Judge largely backs Minnesota’s social studies plan, including ethnic studies

A teacher at a whiteboard in front of a room of students
Students listen as Rachel Nader works at the whiteboard during an ethnic studies class at Humboldt High School in St. Paul.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2023

A Minnesota administrative law judge on Tuesday OK’d much of the state’s plan to revamp state social studies standards, including new language requiring ethnic studies. The ruling lets the new standards move forward with some small modifications.

Judge Eric Lipman recommended the state Education Department adopt the entirety of the proposed standards but make changes to the wording of a requirement that stipulates students “use ethnic and Indigenous studies methods and sources in order to understand the roots of contemporary systems of oppression and apply lessons from the past in order to eliminate historical and contemporary injustices.” 

Lipman wrote: “A plain reading of the text suggests that each student must eliminate a historical and contemporary injustice to satisfy the academic standard. This expectation is unduly vague, because those who are subject to the standard cannot know what is needed to meet the requirements and strict compliance is unreasonable and implausible.”

The report suggests several remedies to fix the issue, including a slight language change borrowed from the Indiana Academic Standards for Ethnic Studies. 

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

The Minnesota Department of Education has not yet indicated what steps it will take to address the issue. Officials were not immediately available Tuesday afternoon to comment on the ruling.

The proposed standards, which have been working their way through the rules-making process since 2020, lay out parameters in the study of economics, geography, citizenship and government, including requirements that students be able to explain  rights and responsibilities in a democratic society, and the unique status of tribal nations.

The ethnic studies addition to the standard requires that students analyze social identities of race, gender, religion, geography and ethnicity.        

The new language in the ethnic studies component, however, has drawn scrutiny from one conservative group that’s questioned the value and approach of what would be required statewide public school standards.

The Center of the American Experiment has warned the proposal could generate fear and resentment in students belonging to some racial and ethnic groups and embed “themes of critical race theory” in Minnesota curricula. 

Catrin Wigfall, a policy fellow with the group, called the judge’s decision on Tuesday “disappointing” and raised concerns that the standards would “at best confuse teachers and students and at worst force them to endorse a divisive and conflict-based ideology.”

A student wearing a red sweater talks with a standing person
Amileydi Moreno Flores asks for clarification from teacher Cassandra Lafleur during class at Humboldt High School in St. Paul.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2023

Danyika Leonard, a member of the committee that worked to draft the new standards said the judge’s decision was cause for celebration.

“This is an opportunity to have Minnesota scholars and educators and students learn about each other and learn who they are and have their humanity honored and that of their classmates,” said Leonard, policy director at Education Evolving, an organization that promotes student-centered learning and school choice.

“Minnesota is about to make history” around what’s taught in social studies classes, Leonard added. “I’m confident that is going to set us on a path toward true educational equity.”