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Gay rights, climate change could disappear from Michigan social studies

The public can comment on the proposed revisions through a survey.
Credit: iStock
Female high school teacher in front of class, stock image.

Potential changes to Michigan's school social studies standards are stirring controversy because they remove references to Roe v. Wade, gay rights and climate change while trimming references to the role of the NAACP. The revisions also eliminate the word "democratic" from the phrase "core democratic values."

Much of the controversy has centered on Republican state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, who has faced mounting criticism since Bridge Magazine published a report last week that described the revisions — of standards adopted by the State Board of Education in 2007 — as having a conservative bent, thanks to Colbeck and several other conservatives who were part of the process.

Colbeck clearly influenced the removal of language on climate change, the removal of "democratic" from "core democratic values," and a change in language from describing the U.S. as a constitutional democracy to a constitutional republic. He also insisted that if there were references to civil rights for gays and lesbians and other members of the LGBTQ community, that the department include language about religious freedom.

But it's unclear what, if any, role he played in some of the other changes that have sparked outrage — such as the Roe v. Wade removal and the reduced references to the NAACP.

Colbeck denies that he had a big influence on the outcome of the revision of the standards.

Democrats on the state board — which must approve the changes — are now pledging to push back against the draft. . Meanwhile, some members of the group that worked on the revisions also are threatening to withdraw their support. A change.org petitionhas also been started to urge the board to reject the current version of the draft.

The Michigan Department of Education is holding a series of "listen and learn" sessions about the standards across the state, including one Wednesday in Waterford. The public can also comment on the proposed revisions through a survey on the department web site — www.michigan.gov/mde. The final revisions, which will incorporate feedback from the public comment period, are expected to come before the board in August. The public comment period ends June 30.

Among the changes raising concerns:

  • Gays and lesbians: The proposed standards remove a reference to civil rights for gay and lesbians. There are no references to gays and lesbians, or the LGBTQ community, in the proposed revisions.
  • Roe v. Wade: The lone reference in the current standards to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case that affirmed a constitutional right to abortion, was removed.
  • Climate change: A sixth-grade reference to global climate change in the standards has been deleted, though climate change is included as an example teachers can use when teaching about global issues that affect many regions of the world.
  • Core democratic values: Every reference to the phrase "core democratic values" has been altered to delete the word "democratic."
  • The phrase "constitutional democracy," to describe the U.S. form of governance, has been changed to "constitutional republic."

►More: Read the proposed changes to the K-12 Michigan social studies standards

Linda Forward, senior executive policy adviser for the state education department and whose office oversees the standards revision effort, said no single person had more influence than others. The revision process included 14 writers and reviewers, all of them social studies experts, and an additional 21 people — including Colbeck — who were part of a focus group. Colbeck invited several other people who represent conservative-leaning organizations to be part of the process. In addition, Oakland Circuit Judge Michael Warren, a Republican, also served on the focus group.

No Democratic lawmakers were invited.

Still, Forward said, "We had a lot of voices in the room. No one got everything that they wanted. And not one person was able to manipulate the process in any way to be a majority voice.Everybody in the room had voice."

But Gordon Andrews, executive director of the Michigan Council for History Education and an associate professor at Grand Valley State University, said Colbeck "had extensive influence." And the fact that Colbeck penned a letter of concern about previous proposed revisions made in 2015 — which was signed by Colbeck and 17 other lawmakers — was "a pretty potent sign of influence," said Andrews, who was one of the writers/reviewers.

"The changes he was suggesting in many places were just ahistorical; they were ideologically driven," Andrews said.

Colbeck, R-Canton, said he was simply trying to ensure the standards are accurate.

"I never, never suggested that we delete any references to anything like ... the stuff they're claiming," Colbeck said, referring to criticism from others. "I just said that whenever we present a view on a politically sensitive issue, we make sure we balance it with an honest perspective from the other side of the fence.

"I just wanted to make sure we had balance," said Colbeck, who noted that he and other conservatives were "outnumbered" on the group — but who nonetheless said the process involved "frank, professional" discussions.

The focus group included representatives of the Arab American National Museum, the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society, the Thomas More Center and Citizens for Traditional Values. The writers/reviewers did the initial revision of the standards, then joined the members of the focus group to go over the revisions and debate changes.

Revisions were years in the making

The social studies standards are designed to outline expectations for what students will learn in class, covering geography, economics, civics and history. State exams are based on the standards. But it's up to local schools to determine how to teach them. Teachers also have the flexibility to teach beyond the standards, so anything deleted from the standards could still be taught.

The education department first set out to revise the 2007 standards about four years ago, in an attempt to streamline their number, make them more concise and more rigorous. A draft set of revisions was developed in 2015, but in November of that year, the department said it would put the updates on hold to address concerns that had been raised. Then-State Superintendent Brian Whiston, who died last month after a battle with cancer, said at the time that the department was not going to rush the process. "We're going to get it right," he said.

It was then that Colbeck first submitted a list of more than a dozen recommendations to the state. Officials at the department eventually asked Colbeck to be part of the group that would work on the revisions.

Casandra Ulbrich, co-president of the State Board of Education, and others are critical of changes in an eighth-grade section on civil rights. The 2007 standards included an eighth-grade expectation that students "evaluate the major accomplishments and setbacks in civil rights and liberties for American minorities over the 20th Century, including American Indians, Latinos/as, new immigrants, people with disabilities, and gays and lesbians."

The references to the specific groups were deleted and new language was added that expects students to learn "how the expansion of rights for some groups can be viewed as an infringement of rights and freedoms of others."

"It almost treats civil rights as a zero-sum game, so that if one group gains civil rights and gets on an equal footing, that somehow someone else’s civil rights are infringed upon," Ulbrich said. "If the idea is to make these apolitical, I think that has taken it 180 degrees away from that."

Andrews said the removal of references to gays and lesbians and to the NAACP's influence in the progressive era is also a problem.

"Historians don't remove human beings from the narrative ... And I'm afraid that the history of countries and politicians who advocate removing people from history is dangerous."

Because the process of revising the standards has been going on for several years, some of those who were involved as writers and reviewers were unsure about the specifics about how some things got removed — such as the removal of the reference to gays and lesbians and the trimming of the references to the NAACP. The large group was broken into smaller focus groups and each group worked on different parts of the standards.

But David Hales, a social studies consultant for the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency — another writer/reviewer — said the changes were likely part of the process of streamlining the standards or an effort to reach a consensus. .

As for Colbeck, Hales said he doesn't believe Colbeck had undue influence over the revisions process.

"He certainly had far more issues he would have liked to have seen changed, which did not occur," Hales said.

Constitutional democracy — or republic?

The current standards refer to the U.S. as a constitutional democracy. Colbeck said the U.S. was founded as a republic, though he acknowledges that it does have some democratic processes.

"We're a republic form of government. We don't say a pledge to the democracy of the United States. We say it to a republic."

Not every historian agrees. And the C3 Framework, a model set of social studies standards developed by the National Council on Social Studies, refers to "constitutional democracy."

Lawrence Paska, executive director of that national group, said it is the case that the U.S. is defined as a republic and isn't "a pure democracy."

Paska said that often, standards committees "try to make sure they're getting language correct in a way that's nonpartisan — to make sure the standards themselves don't become political tools."

That can be a struggle, though, as Michigan is experiencing.

"Our challenge in social studies is always to say, "How do we help students appreciate that there are multiple viewpoints," Paska said. .

Meanwhile, Ulbrich said she's concerned about the removal of "democratic" from "core democratic values" and the removal of the term "democracy" from some parts of the standards.

"It treats democracy like it's a four-letter word," said Ulbrich (D-Rochester Hills). "You can recognize the fact that we are a republic, but we are also a nation that's built ... on democracy. If we really want people to be able to think critically ... they need to understand all aspects of these things."

Colbeck countered: "We're not a democracy, so we shouldn't have the term democratic in there."

But "core democratic values" is a common term. There's a section about it on the website for Michigan's courts system, which provides resources "to help students understand the Core Democratic Values and how they inform the decisions of the judicial branch of government."

Public comment period underway

The controversy over Colbeck's involvement is putting heat on the education department. But Forward welcomes the debate.

"We are encouraged that this kind of conversation is taking place. It's a good model of what we want students to go through.: What's the difference between a constitutional republic or a democracy? Are they similar? Do we need both?"

She also hopes it boosts turnout at the series of sessions the department is holding. About a half dozen have been held so far, most with minimal turnout.

Ulbrich said she doesn't have a problem with Colbeck being involved.

"The more perspectives you can get, the better. I just want to make sure it wasn't dominated by one perspective," Ulbrich said.

She co-leads a board split with four Democrats and four Republicans. If Democrats are unhappy with the final set of revisions, they'll either vote them down, try to make amendments or try to stop the vote altogether. She said there's no rush to take action.

"We can take as much time as we need to make them right."

Andrews will be watching closely to see what the final revisions look like. Right now, he's "extraordinarily disappointed with what's there."

If changes aren't made, he said, "I will be withdrawing my name" from the document.

Others may do the same. Ulbrich said she has heard from some who were part of the group who have concerns about the revisions. She also has heard of a couple of people who have asked that their names be removed from the document. She declined to name them.

Hales said he's a bit surprised that the revisions have created such an uproar. "But I think, in the climate that we're in, in terms of things being so politicized, maybe I shouldn't have been."

Besides, he said, social studies "is one of those subjects that people are very passionate about. And there are a lot of perspectives on it."

Where to be heard

A listen and learn session on the draft revisions to Michigan's social studies standards will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Oakland Schools, 2111 Pontiac Lake Road, Waterford. For information on remaining sessions, go to www.michigan.gov/mde.

Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, lhiggins@freepress.com or @LoriAHiggins

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