Margaret Reist: Social studies standards generate record response

2012-11-30T09:00:00Z 2012-12-07T12:43:15Z Margaret Reist: Social studies standards generate record responseBy MARGARET REIST / Column

Talk about a firestorm.

The first revision of the state’s social studies standards in two decades generated a response that dwarfs any feedback -- in both numbers and fervor -- of earlier revisions of state standards in math, language arts or science.

More than 1,000 people filled out an online survey on the Nebraska Department of Education website that closed Wednesday. Many others wrote emails or sent letters.

That’s understandable: A math equation is a math equation, but history, civics, geography and economics -- the four areas covered in the social studies standards -- are ripe for interpretation. And passionate opinions.

Two of the lightning rods: climate change (actually the whole section known as “human geography”) and American Exceptionalism.

The latter -- a highly politicized term that focuses on America’s unique form of government (some would substitute the term “superior”) -- isn’t in the standards. But the idea that it should be drew dozens of people to public meetings and prompted a coalition of conservative groups to offer alternative standards they say are less vague and open to interpretation.

On the other hand, a large chunk of the geography standards are highlighted in yellow to denote that they are “undergoing continuing revision or possible removal.”

That shocked Randy Bertolas, a geography professor at Wayne State College, who helped draft the geography portion of the standards.

Bertolas said the committee of educators who drafted the standards modeled them after national standards developed by a consortium of geography organizations. They thought they had a good document that might need a little tweaking.

“But outright gutting them, it just astonished me,” he said. “I and a number of other people were quite frankly horrified by the amount and content of what was highlighted.”

Bertolas contacted members of a Nebraska geographic educators group, as well as national geographic organizations and encouraged them to respond to the survey.

A number of national groups have weighed in, advocating for the highlighted content: the National Geographic Society, the National Center for Science Education, the Association of American Geographers, the National Council on Geographic Education.

The alternative standards proposed by the coalition, which includes the former executive director of Boys Town, removes climate change and other elements of the human geography section.

Just how the board will handle the highlighted portions -- there’s a wide gap between revision and removal -- remains to be seen.

Board member Bob Evnen said some on the board's committee were concerned about the approach to climate change -- accepting as fact that it is manmade -- and the overall vagueness of the standards that don’t provide enough guidance for teachers.

“What some board members do not want to do is provide a vehicle through which teachers are unbounded in the delivery of political positions,” he said.

But he’s hoping to come to a conclusion satisfactory to everyone.

Bertolas hopes that means the highlighted sections stay put. Geography is a truly integrative discipline that blends information from different fields and “confronts the considerable problems that the world faces today, and explores real solutions for the planet,” he said.

He thinks issues of climate change should be part of that, even if adults can’t agree on its meaning or veracity.

“I’m trying to advocate for the children of Nebraska,” he said. “I’m not advocating against the adults.”

Over the next week, the committees that drafted the standards will review the public comments and make further revisions. Then the board committee will take a crack at it. On Thursday, the state board of education will discuss it, and it is scheduled for a vote on Friday.

Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or

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