The names of dozens of historical figures, including Benjamin Franklin and Malcolm X, would be stripped from Nebraska's public school social studies standards under a proposed rewrite.
Draft standards made public last week emphasize essential skills and concepts rather than listing important people, dates and battles.
Officials leading the rewrite say local districts should decide for themselves which historical figures and details deserve attention in the classroom.
Donlynn Rice, administrator of curriculum, instruction and innovation in the Nebraska Department of Education, said the draft reflects the state's “strong tradition of local control.”
“There's a real danger once you start listing specific battles or specific people in history,” Rice said “Where do you stop with that?”
The draft, instead, contains broad directives such as making sure high school students can “analyze and evaluate the impact of people, events and symbols upon history in the United States and abroad.”
In 2007, state lawmakers directed the Nebraska Board of Education to update the state's academic standards — language arts, math and science are already done. This year, it's social studies.
Nebraska's nearly 250 school districts must adopt the standards or enact their own standards of equal or greater rigor.
Meetings are scheduled Monday in Lincoln and Tuesday in Omaha to take public comment on the draft standards, which were written by a committee of 45 Nebraska educators.
The standards are a guide for teachers of history, economics, civics and geography.
The new draft puts greater emphasis on personal finance, such as loans and credit card debt, and it calls for teaching students to look at history from multiple perspectives.
The standards would also encourage civic participation by having students “engage in appropriate civic activities,” examples of which are “advocating for personal rights and the rights of others,” registering for Selective Service or “influencing governmental actions.”
The state's current standards — 33 pages written in 1998 to guide instruction in kindergarten through 12th grade — mention dozens of historical figures, dates and details. For instance, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are each mentioned twice.
Those standards have drawn criticism from inside and outside the state.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization, 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.”
Some critics, however, say Nebraska's current standards are overly detailed, a virtual laundry list of human events, people and places.
Rice said the committee wanted the new standards to focus on the big concepts all students need to know and be able to do.
State officials took the same approach when writing the other state standards, she said.
“For instance, in reading we don't give schools a list of novels that they have to read at every grade level,” Rice said. “We talk about what we expect students to know and be able to do, but we leave those kinds of decisions to the local school district.”
The standards are written to foster critical thinking and help students analyze events and their impact, Rice said.
The standards also focus more attention on geography, helping kids to understand and measure the physical world around them.
Karen Stanley, a retired social studies teacher in the Lincoln Public Schools, is working as a state consultant on the rewrite.
Stanley said the committee did not want the state to dictate what takes place in the classroom, as in Texas, where the state approves the public school curriculum.
“We really were working very hard to set up the standards so that they would allow for local control but provide the kind of guidance of what you really need to be sure that you include,” she said.
The draft gives districts flexibility about when to teach about certain people and events, she said.
The new focus on personal finance was a response to concern of teachers and business people that students don't really understand money management, as evidenced, she said, by the load of personal debt the country's carrying.
These days, Stanley said, credit card companies are approaching high school kids. The goal is to make kids “economically literate,” she said.
She said the call for civic participation could mean a student gets active in politics, campaigns to beautify a park or speaks out against bullying.
John Sieler, a member of the Nebraska Board of Education, said there's room to improve the draft by requiring students to know certain facts, such as states and their capitals.
“We do need to have some specific things in the standards,” Sieler said. “I'm for local control. I campaigned on that. But, on the other hand, here's some minimum information that each student in Nebraska needs to know.”
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