News: CJ Exclusives

State Board of Education rewrites social studies standards to focus on racism, discrimination

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican who told the school board he had 28,000 signatures on a petition against the social studies changes (Screen shot from ncleg.gov)
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican who told the school board he had 28,000 signatures on a petition against the social studies changes (Screen shot from ncleg.gov)

The Democrat-controlled N.C. State Board of Education approved Thursday, Feb. 4, a sweeping rewrite of the state’s social studies standards that will now teach nearly every aspect of American history through the lens of racism and discrimination. 

The changes were approved over the strong objections of several Republican board members, who decried the new standards as overly negative and divisive. They said they don’t wish to whitewash history, but believe it’s important to teach children to have pride in their country for its achievements and advancement.

The vote came a day after a long and heated debate over the tone of the proposed changes that left neither side happy.

“These standards are divisive, and there are still serious questions around them,” said Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican who told the board he had 28,000 signatures on a petition against the changes. In the petition, Robinson described the standards as “political in nature” and said they “paint America as being systematically racist” while undermining unity.

Board members on the left pushed for the standards to go further in moving away from traditional American history education.

“The flawless, exceptionalist characterization is well-represented in our education and has been historically,” said James Ford, a former N.C teacher of the year from Charlotte. “There’s a new America emerging that is browner, that is in many ways younger, more diverse.”

The standards outline the broad topics and themes that teachers must cover at every grade level, K-12, in North Carolina’s public schools. They’re not curriculum, and don’t dictate the specific events to be studied and books to be read. That will come later.

The new standards add a particular focus on “indigenous, religious, gender and racial groups” as early as the second grade. They also redefine racism, moving away from personal prejudice and toward a “complex system of racial hierarchies and inequities.”

The changes have been nearly two years in the making and have gone through multiple drafts. More than 7,000 people submitted comments on the proposals.

Back in July, the State Board of Education voted to delay adopting any revisions to the social studies curriculum until more work could be done. 

The debate soon grew from an academic discussion into a volatile political battle. WRAL’s editorial board even took the step of portraying opponents of the changes, including Robinson, as KKK members in a controversial cartoon.

Over the past few weeks, board chairman Eric Davis and new State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt appear to have been trying to find more common ground. That includes softening some of the most controversial language that had been proposed.

The latest version of the standards replaces references to “systemic racism” with just “racism” and “gender identity” to simply “identity.” 

Truitt also penned a new preamble to the social studies standards approved by the board that seeks to walk a tightrope between the two sides.

“Let us study the past such that all students can celebrate our achievements towards a more perfect union while acknowledging that the sins of our past still linger in the everyday lives of many,” Truitt writes in a proposed preamble to the standards. “Let us study the past so we can understand where it might lead us today.”