The Nebraska Board of Education unanimously adopted new social studies standards Friday after a yearlong, contentious process that could continue if a conservative coalition concludes the standards don’t follow the state’s Americanism statute.
Peg Sigler, a spokesman for the Liberty Education Advocacy Coalition, told the board her coalition would pursue every legal means possible to ensure the standards follow the 1949 statute that requires schools teach U.S. history and instill patriotism.
“We are very serious about seeing the statute enforced,” Sigler said in an interview. “We are not going away.”
Assistant Education Commissioner Brian Halstead said the Americanism statute applies to curriculum, textbooks and instruction, which fall under the purview of local school districts. Different statutes govern state standards, and the new standards comply with state law, he said.
The draft of the new standards -- which cover economics, history, civics and geography -- drew a record response from the public, most of which focused on two issues: climate change and American exceptionalism, which stresses the United States’ unique form of government.
Board member Lynn Cronk, who was on the board subcommittee that worked on the standards, said all comments were reviewed and taken seriously.
“Those of you who feel you haven’t been heard, let me assure you our chairman was your advocate,” she said.
The subcommittee chairman, Bob Evnen, encouraged the public to remain active as school districts implement the standards. He also said they should track how districts and schools follow the Americanism statute.
The state selected a group of educators to rewrite the standards, and outside experts reviewed them. Education Commissioner Roger Breed endorsed them.
School districts have a year to either adopt and implement the new state standards or adopt more rigorous ones of their own. State standards offer a guideline for districts but do not stipulate curriculum. The indicators -- where climate change and the concepts of American exceptionalism show up -- are examples of what could be taught but are not required.
Unlike math, reading, writing and science, there are no statewide tests that assess student achievement in social studies, a fact that concerns Board President Jim Scheer.
“Without an assessment, it may get lost in the educational process,” he said. “It may get, perhaps, minimized.”
The new standards include the concept of American exceptionalism, but not the exact phrase, which experts warned state officials had become too polarizing and politicized. Climate change also appears in the high school geography standards, but as a theory, not a fact.
A large portion of the geography sections that had been highlighted in the draft for possible removal remained largely intact. Those sections dealt with “human geography,” including climate change, different cultures and how humans interact with the earth.
Board member Rebecca Valdez, who also was on the standards subcommittee, said she was pleased to see those highlighted areas remain, and said she could live with how they’d been “tweaked.”
“The standards don’t specifically state it, but I’m trusting the teachers to assist the students to become informed citizens and understand we live in a culturally diverse society,” Valdez said.
Jay Sears, instructional advocacy director for the Nebraska State Education Association, urged the board to let teachers do their jobs.
“Please, I beg of you, let the educators do the job we’re trained to do and they’ll make sure we have patriots in the classroom,” he said.
Sigler said she had not read the final draft, which became public late Thursday afternoon, and she was critical of the lack of time given for the public to review the final document.
Education department officials said many of the 200 changes made in the final draft reflected suggestions by the conservative coalition, which now includes 16 organizations. The group had submitted alternative standards it said were more specific and measurable.
Rev. Val Peters, director emeritus of Boys Town and a member of the coalition, urged the board to adopt the alternative standards instead of the department’s final draft.
“You’re good people, you all do good work, but throw this thing away.”