Social studies standards tell the whole story

by Howie Morales, November 6th, 2021

Our state is on the verge of a long-overdue update to our schools’ social studies standards, and it has some New Mexicans needlessly worried.

The proposed new standards are posted on the Public Education Department website for public comment through Nov. 12, and more than 500 people already have had their say. One theme comes through loud and clear: fear.

Fear of change is a normal human reaction, but in the case of New Mexico social studies standards, a noisy minority with a deep stake in maintaining the status quo has seized upon those fears and blown the whole thing way out of proportion. Some New Mexicans have fallen victim to the noise and falsehoods, expressing beliefs on the public comment page that are patently untrue, including these:

The standards require students to become political activists. Nonsense. The standards promote civic engagement — activities like picking up trash and voting. No one has to get involved in politics.

The standards make Black students feel like victims and white students feel guilty. Another false claim. The standards include age-appropriate learning about historic events and historic achievements by all races. Let’s trust our kids to identify with the good, reject the bad and help future generations learn from our past.

The standards promote divisiveness. How could standards that teach children to recognize and honor diversity do that? I think maintaining the status quo, in which many groups are excluded from our current standards — or nearly so, is much more dangerous in that regard.

The proposed standards represent the work of dozens of New Mexico educators from all over the state and contain no hidden agendas. New Mexico higher education experts helped identify what the old standards were lacking. A writing team of more than 60 K-12 New Mexico educators spent months volunteering their time to draft, debate and revise explicit and grade-appropriate standards to be sure New Mexico students will graduate prepared to live, work and thrive in our multicultural society.

The old standards covered four content areas: civics and government; economics; geography; and history. Those have been updated to include events and movements that occurred since the standards were overhauled in 2001. Think 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008, the presidents and policies of the last two decades. Surely we can all agree that New Mexico students need to learn more about what happened in the world in the last 20 years!

In addition, the new standards add two new content areas: ethnic, cultural and identity studies; and inquiry. Those seem to be at the root of many fears, so let’s unpack them.

Including ethnic, cultural and identity studies means students will learn that people who look like them helped make this country what it is today. The standards ensure all students see themselves and their family stories reflected in what they are learning — in other words, social studies tell the stories of all of us. These concepts add to our standards — they do not subtract from them.

And finally, inquiry. This new content category moves social studies beyond rote memorization of facts (still required, when needed) to include teaching our kids how to question the sources of information and to think for themselves. This is the opposite of indoctrination. Let’s give our children the facts and let them reflect, question, evaluate and decide what to think.

Rest assured, the new social studies standards are good. Really good. They will make sure our children are respected and valued for who they are and learn to respect and value others.

That’s probably the most radical outcome, and it’s one most New Mexicans would welcome.

Howie Morales is New Mexico’s elected lieutenant governor and a former classroom teacher in Grant County public schools. He holds a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from New Mexico State University.