Are Nebraska’s draft social studies standards too white? Too male?
Next week, a panel will try to determine if that’s the case.
For the first time ever, officials in the Nebraska Department of Education will put a set of draft academic standards through formal review to cleanse them of bias.
The review aims to ensure that the views of historically marginalized groups such as Native Americans, Latin Americans and African Americans are fairly represented and not just paid lip service.
Any changes would be incorporated into a final draft submitted for approval this fall to the Nebraska State Board of Education.
“We’re just trying to be proactive around this work in ensuring that the standards from the get-go are as free of bias as they possibly can be,” said Cory Epler, the department’s chief academic officer.
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The review comes as department officials have emphasized a commitment to educational equity this year, including adopting a theme for the 2019-20 school year of “Agents of Change for Equity.”
State law requires the department to update its standards every seven years.
The draft standards up for adoption were written by a group of Nebraska social studies educators selected by department officials.
The group included teachers, administrators, college representatives and staff from educational service units.
Epler said officials sought to seat a diverse group, but he said that can be challenging. That’s why the review is important, he said.
If approved, the new standards would replace the current standards adopted in 2012.
The standards cover U.S. history, world history, geography, civics and economics.
School districts must adopt them or their own set of standards at least as rigorous.
Unlike math, science and English language arts, there is no state social studies test.
Local districts choose the curriculum — that is, the textbooks, materials and lessons — for teaching the standards.
The review is an extra step in the creation of the new standards, a screen to catch any wording or omissions that inadvertently made it through the initial drafts of the standards writing team.
The review will look for implicit biases — unconsciously held beliefs about a group of people — and make sure that "all students ... see themselves in what they’re expected to learn in our schools,” Epler said.
Epler said that often, many of the textbooks and curricular materials used in schools are “written from white perspectives, and sometimes as specific as white male perspective.”
It’s important that students are exposed to multiple perspectives, for example, reading the work of female and non-white authors, he said.
The department will make use of Nebraska experts and a bias-review tool — a kind of checklist — developed by the Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center.
The center is one of four regional centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education under Title IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The tool is called the Assessing Bias in Standards and Curricular Materials Tool.
In a written introduction to the tool, its authors say standards and curricular materials often frame “the histories and experiences of White Americans as a monolithic and universal experience.”
“The perspectives, histories, and contributions of non-White, non-male … or non-cisgender people are generally minimalized, misrepresented or often omitted altogether,” they say.
The term cisgender, according to Merriam-Webster, means “a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.”
According to the tool, standards should be “inclusive and avoid stereotypic depictions in terms of race, gender or disability.”
Standards should, it says, avoid “centering one group’s cultural practices as the standard to which all others are compared (e.g. Euro-centric, male-centric etc.).”
Standards should help students “to make decisions that will lead to social change towards a just community.”
According to the tool, an extreme case of bias might be discussing the slave trade from West Africa as “immigration.” But in less evident cases, bias could be favoring white, Euro-centric narratives and perspectives.
Another example could be using terms like “forefathers,” “mankind” and “businessman” to deny the contributions of women, it says.
Among the experts tapped to assist in the review is political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, the assistant vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Benjamin-Alvarado said he’s eager to participate in the process.
Among the courses he teaches are U.S. Foreign Policy and Introduction to Latino/Latin American Studies.
He said he appreciates the department trying to write unbiased standards.
“At the end of the day, you don’t want to give people a bum steer,” he said. “If you’re going to present social science, social studies curriculum, you want to lay it out for what it is. Then hopefully, you’ve got teachers who are qualified enough to give students the analytical tools to be able to understand for themselves why this is important.”
He said checking bias will help young people make sense of the world.
“I remember we used to have a saying in my family: There’s three sides to a story — yours, mine and the truth.”
Epler said he hopes that the state will review other standards for bias as they come up for revision.
He said the state already conducts bias reviews on the annual state academic assessments.