Speaking out

Mainstreet Minnesotans fight the ‘woke’ direction of K-12 education.

When the Henry Sibley Warriors play their first football game this fall, they will already have a loss on their record — their name.

The high school in West St. Paul, named after Minnesota’s first governor, was renamed last month as Two Rivers High School, after the Minnesota Historical Society, American Indian Cultural Liaison, and former and current students decided Sibley’s role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 made him a colonizer who shouldn’t be honored with the name of the school.

This falls in line with the thinking behind the state’s draft social studies standards, which would force students to view America’s ascension as oppressive and repulsive, leading to the “systemic racism” the Left claims is plaguing the country today. History is rewritten, Americans’ perception of their history is reshaped, and our political and social institutions are discredited as corrupt. Academic excellence subsequently suffers.

Center of the American Experiment talked to a half-dozen Minnesotans, as a follow-up to “Educrats Unleashed” (Spring 2021) and our Raise Our Standards campaign that generated more than 80 percent of total public feedback on the proposed K-12 social studies standards. Revised on a 10-year cycle, Minnesota’s K-12 academic standards lay out what students must “satisfactorily complete” to graduate from high school. The first draft of the proposed social studies standards revisions released in early December 2020 is the latest vehicle from Gov. Tim Walz and his Department of Education to replace academic knowledge and skills with today’s version of political correctness.

Parents, educators and even a war hero shared their concerns over Walz and his Department of Education’s efforts to cultivate politically correct attitudes and advance an agenda that teaches a warped view of our state’s and nation’s history and democratic institutions. Protecting and maintaining the vision of liberty and equality that unites us as Americans, these Minnesotans believe, is facing a serious threat from within that will have grave implications for today’s and future generations.

Hope and change

Winnie Martin, an Edina parent of two, recalls how hope framed her mindset as her children started on their K-12 education journey. “Hope that your kid will receive the best education. Hope that your kid will be exposed to multiple facets of thought to discern their own thought pathway. Hope that your kid will be taught ‘how to think’ versus ‘what to think.’ Hope that your kid will feel safe in school to inquire, express and collaborate. Hope that your kid will be accepted for who they are and held accountable for the expectations at hand.”

That hope is being tested in a school system that Martin insists is failing kids miserably. She wonders how parents can trust a system determined to blame and burden students for mistakes made before they were born or at least before they were old enough to understand any missteps occurred at all.

The starting point for education, in her mind, begins at the top with standards development — a process that is exposing itself to be filled with identity politics — and then to curriculum selection, which, she fears, will also deride the foundation of America and teach social studies through a biased narrative. The result: Minnesota schools will continue on the same trajectory they are on today — “south,” she says.

Not all parents are aware schools are headed in this downward trend, Martin says. Educators often aren’t transparent about what textbooks they’re using, and the supplemental curriculum resources they are pairing with the textbooks don’t help. “Parents have to be the ones to protect children from overwhelming them with overly complicated topics that aren’t age appropriate. But how can we protect them when we have no lens into what they are doing or being taught?”

Serena Harad, a Minnetonka parent of three, worries that the draft social studies standards are weighted too heavily toward personal perspective versus fundamental facts. “I agree that skills are important and that content is learned with these skills, but our students need basic core knowledge about our history in order to thrive,” Harad wrote in an email to the Minnesota Department of Education’s Social Studies Committee. “They need to learn about America’s founding and the wars we’ve fought to remain free and support other nations in their fight for freedom.”

She also emphasized the need to keep teaching students about one particular atrocity: the Holocaust. It was not included in the first draft of the new proposed standards.

Above board

Michelle Meyer decided that elected office was the natural next step to increase transparency and gain the confidence of the community. “Running for school board — and getting other like-minded parents to do so — is one of the key ways to make impactful change,” Meyer says, adding that she’s horrified how much education has changed since her 14- year stint (2000-2008 and 2011-2017) on the Sartell-St. Stephen School Board. “This should be a wake-up call for how quickly curriculum and leadership can change the direction of education.”

The current push for institutional orthodoxy is nothing new to Meyer, though, because she was a social studies teacher in both middle and high school before she ran for a school board seat in 2000. She feels that state and local education leaders have always wanted to teach a social justice agenda. “They just took advantage of everything that has happened recently. Look back at the history of public schools and you will see this has always been their goal: state run schools that indoctrinate students.”

The scary part? Not all parents are aware a political ideology has invaded their children’s schools, she says. But if they knew it was here or likely on the way, she believes many of them would agree that it is harmful to view everything through a “woke” lens, such as how the first draft of social studies standards labels America’s 19th-century westward expansion as the result of “whiteness, Christianity, and capitalism.”

Get the word out, Meyer says. Inform everyone.

New school

As a third-grade teacher, Stacy Swedberg understands the responsibility she bears: To equip students with the knowledge and skills necessary to help them become civically engaged and responsible members of society. “We say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning and talk about the flag. We cover the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Holocaust. We talk about China and communism.”

Swedberg teaches the importance of thinking critically about different perspectives and encouraging students to ask questions and create their own opinions. She refuses to conform with the proposed standards in their current form, should they be approved someday, because they contradict her overall philosophy. “In a world full of hate, be the light,” Swedberg says. She always tells students to think about how their actions affect others.

Or in one case, how external forces affect her students. A white student, after watching the news, worried about being racist, based on skin color alone. Swedberg asked if skin color is a chosen trait. Then she asked if the student feels a certain level of superiority based on skin color. The student did not know how to respond. “It’s something they don’t even think about,” she says, until they are told to think about it.

It is happening so much throughout the state’s K-12 classrooms that she pulled her three children out of the Bemidji school district — where she teaches. Now they attend an online public school, but they still haven’t eluded leftist leanings in their new learning environment.

For example, communication from the online school to parents highlights current events, which Swedberg understands, but it is the cherry-picking of news items and how the information is depicted that concerns her. One email she received told her: “We cannot ignore the impact current events, like the trial of Derek Chauvin, mass shootings, and the ongoing pandemic, is having on our school community.”

Making history

World War II failed to make it into the first draft of the social studies standards. Instead there is language that says students will “explore how individuals and groups in the past have fought against bias and discrimination through social justice movements.” This benchmark pertains to first graders.

The Minnesota Department of Education has walked back key omissions like WWII, saying the first draft focuses on additions and revisions. But it’s concerning this content didn’t make the cut to begin with. “I have been disturbed,” John Clark says, “with what I have read.”

Clark, who celebrates his 98th birthday this month, was a combat pilot during the war. He flew a B-17 during 32 missions over Germany as part of the 100th Bombardment Group. The pilots were called the Bloody Hundredth because of the heavy losses the bombers sustained, sometimes losing entire squadrons of 120 to 130 men in each. Out of his total missions, Clark crashed in Belgium once, but a swamp provided a soft enough landing for him to walk away without a scratch.

He recorded his experiences in a diary and became a bit of a historian. His motivation was his mother, a former journalist who sent him a notebook and told him to record everything he saw and did.

“This foolishness about the country being racist is racist itself,” Clark says. He admits there are mistakes in America’s past, with individuals engaging in wrongdoings, “but show me a life that does not have one mistake. I can think of only one individual: Jesus Christ.”

Clark went on to become an engineering professor at the University of Michigan before retiring to Bloomington to be near family. And he feels strongly about education being about meritocracy over equity, based on something he learned when he was earning his doctorate degree from MIT. “You hear people say, ‘I worked hard on that,’” Clark says, “but my question is: ‘What did you accomplish?’ You’re supposed to work hard. At MIT you were rewarded for your accomplishments.”

International man of pedagogy

Michael Fody, a retired teacher living in St. Cloud, brings a global perspective to his views, which leaves him “absolutely disheartened by the atrocities being committed to our shared history” in schools. He’s lived and worked on four continents as well as taught in eight states.

He acknowledges that “rumblings” of political indoctrination started many years ago in higher education, a level he calls “completely captured” today. K-12 education is the last holdout, primarily because there is more community involvement, and with it, a lot more power, “if they exercise it.”

Fody sees pushback against the politicizing of schools from parents who are rebelling — they don’t want classrooms turned into ideological battlegrounds. And they are going to have to keep mobilizing. “Hopefully communities wake up in time, because teaching students to view each other based on the color of their skin is not unifying. It’s divisive to an extreme. It doesn’t help create informed citizens or foster civil discourse.”

Its inherent divisiveness destroys K-12 education as a unifying force in American culture, Fody says. His teacher friends overseas are also upset over efforts in the United States to rewrite history and promote a worldview that is antithetical to a pro-human vision. They blame the U.S. — and its “oversized influence” — for exporting Critical Race Theory and revisionist history.

They absolutely detest and abhor it in France, Fody says, and in Brazil his friends are fighting similar race-based issues. This mess diminishes America’s standing on the world stage. “Our enemies are testing us. We are no longer respected but are a laughingstock.”

The passport Global travel brings a wealth of knowledge, an education in itself, steeped in culture, history and progress. And the U.S. is often a hot topic. Among the expat crowd, it is common to come across the sanctimonious backpacker, who loves to lament America the same way radical leftists do today, thousands of them doing it in our K-12 schools as they attempt to indoctrinate children.

But talk to the locals in a foreign country and most view the United States as a place that strives to “form a more perfect union” by learning from the past and being hopeful about our future. They think about how great it would have been for them if they could have grown up and gone to school in the states. Fody recalls a trip 30 years ago to Togo and Nigeria. He met a woman who traveled to Africa with a group of black Americans, learning more about their ancestors and their history. The woman told him she felt so lucky to have a U.S. passport. She held it up in her hand, Fody says, then clutched it to her chest.

“It’s one of the few times I kept my mouth shut. I just nodded.”