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Republicans want to replace Ohio's K-12 social studies standards with conservative lessons

Published By The Columbus Dispatch on May 22, 2023
Don Jones In The News

What Ohio's children learn about history, civics and how to take political action could change if Republican lawmakers pass a plan to rewrite the state's K-12 social studies standards.

"I am very concerned that we have a generation of younger people who don’t know the basics," Rep. Don Jones, R-Freeport, said. "I think the current standards are pretty vague." 

That's why he introduced House Bill 103. If passed, the legislation would create a task force to develop a new set of academic standards for Ohio's K-12 history classes using the American Birthright model. The model is a conservative set of standards from the National Association of Scholars that emphasizes teaching Western history over civic engagement.

"We're going back to what we know worked," Jones said.

But Democrats say this is the latest battle in America's culture war over education: a fight created by conservatives to pit parents against teachers, eliminate inclusive curricula and undermine confidence in public education.

"This bill cheats students of a quality education," said Sarah Kaka, vice president of the Ohio Council for the Social Studies. "Instead, (it) promotes an incomplete, inadequate, reductive education that shuns intellectual curiosity and closes minds rather than expanding them."

Why state standards matter
Ohio's 611 school districts choose what textbooks they use and how they structure their lessons, but that doesn't mean state standards aren't important.

They're actually the most influential documents in our education system because they determine what is on state assessments and, therefore, what goes into teacher lesson plans. State standards can also affect teacher training, home-schooled lessons and even how textbook authors write.

"Standards are really the foundation for where our students need to go," said Kaka, who is also a professor of education at Ohio Wesleyan University. "For new teachers, it can be overwhelming to go into a classroom and start teaching. Standards give them a roadmap, a benchmark to teach to."

And how those standards are developed matters.

Ohio's statewide standards get created by the State Board of Education with input from educators, professors who train teachers and parents. Then, they get approved by the General Assembly.

HB 103 would eliminate the state board's role, replacing it with a nine-member task force. The appointees would be chosen by the governor, Senate president and speaker of the House. The legislation sets no requirements for their educational backgrounds or political persuasions.

"Essentially, it's nine people chosen by the Republican Party," Kaka said.

What are the American Birthright standards?
The new task force would base its standards on “American Birthright: The Civics Alliance’s Model K-12 Social Studies Standards." It's a 118-page document that details specific facts students should learn each year.

Its website says these standards are better because they provide a straightforward format that focuses on liberty and patriotism and uses former President Donald Trump's 1776 report. The report is a controversial document that either supports a "patriotic education" or is "filled with errors and partisan politics."

"We also frame our history to reject the radical, divisive, and discriminatory identity politics embodied in such pedagogies as Critical Race Theory," according to the Civics Alliance's website. "Students will learn in American Birthrightthat America’s ideals, embodied in the steady expansion of liberty that animates our wonderful country’s history, bar no race, sex, or creed."

Kaka had "a long list of issues" with these standards, but her biggest concern was eliminating skills. These are things like financial literacy, civic participation and analyzing source material, according to Ohio's current social studies standards.

She and other social studies teachers believe these skills are why Ohio students consistently score higher on American history and American government assessments than they do in other areas.

"The assumption here is that teaching skills are all Ohio social studies teachers do, and that could not be further from the truth," Bowling Green State University professor Nancy Patterson said.

In her opinion, being able to think critically requires children to be informed about the facts, dates and key people from history.

Jones isn't convinced students learn those basic facts.

"Why don’t we make sure that is what we’re teaching," Jones said. And make sure students aren't learning historical fiction.

"I think we’ve got to be very careful. 'The 1619 Project' is something that, I think, is not factual," Jones added. "Getting involved and getting engaged is one thing, but teaching kids you need to protest and be disruptive is another thing. And I am not for that."

Democrats, like Rep. Sean Brennan, D-Parma, think districts and teachers should be free to decide whether to use certain documents or discuss certain opinions. They worried HB 103 would give students a white-washed, overly conservative view of history.

"Politics has no place in deciding what kids learn in the classroom," Brennan said. "I would say that if we had a Democratic governor and speaker of the House."

But the Legislature is dominated by Republicans, many of whom share Jones' concerns about what's being taught in Ohio classrooms.

"It’s content chosen by people with a very clear political agenda," Kaka said. "I think it’s really unfortunate that this is what it’s come to." 

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