s proposed social studies standards

  • Make a public comment. The deadline for these comments is Oct. 25 at 4:30 p.m. Comments should focus on the standards.

  • Participate in a public hearing. If enough people request one, these hearings will be held virtually Nov. 8 from 6 to 8 p.m. and Nov. 9 from 1 to 4:15 p.m. You can access the Nov. 8 hearing here and the Nov. 9 hearing here.