School board passes new K-6 social studies curriculum amidst contentious debate
By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — The Marshfield Board of Education passed a new social studies curriculum for grades kindergarten through sixth grade last night despite a passionate dissent from board member Mary Carney. The curriculum passed 4-1 with Carney the lone no vote and board members Mark Konrardy and Dorothy Chaney absent.
The curriculum will go into effect starting now as teachers begin to prepare for next school year.
In a document entitled “Rationale,” the district describes the intent of the K-6 social studies curriculum as follows:
The intent of the social studies curriculum and programming in the School District of Marshfield is to promote civic competence; the ability and willingness to engage in active participation, based on an attitude of trust in other people in all the contexts of social life; school, local, community, working place, recreational activities. The aim is to create citizens who have the ability to use their knowledge about their community, nation, and world; apply inquiry processes; and use specific skills of data collection and analysis, collaboration, decision-making, and problem solving. When young people are knowledgeable and skillful in a diverse world, they become effective members of global communities.
Board member Mary Carney spoke emotionally about her opposition to the new curriculum.
“My question is why such a drastic change from a program that’s obviously working very well,” Carney said. She expressed particular concern with the changes to the kindergarten curriculum, which she felt took away teachers’ autonomy and their ability to apply their unique skills.
Kim Ziembo, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, refuted Carney’s claim that the new curriculum discouraged teachers from using their individual talents and said that rather it reflected an effort to make things more consistent in terms of what is being taught districtwide.
Ziembo said that in the process of forming this new curriculum, she found that there were differences in what teachers were covering in the same grade level across the district.
“We felt that it was very important, teachers felt that it was very important to specifically write exactly what their guideline was to teach. It doesn’t tell them how to teach it. It tells them what targets they need to focus (on).”
Ziembo added that in terms of content there is not a significant difference between the previous curriculum and the new one.
Carney also took exception with the volume of books that are in the curriculum for kindergarten students and in particular a book titled “For Every Child a Better World” by Jim Henson. Carney felt this book was too graphic for young children.
Kirkus Reviews gives the following synopsis of the book:
Nine statements outlining children’s basic needs and how they often go unmet–e.g., “Every child needs food to eat. But sometimes there isn’t enough to go around.” The accompanying art depicts Kermit the Frog as narrator and features Sesame Street-style characters in many colors (blue, purple, pink, green).
But while the characters are in a cartoon style, they express real emotions, and their settings are composed of realistic elements: a smoke-spewing city where the air is too dirty to breathe, an orderly classroom, an ineffective shelter in a rainstorm, a battlefield with shattered household goods (including a toy bear and the wounded in the background silhouetted against yellow flames). The result is that the concepts are made immediately accessible but not trivialized.
The board decided along with passing the curriculum to have Ziembo review that book and the others slated for that specific week of the kindergarten curriculum and have her present back to the board with further information on them.
“I believe young children should see the world for what it truly is — beautiful, good, and hopeful — and their innocence remain intact for as long as possible,” Carney said. She then took issue with the segment of the curriculum’s rationale that calls for students to develop “an attitude of trust in other people in all the contexts of social life: school, local, community, working place, recreational activities.”
“Teaching children to trust everyone is irresponsible. How will this curriculum create independent thought, creativity, and critical thinking skills if the focus is just to trust everyone and everything being told to them?” Carney said. She added that the curriculum’s focus on creating “effective members of global communities” would be more beneficial if it concentrated on developing “effective members of Marshfield, Wis., (and) American communities.”
“This curriculum downplays American exceptionalism,” Carney said.
Board Vice President Amber Leifheit said to Carney, “I really disagree with you that these books do not concentrate on the United States because that’s where it all starts,” citing American figures like Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr., who appear as topics in the curriculum for multiple grade levels.
Board member Frances Bohon noted that the curriculum for kindergarten students does include study of American symbols like the American flag and the Statue of Liberty. The name of that five-day unit is “Celebrate America.” There are also five-day units in the kindergarten curriculum entitled “American Monuments” and “Presidents and Patriots.”
“On the whole as I review this, I’m not seeing some big global something,” Bohon said. “They’re still looking at all the basic elements of our United States government. (That) is definitely what I’m seeing as the emphasis of all these grades.”
Carney said that she would not allow her own child to attend Marshfield School District if the curriculum passed.
“On a personal note, I have a 4-year-old. I won’t be enrolling him in Marshfield School District next year if this is the curriculum that is passed tonight,” Carney said.
You can read the newly approved curriculum in its entirety here.