Kentucky educators find fault with proposed social-studies standards

Teacher Janice Duncan helped Diggy Morrison, left, and Olivia Moir as they worked on a project that had the students looking for evidence to come up with a hypothesis. Duncan dressed as Detective Rose N. Oak for the lesson in her fifth-grade social studies class at Southern Elementary.
Teacher Janice Duncan helped Diggy Morrison, left, and Olivia Moir as they worked on a project that had the students looking for evidence to come up with a hypothesis. Duncan dressed as Detective Rose N. Oak for the lesson in her fifth-grade social studies class at Southern Elementary. Herald-Leader

Janice Duncan, a fifth-grade teacher at Lexington's Southern Elementary, shares the opinion of other educators who are concerned about the lack of specifics in the proposed new Kentucky Core Academic Social Studies Standards.

Duncan, like some of her peers, does not think the proposed standards provide enough details about which courses should be taught at each grade level. Regardless, she plans to build a curriculum that will be effective.

On Tuesday, Duncan and her students became detectives, trying to figure out what happened in 1587 when a group of English settlers disappeared from Roanoke colony off the coast of what is now North Carolina. In another lesson, her students compared Disney's Pocahontas to the real Pocahontas. Afterward, they wrote letters and sent them to Disney officials.

"No matter what the standards are," Duncan said. "I'm going to make it come alive."

Duncan is among the teachers who will have to deal with potential changes if the state school board votes to approve the social studies and humanities and arts standards at a meeting in December. If approved, the standards could go into effect in the 2015-16 school year.

She's not alone. Earlier this month, board members heard a plea from the 2011 Kentucky History Teacher of the Year who is taking issue with the social-studies standards.

Donnie Wilkerson, a fifth-grade teacher at Jamestown Elementary in Russell County, said he thinks the standards, are "devoid" of any substantive content.

Wilkerson took his concerns to the state school board on Oct. 7, saying the standards were written based on a framework that does not take into account research on how students learn. He said current Kentucky social-studies standards clearly state what type of history (state, national or international) and what periods of history should be learned and at what grade levels; the proposed standards do not.

The standards are instead "filled with high-sounding edu-jargon that envisions students learning all they need to know about geography, history, government and economics using a inquiry-based, discovery-learning approach," Wilkerson told the state board.

Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said adjustments are being made to the proposed standards — a minimum of what students should be learning in the classroom. She said the vision of the proposed social studies standards is that "we create active citizens who participate productively in the world around them."

The proposed standards "focus on deeper learning and inquiry, not just the memorization of historical facts," Rodriguez said. "They encourage students to make connections to the world around them and apply knowledge and skills around four key concepts: civic mindedness, historical thinking, geographic reasoning and economic decision-making."

Legislation passed in 2009 by the General Assembly required the Kentucky Department of Education to implement a process for revising the academic content standards in all areas. Wanting new common standards, 48 states joined in the Common Core State Standards Initiative to develop new standards in English/language arts and mathematics. In February 2010, Kentucky was the first state to adopt the Common Core State Standards and incorporated them into the new Kentucky Core Academic Standards. The new English/language arts and mathematics standards were first taught in the 2011-12 school year. Standards in science followed and now the state board is reviewing proposed social studies and arts and humanities standards.

Jimmy Brehm, Fayette County Public School's director of curriculum and assessment, said he understands Wilkerson's concerns because under the proposed social studies standards, it will be a challenge for Fayette County to clearly identify a sequence of when certain subjects should be taught.

"They can't stand alone," Brehm said. "They have to have events tied to them to assure that our kids continue to learn that foundational content. If the state is not going to do that in their adoption, we will have to do that within this county."

But Brehm said he thinks the proposed standards "will be very positive because I think the standards are very good in what they are asking our kids to do in making them 21st century high-level thinkers."

State Division of Program Standards Director Karen Kidwell said it's not sufficient anymore just to know about the arts or know about history or civics.

"It's what can you do with that knowledge," she said. "How can you reason with it? How can you communicate? How can you create and perform?"

Wilkerson said his criticisms of the social studies standards are not political.

"I don't see a Marxist plot or fear a one- world government take over lurking in the pages of these standards," Wilkerson said. "I'm the token liberal in my building. I just sincerely believe these standards to be fundamentally flawed."

And he said his classes are lively, as is the intent behind the proposed standards

"Come to my classroom and you will be hard pressed to find students memorizing or reciting facts," he said. "We're not really too worried about the name of Columbus' three ships or even if we know the 1492 date. In room 212 ... we've been learning about why he came, how he came, what global impact his explorations had on the world and more importantly the diverse historical perspectives we and others might hold."

Rodriguez said the development of new social studies standards is on-going and has involved stakeholder and focus groups and more than 600 Kentucky teachers.

"Teacher involvement and feedback has been critical to the standards development and will continue to be so as adjustments are made to the draft standards," she said.