Subpar school social studies standards

"Biased flavor" causes delay

Flanagan and Warren
Mike Flanagen and Michael Warren

The implementation of new high school social studies standards will wait another year after controversy arose over expectations and content.

The state Board of Education was scheduled to vote in June on a 21-page document that outlined social studies curriculum for high schools in Michigan, but Superintendent Mike Flanagan removed the item from the agenda after heated criticism and national attention.

The standards, developed as part of new state-mandated curriculum requirements for high school graduation, cover United States and world history, civics, gove rnment and geography.

The issue first came to light in a Detroit News commentary written by Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Michael Warren, a former state Board of Education member. In the May 24 Op-Ed, Warren said the Michigan Department of Education was prepared to instruct social studies teachers not to use the words "America" or "Americans" in describing the United States because North America also includes Canada and Mexico, while South America and Central America also make up the larger, "internationally friendly" America.

Warren’s commentary called such thinking a "well-intentioned, but pernicious example of political correctness."

Flanagan responded with a written statement later the same day, saying no such dictate had come to his desk for review, but that an independent advisory group representing diverse views and opinions had discussed the issue.

"I would never approve the removal of ‘America’ or ‘American’ from our classrooms," Flanagan’s statement said. "Not on my watch." Warren, however, said department e-mails and verbal directives he had seen and heard about made it seem as if the recommendation was moving forward.

A Larger Issue

According to Warren, the idea for revising high school social studies standards started two years ago under former state Superintendent Tom Watkins. Warren was a member of a task force Watkins formed out of concern over low social studies scores on MEAP tests. The recommendations were presented to the state Board of Education in July 2005, soon after Flanagan was hired.

"There were four of us there from the task force who spoke out against the standards," Warren said. "They had a lot of glaring problems. They hadn’t been sent out for a national pee r review, and they were not up to the quality our kids deserve."

The Board of Education agreed to put its decision on hold while those issues were addressed. Warren could not attend the June board meeting due to his court schedule, but he did send a seven-page memo in lieu of public comments. In it, Warren said that "the document fails to meet its professed objective of establishing what students are expected to know at the end of high school." As examples, Warren points to the omission of Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, as well as no mention of Henry Ford, Rosa Parks, the Holocaust, Watergate, the September 11 attacks or the "War on Terror." Warren called the document "purposefully incomplete."

Warren also felt that starting high school history in 1890 was too late, and that high school students should not spend four years in high school without studying the American Revolution, the founding documents or the Civil War.

While the Department of Education said students would learn pre-1890s history in earlier grades, Flanagan did agree that the document was flawed, telling WJR radio host Frank Beckman there was a "biased flavor" to some examples.

"The people have to have faith that we’re not propagandizing and that the committee does not have a certain agenda," he said in a prepared statement.

Public Act 123 of 2006, which puts in place high school graduation requirements beginning with the class of 2010, directs the Department of Education to develop content expectations for each of the curriculum areas, including math, science and English.

"I’m not sure if this problem will raise its ugly ahead again for each of those processes or not," Warren said. "I certainly hope not."

Flanagan’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.