Within conversations locally and nationally around what students learn in schools, there is a group made up of some parents, community members and newly-elected school board members advocating for a return to the “basics.”
“Public schools should be about math, science, reading, and writing,” said one public commenter at a recent school board meeting in Newberg, at which board members voted to ban political signs supporting Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ people.
But missing from that list of “basics” is social studies, even though most states — Oregon included — require it to graduate.
Teaching social studies, including history and civics, has become political, with terms like “critical race theory” name-dropped at school board meetings around the country. “Critical race theory” is an academic concept that shows systemic racism is inherent in society’s institutions. The phrase has become an inaccurate catch-all to include lessons and policies related to race and racism. Some of those lessons show up in history classes.
And in Oregon, these conversations come at a time when state and local officials are revamping social science standards to be more inclusive, and bolster civics education statewide. But recent criticism from a national report with contributions from Oregonians and an educator in the state, show that there may be more work to do.
Teaching critical race theory is not mandated in any state standards, according to the Oregon Department of Education. But including students from diverse backgrounds in what they’re learning is one of ODE’s goals.
“There is a long and painful history of racial bias in education,” ODE officials shared in a message to OPB.
“Students are ready for systems and institutions to change. Creating a just and equitable learning environment that embraces the history and experiences of its learners is not only good for students, but also for our communities and our shared future.”
New ethnic studies standards aim for a more inclusive history. Is it enough?
North Clackamas social studies teacher Jesse Hendryx-Dobson said the state’s new 2021 social science standards are “far and away” better than the previous ones, from 2018. But he said they fall short in naming problems and specifics about whose lives have been most affected by racist laws and systems.
“When you try to create a one-size-fits-all model, it doesn’t really fit anyone,” he said. “I think that’s what you really see in these standards.”
Hendryx-Dobson will teach at Rex Putnam High School in the fall, but he previously taught middle school in the district. He’s also a part of the district team that takes the state standards and translates them into curriculum — the texts, materials and lessons used to teach students in the classroom. At the state level, Hendryx-Dobson serves on the executive board of the Oregon Council for the Social Studies, a statewide group centered on advocacy and professional development for teachers.
Hendryx-Dobson noted that only two of the standards include the word “racism.”
“Even just using terms like race and racism, they’re glaringly, obviously absent from this latest adoption of the ethnic studies standards,” he said.
He said standards that call out events and history for what it is can help avoid confusion and conversations like the current national uproar around “critical race theory.”
“The whole argument about critical race theory is this idea that we’re blaming people for the skin that they’re in,” Hendryx-Dobson said.
“That’s not at all really what critical race theory is, but I think, once again, because we’re not defining certain things, it’s up for interpretation.”
A recent review published by the Fordham Institute, a conservative-learning think tank, also criticizes Oregon’s standards in both U.S. history and civics. The review has an Oregon connection, as three of the five reviewers live in Oregon and coach Lincoln High School’s Constitution Team, an award-winning team that competes nationally to demonstrate knowledge of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Oregon ranks poorly in the review, receiving an “inadequate” rating, along with 10 other states, including Washington.
When it comes to the state’s ethnic studies standards, reviewer and retired attorney Steve Griffith said Oregon can do more to make its standards around ethnic studies more “rigorous” and tied to basic concepts.
“It’s treated in an abstract manner and in a kind of repetitive... there’s always the same formulaic thing, so there is no sort of growing sophistication... as you go from kindergarten to high school, of how you look at it,” Griffith said.
“It’s kind of a boiler plate reference, and it is unmoored from particular constitutional structures and cases.”
The group’s review noted that the words “traditionally marginalized groups” appeared seventeen times in the standards.
Steve Griffith is the father of David Griffith, Fordham Institute senior research and policy associate.
Steve Griffith, along with Constitution Team colleagues Jonathan Pulvers and Alison Brody, reviewed civics standards around the country. Two other reviewers, a history teacher and an educational consultant, looked at state U.S. history class standards. The 377-page report also includes feedback and critique of the report from external voices from around education.
When it comes to the U.S. history standards, the Fordham reviewers said Oregon’s standards in that subject are also vague and “fail to outline any actual U.S. History.”
Oregon’s civics standards received a “D-” from Griffith, Brody, and Pulvers. The reviewers called Oregon’s standards “vague” and “poorly-worded,” and the reviewers called out a lack of focus on specific phrases and terms, like “separation of powers.”
To Brody, also a former attorney, the lack of “big picture” concepts like checks and balances could mean Oregon students miss connections to current events.
“If you understood campaign finance, gerrymandering, the role of the media, this last election would’ve been an amazing case study, would’ve been something that high school students could’ve really understood and taken educated points of view about,” she said.
Importance of student voice in decision-making, lesson planning
Amit Kobrowski, social sciences specialist at the Oregon Department of Education, said calling the standards “vague” is a misnomer.
Instead, he calls the standards a “frame” that guides teachers without being too strict, allowing for flexibility.
But reviewer Pulvers, who has also worked as an educator, said that puts too much on teachers, leaving them “overburdened.”
“Having some standards that pointed them in a couple of important directions would be really helpful instead of them having to sort of guess what they’re supposed to teach about,” he said.
Southridge High School principal David Nieslanik, a former social studies teacher, said the review of standards doesn’t tell the whole story.
“When you have external reviewers come in looking at standards just from the lens of what the standard states, and what the standard expects, there’s no conversation behind what happens next, or how is that implemented, and how do we make sure we have a diverse perspective in terms of resources,” Nieslanik said.
Teacher Jesse Hendryx-Dobson agrees with the other Oregon educators that the state standards offer flexibility. He said what the Fordham Institute calls “vague,” he sees as an opportunity to better connect his lessons to his student’s lives.
“What my students want and what would best serve my community is going to be different in a place like Portland, for example, than it may be in a place like Molalla or Sandy,” Hendryx-Dobson said.
Even when Hendryx-Dobson’s students were younger, he said they were ready to have conversations about identity, and connect the historical past with their present.
“Sometimes we think of history as these facts, and this concreteness, but really, I think that history needs to be about context and perspectives,” he said.
“And if we’re not providing students with that context and multiple perspectives, they’re going to memorize facts and that’s not what we really want, as far as civic education.”
Could Oregon learn from other states?
Five states received “exemplary” ratings in the Fordham Institute review. They are all over the map both geographically and politically: Alabama, California, Washington D.C., Massachusetts and Tennessee.
California received an “A-” for both civics and history. For each grade level, the state has multi-page PDFs detailed with essential questions and examples.
“Clear prose, rigorous content, and explanatory depth are the norm,” according to reviewers.
Similar to Oregon’s new ethnic studies standards, the California state board of education recently approved an ethnic studies curriculum, the first state to offer a “statewide ethnic studies model for educators.”
According to the California Department of Education, it will not be mandated.
In Mississippi’s standards, reviewer Alison Brody shared an example of how Oregon might incorporate a state’s history of racism within its history standards. “They look at Jim Crow laws as the lens of how state governments impacted people of color,” Brody said. “...That’s a way of teaching ethnic studies and history and civics in a really purposeful way.”
Where both the Fordham Institute reviewers and educators agree is that Oregon’s new civics legislation offers an opportunity to engage students in what they’re learning, and take it outside of the classroom and into their communities.
New civics legislation offers an “opportunity to do better”
Legislation passed in Oregon this year included SB513, which will require a half-credit of civics education to receive a high school diploma. That bill will go into effect for the Class of 2026.
Another bill, SB702, directs ODE to form a task force to review the state’s social science standards. The bill text includes notes to emphasize “civics education” and make sure students know how to vote and know about the Constitution. The task force must submit a report by the end of 2025.
With a chance to shape civics education in Oregon for future students, the Fordham Institute reviewers have a wish list of what they’d like to see in their state: required history classes, more focus on critical thinking skills, and ties between historic and current events.
The reviewers, as well as Nieslanik and Hendryx-Dobson want to see civics engage students beyond the classroom.
“The more that we can actively engage students on community issues, I think they can really start to see that civics is more than just voting once every four years for a president,” Hendryx-Dobson said.
At the same time, as school board meetings become more tense, Hendryx-Dobson would like to see true history continue to be taught, with historical actors portrayed accurately and honestly.
“We need to move away from this idea that criticism is anti-patriotic,” he said.
In his almost 30 years as an educator, Nieslanik said he’s never experienced such a “complex” standards adoption cycle. And it’s not over yet.
Though some districts, like Beaverton, are implementing the 2021 standards this year, districts aren’t required to teach them until 2026. Each district will adopt curriculum to meet the state standards, a process that will move through divided school boards around the state over the next few years.