Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Ohio K12 Social Studies Wars

Since the start of the 2021 Legislative session on January 4th, there have been a substantial number of bills introduced in the Ohio Statehouse concerning what students learn in K-12 social studies. These political “turf wars” are nothing new, as special interests and competing camps on both the right and left battle over what history and social studies content should be taught in classrooms (Evans, 2004). For instance, did you know that under the Ohio Revised Code it is illegal for Ohio students to learn World History before American History in school? While many of you may know Ohio students complete high school graduation exams in American History and Government, did you know it is illegal for the state to administer an exam in World History?

Some of these proposed bills censor or push nationalistic propaganda or half truths, and appear as nothing more than cheap political talking points used by politicians to score points on the backs of kids, families, and professional educators, for re-election or to advance political office. As the popular saying goes, every senator sees a future president when looking into the mirror. While the content prescribed within these bills differs, only one bill includes state funding for teacher social studies professional development of new instructional resources for compliance. All too often  ill informed and politically charged mandates and requirements are saddled on K12 social studies teachers, with the disdain of extending little to no state funding included for its implementation. Thus, teachers are left having to pay out of their own pockets for their own professional development and classroom resources for compliance on these misguided bills. 

Current bills specifying what students learn in K-12 Ohio social studies classrooms include the following:

  • House Bill 616 criminalizes and outlaws the teaching of LGBTQ+ content and the teaching of divisive concepts. This is modeled after Florida's "Don't' Say Gay Bill", and outlaws conversations on divisive concepts such as race and gender. 
  • House Bill 327 prohibits the state’s social studies educators from “teaching or advocating divisive concepts” on race, color, nationality, or sex in the classroom.
  • House Bill 322 which outlaws and bans the use of Critical Race Theory in social studies, and makes illegal mandates for social studies teachers to discuss controversial issues or current events.
  • House Bill 529 mandates teachers publish their syllabi, all instructional materials and activities used, which includes textbooks, reading materials, videos, digital materials, websites, online applications (“apps”), and any other materials used for instruction a year ahead of time. While this Bill is applicable across all subjects, proponent testimony is mostly grounded in the teaching of history and social studies.
  • Senate Bill 1 which requires social studies teachers to have a newly created state endorsement, in addition to a state social studies license, to teach a financial literacy course required of high school students for graduation
  • Senate Bill 68 mandates the creation, adoption, and local use of a statewide model curriculum in grades nine through twelve on "proper" interactions with peace officers during traffic stops and other in-person encounters with peace officers. Most districts are expected to embed this mandate in American Government, Street Law, or civic courses.  
  • House Bill 73, which blends the teaching of American History and American Government to prepare learners for a combined American History and Government state high school graduation exam. Many in education believe this would result in a “Super American Studies” course.

The bills above double-down on the state’s conservative political agenda where traditional American History, American Government, the Founding Documents, and Personal Finance account for up to 83% of the learner’s social studies instructional time. 

Other subjects like World History, Global Studies, Geography, Ethnic Studies, Black History, Sociology, Psychology wage battle for the remaining 17% of instructional time scraps for electives. The state’s social studies curriculum does little to prepare its youth to engage new perspectives and learn about the bulk of the world’s population, 96% lives outside of the U.S. Anyone else find irony in Ohio trying to create a world-class education system without actually teaching about the world and its people? It is disappointing that in the midst of a historic global pandemic, where one nation acting alone cannot tackle this or any other global issue, our state has built walls and barriers to true global learning. After all, social studies is the subject most at the center of preparing youth for citizenship education for an increasingly global and multicultural society.

Holocaust Memorial @ Ohio Statehouse. The Holocaust is taught in World History Learning Standards

In my graduate and undergraduate courses, in social studies education, we explore the different “camps”, philosophies, and movements that defined the teaching and learning of social studies in the nation’s schools. Obviously, the content we teach children, especially, in history and social studies, has and will be contested. Key debates include: Should social studies focus on the traditional disciplines of History, Geography, Government, and Economics? Or, should there be a more integrated approach, somewhat of a “social stew”, that blends these disciplines when exploring social issues and movements? What about using the social studies classroom to promote American exceptionalism and national allegiance or social justice and global/multicultural learning?

The political tailwinds of a deeply contested 2020 election, and conservatives' rejection of using social studies to help prepare youth for an increasingly global and multicultural future, are stamped all over these four bills and the state’s curriculum. Republicans have dominated the Ohio Statehouse, and their respective Primary and Secondary Education subcommittees. With victory comes its toils as conservatives set out to write/rewrite what students learn in social studies classrooms. 

History has shown our nation’s social studies classrooms are a foothold in enacting a political agenda focused on what future citizens should know, think, and believe. Look no further than the State of Ohio as proof.

Social studies teachers, don’t forget to get your copy of the Ohio Learning Standards in Social Studies, which include your very own “Make America Great Again” hat.

-- Updated on 6-11-2022

Global and Social Studies Education

The website/blog allows educators in the social studies to reflect upon key issues in the social studies. It also allows teachers the opportunity to access resources that help infuse instructional media and technology, and global perspectives in their teaching.