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House approves plans for academic standards in social studies, science
The Minnesota House has approved legislation establishing new science and social studies standards for public schools. Members of the Republican-controlled body adopted the grade-by-grade requirements Thursday night on a 73 to 55 vote. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are considering three alternative plans for how schools should teach social studies.

St. Paul, Minn. — Citizens panels formed by Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke spent months developing the proposed standards. The social studies plan sets the learning expectations at each grade level. Supporters say it will assure students learn important people, places and events in history. Critics have claimed the standards reflect a political bias and the list of facts is too long.

Rep. Barb Sykora, R-Excelsior, is chairwoman of the House Education Policy Committee and the bill's chief sponsor. She says social studies are unavoidably controversial.

"There's kind of an excepted standard of what should be taught in reading/language arts, in math and even in science," Sykora said. "Social studies in a different kind of thing. We all get somewhat emotional about it, and our views are somewhat clouded by what we think we remember about modern history and what we've read."

The bill is the final piece needed to replace the state's Profile of Learning standards, which the Legislature repealed last year. New reading and math requirements are already in place. The old standards were widely criticized as too vague and short on factual content.

Rep. Karen Klinzing, R-Woodbury, who's also a classroom teacher, says the new standards address those old complaints.

They're going to suck the air out of the classrooms in Minnesota.
- Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis

"They're much more specific, much more comprehensive," Klinzing said. "They give teachers an idea of what the state thinks is good uniform standards for the students."

Other teachers who serve in the Legislature, especially Democrats, have a different view. Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, says the social studies standards are simply too large and will displace other learning activity.

"They're going to suck the air out of the classrooms in Minnesota," Davnie said. "They're going to force teacher's creativity and parental input out of the standards and out of the classrooms."

The science standards have been far less contentious. But a floor amendment helped revive the debate between evolution and creationism. The House approved the addition of language stressing the importance of challenging existing theories.

Rep. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park opposed the amendment, calling it attempt to teach religion.

"This teaching belongs not in the science classroom, but in our homes, in our churches and synagogues, and perhaps in a comparative religions or philosophy class," Latz said.

The nearly five-hour debate also drifted into the merits of federal education law. In a surprise move, legislators added a provision allowing the state to opt out of the No Child Left Behind Act. However, the amendment was largely gutted with an added requirement for the abolishment of the U.S. Department of Education.

While the House was embracing the plan endorsed by Governor Pawlenty's administration, a Senate committee was taking its own approach to setting new academic standards. The panel heard testimony on three alternatives to the social studies requirements. Two are borrowed from neighboring states. The other was developed by teachers and college professors, including Lisa Norling of the University of Minnesota.

"I think it would be terrific to have this under go the same kind of public hearings and public scrutiny and public discussion," Norling said. "I believe it is significantly improved over the Department of Education version."

The Senate Education Committee will wait another week before endorsing one of the social studies options. State education officials want teachers using new science standards in the next school year. Changes in social studies would wait until 2005.

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