National experts critical of Minnesota social studies standards

After a multi-year revision process, the Minnesota Department of Education’s new K-12 social studies standards have been approved and will now go to district and charter schools for implementation into classrooms statewide. The final stamp of approval — despite overwhelming public opposition for three years — was given after MDE made minor changes to an ethnic studies standard that Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman deemed “unduly vague.”

But Judge Lipman should have applied this same reasoning to the entire set of social studies standards covering economics, geography, history, citizenship and government, and ethnic studies.

In fact, expert reviewers paid by the Minnesota Department of Education to confirm whether the standards and benchmarks are clear and objective explicitly told MDE they are not, according to documents American Experiment obtained through a public data request.

Three of the four expert reviewers — with years of experience related to social studies subject matter — criticized the standards and benchmarks. Reviewers highlighted not only political bias but numerous examples of broad and imprecise wording, problems of clarity, definition and contextual problems, and immeasurability.

But MDE largely disregarded the feedback it paid for, as the commissioner-approved standards and benchmarks reflect very little change to remediate the concerns the reviewers pointed out.

Indeed, one reviewer concluded that “compared with dozens of other standards, and tested in a number of different ways, these proposed standards rank very low — much worse than average. They need a lot of revision before they could be called even barely adequate.”

With more than 30 years of experience teaching, developing educational materials, and evaluating and writing academic standards for a number of states, this reviewer dedicated pages to explaining the weaknesses and inadequacies of the standards and benchmarks.

To check for objectivity, the reviewer presented a random sampling of benchmarks to “more than 20 teachers, county-level social-studies coordinators, and other colleagues in five states.” A telling reaction: “I wouldn’t have a clue where to start on this.”

The reviewer also “did a careful semantic analysis, based on a peer-reviewed typology that has a strong research foundation in neuroscience and behavioral psychology” to test his initial reaction to the “tone” of the benchmarks. The results, according to the reviewer, were “deeply dismaying,” revealing an evident political bias throughout the standards and benchmarks document — 154 uses of words associated with the political left compared to six uses of words associated with the political right.

A “rigorous empirical test confirms that these benchmarks have a decidedly leftward slant, and they have essentially ‘marginalized’ valid moral concerns of the political right,” wrote the reviewer. “Is this the ‘seeking of consensus’ that is desired in a set of educational standards? And please remember, I am writing as one who favors most of the ideas of the political left, but who also has devoted a career to the belief that the only way a democracy survives is by trying to find a mutually agreed foundation in provable facts and tested theories upon which to base our political discussions.”

This reviewer’s biggest critique was of the ethnic studies standards and benchmarks.

Not only did the reviewer state they had “an overriding issue of tone,” but he also documented a host of “serious pragmatic/practical/technical issues,” such as being “overly broad,” “stereotyping,” “age-inappropriate,” “casually questionable,” and “bizarrely unbalanced.”

As someone “personally committed to help address issues of ethnic and racial justice…I think Minnesota needs to seriously consider discarding the entire set of Ethnic-Studies standards and benchmarks, and starting over,” wrote the reviewer.

“…I beg the [MDE social studies standards] committee to re-read these benchmarks in light of the very high likelihood that such a clumsy and glaringly unbalanced package will prove to be deeply counter-productive.”

Another reviewer tasked with providing feedback on the ethnic studies standards and benchmarks reminded MDE that “ethnic studies is not only about diversity, it’s also about unity. M.L.K. said, ‘I have a dream today, deeply imbedded in the American dream.’ Without a conception of unity, diversity makes no sense. … This is the only understanding we can have as a nation and still call it a nation.”

He characterized the “Resistance” ethnic studies standard as “extremely difficult to understand” and “overloaded with content, some of which is contradictory” and the “Ways of Knowing and Methodologies” ethnic studies standard as “confusing.”

This reviewer also took issue with the “instructional limitations expressed in the work as a whole.” His review found “no obvious design exists, leaving teachers to guess how a standard fits into the larger picture of what they are responsible for teaching.”

Definitional and contextual problems also risk that either the “implementation of these ideas and standards into classroom practice simply will not happen or will happen in incomplete and inaccurate ways,” wrote the reviewer. 

“Even if you adhere to ‘agreed’ upon subjectivity, there has to be some common agreement regarding facts[,] definitions, and values, even to approach meaning and civil decision making.”

A third reviewer with a background in economics stated she was “concerned for the Economics strand.” The lack of clarity and specificity within the benchmarks risks a teacher teaching “something without the required previous knowledge for students to learn, apply, and engage with the content in a lesson plan.”

“For example, you cannot just expect students to calculate the unemployment rate without learning the specific definition of who is considered unemployed, part of the labor force, and not,” she wrote. She also noted that “some of the economic benchmarks make no sense based on the way they are written” and stressed that such lack of specificity can make it “frustrating and discouraging for teachers to teach….”

American Experiment first sounded the alarm about the ideological and practical problems with these standards back in December of 2021. Since then, tens of thousands of Minnesotans have voiced their opposition to the standards, mostly based on the reasons articulated above. Gov. Tim Walz and his Department of Education have stubbornly ignored all of this feedback, and it looks like they will now ignore the expert reviewers they hired and paid for with your money. The burden of these one-sided, divisive, and unmeasurable standards now falls on teachers and students across the state. Good luck to us all!