Tennessee history may move from Fifth to Third Grade

Published 7:00 pm Monday, March 27, 2023

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By: Bill Carey, Contributing Columnist

Last August, I wrote a column about where Tennessee history is taught in the K through 12 public school curriculum. State law and social studies standards currently require a semester of Tennessee history in fifth grade, while there are also a few state-specific topics scattered in the eighth and eleventh grade U.S. history classes (the Scopes Trial, for instance).

I need to say now that this system may change.

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A committee of teachers chosen by the Tennessee Board of Education met at length last fall and wrote a rough draft of the state’s social standards that will go into effect in the 2026-2027 school year. The draft was released to the public on February 27.

Let me point out that this committee faced a herculean task. There are pages and pages of required social studies standards in every grade, starting in kindergarten. In high school, the state has academic standards for not only required classes such as World History, but also elective ones such as Psychology.

I will also point out that this is a proposal, not the final product.

In any case, the committee recommended that the semester of Tennessee history which now appears in fifth grade be moved to third grade.

As a person who writes Tennessee history content used by teachers all over the state, I’m concerned about this. The first reason is complexity of material. I have doubts about whether third graders are ready to understand topics such as the Lost State of Franklin, how Tennessee became a state in 1796, and the Tennessee Constitution of 1870. I mean, are third graders ready to grasp the poll tax?

I have questions about sequencing. Under this proposal, third grade teachers would explain the Battle of Shiloh to students who haven’t learned anything about the Abraham Lincoln, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision. How can students grasp a Civil War battle if they don’t know what the war was about?

I have concerns about maturity. In recent years, parents have raised concerns about when students are exposed to difficult topics such as the Holocaust and the Trail of Tears. This proposal would require teachers to explain Fayette County’s Tent City Movement to nine-year-olds. Teachers would tell how thousands of African Americans in Tennessee were kicked out of their homes because they tried to vote. Is this something we want to move from fifth to third grade?

I have questions about removal. Just in regards to the Civil War, this proposal would delete the battles of Nashville, Franklin, Stones River and Fort Donelson from the standards. It would also delete the names of Nathan Bedford Forrest and David Farragut from the standards. Really? After all the money and effort that has been devoted to sprucing up the battlefields?

I have questions about priorities. I was under the impression that the focus needed to be on teaching reading in third grade. If we make third grade the only Tennessee history grade, that will send a different signal.

During the last five years, my organization has devoted a lot of energy into helping fifth grade teachers become Tennessee history experts. We’ve produced more than 20 in-person events in places such Lookout Mountain and the Memphis Cotton Exchange. We’ve hosted more than 40 virtual events on subjects from Andrew Jackson to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

The target market for all these events has been fifth grade teachers. With this proposal, the burden will shift to third grade teachers, who already have a lot on their plates.

In any case, I’m not sure if this proposal will fly. This rough draft of the social studies standards now goes to a 10-member body known as the Social Studies Standards Review Committee. The review committee has the authority to make changes before the standards go to the state Board of Education for final approval.

I’m also aware there is a bill at the General Assembly to address this matter. Sponsored by Sen. Art Swann of Blount County and Rep. Lowell Russell of Monroe County, in its present form it would require that Tennessee history remain in fifth grade. It would also require a semester of Tennessee history be taught in eighth grade (a grade in which many other states, such as Georgia and Texas, require a full year of state history).

I don’t know if Senate Bill 1177/House Bill 1188 will pass. Swann’s version of the bill was approved by the Senate Education Committee on March 15, but Russell’s House version looks bogged down for 2023.

What if Tennessee does move its only semester of its history from fifth to third grade? What will become of my organization, its booklets, website and teacher training?

If they move Tennessee history from fifth to third grade, Tennessee History for Kids won’t shut down. We’ll start over. We’ll try to help another grade of teachers teach Tennessee history. The great people in Tennessee history didn’t quit. Nor will we.