Tennessee is one step closer to having new social studies standards after almost 1½ years of unprecedented public scrutiny and feedback.
The State Board of Education voted unanimously on Friday to move ahead with a revision that was begun partly out of concern over how Islam is being taught in seventh-grade world history.
Now receiving attention is the question of whether too much Tennessee history is being removed from standards that most everyone agrees were over-laden with material.
The proposed draft, which will undergo a final vote in July, reduces the number of standards overall by 14 percent — but at the expense of some Tennessee history such as the Chickamauga Indians, “Roots” author Alex Haley, and the New Madrid earthquakes.
Members of the Standards Recommendation Committee have presented the proposal as striking the right balance.
“There’s an infinite number of people and facts that are significant, and we can’t include them all,” said Todd Wigginton, who led the teacher review and is director of instruction for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.
But Bill Carey, one of the panel’s nine members, offered a dissenting opinion to the section for grades 1-5.
“In these standards, the Plateau of Tibet is mentioned twice but the Cumberland Plateau is never mentioned,” said Carey, who is executive director of the nonprofit Tennessee History for Kids. “… I think a case can be made that there’s too much of Tennessee missing.”
Wigginton said the idea behind the final draft is that teachers should have more flexibility, and focus more on important concepts.
He said Tennessee’s new standards asked students to consider, for example, the significance of civil disobedience in the civil rights movement, rather than memorize a list of people and dates.
The state spearheaded a laborious review for social studies beginning in January 2016 after critics charged that seventh-grade standards addressing the Five Pillars of Islam amounted to “proselytizing.” Members of the recommendation committee say all religions would be taught in a uniform way under the new standards.
The draft reflects tens of thousands comments from hundreds of Tennessee residents over the course of two public reviews, as well as nearly 100 hours of meetings by the committee. That panel, along with a team of educators who reviewed public feedback last summer, created standards that they say allows teachers flexibility and the freedom to go in-depth, while also covering key topics.
Unlike many other states, Tennessee hasn’t cordoned off Tennessee history to specific units for nearly two decades, choosing instead to “embed” state-specific facts across all grades. Carey said he’s made a career out of helping teachers incorporate Tennessee material into their history classes. He noted that several state historical associations and museums have raised concerns too about the final draft.
“In my opinion, for embedding to work, Tennessee topics have to be clearly spelled out in the standards,” said Carey, who submitted a minority report to share his concerns. “If they’re not, teachers won’t get the message that they have to cover Tennessee history.”
Jason Roach, a former social studies teacher and now principal of Mooresburg Elementary School in Hawkins County, said those terms could be incorporated into curriculum, even if they aren’t explicitly spelled out in the standards.
Standards lay out what students should know at each grade level, while curriculum includes the lessons and activities that students study and do throughout the school year.
“Tennessee history needs to be taught in Tennessee schools. I believe that,” Roach said. But, he continued, teachers should decide how to build curriculum on a local level, rather than the state over-prescribing what should be covered through the standards.
During a discussion Thursday about the final draft, board members offered praise about both the process and the results.
“You did an incredible job,” said Lillian Hartgrove, who represents part of Middle Tennessee. “I know it’s not exactly what everyone wanted … but what you have accomplished is truly incredible.”
Tennessee’s academic standards in all four core subject areas have been overhauled over the last three years, and social studies standards are the only ones still in the works.
If approved, the new Tennessee Academic Standards for Social Studies will reach the state’s classrooms in the 2019-2020 school year.