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Tennessee launches review of social studies standards amid concerns over world religion studies

Alan Petersime

The State Board of Education kicked off its social studies standards review on Friday, months after receiving some complaints that middle school students are being “indoctrinated” into Islam, and days after lawmakers filed bills that would alter the way world religion is taught in Tennessee classrooms.

The state reviews academic standards roughly every six years, and the current social studies standards are only in their second year. But the State Board decided last summer to bump up its review by two years based partly on feedback from parents and teachers.

Across the state, many school board members have heard concerns from vocal parents and activists that the study of world geography and history, including a unit on “the Islamic world” up to the year 1500 A.D., are encouraging the spread of Islam — just as the world seeks to stop attacks by terrorists who claim to espouse Islamic beliefs.

Social studies teachers have issues with the current standards too — but not about religion. “What I’ve heard from teachers across the state, regardless of grade level, is that there are too many standards for the time we have,” Mark Finchum, a teacher at Jefferson County High School and president of the Tennessee Council for the Social Studies, told Chalkbeat in October.

Any Tennessee resident can review the standards at the board’s website and offer comments until April 30. The feedback will be incorporated into revisions this summer by a panel of social studies teachers from across the state, and a second public review will held in the fall.

Some Republican state lawmakers already have passed judgment on the standards, however. Legislation filed this week would revert to the previous standard for the study of world religions in middle school. Another bill would prohibit teaching religious doctrine at all before 10th grade.

The bills are unlikely to gain steam, however, as the standards review process put into place by Gov. Bill Haslam was tweaked and embraced by the legislature last year.

The social studies review will follow the same process for a separate review coming to a close for the Common Core State Standards for math and English. Launched in the fall of 2014, that review has included two public feedback periods and multiple revisions. The State Board is scheduled next week to take its first vote on the results.

“There are significant changes to a good number of standards,” said Laura Encalade, director of policy and research for the board, which plans to release more specifics next week.

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