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N.Y. Wrestles With Social-Studies Framework

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A New York state task force, working two years behind its orginal schedule, is nearing completion of a framework for teaching social studies that would focus more on nonwhite cultures.

The new framework is being closely watched for two reasons.

First, two state reports that preceded it ignited a national debate over whether school curricula wrongly emphasized the contributions of white Europeans over those of Africans, Asians, and other racial and ethnic minorities.

In addition, as one of the largest and most ethnically diverse states, New York presents a special challenge to curriculum developers looking to strike a balance between a more multicultural teaching approach and one that reflects the common heritage of all Americans.

Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol appointed a 21-member task force in December 1991 to revise the state's social-studies curriculum. At the time, he told the New York State Board of Regents that he hoped to begin field-testing the new framework in 1992 and to fully implement it this year. (See Education Week, July 31, 1991.)

Members of the committee said last week, however, that the delay is only partly due to the controversial subject matter.

"Our field is the study of everyone in the world from the beginning of time until I just finished this sentence,'' said Linda Biemer, the co-chairwoman of the panel and the dean of the college of education at Binghamton University-State University of New York.

Moreover, panel members said, their efforts began in the midst of an ambitious reform effort, known as the "Compact for Learning,'' that seeks to redefine what students across the state should know and be able to do in all academic areas and to put more emphasis on critical-thinking skills. Like their counterparts in other subject areas, members of the social-studies task force had to wait for guidance from a larger Council for Curriculum and Assessment that is overseeing that effort.

"Before the council was formed, there was some thought that the social-studies committee could complete its work sooner,'' said Allen Ray, a spokesman for the state education department. "But there was a decision made by the council members that this is a big job and would take longer.''

Bureaucratic Obstacles

Jorge Klor de Alva, a Princeton University anthropology professor and the co-chairman of the social-studies panel, also said budgetary constraints at one point had kept the panel from meeting. Panelists volunteer their time but the state pays their travel expenses.

"We've been working right along, and I guess we haven't let people know that,'' Ms. Biemer said.

The task force expects to present its draft framework to the board of regents early next year. In the meantime, the curriculum-and-assessment council will present its report, which includes recommendations for social studies, within weeks.

The delay, nonetheless, has generated some complaints.

"It really is unacceptable to me,'' said J. Edward Meyer, a regent who has been critical of the state's move to expand its multicultural focus."When we approved this we thought it would be a matter of months.''

'Victims of Oppression'

Wariness over the new framework stems from a 1989 report, called "A Curriculum of Inclusion,'' which prompted the curriculum-revision efforts.

That report described "African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Puerto Rican/Latinos, and Native Americans'' as "victims of intellectual and educational oppression'' stemming from a "systematic bias toward European culture and its derivatives'' in New York State's public school curriculum.

Critics said that the report's recommendations, which were never adopted by the regents, ignored the nation's common cultural heritage and would lead to a fragmentation of society.

Soon after, a second task force formed to look more specifically at the social-studies curriculum also faulted the way nonwhite cultures are commonly portrayed. Its tone, however, was less strident.

Its recommendations, which form the basis for the current task force's efforts, call for a plan for teaching social studies that includes more examples of nonwhite cultures and forces students to look critically at issues from a multitude of perspectives.

"For example, if you're looking at the settlement of the U.S., you would think of it as a multidirectional settlement, rather than as the Europeans moving west,'' said Catherine Cornbleth, an education professor from the State University of New York at Buffalo who is helping to write the framework.

She said the new framework will also acknowledge "the overlapping commonalities that unite us.''

If the regents approve the draft, it will be circulated for widespread public review next year.

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