Publisher’s Perspective: Council sparks proposal to include Iowa history in social studies standards

M2016mugcroppedBy Michael Swanger


When Iowa celebrates its 170th anniversary of statehood on Dec. 28, a majority of K-12 students will not have learned anything of substance about our state’s history and another teachable moment will be lost. But if a proposed new draft of social studies standards is approved, there is hope that students might soon learn the legacies and lessons of Black Hawk, Samuel Kirkwood, Herbert Hoover, Carrie Chapman Catt, Edna Griffin and Norman Borlaug, if not gain a modicum of pride in being an Iowan.


A year has passed since the Iowa Department of Education (DE) convened the Iowa History Advisory Council and tasked its 24 volunteers — myself, included — to study the ways in which Iowa history is taught and learned, and to propose recommendations on ways to improve it in schools statewide. As promised, when I first wrote about the group’s goals and obstacles in my January/February column for Iowa History Journal, I would provide an update.


On Sept. 6, the DE released the council’s recommendations to create a systemic solution to the problem. The group made 11 recommendations that stem from three main areas: addressing systems issues, curating and creating more instructional resources and creating more professional development opportunities for teachers in Iowa history.


They include:

  • Develop online Iowa history courses for high school and college students and K-12 social studies teachers.
  • Create a variety of curriculum materials that support new Iowa history standards. (Iowa History Journal, Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Pathways website and the Iowa Civil Rights Toolkit are currently utilized, but additional materials need to be developed.)
  • Encourage Iowa colleges and universities to offer Iowa history classes and create professorships with a focus on Iowa history. (Iowa is one of the few states that doesn’t have dedicated state history faculty members at its state colleges and universities.)
  • Encourage Iowa colleges and universities to include content about Iowa history in teacher training. (We can’t expect teachers to effectively implement newly proposed academic standards in Iowa history if they don’t have a strong background in Iowa history.)
  • Investigate greater accountability measures for teaching Iowa history and social studies. (A survey of 1,500 Iowa teachers found that a consensus of elementary teachers felt that reading, math and science were greater areas of priority because they were the areas in which they were held accountable and that they were spending about 5 percent of their week teaching social studies.)
  • Ensure adequate staffing within the education department of the State Historical Society of Iowa. (Minnesota has a staff of 15, Kansas has 5, Iowa has two.)
  • Create and sustain a website to serve as a hub for Iowa history resources.
  • Coordinate and promote professional development opportunities in Iowa history for teachers through Area Education Agencies, cultural partners and higher education. (A 2015 study found that 68 percent of social studies teachers reported there weren’t enough social studies professional development opportunities and that less than half of elementary, middle and high school teachers surveyed were only somewhat familiar with the Iowa Core in social studies.)
  • Establish the role of a volunteer or paid state historian to advocate for Iowa history in schools.
  • Develop recognition programs to celebrate Iowa history and awards that recognize outstanding Iowa history teaching.
  • Ensure that the Iowa History Advisory Council continues to meet.


A full copy of the report can be found online at, as well as the council’s meeting notes, results of its Iowa History Teachers Survey and Iowa History Journal’s Letters the Editors that support the council’s efforts and teaching of Iowa history.


So, what’s next?


The DE on Oct. 11 released a draft of revised statewide standards for social studies and announced members of a new team who will conduct an upcoming public review of the proposed standards. One of the proposed standards is to “Weave in Iowa history and financial literacy, which are not reflected in the current social studies standard.”


Inclusion in the draft standards is the first step. They are developed by a writing team, which for the first time received input from a designated member of the council, that outlines what students should know and be able to do in social studies K-12.


Approval from the review team is the next critical step that requires the public’s engagement. It will host its first public meeting on Nov. 8 from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in Room B100 of the Grimes State Office Building, 400 E. 14th St., in Des Moines.


Visit the DE’s website for a schedule of upcoming public forums to be announced and continue to read Iowa History Journal as well as our website and Facebook page for updates.


Finally, you might consider the council’s following conclusion. I think it underscores the importance and urgency of the matter:


“For too long, Iowans have allowed the outside world to tell us who we are and what our place in the world is. For too long, Iowans have accepted those judgements because we know so little about our own history. As a result, many of us believe that the state’s past is historically insignificant, monocultural, and boring. This simply is not true, and our young people need to know that.”


Thanks for reading.


TO READ MORE FASCINATING STORIES ABOUT IOWA HISTORY, subscribe to Iowa History Journal. You can also purchase back issues at the store.