This week, the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI) released the fourth draft of North Carolina social studies standards. I reviewed the available documents, but I took a particular interest in the document that compares the third and fourth drafts of the eighth grade standards, focusing on North Carolina and United States history. That document contains a misplaced note on page two that appears to explain the theory underlying the latest revision (see above).

DPI does not identify the author or the origin of the note and undoubtedly will try to downplay it. But it lays bare the motivation for including detailed standards focused on marginalized groups — a repulsive mistrust of white social studies teachers … like my wife.

The mystery note declares that white teachers will only be interested in focusing on “white perspective/individuals,” rather than the experiences of “individuals that were not in power.” It also implies that white teachers will purposefully exclude “negative examples of white supremacy like slavery, groups like the KKK, Indian removal, sharecropping” unless the standards compel white educators to include them.

(Note: I believe “8th went from 24-25” refers to the increase of standards from 24 standards in the third draft to 25 standards in the fourth draft.)

How did we get here?

The current review and revision of academic standards for the state’s K-12 social studies courses began in April 2019, and DPI curriculum developers published the first draft the following December. At that time, DPI planned to publish at least two additional revisions of the standards and present a final version to the State Board of Education for approval at one of its spring meetings. That would have given public schools sufficient time to install the new standards during the 2020-21 school year and have them fully implemented during the following school year.

After an additional round of public input and revision, the third and final draft standards were presented to the State Board of Education for a vote at its June 2020 meeting. DPI staff recommended that the board approve the standards and move forward with the installation process. Then–State Board of Education Principal Advisor Matthew Bristow-Smith, Teacher Advisor Mariah Morris, and board member James Ford opposed approval. Bristow-Smith objected to the lack of specificity and exclusion of critical concepts. Morris worried that COVID-19 would thwart implementation efforts.

According to the meeting minutes, Ford noted “the equity gaps of the Social Studies pathway which demonstrates inconsistencies on race and equality perspectives.” Board member J.B. Buxton recommended that DPI staff add an introductory statement to the standards designed to assuage members of the board who believed that the standards lacked attention to marginalized populations.

At the July board meeting, DPI staff again recommended that the State Board of Education approve the standards with the addition of the following statement:

When planning, teaching and learning, educators are expected to include diverse histories, experiences, and perspectives of racial, ethnic, gender, and identity minority groups, as well as marginalized, undervalued, and underrepresented groups including, but not limited to: African-Americans; Indigenous Populations; Women; Latinx; Asian Americans; MENA-Americans; and LGBTQ+ in order to create an inclusive school community where students are respected, valued and welcome participants. Students come from a variety of social, racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds and deserve to learn and be empowered by the historical experiences and contributions of multiple groups.

Dr. Lori Carlin, section chief for K-12 Social Studies and Arts Education, reminded the board that her staff engaged with 70 social studies educators from across North Carolina and received over 5,500 survey responses from reviewers and focus groups during 83 public feedback days made available to the public. The message was clear. Classroom educators, content-area experts, and stakeholders from across the state carefully reviewed each draft, made substantive recommendations to improve them, and overwhelmingly approved of the final standards presented to the board.

Despite these measures, Bristow-Smith, Morris, and Ford called for additional changes. Ford echoed Bristow-Smith’s original complaint that the standards did not contain “specific words and concepts,” particularly those related to the “rich and diverse history of marginalized groups and the representation of them.” In the words of the board secretary, Ford contended that “specificity and inclusiveness will help produce more socially conscious and empathetic future citizens to have a more perfect union.”

Board member Olivia Oxendine pointed out that standards, by design, are broad outlines of the knowledge and skills that we expect students to master. Specific words and concepts are contained within the curricula selected by educators for use in day-to-day instruction. But the board voted to give DPI staff additional time to revise the standards according to the feedback received by board members and advisors.

Social studies with a healthy dose of identity politics

As I wrote last year, North Carolina’s social studies standards should try to strike a balance between honesty and optimism. We should be honest about mistakes and prejudices. At the same time, we should be optimistic about the capacity of our established institutions and ideals to create a more perfect union. The fourth draft fails to do so.

The table below includes a handful of notable changes and additions from the third draft to the fourth. Apparently, DPI staff sought to make the standards more “inclusive” by replacing broad terms such as “people” and “groups” with lists of acceptable social groups or categories, that is, a “find and replace” wokewashing. In this way, changes incorporated into the fourth draft of the social studies standards urge students to abandon the concept of national identity and shared values. Instead, it demands that children embrace identity politics and understand the American experience as a perennial battle between the powerful and powerless.

Selected Changes to North Carolina Social Studies Standards

Grade/CourseDraft 3 RecommendationDraft 4 Recommendation
Grade 2: Foundations of AmericaSummarize contributions of people that have impacted American history.Summarize contributions of various women, indigenous, religious, racial, and other minority groups that have impacted American history.
Grade 4: North Carolina History and GeographyExplain the ways in which various people and groups have contributed to change and innovation in North Carolina.Explain how the experiences and
achievements of minorities, indigenous groups and, [sic] marginalized people have contributed to change and innovation in North Carolina.
Grade 7: Integrated World Studies II: Modern EraN/AExplain how slavery, xenophobia,
disenfranchisement, ethnocentrism, and intolerance have affected individuals and groups in modern world history.
Grade 7: Integrated World Studies II: Modern EraExplain how injustices and responses to those injustices have shaped North Carolina and the nation over time.Explain how slavery, segregation, voter suppression, reconcentration, and other discriminatory practices have been used to suppress and exploit certain groups within North Carolina and the nation over time.
Grade 8: NC and American HistoryExplain how recovery, resistance, and resilience have shaped the history of North Carolina and the nation.Explain how recovery, resistance, and resilience to inequities, injustices, discrimination, prejudice and bias have shaped the history of North Carolina and the nation.
High School: American HistoryN/AExplain how systemic racsim [sic], oppression, and discrimination of indigenous peoples, racial minorities, and other marginalized groups have impacted equality and power in America.
High School: American HistoryN/ACompare how some groups in American society have benefited from economic policies while other groups have been systematically denied the same benefits.
High School: American HistoryN/ADistinguish the extent to which American foriegn [sic] policy has advanced the interests of historically privileged groups over the interests of historically marginalized groups.
High School: American HistoryN/ACompare how competing historical narratives of various turning points portray individuals and groups including marginalized people.
High School: Founding Principles of the United States of America and North CarolinaN/AExplain how individual values and societal norms contribute to institutional discrimination and the marginalization of minority groups living under the American system of government.
High School: Founding Principles of the United States of America and North CarolinaN/AExemplify ways individuals have demonstrated resistance and resilience to inequities, injustice, and systemic discrimination within the American system of government over time.

The standards focus disproportionately on the oppression of those groups through political, economic, and social structures. New standards ask seventh-grade social studies teachers to “Explain how slavery, xenophobia, disenfranchisement, ethnocentrism, and intolerance have affected individuals and groups in modern world history.” High school social studies teachers would need to focus on systematic racism, oppression, discrimination, marginalization, inequities, injustice, and systematic discrimination. Rather than explaining how economic policies have broadened opportunities for all, teachers would need to discuss how certain groups “have been systematically denied the same benefits.” Foreign policy discussions would be reduced to a confrontation between the interests of “historically privileged groups” and the interests of “historically marginalized people.”

Of course, these revisions can only be understood in the context of the mystery note included in the eighth-grade standards document. We may agree that highlighting the rich and diverse history of marginalized groups is a laudable goal, but we will never agree that white teachers are predisposed to ignore their history just because they’re white.