Michigan school board Dems: We will block conservative social studies changes

Which social studies topics will be taught, or not taught, and how in K-12 classrooms has emerged as a controversy in Michigan.

March 2019: Gay rights and climate change are back in Michigan social studies standards
Sept. 21 update: A final meeting, and Michigan’s social studies standards head for a rewrite​
July 23 update: Six more meetings set on controversial Michigan social studies standards
June 20 update: Crowds growing to protest changes to Michigan social studies standards

Proposed changes to Michigan social studies standards ‒ which remove or downplay volatile U.S. social issues and cut “democratic” from “core democratic values” ‒ are running into opposition on the State Board of Education.

The eight-member board must approve the controversial revisions for them to impact what’s taught in Michigan public school classrooms. The four Democrats on the elected board would vote in a block to oppose proposed changes to the standards, according to two board members who spoke to Bridge Wednesday.

If that happens, even if the four Republican members voted for the conservative-inspired revisions, the 4-4 tie would not be enough to approve the standards. The changes were first chronicled by Bridge Magazine on Tuesday.

“I know the Democrats feel strongly and are concerned” about the proposed changes, board member Michelle Fecteau, a Democrat from Detroit, said. “If there is a 4-4 split, it doesn’t pass.”

Michelle Fecteau, left, a State Board of Education member from Detroit, and board co-president, Casandra Ulbrich of Rochester Hills, right, say they and fellow Democrats on the board have enough votes to block proposed changes to state social studies standards.

The state’s social studies standards provide a framework for what students are to learn from kindergarten through high school. Education officials are making the first update to the standards since 2007.

The revisions now being considered include some controversial changes, such as striking references to gay rights, climate change and Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion, and removing “democratic” from the term “core democratic values.” The proposed standards would also make fewer references to the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan.

The changes were made by a focus group that was expanded to include several well-known Michigan conservatives, including state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton Twp., who is running for governor. At least two of the conservative additions say they were brought in by Colbeck. The group did not include any Democratic legislators or activists.

Colbeck had told Bridge the changes he and other conservatives recommended were meant to make the standards less partisan and encourage students to be exposed to different points of view on historical events and constitutional issues.  

The proposed revisions ignited a firestorm this week, after Bridge Magazine posted examples of proposed changes and the conservative-leaning makeup of those added to the committee recommending the changes.

The debate spilled onto the floor of the Michigan Senate Tuesday night, with Senator David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, and Colbeck offering dueling speeches on social studies standards.

On Wednesday, Colbeck’s campaign issued a press release calling Bridge Magazine’s reporting inaccurate and misleading. Among other criticisms, the release argued that the article misleadingly portrayed Colbeck as having an outsized influence on the group updating the standards. The press release and Bridge’s response to the criticisms can be read here

Eileen Weiser, a Republican state board member from Ann Arbor, said the group revising state social studies standards should be allowed to do its work free from political attacks.

Fecteau and Casandra Ulbrich, board co-president and a Democrat from Rochester Hills, said they and fellow Democrats Lupe Ramos-Montigny and Pamela Pugh would vote no if the proposed standards are not revised to restore subjects that have been removed.

According to Ulbrich, the Dems’ options range from offering an amendment to remove a controversial section of the standards and replace it with something else, to declining to vote on the standards, to voting them down and sending it back to the education department for more work.

Ramos-Montigny and Pugh could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Eileen Weiser, a Republican state board member from Ann Arbor, defended the group who developed the revised standards, which included numerous subject matter authorities including educators, university social studies experts and representatives from diverse ethnic and racial groups.

“They really grappled with all of (the changes),” Weiser said. “Whether this will withstand the assault of people who are more emotional and political, I don’t know.”

Fecteau said she received phone calls from some people who were involved in the drafting of the revised standards who were “alarmed” at the changes. “They were concerned about the stripping of progressive movements” from history books.

Fecteau declined to name who among the 35 people who served as writers, reviewers and focus group members had contacted her.

Ulbrich said the board had not officially weighed in on the standards, and won’t until after receiving public comments and seeing MDE’s final recommendations in August. The education department is accepting public comment on the standards through June 30, with those comments presented to the state board in August.

Republican board members Tom McMillin and Nikki Snyder and Republican co-president Richard Zeile could not be immediately reached for comment.

Fecteau said she anticipated lively debate over the standards. “I expect a lot of public comment on both sides,” Fecteau said. “It’s an election year.”

Two seats on the state board are up for election in November, both currently held by Republicans. Zeile is running for re-election, and Weiser is not. State board seats are elected on a statewide basis.

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Chuck Fellows
Thu, 06/14/2018 - 8:58am

These are not standards, they are content prescriptions. Individuals distant from the classroom deciding what teachers should teach and children should learn.
See the problem?
Pols and pundits can prescribe all they want and compel people to abide those prescriptions. But once the classroom door shuts all bets are off, especially in the digital age.
No matter the standard, children in a learning environment will challenge the content by subjecting it to their natural curiosity. They will determine in their own minds what the real tapestry of history is through their rigorous research and dialogue with their peers, as coached and mentored by their teacher and other reasonable thinking adults in their world.
Meanwhile the pundits and pols will continue to argue about history and in the process deepen the political divides that are destroying this republic. Study the history of democracies and you will see how ideology of the type on display in Lansing and Washington has wrecked self government.

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 4:21pm

Bridge Magazine and the Democrats on the state School Board are presenting the issue as if the changes are to history course content mandates or prescriptions. This is not true in most of the cases cited.

The one item from this list that is mandatory involves using "core democratic values" to analyze the effects of controversial Supreme Court decisions, controversial legislation such as the Voting Rights Act, and constitutional crises such as Watergate, which forced President Nixon to resign. If the phrase "core democratic values" is deemed too partisan, perhaps "core civic values" could be substituted. Or we could re-use the phrase from another section of the current standard and require that students learn to analyze public controversies in terms of the interplay of constitutional rights.

Tue, 06/26/2018 - 3:07pm

As a social studies teacher, I have reached out to the board and Senator Knezek to try to make them aware of the fact that you've just stated. These content expectations can't brainwash kids, only teachers could do that. And if we're doing our jobs we will help them learn to be learners, curious analyzers of ideas, good askers of questions. These proposed changes give us the latitude to do that well! I consider myself a liberal - but this battle the dems are fighting is absurd. It's energy spent in the wrong place, trying to undermine Colbeck as he runs for governor instead of thinking about kids, and schools. So sad.

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 9:51am

If Colbeck's standards are adopted, the obvious next step will be for the state to change its name to Michississippi.

Dr. Richard Zeile
Thu, 06/14/2018 - 10:08am

The original proposed standards had been submitted to the Southern Poverty Law Center. I do not recall Bridge Magazine taking notice when a left wing organization had influence on the proposed standards. This is also why the standards needed some correction for balance and accuracy. Incidentally, my phone number is 313.802.1146 which is on my business card, and publicly available. I received no message that anyone from the media called to ask my comment. So much for the accuracy of the "could not be reached for comment" portion of the article.

Ron French
Thu, 06/14/2018 - 5:18pm

Hello Dr. Zeile, thanks for reading our article.  Regarding your concerns, Jim Cameron of MDE said the Poverty Law Center was not involved in the writing of the standards. Here's what he told me in an email: 

"to be very clear... I did work with the SPLC on a project for EduPaths where people from nine different ethnic/cultural groups are creating courses for EduPaths to share with teachers. The purpose is to give teachers the opportunity to learn more and share about these groups if they so choose. 

Notice that no where in the above paragraph does it mention Standards, GLCEs, or HSCEs. It is a separate project and does not impact the Standards in any way. The people writing the courses are not involved with the Standards."

I suspect one of you has your wires crossed on this. Since Cameron has been in charge of this project, we felt, and continue to feel, confident in our sourcing.

Regarding reaching out to you for comment, I sent an email to the email address for you that is listed on the State Board of Education website. That email is drzeiile@juno.com. I sent the email at 10:38 a.m. Wednesday. Here is the contents of that email: "

Good morning Dr. Zeille,

Do you have a few minutes to chat by phone about the proposed revisions to social studies standards. I’m writing a follow-up story about the revisions, trying to explain what the next steps are and whether board members have weighed in on the revisions.

I’m writing on deadline today."

Could you check to see if you received that email, and confirm whether the email listed on the state website is correct?

The phone number listed for you on that same page is not the one you list above - it is the phone number for the state office of the board. Some of the board members list their personal phone numbers on that page, but you do not. Thank you for passing along your pesonal phone number in your comment. I'll be sure to keep it and use it next time we're writing a story on a board-related subject.

Dr. Richard Zeile
Thu, 06/14/2018 - 5:58pm

Thank you for clarifying your attempts to reach me. I did find the email with headline Bridge Magazine among the 100+ received that day, which surprised me since you misspelled my name and the email address above. There seemed no compelling reason to check your email right away as I did not recognize the sender (Ron French), and the subject line was generic. I will know better next time.
As to the Southern Poverty Law 's influence on the standards, see this document- Center'https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/Item_B_PPT_Social_Studies_488849_...

Their initial influence on the standards, I surmise, are why there are so many references in your story to NAACP and KKK items removed. May I ask you to make clear that you are discussing removals from a proposed set of standards and not from the current standards. By giving (or leaving) the latter impression, you stir up many by giving the impression that the curriculum is being changed more than it is.

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 1:43pm

What is the problem? Liberals have been crafting courses to fit their twisted agenda for years. Paybacks are good and long overdue.

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 4:05pm

Paybacks?? How about reasonable discussion points. Working towards middle ground.

Wed, 06/20/2018 - 9:31am

Because "working towards middle ground" usually means diminishing conservative values and advancing "progressive" philosophy.

Thu, 06/14/2018 - 4:03pm

The article claims: " Fecteau said she received phone calls from some people who were involved in the drafting of the revised standards who were “alarmed” at the changes." They claimed they were concerned about the "stripping of progressive movements” from history books."

The people quoted by board member Michelle Fecteau who were "involved in the drafting" of Michigan's updated social studies standards apparently don't understand what the Michigan curriculum standards are for or what they do (and do not do). Almost all the specific topics listed in the standards are examples of items that *may* be included in textbooks or class materials used to teach a specific type of analysis in Michigan schools, not an exhaustive or an exclusive list of what may be taught. Textbook publishers are extremely unlikely to "strip progressive movements" from their history books any time in the near future. Even if some publishers do, because Michigan school districts are free to choose their own textbooks, they will not have to buy those particular texts. Teachers can always choose to add study or discussion topics when they feel that their district's choice of textbooks is inadequate.

The current standards document ( available at https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/SS_HSCE_210739_7_470248_7.pdf ) says that the standards document: "Differentiates between required and suggested content – The expectations specify teachable content in two different ways. On numerous occasions, the expectations will offer examples for teachers to help clarify teachable content. Typically, these examples or suggestions appear in parentheses. The document always identifies such optional content with an “e.g.” or “for example.” These are simply suggestions and teachable options. Teachers may use other examples to meet the expectations. In short, these examples are not required content. In other places, the expectations identify specific content that students should study. This content is never preceded by “e.g.” or “for example.” Unlike the optional examples, a statewide assessment might assess the required content. "

As for eliminating Roe v. Wade from the list of examples of changing social standards, I feel that particular Supreme Court decision deserves equal coverage in American History courses with other notable and controversial-at-the-time court decisions like Marbury v. Madison, the Scopes Monkey Trial, and Virginia v. Loving, not one of which are included among the examples listed in the current standard. There is even a particular Michigan connection for the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which I believe remains included in the proposed new standard, that eliminated de jure segregation of schools. That connection, the Milliken v. Bradley decision, eliminated an implied Federal requirement to achieve racial integration across multiple school districts for school districts and states that had never practiced de jure segregation. That pair of decisions would surely be an excellent choice for a Michigan-specific, mandatory topic in history / social studies.

Fri, 06/15/2018 - 12:10am