Michigan social studies redo draws charge of rewriting history

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Dr. H.W. Evans, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, leads his Knights of the Klan in a 1926 parade in Washington, D.C. "The KKK was founded as an anti-Republican organization, not an anti-black organization," state Sen. Patrick Colbeck wrote as part of his proposed revision to social studies standards for K-12 students.

Correction: State Sen. Patrick Colbeck proposed additional court cases be added to a social studies section on “domestic conflicts and tensions.” He did not advocate striking references to Roe vs. Wade and Miranda. The story has been updated. 

Partisan leanings are part of civil discourse. But should they be part of Michigan's social studies standards for K-12 students?

That debate is raging this month across the state after proposed revisions to the standards by Republican state Sen. Patrick Colbeck that include removing references to climate change, gays and lesbians and the term "core Democratic values."

Colbeck, R-Canton Township, who is a gubernatorial candidate, said he advocated for the removal of the word “democratic” not because it sounds similar to "Democrat" but because students in school learn that the American system of government is a “republic.”  

He defended the changes to The Detroit News, saying: "I'm not letting (Democrats) rewrite history. I wanted to make sure what was in there was politically neutral and accurate."

State standards set expectations for what students are to learn by the end of each grade. State assessments are based on those standards, which are currently being shared as part of a listening tour around the state that allows for public comments through June 30.

Colbeck said he saw bias in current standards, such as a section of the rise of Islam but nothing on Christianity or Judeo-Christian principles.

"I wanted to make sure we paid attention to what was being presented," he said. "When I saw the bias inherent in those standards, I wanted to make changes."

Colbeck's proposed revisions, which were first reported by Bridge Magazine, are located on his legislative website. He was one of 21 members of a focus group that proposed changes to the standards, which were last revised in 2007.

A 14-member leadership group of social studies experts has been working on revising the standards for four years.

An additional 21 people were part of a focus group, including Colbeck, that formed after 2015 when the state Board of Education voiced its concerns about diversity and number of voices at the table to put standards together. 

Focus group members, who were invited by the Michigan Department of Education, include a representative from the Southwest Michigan Heritage Society, the Thomas More Law Center, a Republican county judge, university professors and educators. No Democratic lawmakers were invited.

"I said early on my measure of success was for the standards to be politically neutral and accurate," Colbeck said.

State education officials asked Colbeck to participate in the group after he and 18 legislators in 2015 presented a letter to education department on how they thought the social studies curriculum needed scrutiny.

A draft of the proposed revisions by the Michigan Department of Education can be found online. Only a few of Colbeck's suggestions are in the document.

A 2007 to 2018 side-by-side comparison of the standards can be seen at the MDE's website.

A current reference in the standards says progressivism was a response to the civil rights infractions of the Ku Klux Klan. Colbeck disputes that claim and says it was often the advocates of so-called progressive policies who supported the KKK.

"The KKK was founded as an anti-Republican organization, not an anti-black organization," Colbeck wrote as part of his proposed changes. "It just so happened that the majority of Southern blacks were, in fact, Republican due to the strong antislavery stance of Republicans."

He also asked for a reference to “gays and lesbians and other members of the LGBT community” be removed. Colbeck proposed additional court cases be added to a social studies section on “domestic conflicts and tensions” in a section on Roe v. Wade. 

Colbeck said his interest in participating in the focus group was to provide balance on a committee comprised of individuals representing a variety of viewpoints.

A representative of the Arab American National Museum is listed as a focus group member on the MDE website. But officials with the museum said on Tuesday that their person left the organization two years ago and no one from their group is participating in the revision.

Rana Taylor, a spokeswoman for the museum, called the controversial revisions "astounding" and said based on the background and makeup of current focus group members, her organization would have serious concerns participating.

"To remove this information from the narrative of our history really is beyond troubling, particularly in this day and age when these (minority) groups are so marginalized and lack the ability to have their voice heard," said Taylor of the proposed changes, including references to the KKK.

State Rep. Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown Township, called Colbeck's proposed revisions "outrageous" and a "thinly veiled attempt to push an ultra-conservative agenda" in public schools.

"Our students deserve to learn a frank account of our nation’s complex history, including our successes and failures,"  Camilleri said.

"Politicizing this process and rewriting history to fit a partisan agenda only hurts our students by leaving them unprepared to understand and navigate the complicated world we live in."

Michelle Fecteau, a Democratic member of the State Board of Education, said she is also concerned about Colbeck's proposed revisions, but she is waiting until the end of the public comment period on June 30 to see what MDE will bring to the board for approval at its next board meeting in August.

The standards still could be further revised as a result of public comments or other input, state education officials say.

"I think some of the comments, like referring to the KKK as an anti-Republican organization and dropping the word democratic and references to LGBT —  that just doesn't fly with me," she said. "I could not in good conscience approve that."

The board at its August meeting will review the proposed changes and vote up or down and can ask for more changes, she said. The board is split 4-4, Democrats and Republicans.

There will be public comment at the board meeting as well, Fecteau said.

Michael Warren, an Oakland County judge who is a Republican, is part of the focus group with Colbeck. Warren said he was asked to participate in community input after performing the same task for the 2007 social studies revisions. 

Warren, who is a former state board member and authored a book on social studies in 2007, said his intent was to provide clear definitions of social studies subjects. At times. there were "fights" over terminology among the focus group, Warren said, but overall he is happy with the proposed revisions.

"Colbeck's perspective focused on bias. My focus was on U.S. history and civics. Some of his revisions were adopted and some were ignored. I'm satisfied with what's been proposed," said Warren, declining to be specific on which revisions he supported.

Rebecca Bush, president of Michigan Council for the Social Studies and a member of the 14-person leadership group charged with revising the standards, said multiple states are going through revisions to social studies, including Colorado, South Carolina and Hawaii.

"Anytime you do a standards revisions process, whether it's social studies or math or ELA, it is a political process," said Bush, who works as a social studies consultant with the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District.

"I mean that if you take a look at how education in our country is processed, you can't have standards without it being a political process."

Teachers develop their own lesson plans for their classrooms and could still incorporate the removed subject matter if they choose, educators say.

"It doesn't matter what my viewpoint is, our focus is the standards are the standards," Bush said. "They are a framework in which we development out instructional practices."

The focus group, on which Colbeck worked, was not part of the review at the beginning, Bush said.

"We were given the directive at the start that our goal was to take a look at existing standards and attempt to make the standards clearer, fewer and higher or more rigorous where appropriate," Bush said. "The result is some grade levels have more changes or edits than others."

Social studies teacher Alyce Howarth, who teaches predominately African-American students in Southfield Public Schools, said she has reviewed the proposed changes and read what Colbeck wants to change.

One proposed revision is to change Native Americans to indigenous people. Howarth said she refers to the group as First Nation's People — disregarding the current standard — and plans to disregard this proposed new standard if it takes effect. She is still reviewing the other proposed changes.

"The standards are something for you to check off and put into lesson plans," she said. "In social studies, we exploit so many teachable moments. For what is going on today, you often end up veering away (from standards)."

The revisions have caught the attention of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center founded in 1991 to prevent the growth of hate.

Howarth was one of many teachers who received an email this week urging her and other educators to review the proposed changes and make their voices heard.

"Our country's history is certainly imperfect, but we can't hide our past from our children," Teaching Tolerance director Maureen B. Costello wrote in the email. "This is a moment when you can help shape the way students learn about that past and how it shapes our present. We hope you'll take the time to ask MDE not to erase people, events and groups that are central to our national identity."

Linda Forward, a senior executive policy adviser at MDE, said the debate around the standards is part of the process, and the department wants to hear more from the public at hearings this month and through an online survey.

"We are in public comment, which allows the public to express their interest and their concerns or their joys, and give us any specific recommendations they have or what the standards ought to look like," Forward said.

The challenge for everyone, Forward said, is to build a set of standards in one document that captures the essence of all social studies work and not overwhelm teachers.

"We want to make sure students know these things. There are a lot of events that happened in our history," Forward said. "We need to make sure students know broad overarching themes such as women's right, civil rights. ... There is so much that could be put into standards but so little time to teach it."

Lawrence Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, said any standards development process is going to involve many stakeholders and conversations.

"We are not about teaching students the right point of view, but teaching them to develop their own view," Paska said.

The public debate about Michigan's standards is good news, Paska says, because it turns the conversation to what a meaningful social studies education should look like.

"We want to see highest quality standards possible. That is the way forward for Michigan students," he said.

The social studies tour

Upcoming "Listen and Learn" sessions on Michigan's social studies standards are from 6 to 8 p.m on these dates and at these locations:

Wednesday: Oakland Schools, 2111 Pontiac Lake, Waterford Township

June 26: Eastern Upper Peninsula, 315 Armory Place, Sault Ste. Marie

June 27: Michigan Library & Historical Center, 702 W. Kalamazoo, Lansing

June 28: Kent ISD, 2930 Knapp NE, Grand Rapids