COMMENTARY: Michigan's K-12 social study standards


By Judge Michael Warren

What is exactly the best way to teach American history and civics? This is the question that has been overshadowed in the raging debate over the newest draft of Michigan's K-12 Social Studies standards. Michigan's State Board of Education recently invited public comment on 2019 draft standards and is hosting public input sessions across the state. Much of the media has been on glaring omissions, bias, and sloppy language. An underreported key flaw is how the standards fail to follow research that reveals that student centered, inquiry based learning is a vast improvement over rote memorization. Studies upon studies reveal that huge percentages of our students and general public do not understand basic American history and civics. And that is a dangerous situation. We are fools to think we can keep our liberty without understanding its foundation and Constitution. If we really hope that students will retain their knowledge and be able to apply it to protect our freedoms, the teaching and learning paradigm must change.

Ironically, much of the reason the standards are undergoing revision was to improve them based on the recommendations of the national College, Career, and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards (the "C3 Framework"). As the C3 Framework explains, it "offers guidance and support for rigorous student learning. That guidance and support takes form in an Inquiry Arc-a set of interlocking and mutually reinforcing ideas that feature the four Dimensions of informed inquiry in social studies: 1 Developing questions and planning inquiries; 2 Applying disciplinary concepts and tools; 3 Evaluating sources and using evidence; and 4 Communicating conclusions and taking informed action."

As exemplars, Hawaii, New York, and Connecticut have revised their standards in light of the C3 Framework. Those standards use "compelling questions" to guide inquiry and learning. They completely refocus their learning paradigm to increase rigor and deepen understanding. With Google anyone can find history or civics facts. The difficult task is to THINK, and for students to use, process, analyze, discuss, and create their knowledge as effective citizens to support our free society.

The effort falls far short in furthering this effort. Most of the revisions have been focused on polishing content, deleting examples, moving standards, and updating language, not on providing rigorous student learning. Almost no inquiry based, C3 Framework supportive standards have survived into the current draft.

In fact, many of the changes have been quite counterproductive. Instead of maintaining "analyze," "research," and "compose" (more rigorous learning that would improve the standards in light of the C3 Framework) many have been downgraded to "discuss," "describe," and similar lower order learning tasks.

At one point in the revision process, a committee led by myself and UM Professor Chauncey Monte-Sano made a series of recommendations to attempt to modify the standards closer to the C3 Framework, and nearly all of those suggestions were rejected or jettisoned.

Thankfully, some compelling questions have been added to the draft. Although they do not change the structure of the standards (as the exemplars of New York and others do), it is definitely a solid step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the few compelling questions that have been added are not integrated throughout the standards, they are simply listed at the beginning of each subject and grade grouping. Although some of the questions really are compelling and could help drive instruction, some are less so. In any event, because of overall tenor of the draft, that the offered compelling questions will really help drive instruction is dubious. Other states far surpass this draft in integrating and driving instruction via the C3 framework. Instead of leading the nation, Michigan's draft leaves Michigan students behind.

If Michigan desires to lead the nation in Social Studies and critical thinking, the standards need major improvement to embrace the C3 Framework. Public input is being sought now, and the draft is scheduled to return to the State Board of Education in June. Make your voice heard. The future of our free society depends on it.


Michael Warren is an Oakland County Circuit Court Judge, former member of the State Board of Education, co-creator of Patriot Week, author of America's Survival Guide, and participated in the drafting process of Michigan's Social Studies Standards.

Published: Fri, May 10, 2019