Raleigh, N.C. — The North Carolina State Board of Education on Wednesday discussed a set of documents designed to help school districts and teachers form curriculum based on the state’s new social studies standards.
The board is scheduled to vote on the documents Thursday. They were drafted by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Superintendent Catherine Truitt, teachers and other consultants.
The documents include three things for kindergarten through 12th grades: a glossary, “strand maps” that outline of the progression of learning throughout the year, and “crosswalk” tables that explain the difference between last year’s standards and the new ones. For kindergarten through fifth grade, the board reviewed “unpacking documents,” which explain how teachers can engage with the new standards to accomplish the objectives set out for students.
DPI will unveil unpacking documents for sixth through eighth grade history classes and the four required high school social studies classes in July. The heaviest debate occurred in discussions of changes at the high school level.
Concerns surrounded whether the new standards were too negative or just honest. Proponents contended more diverse perspectives on historical issues would leave students better prepared to be leaders when they’re older, while opponents argued emphasizing too much negativity would keep students from supporting their country.
The department has since suggested changing references to “systemic racism,” “gender identity” and “systemic discrimination” to “racism,” “identity” and “discrimination.”
Board members opposed to the proposed standards took issue with the overall “tone” of them and said they’re concerned about the outcome of kids learning under their framework, that if students learned too many negative things compared to positive things, they would disengage from civic life. They agreed that negative history needs to be told but disagreed on the extent to which racism is built into society or government and how that should be taught.
DPI plans to have the new social studies standards implemented in the classroom by this fall.
Board members posed a handful of questions to DPI officials, including about how the documents were drafted.
Superintendent Catherine Truitt said she participated in the documents’ creation, which involved heavy back-and-forth and shared documents.
Truitt said her recommendations were largely requesting that example topics be reduced.
When the documents listed marginalized groups that a lesson could explore, Truitt said, the groups listed were largely a variation of African-American and other groups were listed only once.
It wasn’t clear Wednesday what the African-American groups listed were.
“I found that the early drafts of this unpacking document contained much more specificity than in the past or as compared to other subjects’ unpacking documents,” Truitt said. “So we removed some specificity at my request.”
Board Member Olivia Oxendine asked the department to attach references to each definition in the glossary, to clarify how the glossary terms, which came from multiple sources, were defined.
Lori Carlin, DPI section chief for social studies and arts education, said the department originally had references and would add them back in. Carlin said definitions came out of conversations about how certain terms applied to the social studies standards, which is why they aren’t existing dictionary definitions.
Oxendine also asked if DPI could note the United States’ exceptional economic history as a part of the documents, referencing debate earlier this year about whether the new standards emphasized enough of the nation’s good history.
“It’s important that we undergird that with the idea that we live in a tremendously prosperous land,” Oxendine said.
Carlin told the board Truitt’s preamble to the standards, which makes some reference to celebrating achievements, is included with all guidance documents.
Truitt wrote the preamble after debate over them reverberated across the state and before the board approved the standards.
It states, at the end, “Let us study the past such that all students can celebrate our achievements toward a more perfect union while acknowledging that the sins of our past still linger in the everyday lives of many. Let us study the past so we can understand where it might lead us today.”
Unpacking documents provide examples of how a teacher could address certain social studies objectives.
An example for second grade, included in the presentation to the board, is for teachers to have students explain how limited resources dictate what a furniture factory can and cannot produce, after reading about a struggling furniture factory. That would accomplish the objective of having students understand how resources play a role in the production of goods.
Another second grade example, in the unpacking documents, is to have students choose an indigenous, religious or racial group they’ve learned about and make a presentation that explains how that group has influenced culture in the United States. That goes with the objective to explain how those groups have influenced the United States.
Typically, the board doesn’t need to vote on unpacking documents, strand maps or glossaries, after it votes to approve the new standards. But after the proposed social studies standards stirred political debate, the board approved the standards under the condition they can also review and approve related curriculum guidance documents.
In February, the board voted 7-5 in favor of the new social studies standards.
For the most part, the state’s social studies standards won’t change, but objectives within them have been added or expanded, particularly at the high school level.
The difference between the former standards and what the board passed in February is largely the degree of specificity of the varying perspectives students should consider. Current standards frequently state a “variety” of perspectives. The new ones often specify different races, religions and other groups. Students will be asked to discuss racism, marginalized groups and the impact of policies on different populations. Students will be asked to compare narratives of different perspectives, critique systems and practices or explain how inequities continue today.
Example topics for students to compare perspectives on include — according to a snapshot of supporting documents presented at the time of the standards’ passage — the Trail of Tears, the Wilmington race riots, the Haymarket Riot and the Occupation of Alcatraz.
The social studies standards were being revised in preparation for the upcoming consolidation of American History I and II to just one course. DPI began working on them in 2019 and sought public input on the fourth draft.