Social Studies Revamp Enters Next Phase

Holly Brod Farber goes into schools across the state to talk about topics relating to Judaism, and she does so knowing that — in many cases — it will be the only chance students have to meet someone who is Jewish.

“[Going into the schools] will literally be the only place,” said Brod Farber, the co-director of the Speaker’s Bureau at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. “The religious communities like the Jews and the Sikhs and the Muslims, our stories and histories are marginalized and erased and ignored. We’re just saying ‘we’re here too, and we have a story to tell.’”

When the Minnesota Department of Education released the third and final draft of the new Minnesota social studies standards for kindergarten-12th grade last week, there was some positive movement for a coalition of religious minorities that have been organizing to lobby the authors. But before the final version of the plan is approved, those groups say there is still work to do. 

The earlier drafts that were released over the past 11 months caused some degree of upset for the Jewish community. The first draft eliminated all mention of the Holocaust or genocide studies, which led to a letter-writing campaign and petitions that pushed the Department of Education to commit to reinserting that in the second draft of the standards. That draft did include that information but did eliminate any mention of world religions

The release of the final draft kicks off a public comment period on the benchmarks that runs until Dec. 14, and a 60-day public comment period on the standards, which runs through Jan. 14, 2022. Feedback can be given via a public comment survey or by email. Ethan Roberts, the JCRC’s director of government affairs said that only the public comment period is required on the standards, and MDE has chosen to add one for the benchmarks.

The standards and the supporting benchmarks that students at each grade level should be meeting are split into five strands: Citizenship and Government, Economics, Geography, U.S. and World History, and Ethnic Studies. Roberts said the standard that the multifaith coalition pushed for on connecting religion to ways in which social identity is formed made this draft. But it doesn’t solve all the issues.

“The problem is that there’s not a single benchmark that relates back to that revised standard for religion,” said Roberts, who added that the coalition provided two recommendations for benchmarks that would connect to the revised standard. “They didn’t take us up on it. The concern now is that, yes, people may learn about Judaism or Sikhism or other religions, but only in a very deeply historical sense: You could talk about the Second Temple period, but that will tell you almost nothing about what it’s like to be Jewish today. It will tell you nothing about how Islam might inform somebody’s social identity today. And so we’re saying it’s good that you have this revised standard. But unless you have a benchmark, which relates back to that standard, there’s no way to actualize that work and that progress.” 

This is the final draft prepared by the 36-member committee that was charged with writing the first three drafts. Any changes that happen now will be made by the MDE before it goes to the legislature for final approval. The curriculum is expected to go into effect for the 2026-27 school year.

Brod Farber said that even an hour of study on a religion in class is helpful and can go a long way.

“We give students language to tell [their] own story with pride,” she said. “Whatever your story is – religious, not religious, whatever your religion is – be proud of who you are, and be curious and welcoming. Look at inclusion and diversity as a strength and as a way to enrich one another. We live in an incredibly interesting place.

“But if we don’t learn about each other, our community’s not as interesting a place as if we do.”