The Iowa State Board of Education approved new social studies standards on May 11 after an almost year-long review process.

“Setting clear and consistent expectations for Iowa students is an important part of preparing them for success,” said Charles Edwards, president of the State Board of Education, in a statement released by the Iowa Department of Education. “I’m impressed with the quality of our new social studies standards, as well as the process that took place to draft, review and adopt them.”

Frankly, any effort to improve the standards had a low threshold for success as the original standards were blasted by American Principles Project in 2010 and the U.S. History standards, in particular, were given an “F” by the Fordham Institute in 2013. So Iowa’s benchmarks for social studies can go nowhere but up.

There are some improvements to the standards:

  • The new standards are better organized by grade rather than bundled with 2-3 grades which give teachers a clearer idea of what they need to focus on each year.
  • The new standards include standards for Iowa history.
  • The financial literacy standards are well written and age appropriate.

Unlike Mr. Edwards, I was not impressed with the new standards for four reasons. In this article I’ll cover two of those reasons and then conclude my thoughts on these new standards next week.

1. Iowa Has an Addiction to Centralized Top-Down Standards.

Why, why, why is it that Iowa just can’t leave multistate projects alone? Whether it is Common Core, the Next Generation Science Standards, and now the C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards, the Iowa Department of Education has to gobble it up.

To be clear the fact this document is the framework for the new social studies standards is at the behest of the Department who led the work group. The Department pushed Common Core. They pushed the Next Generation Science Standards, and I am confident they drove C3.

C3, while taken over by the National Council for Social Studies, it was initially a project of the Council of Chief State School Officers who drove (along with the National Governors’ Association) the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Also, the C3 project is funded by, you guessed it, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who spent (and continue to spend) billions of dollars to push their education vision on the rest of us.

For once I would love to see Iowa think outside the box and lead instead of following the latest trend. “Just because other people (states) are doing it, doesn’t mean you have to” is sound advice for our kids and evidently for states as well.

2. You Can Not Think Critically Unless You Have Something To Think About.

I can not legitimately consider these new standards “content” standards. Iowa’s new social studies standards are skill sets.

For instance, each grade has inquiry and content anchor standards.

For K-12 the inquiry anchor standards are:

  • Constructing compelling questions
  • Constructing supporting questions
  • Gathering and evaluating sources
  • Developing claims and using evidence
  • Communicating and critiquing conclusions
  • Taking informed action

These remain the same throughout the document. The K-12 content anchor standards are:

Taking a look at the Kindergarten inquiry standards, we have things like:

SS.K.1 – “Recognize a compelling question.”

Really? Who decides what is “compelling”? What a teacher finds compelling and what a kindergartener finds compelling are two entirely different things. Should this skill be taught in Kindergarten?

Then we have SS.K.3 – “Construct responses to compelling questions using examples.”

First graders are expected to “explain why a compelling question is important,” (SS.1.1.). They then have to “generate supporting questions across the social studies disciplines related to compelling questions,” (SS.1.2.). If you think this is nonsensical for first graders well you would be right.

Here are some examples of “content” standards for history:

  • “Create a chronological sequence of multiple related events in the past and present using specific times,” (SS.1.20).
  • “Make a prediction about the future based on past related events,” (SS.2.19).
  • “Infer the intended audience and purpose of a primary source using textual evidence,” (SS.3.24).
  • “Explain probable causes and effects of events and developments,” (SS.4.23).
  • “Explain how economic, political, and social contexts shaped people’s perspectives at a given time in history,” (SS.5.22).

With the history standards, you do not see anything resembling “content” until 8th grade:

“Critique primary and secondary sources of information with attention to the source of the document, its context, accuracy, and usefulness such as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, Washington’s Farewell address, the Louisiana Purchase treaty, Monroe Doctrine, Indian Removal Act, Missouri Compromise, Dred Scott v. Sanford, and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo,” (SS.8.24).

The Fordham Institute said this about the standards the Iowa State Board of Education voted to replace.

If, however, Diogenes searched with his lamp through the Iowa standards for an honest attempt to create this substantive “foundation” he would discover a startling fact: There is no history whatsoever in the Iowa “core curriculum.”

Instead, the state offers little more than a series of vapid social studies concepts and skills. Students are expected to understand these concepts without having to bother with historical information.

At the high school level, for example, students are expected to analyze macro-historical questions such as change over time, cultural diffusion, promotion of change or stasis, the effects of economic needs or wants, and the effects of geography and innovation. Yet the examples provided under these headings are entirely divorced from any knowledge or subject-specific historical content.

I can not say much has changed. On the one hand, I do not want the state dictating an entire scope and sequence to local school districts. On the other hand, it would great to know what content students should be taught, right now we have standards without context.

Also, while the end goal of a robust social studies program should not be rote memory and we do want to see kids developing critical thinking skills these standards put the cart before the horse.

This focus in top-down academic standards is a trend that we can see across academic disciplines with Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards. It is the latest trend, and everybody is jumping on board.

Classical education, which has a track record of success, recognizes that students need to know something before they can think critically about it.

Students learn the building blocks of any given subject in the grammar stage. Then, in the dialectic stage (age 10-13), students ask questions, sort, compare and practice the knowledge they learned in the grammar stage. Finally, in the rhetoric stage students communicate the truth learned the dialectic stage. They do this through writing, speech, and conversations. Students learn content throughout, but this recognizes you have to have a foundation.

What I see in these standards is a mishmash. I do not see any attempt to build a foundation.

I’ll pick this evaluation of Iowa’s new proposed Social Studies standards back up next week.

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