Q&A: How Michigan social studies became a ‘pawn in partisan games’

Venessa Keesler, state deputy superintendent: “The idea is to de-partisan it (social studies standards) as much as possible.”

First, conservatives complained about a draft of new social studies standards for Michigan classrooms.

Then, liberals complained about a rewrite of those standards that appeared to favor conservative views.

Now, some conservatives are up in arms again over a third draft of the standards, saying they are back to being too liberal.

The latest round of community meetings across the state begin this week to get public input. You can see the schedule of meetings here.

Five years into the standards update, following 30 community meetings and more than 5,000 submitted comments into the process, Bridge spoke to Venessa Keesler, state deputy superintendent. Excerpts from the interview have been condensed for clarity.

Bridge: When you presented the current draft of social studies standards to the State Board of Education this month, you told the Board that “standards are not about politics.” Why did you say that?

Keesler: I felt it was important to remind the board that this is not what this is about. Standards have been politicized not only in Michigan, but nationally. Now the idea is to de-partisan it as much as possible.

The core of the endeavor is not about pleasing one side or another, but to make sure students have access to high standards.

Bridge: Why has this taken five years?

Keesler: We had a draft in 2015 that had 95 percent approval. That was when (then Sen. Patrick) Colbeck (R-Canton Township) wrote a very passionate letter about what was wrong with the standards. (Then-)Superintendent Brian Whiston felt if there was this voice on the right saying this is bad, it was right to go back and include everyone under the tent – when they were happy, we would move forward. What he didn’t anticipate was making them happy would make so many of the 95 percent who were happy with the standards unhappy.

Bridge: So the standards have been tweaked again, and now conservatives are unhappy again.

Keesler: It is a sense of whiplash. I don’t think the first set (proposed to the State Board of Education in 2015) was biased. Then we were influenced by certain voices too much and now we need to swing them back to the middle as much as possible.

Bridge: Were you surprised by the reaction to the release of this draft?

Keesler: We were under no illusions that this was a draft that would be (universally) popular. That’s good, we want a good discourse around these issues.

My big thing is, I want people to actually read the standards themselves, not just read what people write about the standards and react to that. Whether we get these things right is an important discussion. But we want people to base their opinions on what is actually in the standards.

Bridge:  Michael Warren, an Oakland County Circuit Court judge and a former Republican member of the State Board of Education, wrote a letter to (Interim) State Superintendent Sheila Alles blasting the current draft, saying it is “highlighting the progressive movement and censoring the conservative movement.” Does he have a point?

Keesler: Things named at the standard level … are not specific. This allows for the professionalism of teachers in their own communities (to create lesson plans tailored to what they want their students to learn). That is the point of local control - local communities can decide how they interact with education.

Bridge: Last year, your department received a lot of criticism for a draft of social studies standards that some felt swayed too far to the political right. Now it’s conservatives saying the standards are swayed too far to the political left. Do you feel you will be blamed by one side or the other no matter what you do?

Keesler: When we go into developing standards, we don’t go in and say, ‘How many Democrats and how many Republicans do we have (in the room),’ we ask, ‘Who are the experts in social studies? They (social studies committee members) are doing it as educators, not as partisan voters.

You don’t get to 100-percent consensus on something in a state this size. It’s our responsibility to make tough choices sometimes. And then there’s local control so local communities can decide how things are implemented.

We’re hoping not to make this another pawn in partisan games.

We’ve seen that so many times in the past few years. This can just be about our students. Let’s try to do this together.

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Tami Carlone
Wed, 04/24/2019 - 11:02am

It is unfortunate that a person at this level has so many facts wrong and is herself politically biased in her work. It makes sense though, when you look at the very poor results of MI schools overall. These are not just “standards” and they are so extremely political they must not ever pass. They are an insult to Truth and Excellence in Education for Every Child, which should be the main goal of our schools.

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 5:13pm

It is also unfortunate that a CPA with no background in education who openly espouses burning the entire K-12 educational system to the ground is so rooted in right-wing conspiracy theories that she can't see the forest for the trees.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 04/24/2019 - 11:02am

This really should've been a no-brainer.

If the material coincides with what is written in the US & Michigan Constitutions, it should be included and all extraneous material should be immediately excluded without question.

American History needs to cover American History. ALL two and a half centuries worth. Even longer if you want to give the events proper context.

Focusing on a limited window of only a few decades is short-changing Michigan Students on how we "really got here".

I'm surprised that there were people who were "dis-invited" to speak and that actions were taken to hide the progress of these revisions from the general public.

No, not really. Those are clearly actions from someone with an agenda to promote.

If Supt. Kessler wonders why people are now viewed as game pieces, it really shouldn't come as no surprise to any objective observer.

James F Bish
Wed, 04/24/2019 - 11:18am

Nothing is more political than determining what information our children are exposed to.
Trying to limit this exposure does a great disservice to the next generation.

Wed, 04/24/2019 - 1:29pm

It is obvious that our country is divided on many issues, why not present both sides. Yes, in many cases abortions are allowed (Supreme Court ruling) but there are also many who oppose abortion for these reasons. Letting each side give their rationale gives a student a real idea of what is going on in this country. How about illegal immigrants? I don't know how you allow some illegal things to occur and not others but perhaps there is a rationale for this side of the story as well as maintaining that the US as a country of laws. How about socialism; give each side their rationale. I think these would make great discussions for a class and I bet they would learn far more about our country than just presenting one side of the story.

Sun, 04/28/2019 - 8:16am

Just get it taught with agreed upon facts and then offer perspectives from both sides.

Wed, 04/24/2019 - 1:48pm

MDE is right that social studies standards should not be political. But the evidence is clear, all versions presented to date based on the C3 Framework have been seen as biased. The solution is NOT to just offend one political perspective, the solution is to drop this framework and pick up proven, non-political standards like MA pre-CC.

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 1:19pm

Okay so I went here and looked at the pre-CC MA expectations: http://www.doe.mass.edu/frameworks/archive.html

Do you know what you advocate for and against?

When you move into 5th grade where commonalities exist, they're asking students to look at the same things (and use the words "individual rights" vs "unalienable rights") - They then move into content we have in 8th grade in 5th.

As you move up in US History, they're far less inclusive than Michigan in regards to Civil Rights. The Reagan standard covers most of the same things in a different order than Michigan's standards. If anything there's more bias in the last three standards than Michigan's.

One of the real reasons MA's standards were among the best in the country has less to do with the standards themselves and more with the obscene amount of money they spent implementing them. Teachers and administrators were trained. Teacher preparation colleges changed. Per-pupil funding was inequitable across geographic boundaries but still higher than Michigan's is now as a base. If we recreated that here with ANY set of standards here it isn't a stretch given the time, partnerships, and resources they sank into implementation that we'd see similar growth.

Thu, 04/25/2019 - 8:59am

It is ridiculous to omit climate change, gay rights and Roe v. Wade in social studies curriculum because these subjects are prevalent in our society whether some people bury their heads in the sand or not. Students should be taught the information available about these real issues. In that way, they have the facts and not the outrage of some to formulate their own decisions.

Tami Carlone
Mon, 04/29/2019 - 2:35pm

Are you aware that the science "standards" cover climate change K-12? Do you think it really needs to be included also in social studies when there is so much these "standards" leave out?

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 5:15pm

Ummm...when an entire piece of geographic study is on humans and how they interact with the environment? Yeah, I think climate change might come up.