Kentucky's social studies standards need more work
More misuses of inquiry learning to propagandize K-12 students

Kentucky teachers are being encouraged to use "inquiry methods" to indoctrinate students in Leftist attitudes

In my previous post I discussed inadequacies in Kentucky's education standards for social studies. These are standards that, as a former member of the Kentucky Board of Education, I supported and helped to approve. But since then I've become convinced that these standards need more work, especially making them more content specific, a process that should involve teachers, parents, civics advocates, and lawmakers. The standards include much to admire and I believe their deficiencies can be addressed.

What is far more problematic, however, are some of the training materials that were developed by the Kentucky Department of Education to help teachers understand and implement the standards. These "Inquiry Ready" modules are accessed via the Kentucky Department of Education's Social Studies Professional Learning Modules page, but are not available to parents or community members, although I was able to get access through my university credentials. Videos associated with the modules are on YouTube, but are not easily searchable without information directly from modules themselves. It is extremely concerning that these materials, funded by tax payers, are essentially hidden from the general public.

It’s important to keep in mind that these are training materials. They do not appear in the standards themselves, and to my knowledge were never vetted by KBE (if a reader can correct me on that I'd welcome it). I do not believe schools are bound to use these materials or the inquiry design model itself. But this is the way KDE is attempting to train teachers in the new social studies standards, and it figures as a method for "taking [standards implementation] to the next level" in the KDE Standards Implementation Guidance Document for Social Studies. According to KDE, as of today 750 teachers across the state have completed these modules.

Unfortunately, these Inquiry Ready modules provide enormous potential for abuse, and especially for students to be indoctrinated in leftist ideology. I recently wrote about how critical theory is seeping into our schools and the larger culture, and why that is so dangerous.

The Inquiry Design Model being promoted by KDE is explicitly founded on critical theory assumptions.

The inquiry design model is based on posing “compelling questions” to motivate student interest and exploration of content topics through critical-thinking tasks that require immersion in many primary and secondary historical sources. Sounds fine, at least in theory, although I think the approach puts too much emphasis on what kinds of topics (questions) are relevant to students.

One of the early videos says that students care about “fairness, relationships, conflicts, norms, and power relationships.”

Well, they do. But that’s not all students are interested in. Good teachers can inspire student interest in a very wide variety of topics. Using such a narrow list, though, sets the stage for how the Inquiry Ready modules introduce critical theory as the lens through which it expects teachers to teach.

Still, the first module on The Big Ideas of Social Studies is fairly innocuous. In the second module, however, teachers are fully introduced to a method of inquiry learning that is custom-designed to lead students toward progressive-liberal conclusions. In a discussion of possible compelling questions, the following are given as examples:

  • Does GDP tell the right story?
  • How can the US reduce income inequality?
  • Do people around the world care about children’s rights?
  • Did the attack on Pearl Harbor unify Americans?

These questions are extremely problematic because they seem to have the answer the question designer is hoping the students come up with built into them.

In the first example, GDP (gross domestic product) definitely tells a story about a nation’s economic well-being. Of course, it doesn’t tell the whole story. But the question, especially framed in a yes-no structure, leads students directly to conclude that GDP does NOT tell the “right” story, and other metrics, I suppose, do.

Likewise, the second question assumes income inequality is a problem and should be reduced. Will students introduced to this “compelling” question be exposed to sources that suggest that income inequality is not, in fact, a problem? Or that efforts to reduce it might have negative consequences? Or how income inequality is an inevitable feature of a market economy? Or how other metrics like social mobility might be better ways of understanding the problems posed by differences in economic outcome? If the question is framed as written, it seems highly unlikely.

Do people around the world care about children’s rights? This is a really limited question. Of course some people do, some people don’t. We would find examples of both. What conclusions are students supposed to draw here? Did Pearl Harbor unify Americans? Well almost assuredly. I’m sure it also exposed cultural and political fault lines that ran deep in the country – so the answer is YES and NO. History is complicated. Why are we pushing children into making definitive moral judgments about the past?

The biggest problem with the Inquiry Ready modules, however, comes when teachers are told explicitly that good inquiry design requires a critical theory lens. Watch these two videos here and here (second one embedded; UPDATE: I've created a separate post with links to all of the training videos here) where these concepts are introduced.

Teachers are told that critical inquiry (what they are expected to do with their students):

  • must examine power and inequalities
  • Involves an activist element: students must be provoked to challenge “unjust” conditions
  • Focuses on unequal distributions of power
  • That knowledge is political, not neutral; groups with power produce knowledge – what we have received comes to us from those with power who tell a version of the past to justify their power
  • Commits to examining inequities in the present day
  • Doesn’t just tell stories of the marginalized, but celebrates their agency and struggle against the oppressors

The compelling questions teachers pose to students must explicitly critique systems of oppression and power. And so, whatever the topic, they should direct students’ attention toward lingering patterns of oppression (identify the good guys and bad guys; condemn the latter and fight to remove them from power). Examples:

  • Regarding Emmett Till: Is it ever too late for justice?
  • Regarding women’s suffrage: Was the vote enough?
  • Regarding income inequality: Can we afford the super rich?

That last example came from an inquiry lesson designed by a Kentucky teacher that was held up as an exemplar. It is possible a student could conclude from their study that, yes, we can indeed afford the “super rich” (how does one define such a thing fairly anyway?). But would the student really be exposed to content and sources that would lead them to that conclusion? Not based on the “supporting questions” that the teacher used to structure the students’ study of the issue:

  • How does income inequality affect mental and physical health?
  • Does income inequality undermine democracy?

That’s it. Both of the supporting questions have their own intended conclusions built into them. Income inequality is a bad thing that makes people sick and undermines democracy. Nowhere in these supporting questions is the possibility that income inequality might actually just be the net effect of an economic system that yields benefits for all of its participants.

How can we be doubly sure these negative conclusions about income inequality are intended by the teacher who designed them? Because the sources students will read in their inquiry are from far-left sources Mother Jones, the Economic Policy Institute, and the Huffington Post!

I couldn’t have made this up if I tried.

And finally – the inquiry design model concludes by requiring students to take action based on the conclusions they’ve drawn – conclusions that will inevitably be about how awful America and her economic and political system really are: writing letters to the editor, petitioning lawmakers…and even taking to the streets.

Social studies education should without question be about more than memorizing names and dates. It should involve understanding complex patterns, engaging in critical thinking, articulating one's own opinions, and even building capacity to take civic action. But it should most definitely not be presenting a narrow ideological frame through which students are inevitably guided to certain conclusions, and that's exactly what the Inquiry modules, as presented in these materials, do.

Let me be clear that the inquiry design approach itself might be very valuable – but only if the compelling and supporting questions and sources used truly allow students to arrive at multiple conclusions. Otherwise, these are extremely dangerous tools in the hands of a weak teacher, or worse, a teacher who wants to impose a political agenda (whether right or left-wing) on their students.

Lawmakers need to ask KDE officials to explain the development and use of these Inquiry Ready modules in their training of teachers, challenge their ideological content, and question why they are not available to the general public. Parents and local boards of education should find out how many of their teachers have participated in these modules and the extent to which, and how, they are being used in their schools. And local communities should become highly engaged in promoting a more thorough and rigorous presentation of social studies materials in our classrooms.

Updates, 9/9/20: While the Inquiry Ready training modules themselves are not available to the public, I posted links to all the associated YouTube videos so anyone interested can watch them - find that link here. Also: in this post I discuss how any of the topics described above are potentially worthy for social studies inquiry - if the questions are well designed and free of bias.

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Richard G. Innes

Professor Houchens has highlighted some major pitfalls of weak standards such as Kentucky's current social studies standards.

The sorts of problems Prof. Houchens discusses provide excellent examples of why education standards actually need a fair amount of detail and carefully focused direction.

Properly developed standards help prevent biased, incomplete, and wrongly directed teaching. Weak standards, as we now see with the Kentucky example, can actually facilitate entry of very poor practices into the classroom.


Leftist leftist leftist, I will fight this injustice of trying to brainwash our children to think like the looting, thieving and violent movement, calling it injustice when it is not but a mob

L. Phillips

Dr. Houchen's critique on the new standards is worth consideration. While some of the questions may be used to promote a political lens/perspective, I challenge the assumption that all questions are biased towards liberal/progressive ideologies. Reconsider the following question: How can the US reduce income inequality? Income inequality is a economic measurement (neutral). To reduce this gap, X,Y,Z policy intervention can be taken. No political justification or context is needed. While I realize this may not be the critical lens intention, neutrality can be achieved.

Gary Houchens

I disagree. The question itself implies that income inequality is a problem and that it should be reduced. That is an ideological assumption.

Income inequality is a fact. Whether that is a problem or not is a worthy topic of inquiry. What if we framed the question in a number of ways: "Where does income inequality come from? What are its consequences? What would be the reasons for, and potential problems with, various strategies to address income inequality?"

Ryan W.

Thank you for this! To your point about the sources that kids are directed to for inquiry, it reminds me of the countless political Left "trainings" that I have had to sit through as a Louisville government employee whose only sources were left-wing groups like the Fairness Campaign and the ACLU. There's never any competing views presented because, like most public education today, they don't want us to think critically. They want us to think like they do.

Christopher Siegert

What nonsensical drivel. Nothing more than propaganda to diffuse critical thinking that does in fact typically lead to more progressive ideas. There's a very good reason for that, but rather than allow it to happen this individual just wants ppl to shut it down at the source, with kids being taught not to think for themselves but to be told what he and other Republican actors want you to believe. What are you afraid of? How is asking the question regarding income inequality AUTOMATICALLY going to make someone believe in the progressive version of it? Could they not come to the conclusions that you have on their own? Of course they could, but rather than risk it you just want the status quo to go untouched. Beyond pathetic. And how can someone be so disingenuous? These are posed not as Yes or No questions at all, it's all about critical thinking meaning they would be forced to think about the subject, research it, and then try to come to a conclusion. If your side is so pitiful that you think they would not end up at the same conclusion as you then what does that say about you and your petulant ideology? Kids absolutely should be taught to think for themselves, but of course modern American school systems disagree. Wonder why they're doing so "great" amongst the world in other areas? People like you pushing agendas is why we're a failure in most ways imaginable.

Gary Houchens

Ridiculous. You cannot read anything in this post, or in anything else I have written, to reasonably conclude that I want "kids being taught not to think for themselves." I refer you to another post on this topic where I argue that inquiry learning is not a problem in itself, but rather in the way the questions are framed:

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