Over the next few weeks, a technical writing team formed by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) will begin drafting changes to the District’s K-12 social studies standards. This endeavor, in some form or fashion, will be influenced by guiding principles compiled by the D.C. State Board of Education (SBOE)’s social studies standards advisory committee.
Under the direction of Ward 6 SBOE Representative Jessica Sutter, this committee of more than two dozen educators, residents, museum professionals, and other subject-matter experts recommended last year that these new standards should center on anti-racism, student activism agency and environmental literacy.
“The social studies standards are going on 15 years, and they’re missing new history. They don’t mention President Barack Obama and marriage equality, and they don’t frame history and civics in the way that the world has changed,” Sutter told The Informer about the collaborative effort between OSSE and SBOE.
Sutter said the process, which includes the technical writing team’s development of the social studies standards and another round of consultation with SBOE’s social studies standards advisory committee, should be completed by the spring of 2022. SBOE’s desired outcomes include more knowledge content in the early grades, and greater exposure to D.C. history throughout a student’s academic career.
“[Fifteen years ago], we didn’t talk about the critical examination of history in the way that we do now,” Sutter said. “People want stories from people missing in our history. We have a history of the way that different events were experienced through marginalized people, and we amplify those people and heroes, not just dead white men.”
As they currently stand, the District’s social studies standards divide social studies instruction into the following categories: history, geography, economics and politics and government. Much of the curriculum focuses on the District, the U.S. and Europe, and students begin to learn about American history upon entering the fourth grade.
Amid the mass demonstrations that erupted in the District and across the country in the aftermath of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths, young people, educators, and activists pivoted their attention toward aspects of the educational experience deemed detrimental to nonwhite students’ well-being. Legislation passed by the D.C. Council last summer removed the school security contract from the Metropolitan Police Department.
Earlier this month, D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) reintroduced a bill that would compel OSSE, in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office on African American Affairs, to develop an African American and cultural studies curriculum for high school students.
Throughout much of 2020, SBOE too felt the fervor for change. Though conversations about updating the District’s social studies standard had been brewing for years, board members took the steps to formulate the social studies standards advisory committee that would eventually include people from all eight wards, the majority of whom are women and nonwhite.
As a member of the social studies standards advisory committee, Reginald Williams said he relied on his experiences as a DC Public Schools alumnus and teacher to advocate for a greater emphasis on D.C. history, what he described as a means of instilling hometown pride in District students.
While he commended SBOE and his 25 colleagues for their role in drafting the guiding principles, Williams questioned whether OSSE, as part of the mayor’s office, would take their recommendations into consideration.
“This was Dr. Sutter’s way of doing what she could, but it shows the limitations of the State Board of Education, and why having an elected school board is necessary,” Williams, a D.C. History teacher at Banneker Academic High School, told The Informer.
“There are applications for the technical writing committee, and all we did was give recommendations,” Williams continued. “The guiding principles are pretty good. There’s a lot of [focus on] root and anti-racism, and at least some hope of what [those] on the technical writing committee can come up with. I have to wait and see what comes to be.”