State board members spar over proposed social studies revisions

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
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Michigan Department of Education social studies consultant Jim Cameron, left, and Scott Koenig, social studies consultant for assessment, answer questions from the audience at a Listen and Learn Session in Waterford Township in June.

The controversial proposed revised social studies standards are now in the hands of the State Board of Education, despite an attempt by one member to send the draft back for more work.

The 146-page proposed revised standards for Michigan's K-12 students include more examples and references to the roles women, minority organizations, Muslims and African-Americans played in history.

But during Tuesday's board meeting, treasurer Tom McMillin, R-Oakland Township, said that "due to serious liberal bias," the proposed revisions should be sent back to a workgroup to "address serious flaws."

The board, which received a presentation on the proposed standards from the Michigan Department of Education just an hour before, defeated McMillin's motion.

Additional public sessions on the standards will be held in April and May. The state board of six Democrats and two Republicans will receive a final draft on revisions at a June 11 meeting.

McMillin repeatedly cited a memo from Oakland Circuit Judge Michael Warren, who sat on a workgroup for standards revisions, alleging Warren claimed the process was unfair and much of the work Warren's group had done in 2018 had been removed.


Warren, a former state board member, sent the Michigan Department of Education a critique of the revisions.

"If Judge Warren thought the process was fair, I would be OK with them going out," McMillin said. "The flaw is they are far to the left. I know how this is going to play out. … I feel the process was flawed. … I think it's worth the wait."


The 146-page draft of revised standards was presented to the board after the Michigan Department of Education held 18 public sessions on the proposed revisions and recorded 5,000 responses from the public.Multiple workgroups of several cultural/ethnic communities reviewed the draft standards.

MDE deputy superintendent Venessa Keesler said the department supports the standards that it brought forward.

"And we support the process and the 363 volunteers who helped us create, revise, and review these standards," Keesler said. "While we respect Mr. McMillin's viewpoint, we are pleased that the standards will be released for public comment, and we look forward to the continued discussion and feedback that public comment yields.”

Keesler said many of the omissions listed by Warren are inaccurate and that Christianity and Ronald Reagan were not removed from the standards.

"The committees had interest in removing examples in some places to allow for educator flexibility," Keesler said. 

"MDE appreciates the feedback and the partnership of Judge Warren over the years. We take his concerns seriously. While this represents an important opinion, it is only one opinion, and it is our job now to seek the opinions of others."

Board president Casandra E. Ulbrich, D-Rochester Hills, said she was opposed to many of the 2018 revisions proposed by Warren's group.

"This is the process," Ulbrich said. "This is how you get better. You don’t stop the process because one person's opinion diverges from another."

Board member Judith Pritchett, D-Washington Township, said the standards are examples of history.

"These are standards and not exactly what will happen in the classroom," Pritchett said.

There are fewer standards in the proposed 2019 version but more examples per standard to help teachers reach a broad group of students, state education officials said.

Board member Lupe Ramos-Montigny, D-Grand Rapids, said as a former social studies teachers, she sees good things in the proposed standards.

"What’s important is students are first. ...There is more perspectives in this document, more voices being included, more views as to how the world is around us," Ramos-Montigny said.

“I like that we are sharing the stage with more than a white man. … We are sharing with more of the citizens, and that is very important.”

Keesler told the board the standards are not about politics.

“This is not what this is about,” Keesler said. "It is about the process, the skills and the standards, and about what standards teach."

But later in the meeting, board member Nikki Snyder, R-Dexter, who supported McMillin's motion, said the standards are political in nature, and there needs to be mutual trust and respect on both sides of the argument for the standards to create “people with core values of any kind.”

“Yes, this is politics,” Snyder said. “It is very political. To gain trust, we need to honor and respect the people who feel there is bias. We need to be honest."

The standards, which set expectations for what students are to learn by the end of each grade, drew attention and controversy last year after proposed revisions offered by then-Republican state Sen. Patrick Colbeck included removing references to climate change, gays and lesbians and the term "core Democratic values."

The latest proposed standards use the phrase "Democratic values."

In the current set of proposed standards before the state board, the term "climate change" appears six times and was removed twice in the 2018 proposed changes. It was only found twice in the current 2007 standards.

The words "gay and lesbian" were removed from the 2018 proposed standards and put back in the 2019 version. The term is already in the current version.

Education officials said once approved, it would take roughly five years for teachers to undergo professional development and for the standards to be written into the state assessment.

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