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Senate approves alternative plan for social studies standards
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Sen. Steve Kelley, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, pushed for an alternative set of social studies standards. The new approach still expects students to learn history facts, but many of them are listed as optional examples for teachers. The standards push students to analyze material, not just memorize it. (MPR file photo)
It's now up to House and Senate negotiators to try to come up with a plan for teaching social studies in Minnesota public schools. The DFL-controlled Senate approved its set of social studies standards Thursday night as part of a larger education policy bill. The vote was 34-31. Supporters say the Senate's learning requirements are less prescriptive than the plan approved by the Republican House.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Senate bill outlines what students in each grade need to learn about civics, economics, geography and history. A group of social studies teachers and University of Minnesota professors stepped forward to help write the standards. Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, says those educators were not satisfied with the House version of the standards, which were developed by the Minnesota Department of Education and a citizens committee.

"It became clear to a number of people who are concerned about our schools and our schools success that an alternative approach to the standards was necessary," Kelley said.

The alternative Senate approach still expects students to learn plenty of names, dates, places and events. But many of the facts are listed as optional examples for teachers. The standards push students to analyze material, not just memorize it. Supporters say these standards better match what most social studies teachers are already doing in their classrooms.

These standards were developed in secret, with no feedback from anybody.
- Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie

The Senate plan did not receive the same level of public comment and input as the House version. Critics say that's the big problem. Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, says the Senate did not follow the process outlined a year ago in the bill that repealed the Profile of Learning standards.

"These standards were developed in secret, with no feedback from anybody," Hann said. "I don't even know that anybody has looked at them to check if they're factually accurate. They certainly haven't had the scrutiny of the standards that the citizens committee developed."

Supporters of the Senate bill say it takes a more neutral approach toward civics and government. Critics say it falls short on content about America's founding principles. Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater, says the social studies standards don't require students to learn enough about America's heritage.

"We renew our heritage with every generation," Bachmann said. "If we fail to teach any generation what it is to be an American, to understand national sovereignty, natural law, self-evident truth, unalienable rights -- if any generation fails to pass that on, we will fail to maintain and pass on what it is to be the essence, or mission statement if you will."

The Senate also approved a set of science standards. It's the same plan developed by the department of education's citizens committee, and nearly identical to the version passed in the House. Lawmakers must approve science standards this session to meet federal requirements for annual student testing. There are no testing requirements for social studies.

Sen. Kelley says he's optimistic a conference committee can at least reach a partial compromise.

"The governor certainly supports No Child Left Behind," Kelley said. "And we need to have the science standards completed in order to have the test in place under the No Child Left Behind timeline. So, I think there's an incentive to get things done."

House and Senate negotiators will try to resolve some more big differences in education policy. The Senate bill seeks to replace the annual paper and pencil tests currently required in schools with new computer-based tests. Supporters say the change would provide a faster and more accurate measure of student achievement. The legislation also scraps the state's system of rating school performance on a scale of one to five stars.

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