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Friday June 2nd

New social studies standards met with mixed feelings from students, teachers

Ed Baruch, a history teacher at East Chapel Hill High School, poses in his home for a facetime portrait on Saturday Feb. 13 2021.
Buy Photos Ed Baruch, a history teacher at East Chapel Hill High School, poses in his home for a facetime portrait on Saturday Feb. 13 2021.

Ed Baruch, a local parent and history teacher at East Chapel Hill High School, said one of the reasons he returned from teaching in the United Kingdom was so his children could learn social studies from more perspectives. 

“I saw a lot of straight memorization and not really understanding,” Baruch said about the U.K. curriculum. “I wanted my kids to be educated in the way of critical thought.”  

Nine years later, Baruch is encouraged by new social studies standards approved by the N.C. State Board of Education because he says they better account for various experiences and perspectives. 

The new K-12 standards, which were approved on Feb. 4, include terms such as racism, discrimination and identity and place a greater emphasis on social movements and competing historical narratives. 

To some students and teachers, however, the standards don't go far enough to ensure that the hard conversations will be had.

What do the standards say? 

The new standards add objectives that focus on the perspective of marginalized communities throughout history. 

For instance, a new objective for high school American History is to “Compare how competing historical narratives of various turning points portray individuals and groups including marginalized people.” Example topics include the Trail of Tears, Wilmington Coup, Zoot Suit Riots and the Stonewall Riot. 

In the final draft, the Board also included a glossary of terms and a preamble that emphasizes the standards do not limit the content individual teachers and districts decide to cover. 

“In practice, these standards represent the framework around which teachers will devise their students’ day-to-day classroom experiences with social studies and history,” the Board wrote in the preamble. 

The standards also consolidate American History into a single course, while separating Founding Principles, Civics, and Economics into two requirements: Civic Literacy and Economics and Personal Finance. This change aligns with a 2019 law requiring an Economics and Personal Finance course for any students entering high school during the 2020-2021 school year. 

The proposal was met with some opposition – five N.C. Board of Education members voted "no" to the new standards. 

Lt. Gov. and board member Mark Robinson created a petition to reject the standards that received over 30,000 signatures. 

The petition says the proposed standards are political, divisive and paint America as systematically racist. 

"I think the only responsible thing we should do in this situation, with all the turmoil around this, is to go back to the drawing board and try to get it right for the people of North Carolina," Robinson said at a Feb. 3 State Board of Education meeting. "Because the people of North Carolina are not in agreement with what we have here."

Earlier drafts of the proposal included more concrete language, like systemic racism and gender identity. According to the Board, 85 percent of public feedback was in support of that draft, but the terms racism, discrimination and identity were approved instead as a compromise.  

What this means for local schools

Christy Stanley, the director of humanities and healthful living for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said the new standards are part of a larger process of curriculum revision which takes place every five to seven years. 

Now that the standards have been approved, Stanley said the N.C. Department of Public Instruction will develop further resources to help school districts to implement the standards next school year. 

“The standards outline the topics, concepts and facts,” Stanley said. “The curriculum is left up to schools and school districts to determine how we want to run the course.”

Laila Valentine and Oluwademilade Fanika, co-presidents of the Cedar Ridge High School's Black Student Union for Orange County Schools, said they are enthused by some of the changes but concerned the final draft is ambiguous enough that difficult conversations can be avoided. 

Valentine said she understands the thought process behind generalizing — to allow for conversation about different types of racism and identity.

"But I think really, it just kind of censors the discussion about systemic racism and gender identity," Valentine said. "Censoring that or changing that kind of baffles me. It's kind of like we're going backwards."

Fanika said under the previous standards, she has missed opportunities to discuss the relationship between history and current events, like the connection between slavery and the modern carceral system. 

“I feel that everything I know now about history is stuff that I've learned outside of school,” Valentine added. “It’s stuff that I learned from summer camps targeted to minority students, that I learned from social media, just personal research that I've wanted to take to learn more about myself and the history of my people.”

Baruch, who teaches World History and U.S. History at ECHHS, said he hopes the new standards will help students appreciate social studies as a multidisciplinary skill, rather than a series of dates or facts. 

In the end, Baruch said the standards are not as different as they may appear. The objectives expect students to determine cause and effect, compare change over time and analyze primary sources. 

“It's a matter of coming to terms with the fact that there's more storytellers now than there were at the beginning,” Baruch said, “I’m of the opinion that we should include everybody in the story we're telling that we can.”


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