State Board of Education approves final social studies ‘unpacking’ documents but eyes more changes

By: - July 8, 2021 4:00 pm

Middle school and high school “unpacking” documents for the state’s new social studies standards were narrowly approved Thursday on a 6-5 vote along party lines.

The board’s Democratic majority voted in favor of the documents teachers and districts will use to craft lesson plans and curriculums as the new social studies standards come online this academic year.

State board members made few comments about the grades 6-12 documents, which stood in contrast to the spirited debate last month when the K-5 “unpacking documents” were approved or when the board adopted the social studies standards in February. Both votes were 7-5, along party lines with Democrats voting in the affirmative.

Instead, on Thursday, the board focused on a recent report by the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that gave North Carolina a D-grade for its new civics standards and an F for its U.S. History standards.

“North Carolina’s new civics and U.S. History standards are inadequate,” the Fordham report said. “Nebulous verbiage and an aversion to specifics make them functionally contentless in many places, and organization is poor throughout. A complete revision is recommended before implementation.”

The state routinely receives low marks from the Fordham Institute, said David Stegall, state superintendent of innovation.

The problem, he explained, is that the state’s standards are conceptual to give districts and schools flexibility to determine content and curriculum to meet teacher and student needs. The institute’s evaluators value standards that provide specific topics students must learn.

The institute recommends, for example, that the standards “articulate what students should know instead of asking them to “exemplify,” “critique,” “distinguish,” “differentiate,” “compare,” “assess,” or “classify.”

Stegall said conceptual standards allow students to engage in critical thinking.

“Conceptual standards allow teachers to make deeper connections with the real world in multiple points in history that are related rather than have students memorize specific names and dates,” Stegall said.

Catherine Truitt

Nevertheless, the criticism coming from the Fordham Institute shouldn’t be disregarded, said State Superintendent Catherine Truitt.

“It’s shortsighted of us, quite frankly, to dismiss the report out of hand simply because North Carolina always gets downgraded by the Fordham Institute,” Truitt said.

Truitt pushed back on Stegall’s explanation for the low marks. She said the state receives them because it does not understand what local control means when it comes to what a standard should look like.

“A standard is a statement of essential knowledge of what a student is supposed to learn, and our standards do not contain any statement of essential knowledge that is to be learned,” Truitt said.

The state is also penalized for arranging its standards thematically instead of chronologically, Truitt said.

“Anyone who has ever been frustrated by the fact that the majority of young adults in the United States do not know when World War II occurred, it is because in the 70s …we have not been teaching history chronologically, at least our standards have not encouraged teachers to do so,” Truitt said.

The superintendent and SBE Chairman Eric Davis have discussed an alternative to the template used by NCDPI and teachers contracted to develop the standards.

The template used now has been around for a decade, Truitt said.

“What I am positing is that the template is flawed, and that a better template that provides a better framework will be better for teachers and therefore for students,” Truitt said.

Truitt will share information about a new template with the board over the next month. The board could be asked to adopt a new template in August.

Davis said a new template could provide a roadmap that could enhance the new social studies standards.

Whether a new template deserves further consideration is “subject to the boards’ judgement and approval,” Davis said.

The new social studies standards have been a source of controversy for months because critics believe they incorporate elements of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which examines social, cultural and legal issues as they relate to race and racism.

Critics complain that CRT is divisive and paints whites as “irredeemable” racists.

Meanwhile, those who support CRT say it’s important that children learn “hard, uncomfortable truths” about America’s racial history, which includes slavery, Jim Crow Law and the brutal lynching of Blacks at the hands of white mobs.

Jill Camnitz, chair of the state board’s Student Learning and Achievement Committee, noted the spirited debates the new standards have sparked.

“I personally have confidence that our district and teachers will use the standards and supporting documents to provide a classroom experience that gives our students a deep understanding of our history, inspiration to continue to work on perfecting our union and an ability to deal with the richness of experience and viewpoint that are found in every classroom in North Carolina,” Camnitz said.

Last month, SBE member Olivia Oxendine questioned how the elementary school documents could omit Sandra Day O’Connor from a list of women who contributed to change and innovation in the United States.

“I know we cannot think of every person in history, every event in history, every major theme in history but I cannot for the life of me understand how in this particular standard within the unpacking documents, how we missed Sandra Day O’Connor,” Oxendine said.

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.