Social studies standards are under review by the Minnesota Department of Education, but that does not mean the presence of the American flag or the Pledge of Allegiance in schools is in jeopardy.

With Brainerd School Board members reporting hearing concerns from members of the public about what is — or isn’t — in the new standards, Director of Teaching and Learning Tim Murtha explained that, no, flag etiquette and the Pledge of Allegiance are not going anywhere.

“You can’t teach civics without teaching about the symbols and about the structures that the democracy uses as part of its civic life,” Murtha said during a phone interview Thursday, March 25.

Murtha referenced Minnesota School Board Association Policy 513, which Brainerd has adopted, stating students shall recite the Pledge of Allegiance one or more times a week. The recitation, it states, should be conducted either by each individual classroom teacher or over the school intercom system. The policy also states students will be instructed in “the proper etiquette toward, correct display of, and respect for the flag, and in patriotic exercises.”

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Tim Murtha, Brainerd Public Schools director of teaching and learning.
Tim Murtha, Brainerd Public Schools director of teaching and learning.

“And our commitment to civic life doesn’t end with just the teaching of the standards,” he added. “The Veterans Day programming we’ve historically done at the high schools, that’s part of civic engagement, that’s part of learning outside the classroom, and it’s a part of understanding the nature of democracy, the sacrifices that have been made to preserve democracy.”

Murtha said he did not know where this misinformation originated. References to these ideas, however, can be found on social media. The Center for the American Experiment — a think tank that describes itself as Minnesota’s leading public policy organization — has taken issue with the first draft of the standards, including from a patriotism standpoint.

“Replacing specific mentions of flag etiquette and the Pledge of Allegiance with a vague reference to how people show patriotism does not serve our students,” the think tank wrote in a letter to the department of education’s standards committee.

The think tank encouraged members of the public to put their names on the same letter and send it to the committee with their concerns.

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The other concern Murtha said he heard about the updated standards — which are still in the draft stages — is regarding equity.

“Depending on your point of view, there’s concerns there’s too much equity or there’s too little,” he said, noting he heard concerns from people on both ends of the political spectrum.

Brainerd Public Schools, Murtha said, is committed to ensuring all students have what they need to succeed, which include recognizing the role race, ethnicity and culture play in the curriculum. He has fielded questions about why the updated social studies standards include learning about American Indian tribal governments and American Indian culture.

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“And the answer to that is because they are the First Nations people in Minnesota. Their history is the oldest history of Minnesota. And so we are fulfilling the standards, but we’re also being intellectually honest about all of Minnesota’s history and American history,” Murtha said.

“... We’re not trying to take away anything from someone who has it, and nor are we trying to shame anyone. We’re trying to provide a full comprehensive examination of history through the standards, and that’s why the standards are so important. They give structure to the conversation, and healthy disagreement is a healthy part of a healthy democracy.”

Public involvement

State education officials review subject standards periodically, usually about every seven to 10 years. Social studies standards were last updated in 2012 and were to be implemented by the 2013-14 school year.

The first draft of the newly updated standards was published in December and open for public comment. A second draft will be published later this spring.

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Murtha said there will likely be another opportunity for public comment when the second revised draft is completed. He advises members of the public to read through the information on the education department’s website to make sure they understand what’s in the standards before making assumptions.

“When people haven’t been exposed to the actual text of the standards, it’s very easy to assume that something is there that’s not, or something is not there that is,” Murtha said. “I just invite people to read the standards and make an informed decision for themselves.”

For more information on the updated standards, including the first draft and guiding principles, visit

The tentative implementation date for the new standards is the 2022-23 school year.

In the update

Essentially, Murtha said the standards are school officials’ promise to the community about what children will know and be able to do. Much of the framework for the updated standards, he said, revolves around teaching students how to ask appropriate questions during the research process.

The education department’s expectations for the revised standards are that they include:

  • Technology and information literacy.

  • Computer science concepts and skills.

  • Contributions of Minnesota American Indian tribes and communities as they relate to academics.

  • Both standards and grade-level benchmarks to identify learning to be mastered by all students by the end of each grade level.

  • Language that is clear, concise, objective, measurable and grade-level appropriate.

  • The identification of a smooth progression of increasingly sophisticated knowledge and skills from kindergarten through high school.

The committee working to review the standards is expected to take into account diverse points of view, experiences and approaches to problem-solving and use language that reflects students’ cultural backgrounds.

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“History doesn’t live in the past. It’s also about the now. The past informs the now, and the now reflects upon the past. They’re related. The history didn’t stop at some point,” Murtha said of the various cultural requirements. “... That’s why we do contemporary studies. That’s why we talk about civics, and that’s why when you look at some of the standards, they very carefully challenge people to reflect on, ‘How do you engage in the civic process? How do you take informed action in a democracy?’ We take very seriously those parts of the standards which challenge us to take responsibility for the rights we were given within a democracy.”


While the standards are important in the conceptual approach to the subject, Murtha said teachers often look more at specific benchmarks. He explained the standards and benchmarks as scaffolding. The standards are essentially the same for kindergartners through 12th graders, but the benchmarks determine just what those standards look like for each grade level.

“The learning within that standard is scaffolded and built upon year after year after year,” Murtha said.

Once students get into high school, social studies is split up into several different domains, as Murtha called them, like economics, civics, geography and history.

“So the sequencing of benchmarks within that domain continues,” he said. “So you’re not doing as much with economics in history, though the ability to apply economic information in history is helpful.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at