Proposed Social Studies Standards Wrong for Colorado

Photo: Takako Hatayama-Phillips/iStock
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Should Colorado first-graders be trained to stereotype how “African American, Latino, Asian American, Indigenous Peoples, LGBTQ, and religious minority cultures (are) different…”? Should sixth-graders be coached to think that their racial identity determines if they’re a “contributing citizen” in America?

If the Colorado State Board of Education adopts the proposed changes to our state’s social studies standards, all Colorado K-12 public schools (including charter schools) will be expected to instruct students in this kind of thinking.

While they have good components, Colorado’s social studies standards need improvement. A bipartisan organization recently graded them a “D.” And regionally, only 13% of eighth-graders tested proficient on the latest NAEP History exam. The way to improve the standards, however, is not to hyper-focus on America’s historical flaws, foster race-centric thinking, and encourage children to become ideological activists.

Below, I’ll highlight three primary concerns with the proposed standards and describe how we can make our voice heard.

First, the changes shift the focus of history instruction to America’s flaws without putting these in historical context or balancing them with examples of America’s virtues. This encourages students to conclude that oppression and inequality are America’s defining traits. For example:

• First grade: Teach “Multiple perspectives on the First Thanksgiving (and) Fourth of July…”

• Sixth grade: Answer “How do groups of people become marginalized?”

• In imbalanced fashion, the standards mention the Bill of Rights three times and Indigenous Peoples nearly 70 times. “Oppression” is a prevalent theme, but examples like America’s inspiring defense of the Free World in World War II, or why countless immigrants view America as a land of hope are barely mentioned.

History curriculum should certainly include America’s flaws but clarify that sins such as slavery were common throughout world history. What makes America unique, students should learn, is that our founding principles — inalienable and equal rights, limited government, free enterprise — have produced great progress in overcoming those flaws and led to unprecedented flourishing for people across demographics. This knowledge will help prepare students to preserve and live up to these rare principles, so that America can continue building on our progress.

Second, the proposed standards coach students to focus on “identity group” differences — the assumption that traits like skin color and sexuality determine one’s identity, perspective, and status as “privileged” or “marginalized.”

This regressive mentality trains kids to ignore the uniqueness and agency of individuals as well as the diversity within cultures.

Repeatedly stereotyping the same six “identity groups” diminishes other minorities and falsely assumes members of an identity group have the same collective experience. For example:

• Third grade: “Why do some groups, such as African Americans, Asian Americans, Indigenous Peoples, Latinos, LGBTQ, and religious minorities, feel like their voices are not being heard?”

• Sixth grade: “What are the barriers that prevent communities such as African American, Latino, Indigenous peoples, Asian American, LGBTQ, and religious minorities from being “contributing” citizens?”

• High-School: “How does the Electoral College impact people of color…?”

Students should understand different perspectives, but not at the expense of learning the empowering principles that unite Americans and undergird our shared humanity. And the more students learn (via motivating examples across cultures) that we’re unique individuals with self-determination, the more they can resist victimhood and embrace the American dream.

Finally, schools should teach students to be engaged citizens–knowledgeable of how our democracy works and their role in it–but not pressure them to become activists for specific causes. For example:

• Second Grade: “Identify strategies to address imbalances of power.”

• Fourth Grade: “How do you make sure that African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Indigenous Peoples, LGBTQ, and religious minorities voices are being heard by local and state governments?”

• High School: “Engage in advocacy at the appropriate level of government for both individual and group rights. For example: African American, Latino, Asian American, Indigenous Peoples, LGBTQ and religious minorities.”

In the state’s desire to update our social studies standards, it has swung the pendulum too far — creating imbalance and fueling the flaw-focused history, race-centric division, and ideological activism that often already permeate K-12 schools — despite opposition from the majority of parents.

Instead, the new standards should foster teaching our full history, strengthening the principles that unite us as Americans, and explaining democracy’s government/citizen relationship. This will empower students to receive the torch of liberty, make it their own, and help it burn ever-brighter for generations to come.

To give feedback on the proposed standards by the February 1st deadline:

• Use the public comment system, available here, which has a how-to video tutorial, or

• Email comments to: Costandardsrevision@cde.state.co.us

The standards committee will consider revisions based on public comment, and the State Board of Education will vote on the final standards in mid-2022.

These standards guide schools in teaching our next generation, so please make your voice heard.

Will Johnson
Will Johnson is a Denver-based father of three who frequently writes on education-related issues.