Wisconsin Teaching Labor History Law

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

Nearly a decade after Wisconsin passed a law declaring that the teaching of labor history must be part of the teaching standards for the state’s children, it is near to becoming reality.

When Gov. Jim Doyle signed the law into effect in December 2009, Wisconsin became the first – as far as could be determined – to place such a requirement upon its schools, fulfilling a long-sought effort to assure children learn about the importance labor unions in history.

The State Department of Public Instruction has at long last produced a draft of proposed standards for social studies that is expected to be published soon.  In the “history section,” the standards make the teaching of labor history one of seven major areas of study, calling for exploration of “The history of organized labor and the collective bargaining process,” quoting the state law [Wisc. Stat. sec. 115.28(55)].

DPI has not announced when the standards will be published; the review period ended on March 1.  Further information will appear on its website.

The delay in producing the standards had to do with the state process of including the new social studies standards into the Common Core standards, which had been under development until recently.

The Wisconsin Labor History Society has been seeking legislation to assure Wisconsin children learn about workers and their unions in the classroom since the society’s founding in 1981.  It has long recognized that not only have textbooks at all levels given little notice to labor history, but that when they did it was often negative and one-sided.  Furthermore, many teachers may have been shy about teaching the subject for fear of earning the disfavor of school administrators.

The Society believes the bill will help correct both of those defects.

Since its founding, one of the Society’s three major goals has been to encourage the teaching of labor history in the schools.  For most of its history, the Society has sponsored an annual labor history essay contest for high school students and some 15 years ago has offered prizes for contestants in National History Day competitions for projects on labor history for both middle and high school students. 

Nearly 20 years ago the Society established a Legacy Fund to encourage graduate and undergraduate college students to produce papers on Wisconsin labor history, providing cash awards of $500 to $1,000.

In 2005, it published with the cooperation of the Department of Public Instruction a school curriculum on labor history that may be found on its website.


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