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Tennessee Standards Draw Concerns About State History, Religion

Should a state's content standards specifically list every bit of information to be taught in a history class? 

In Tennessee, new proposed social studies standards that would go into effect in 2019 drop specific details about religion and the state's history that are present in the current standards. The omissions have drawn fire during a review period that is going on until late October.

The first set of changes that drew media attention involves how Islam is taught in 7th grade. The new proposed standards replace some references to the Islamic world with Africa, and a section of standards that had been called "The Islamic World" is now called "Southwest Asia and North Africa: 400s-1500s CE [Common Era]."

A group of parents had argued publicly last year that the 7th grade standards on the Islamic world were part of an attempt to indoctrinate students

The proposed 7th grade standards specify that students need to learn about Islam's founder, sacred texts, and basic beliefs. They drop several other standards that are present in the current set, including one that asked teachers to teach about the Quran and Sunnah as the "primary sources of Islamic beliefs, practices, and law and their influence in Muslims' daily life."

News media initially reported that middle schoolers in the state would be learning less about Islam. The Huffington Post ran a piece on the changes with the headline "Students May Soon Learn Even Less About Islam in Tennessee Public Schools."

But the authors of the state's standards say that students will still be learning about Islam and the history of South Asia and Africa, and that revisions were made in favor of conciseness and geographic precision. The revised standards have 67 standards for 7th grade history, while the current set has 79.

The proposed standards also include fewer specific events in state history. For instance, students aren't asked specifically to learn about several Civil War battles or the significant votes of Tennessee congressmen on the issue of women's suffrage. 

Again, authors of the state's standards say that the changes were made in order to keep the standards manageable for teachers and to leave curriculum in the hands of local districts. 

A teacher could still teach about the Battle of Chickamauga or about how state Representative Harry Burn's mother convinced him to be the deciding vote to ratify the 19th Amendment, even though those facts are not specifically listed in the standards. (Check out the Chattanooga Times Free Press's story for more fun facts of Tennessee history that are in the current standards.)

But Tennessee lawmakers are decrying the changes, saying that students need to learn about their state.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam told reporters that he had heard concerns about the new standards but hadn't looked into them yet. 

Also new in the proposed social studies standards: A set of "social studies practices," such as analyzing primary and secondary sources. That's in line with the College, Career, and Civic Life Framework, also called the C3 framework, that was developed by a group of social studies associations to help guide the development of state standards. The social studies practices section may be a clue as to why the standards' authors focused less on listing every detail a teacher should cover: The framework emphasizes inquiry skills rather than content, leaving the details to districts and teachers. (Read more on the C3 framework.)

The content of history standards is perhaps more fraught than any other subject, and not just in the United States. The New York Times recently spotlighted a dispute in France over the way that country's history is taught. France's history curriculum for elementary schools was recently shifted to include more information about French history and less about global history. 

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