June 3, 2023

Jan Resseger: The Proposed Ohio House Bill 103 Would Politicize K-12 Public School Social Studies Standards and Fail to Prepare Our Children for Democratic Citizenship

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Jan Resseger follows education issues in Ohio. Here she talks about one of the latest proposals facing the legislature. Reposted with permission. 

The public school culture wars are raging in Ohio.  The proposed House Bill 103 would create a task force appointed by the governor, Senate president, and House speaker to adopt new, far-right state social studies standards for students in elementary, middle and high school.

The Statehouse News‘ Karen Kasler explains: “A Republican-sponsored bill seeks to create new standards for social studies in K-12 schools in Ohio through a task force appointed by state lawmakers and the governor, using a civics program developed by a conservative coalition that’s been fighting mandating diversity training and other policies that it sees as hindering free speech from the right… The House speaker, Senate president and the governor would each appoint three people to the task force. Committee members Joe Miller (D-Amherst) and Sean Brennan (D-Parma), both former teachers, said they’re concerned these standards would be hyper partisan, since elected officials would be appointing other elected officials to the task force…”

I guess, if this law passes, nobody could argue that history and civics teaching across Ohio would be impartial, free from political intervention, or protected from the imposition of political ideology on our children.

In an opinion piece for the Ohio Capital Journal, the chair of Ohio Public Education Partners, Jeanne Melvin points out that House Bill 103 would immediately replace the current Ohio social studies standards with the “American Birthright” standards, which are strongly opposed by the American Historical Association, and the National Council for the Social Studies.

Melvin sends curious citizens to an investigative report in which Kathryn Joyce describes the Civics Alliance, the creator of the “American Birthright” standards: “While it claims to represent an ideologically neutral, apolitical history, the document holds that most instruction that references ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ or ‘social justice’ amounts to ‘vocational training in progressive activism’ and ‘actively promotes disaffection from our country.’…  The Civics Alliance was created in 2021 as an offshoot of another entity, the National Association of Scholars, a conservative nonprofit aimed at reforming higher education which features right-wing leaders like Ginni Thomas… on its board. NAS launched Civics Alliance after Joe Biden closed down the 1776 Commission—Donald Trump’s answer to the ‘1619 Project.’… In fact, the Civics Alliance seems to have consciously taken up the 1776 Commission’s professed mission. In ‘American Birthright,’ the authors… cite the 1776 Curriculum—published in 2021 by Hillsdale College….”

Joyce describes other organizations involved in the development of the standards to be prescribed by Ohio HB 103: “The list of groups and individuals involved in the creation of ‘American Birthright’ reads like a who’s-who of U.S. right-wing policy advocacy, including think tanks like the Claremont Institute, the Family Research Council and the creationist Discovery Institute, and influential state groups such as Arizona’s Goldwater Institute and Massachusetts’ Pioneer Institute. The document gives prominent credit to Florida’s Department of Education and its 2021 revised civics standards, and lists a department official among its expert consultants.”

In a powerful opinion piece for the Athens Messenger, an Ohio social studies teacher and the president of the Ohio Council for the Social Studies, Bill Hilt explains that HB 103 and the “American Birthright” Curriculum: “will upend how students learn civics, history, economics and geography…. It is a Trojan Horse brought in by hyper-partisan players in this latest stage of the culture wars. As a social studies teacher for the last 30 years, I have seen the discipline change rather dramatically, and it has been for the better.  Today students learn how to think critically—not just about names, dates, and places… They would have us abandon teaching any social studies skills and concepts, in favor of facts, which to them, ‘stocks (students’) minds with dates, persons and places.’… The current Ohio social studies standards are very student-centered, which is a good thing.  The Civic Alliance seeks to eliminate, ‘action civics, so-called ‘anti-racism,’ civic engagement, critical race theory, current events learning, inquiry-based learning, media literacy, project-based learning, social-emotional learning, and virtually any pedagogy that claims to promote ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ or ‘social justice.’  Such instruction would set us back 60 years and make the classroom a teacher-centered space where students would line up in neat rows, listen, take notes, and regurgitate facts back on a test….”

Maybe it is the Ohio Republican legislative supermajority’s intention to set our children’s exposure to history and civics back 60 years.

In an important recent commentary, Steven Volk, an emeritus professor of history at Oberlin College, precisely describes the limitations of the kind of history our legislators are trying to prescribe for our state’s university students and also, according to HB 103, our state’s public school elementary, middle and high school students. This kind of history is often carefully selected and distorted, and Volk worries that this approach to teaching leaves history fully in the past and disconnected from the realities we can observe in our communities and our civic lives today: “By forbidding students from engaging in an honest study of the complex past, they won’t make that past—and its ongoing impact—magically disappear. By denying that our educational system is shaped by inequity, they won’t prevent marginalization from impacting student lives.”

Volk quotes Princeton Professor of African American Studies, Imani Perry, who worries that laws like the proposed HB 103 will create students who cannot identify with others or empathize and understand the significance of ongoing injustice: “It presumes cutting off the moral imagination of white children so that they can’t imagine themselves as being any kind of actor in history… We, none of us, are bound by our genealogy. We’re bound by our values.”

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