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In educating Nebraska schoolkids to be good citizens, what's more important: the Federalist Papers, or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail?
Should social studies teachers spend more time on the Dust Bowl or contrasting market economies with socialism and communism?
Must kids memorize states and capitals or is such training passé in the Google age?
Questions like these will take center stage as Nebraska launches a rewrite this year of its public school social studies standards.
Nebraska's nearly 250 school districts must adopt the finished state standards or enact their own tougher standards.
The state's current standards — 33 pages written in 1998 to guide instruction in kindergarten through 12th grade — have drawn criticism from inside and outside the state.
The liberal Southern Poverty Law Center gave Nebraska's standards an "F" grade for a lack of comprehensive civil rights content. The conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, said Nebraska's history standards deserve a "C" grade for lack of detail, poor organization and "serious gaps."
The Fordham Institute rated Iowa's history standards too broad to be effective, giving them an "F" grade. And, Gov. Terry Branstad last week asked Iowa lawmakers to develop end-of-year exams in core academic areas, including U.S. history.
Just how much Nebraska kids are learning of history, geography and government under current standards is hard to measure because the state has no statewide social studies test.
Results of national tests, however, show American kids struggling.
The 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress tested 30,000 students, including Nebraska and Iowa kids, on knowledge of American history: democracy, culture, economic changes and the like. The results were not broken down by state.
Fewer than one in four students scored proficient, and student performance got worse with age.
Half of fourth-graders could not identify Abraham Lincoln from a photograph and give two reasons why he was important in history.
Only 22 percent of the nation's 12th-graders were able to identify China as North Korea's ally during the Korean War.
U.S. kids posted similar results on the national group's 2010 geography test. Less than 30 percent of students were proficient. Fifty-five percent of fourth-graders could identify that farming is the most common use for land in the Great Plains.
The Nebraska Education Department has tapped about 50 social studies educators, elementary through college, to rewrite the standards, a process expected to take six to eight months, said Donlynn Rice, the department's administrator of curriculum, instruction and innovation.
"I feel very confident we have a great group of writers put together," she said.
About two-thirds of the way into the process, a citizens panel will be invited to review the proposed standards, Rice said. The standards also will be reviewed by education consultants outside the state, he said. The public will have a chance to weigh in before the standards are adopted by the state board.
A key question facing the writers is whether to whittle down the current standards — a vast compendium of dates, people, places and events — to focus on essential concepts and trends. If so, the writers must determine which details should be chucked and which ones retained as indispensable.
Other challenges will be balancing America's blemishes with its virtues and organizing the standards in a way that makes sense for students and teachers.
In other states, particularly Texas, where schools follow a state curriculum, the writing of standards has been highly contentious, pitting the political left and right in a battle for influence on young minds.
Because Nebraska doesn't dictate curriculum for local districts, Rice doesn't expect the process to be as contentious as in Texas. There is some statutory guidance for the writers, such as Nebraska's Americanism law, which requires teaching about the dangers of communism and Nazism.
The writers will work from existing standards and review standards from other states, the latest research on what should be in the standards, and the work of national organizations, Rice said.
Karen Stanley, a retired social studies teacher and social studies specialist from the Lincoln Public Schools, said everyone agrees the multiplication tables are important in math, but "you'll have any number of people disagree on whether it's important that students know about the Battle of Antietam or not."
She said that because of interest groups involved in the original writing, the current standards amount to a "laundry list" of content she believes could be whittled down.
Students can learn dates of battles, results of Supreme Court decisions or routes of explorers, but that doesn't necessarily mean they understand the reasons for those battles, the repercussions of the results or the motivation for the exploring, she said.
Many students don't enjoy social studies class, but when kids do their own projects and make their own discoveries, instead of memorizing, they find it interesting and engaging, she said.
To know all 50 states and recite capitals is a neat thing, she said. But with two clicks of a computer mouse, a student can find out the capital of any state and pull up a map, she said.
"We have the kind of technology that brings trivia information to our fingertips," she said. "We don't have to focus totally on it in our heads. We should get the big picture, the concepts, in our heads."
Nebraska Board of Education member John Sieler said the standards should reflect "American exceptionalism" — the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other countries — and not just focus on its imperfections.
Sieler said he believes some memorization is necessary; for instance, learning the names of U.S. presidents in high school.
"Maybe you forget them later on, but at least you've learned them once," he said. "And probably memorize the states and their capitals, so you talk about where is Kentucky or Oregon or whatever and people have an idea."
Ed Rauchut, director of Bellevue University's Center for American Vision and Values, said many of the students entering his program have never read the Declaration of Independence.
He asks students to read the declaration, U.S. Constitution and "a chunk" of the Federalist Papers — written to promote ratification of the Constitution.
Rauchut said students need to know the ideas and concepts that go with historical movements and periods, but students also need to know the facts.
"So many kids today couldn't place the Civil War within the decade that it occurred," he said. "I know a number of high school students today couldn't identify America's allies in the Second World War."
He doesn't believe the Internet should replace memorization.
"By the same token, we have telephone directories. Why should we teach them their own addresses when they can look them up?"
Bob Evnen, vice president of the state board, said the purpose of social studies is "to grow young patriots."
"It is important for our children to have an intellectual understanding of the genius of our country. And it is important for our children to feel an emotional connection to our country because, otherwise, who's going to fight for it?"
That doesn't mean the standards should view the country uncritically, he said.
Iowa's standards, meantime, also failed the Southern Poverty Law Center's standards review.
Iowa has signed onto a multi-state effort to write common social studies standards; however, it is not obligated to adopt them, according to Staci Hupp, spokeswoman for the Iowa Education Department.
The end-of-year tests that Branstad proposed would measure "applied knowledge," not just the ability to memorize facts, in subjects such as algebra, English and U.S. history.
The purpose would be to more tightly align what's taught in classrooms to the Iowa Core, a set of basic academic standards lawmakers mandated in 2008.
The Iowa Core includes standards for social studies and what the state refers to as 21st century learning skills, such as civic literacy and financial literacy.
The Fordham Institute criticized the Iowa Core as containing "no history whatsoever."
"Instead, the state offers little more than a series of vapid social studies concepts and skills," the institute report said.
Branstad called for continuing the Iowa Core and expanding it into areas such as music and foreign languages.
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