• Controversies surrounding the drafting and adoption of social studies standards offer valuable lessons to those concerned about the process of revising state science and health standards
  • To ensure that education officials consider the opinions and concerns of all North Carolinians, stakeholders should provide substantive input to Department of Public Instruction staff, members of the State Board of Education, and local school boards
  • If adopted standards fail to meet minimal requirements for quality or decency, then citizens should urge lawmakers to pursue legislative action

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) recently began its revision of state science and health standards by disseminating a survey and opening the application period for a data review committee. As such, I believe that it is useful to review and learn from the controversies surrounding the drafting and adoption of social studies standards from 2019 to 2021. 

Lesson 1: Maximize Public Review and Input

Public feedback is not just a necessary check and balance on the machinations of DPI staff; it is required under state law. North Carolina General Statutes require the State Board of Education to “involve and survey a representative sample of parents, teachers, and the public to help determine academic content standard priorities and usefulness of the content standards.”

DPI leadership did a poor job of informing North Carolinians about the proposed changes to the social studies standards. Agency staff published the first draft of the social studies standards in December 2019 and thus launched the public comment period during the busy holiday season. Their decision to create individual surveys for each course in kindergarten through high school produced a cumbersome process for submitting feedback. Moreover, drafts and related documents were posted on an external Google site, making them difficult to locate.

I do not expect the science and health standards process to replicate the troublesome process used for the social studies revisions. State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and her staff created an internal procedures manual that outlines requirements for review, revision, and implementation phases. More importantly, they nixed the Google sites in favor of posting all materials on the academic standards page on the DPI website. These sensible changes should make it easier for the public to access drafts and submit comments.

Lesson 2: Pay Close Attention to the State Board of Education

The adoption of state standards is one of the core responsibilities of the North Carolina State Board of Education. State statute directs the board to “develop a comprehensive plan to revise content standards and the standard course of study in the core academic areas of reading, writing, mathematics, science, history, geography, and civics.” The adoption of the social studies standards in 2021 reminds us that its members have complete oversight of the state standards process and are under no obligation to approve drafts produced by DPI staff.

Then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson and agency staff had asked members of the State Board to approve the third draft of the social studies standards at its June 2020 meeting. Instead, three members of the State Board of Education railroaded the social studies standards adoption process and demanded that DPI staff prioritize race, class, and gender conflicts in the new standards.

At the July 2020 board meeting, DPI recommended that the State Board of Education approve the standards with the addition of an introductory statement designed to address concerns that the standards lacked attention to marginalized populations. But the trio called for additional changes, and DPI dutifully complied with their request to infuse the standards with their progressive ideology. The social studies standards approved the following year by the Cooper-appointed majority looked much different than those presented to the board in June, and much of the public remained none the wiser.

Lesson 3: Shift the Focus to School Boards

Once the State Board of Education adopts academic standards, school boards do not have the authority to reject them. However, state law empowers school boards to make curriculum decisions and select instructional materials. According to the North Carolina law, “Local boards of education shall have sole authority to select and procure supplementary instructional materials … to determine if the materials are related to and within the limits of the prescribed curriculum, and to determine when the materials may be presented to students during the school day.”

Standards merely outline the subjects and skills that state education officials expect educators to cover at each grade level or course. Standards are general by design, whereas curriculum informs day-to-day instruction. School boards have the authority to adopt an existing curriculum package, develop curricula locally, or opt for combining the two. Doing so allows school boards to compensate for defective or vague standards.

Lesson 4: When All Else Fails, Enlist the General Assembly

Even though the North Carolina State Constitution declares that State Board of Education activities are “subject to laws enacted by the General Assembly,” lawmakers remain reluctant to interfere in the standards review, revision, and implementation process. Last year, members of the North Carolina General Assembly sought to delay implementing social studies standards, but the measure failed.

Similarly, lawmakers rarely approve legislation that imposes specific curricular mandates on public schools. But there are exceptions. In 2011, the General Assembly approved the Founding Principles Act, which mandates that high school students receive instruction about the fundamental principles of American government and civic life. In 2013, lawmakers approved a bill requiring children to memorize multiplication tables and learn cursive writing. Other requirements in statute include content related to health education, character education, and financial literacy.

If the State Board of Education approves objectionable science and health standards, I expect some members of the legislature will propose swift corrective action. At a minimum, they may delay the implementation of the new standards. More radical proposals include measures to overhaul the process itself. If the revision of science and health standards goes awry, then lawmakers should consider structural changes such as the establishment of an independent standards review board.