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House committee endorses social studies, science standards
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Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis and a social studies teacher, fought to start from scratch with a new panel of teachers, parents and other education experts. His amendment failed on a 17-13 vote. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
The controversial social studies standards proposed for Minnesota public schools have cleared their first legislative hurdle. Approval by the House Education Committee Thursday came on a mostly party-line vote, with Republicans favoring the bill that would also set new grade-by-grade expectations in science. A task-force appointed by Gov. Pawlenty's education commissioner developed the standards, which are expected to win quick passage in the Republican-controlled House. The hangup could come in the DFL Senate.

St. Paul, Minn. — The proposed standards provide a learning roadmap at each grade level. The social studies requirements cover civics, economics, geography, history. For example, a second grade student should recognize people, groups and events that contributed to United States history. Each of those broad standards also comes with a list of specific names and concepts students should know.

Critics have consistently claimed those specifics are far too fact-heavy and often reflect a politically conservative view of the world. Three revisions trimmed some weight but failed to quiet the complaints.

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Image Can't please everyone

Rep. Barb Sykora, R-Excelsior, is chairwoman of the House Education Policy Committee and the bill's chief sponsor. She says no one will ever be completely satisfied.

"Although we'll never have total agreement, I think the standards that have been developed over the last many months, with input from I think just about everybody in half the world and Minnesota, I think they're pretty good. And the more I read them, the more I believe they're good," Sykora said.

But several Democrats on the committee are equally convinced the standards are bad. Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, a social studies teacher, argued unsuccessfully to throw out the standards and start over. Davnie claims the history content remains rife with factual errors and political bias. He also contends the volume of material is too great.

"These are simply too broad and too shallow for many school districts to be able realistically implement. And they squeeze out the creativity that we want our teachers to bring to the classroom," he said.

Democrats also argued the switch to new standards is an added financial burden on already cash-strapped school districts. However, state education officials say there is money available to help schools with the implementation.

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Image Suggests waiting

Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke wants the schools to begin using the science standards next fall because new state science tests are in the works. The social studies requirements would to be phased in a year later, and there are no tests planned.

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, says the social studies standards should wait.

"Just the fact that we had hearings, we had a lot of input, doesn't mean that we ended up with a good product with these standards that we have before us. And they're not done. We don't have to rush to it. Let's take some more time," Greiling said.

But several Republicans on the committee say they've spent more than enough time on the issue. They also say revisions to the document have addressed most of the complaints.

Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, says much of the lingering criticism is too vague.

"If it's too big, what's too big? If it's too small, what's too small? If there's something in here that's wrong, tell me what's wrong? And I think that's the point everyone is missing here. We've had weeks to look at this, if not months to look at the base document. Here we are. Let's fix the problem if there's problem with this," Seifert said. The House Government Operations Committee will take up the standards bill before sending it on for a floor vote. The proposed social studies standards are expected to have a much tougher path through the Senate.

Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has previously said the standards would need large changes to win approval. His committee has yet to take up a standards bill.

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