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Debate delays new social studies standards

Dec 11, 2015

Credit Gabrielle Emanuel / Michigan Radio

There's a civil rights debate brewing in Michigan. It's about whether schools have too much civil rights education or too little.

This controversy has prompted the State Board of Education to delay voting on new social studies standards.

Back in 2014, The Southern Poverty Law Center gave each state a grade based on how good it is at civil rights education.

South Carolina, Louisiana and Georgia all got As.

Michigan did not.

“So, Michigan got an F,” admits Gregg Dionne of Michigan’s Department of Education.

 He’s standing by the projector in the library at Salem High School in Canton. It's about 8pm and he's explaining that failing grade to parents and teachers.

The F is because Michigan social studies standards do not require civil rights education until high school. Even then, The Southern Poverty Law Center deemed the standards fairly superficial.

Plus, teachers are not given resources such as civil rights lesson plans and historical documents.

Dionne and his team have spent over a year updating the state's social studies standards. They’ve been working on reducing the number of standards and they say they’ve taken into account The Southern Poverty Law Center’s report.

Now, they’ve taken the updated standards on the road to sell them. But many of the parents sitting in this school library are not buying them.

“Civil liberties are great, my kids learn it in church,” says Tamara Carlone from Novi. “But they have no idea who the Founding Fathers are, what the US Constitutions says, which is what they need to know to keep America great.”

This public meeting is tense. There are interruptions and frustrations as Dionne asks everyone to write their thoughts down on sticky notes. Most of the parents here want less civil rights education.

But Cori Carr, who is standing to the side, disagrees.  She says her kids don’t get enough civil rights education.

“They can handle reality and that's what we should be exposing them to,” says Carr.

Here's the thing: the proposed civil rights standards and the existing ones are pretty much the same.

What has happened here is that a vocal group of parents and politicians have used these updated standards as an opportunity to discuss things more broadly, including what they see as a liberal bias.

A group of 17 Republican politicians sent a letter to the State Board of Education highlighting their concerns. Among other things, they are worried about pro-Islamic sentiments in the standards and about promoting socialism or communism in Michigan schools.

But it’s not just politicians and parents debating this, kids are also talking about their civil rights education.

Students at Lakeview High School in Battle Creek file into Classroom 206. It’s Mr. Durham’s classroom.

Scott Durham teaches government and history. He served on a committee that helped updated the standards. And he is also the past chairman of the Calhoun County Republican Party.

Durham’s already teaching a class that explores inequality and empowerment. Today's topic: race.

After quieting students and checking attendance, Durham divides them into groups based on gender and race.

“Women of color, come and grab your board,” say Durham. He instructs each group to brainstorm questions. Then, the whole class gathers to discuss them:

“Do you think teachers treat you differently because of your race?”

“Do you fear a relationship with a black man?”

“Why are you quicker to touch a woman of color more than any other race?”

“Do you hold us accountable for slavery and why?”

The students have dozens and dozens of questions.

“If something doesn’t make sense to you, that’s fine,” Durham says. “This is what the class is all about.”

Each student I spoke to said this was the first time they'd talked about these issues in school. But they did not agree on whether there should be more civil rights education.

Connor Caswell says he’s gotten a decent education in civil rights.

“Since 8th grade our teachers were very up front about it,” says Caswell, who is a senior and white. “They even taught us that some of our Founding Fathers held slaves.”

But Jayvion Settles shakes his head. He's a junior and African American. In his experience, teachers barely talk about things like slavery. His solution? Make civil rights education mandatory. 

“If it's a requirement then everybody’s going to have to take it whether you're comfortable with it or not,” says Settles.

Roger Williams, a senior, is quick to remind them this isn't just a matter of teaching civil rights history. He says, as an African American, these issues are part of his daily life at school.

“Some teachers won't even acknowledge us or look at us or talk to us,” says Williams, who likes the idea of making civil rights education mandatory.

The controversy over Michigan's social studies standards has delayed efforts to update them. Michigan’s Department of Education hopes the new standards will be considered in early spring of 2016.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education says they are partnering with the African American, Native American, Asian, Hispanic and Arab communities to create civil rights lesson plans and assessments.

The hope is that this will make it easier for teachers who want to teach civil rights, regardless of whether it is required.