State social studies proposal draws critics at forum

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
A woman in the audience displays signs that read "Do Not Rewrite History," at the Michgan Department of Education forum in Waterford Township on Wednesday.

Amid accusations of discrimination and partisan motivations,  some parents, students and others spoke out Wednesday on a move to revise Michigan's social studies standards for K-12 students.

More:Michigan social studies redo draws charge of rewriting history

Dozens denounced the revisions, saying state officials should reconsider the plan.

Their outcry could sway overseers to restore the references.

"It sounds to me like we should put them back in," said Jim Cameron, a social studies consultant with the Michigan Department of Education who also taught for nearly 40 years.

Republican state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton Township, who was among 21 members on a focus group that has proposed changes to the curriculum, has advocated removing references to climate change, gays and lesbians, and the term "core Democratic values."

"These facts need to be taught," said Judith Toth, a Wayne County Community College District instructor who attended the meeting at the Oakland Schools building in Waterford Township.

From left, Michigan Department of Education senior executive policy advisor Linda Forward, social studies consultant Jim Cameron, and social studies consultant for assessment Scott Koenig list to audience comments.

The standards were last revised in 2007 and set expectations for what students are to learn by the end of each grade. State assessments are based on those standards, which are part of  a listening tour around the state to draw  public comments through June 30.

A 14-member group of social studies experts has been working on revising the standards for four years. More  joined a focus group that formed after 2015 when the state Board of Education voiced its concerns about diversity and voices in compiling the standards. Focus group members, selected  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.

Only a few of Colbeck's suggestions are in a draft for the revisions. Michigan Department of Education officials insist they are not final, and public input would prompt further revision. The State Board of Education is expected to review the proposed updates at its August meeting.

Based on the strong reactions, it is likely the updates will not be done before then, said Linda Forward, senior executive policy adviser with the Education Department. "I think there will be changes. I don’t think it’s going to look like what it does today."

Scott Koenig, a social studies consultant for assessment with the Education Department, fielded questions from the audience. He also stressed that "nothing is final at this point" and that the standards are not a complete rewrite.

Some parents and others, though, repeatedly voiced concerns that the revisions should not have been compiled without more input from a diverse group that reflects the community.

"How can you change standards without hearing the people that are majorly impacted?" said LaKeta McCauley, a West Bloomfield Township resident and mother of a college student.

Forward told those speaking out that their reactions are "part of the process."

"Your input is critical," she said. "You are making an influence right now."

Many in the audience pressed the state education representatives for details about why certain language was removed and wondered whether Colbeck influenced the moves.

According to his website, Colbeck based the revisions on the belief that the standards should reflect principles such as “accuracy, political neutrality and age-appropriate educational value.”

“The suggested revisions that I have provided would promote these tenets while ensuring that our children receive a well-rounded social studies curriculum that serves to make them good citizens under our system of government,” he said in a message on his website. 

Cameron told the audience Wednesday that after Colbeck and 18 legislators in 2015 presented a letter to education department on how they thought the social studies curriculum needed scrutiny, then-schools Superintendent Brian Whiston wanted "as many voices" included as possible, so the Republican was invited to join the focus group. However, he stressed Colbeck was not the sole voice in the focus group. 

Some attendees grew frustrated with the department officials' responses about Colbeck and the proposals. One asked why it seemed they couldn't answer their questions.

Cameron said the revision process involved participation across various committees and it's "just not feasible" to recall what each member shared during every meeting. 

Kaitlin Popielarz, a Ph.D. student and instructor in the Wayne State University College of Education, called for modifications to the revisions.

"I'm begging you to go back to the drawing board," she said.

The proposals sparked some youths to speak out about the effect on learning in some districts, including Zack Farah, a recent Bloomfield Hills High School graduate now involved in a group that focuses on young people and  politics. He hoped the concerns discussed Wednesday night would lead the MDE forgoing the changes. 

"I'm hopeful, but I'm not that optimistic," he said.