Published Online: January 22, 1997

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In Mass., Silber Goes to Battle Over History Framework Draft

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A clash over which historical facts and concepts Massachusetts' students should know has pitted the state school board's outspoken chairman and his allies against hundreds of teachers, parents, and scholars around the state who have rallied against the latest draft of the state frameworks for history and social sciences.

As Yogi Berra would say, it's a case of deja vu all over again.

While states throughout the nation have been able to forge at least a grudging consensus on what students should know in the various disciplines, when it comes to history there has been one public squabble after another.

But in Massachusetts' case, many of the parties are pointing to a single figure for derailing what had been a relatively smooth process, which was already well under way before John R. Silber was appointed the chairman of the state board a year ago.

So fraught with anger and frustration has the situation become that the state's director of instruction and curriculum resigned last month in protest of the state board's maneuverings, which he said undermined the work of previous committees and the input of thousands of educators and residents.

"This is a dumbing down of the discipline," contended Dan French, who had worked at the state education department for 13 years.

"It reduces it to a set of unrelated facts, memorization, and it's not very interesting," Mr. French said. "The current draft pushes us back to a 1950s approach to history and social science."

Last week, however, the board responded to the protests by promising to revise the document and to blend in some aspects of previous drafts. Board members also said that they will discuss the subject again at their meeting next month.

For his part, Mr. Silber refused to comment on the issue. But Commissioner of Education Robert V. Antonucci defended Mr. Silber and said the criticism is not valid. "Dr. Silber said [he wants] a framework that has good, measurable standards--for it to be one of the best," he said.

Moreover, Mr. Antonucci said that the board that was in place before Mr. Silber's tenure had rejected the framework committee's initial draft. "In this particular case, it is unjust criticism."

This is not the first flap Mr. Silber has been embroiled in during his brief tenure as chairman. Just last month he proposed, then backed out of, a plan to make passage of the General Educational Development high-school-equivalency exam a graduation requirement.

Following Virginia

The 1993 Education Reform Act, a five-year plan to improve the state's 1,800 public schools, mandated the creation of frameworks in four core disciplines. The board last week adopted the English-language-arts guidelines, which have drawn more subdued protests centering on the accompanying book list that favors English-derived literature. Frameworks in other core areas were adopted by the previous board.

The debate heated up in recent weeks over the history/social science framework after Mr. Silber rejected previous drafts and assigned three conservative members of the board to write a new version. The sharp-tongued chancellor of Boston University was appointed to the chairman's post by Republican Gov. William F. Weld, the man who defeated Mr. Silber, a conservative Democrat, for the governorship in 1990.

The committee named by Mr. Silber, which included James A. Peyser, Barbara R. Schaefer, and Abigail M. Thernstrom, adapted Virginia's history framework, which has won national recognition from educators and policymakers who prefer a more traditional approach to teaching history.

The draft outlines a core of knowledge that spotlights Western events, people, and cultures as the foundation of the American tradition.

The Virginia-based draft was released in mid-December, a move some of Mr. Silber's opponents charge was a ploy to slip it past educators on holiday break and minimize public comment before the board met on the issue last week. The superintendent of the Boston schools, for instance, wrote to education department officials that he could not meet the deadline for comment because he had received his copy too late.

Critics of the new draft contend that it was was compiled hastily and focused too heavily on European events and doctrines. The proposal, they charge, is nothing more than a version of the game "Trivial Pursuit," in which students will be crammed with names, dates, and other facts with no real understanding of the relationships between them.

But board members who have been accused of wresting the task of writing the frameworks away from the committee appointed under a previous board said that earlier drafts were short on content and were not grounded firmly enough in the Western European tradition.

"The process has been running for about two years and produced a result that the board wasn't happy with," said Mr. Peyser, the executive director of the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank in Boston.

"The initial draft reflected one strand of the social-studies profession to focus on inquiry skills rather than knowledge of events and individuals and facts," Mr. Peyser said. "The clock was ticking. Lawmakers said we had to get moving on this." The legislation initially set a January 1995 deadline for setting the frameworks, which writers of the first draft met.

Mr. Peyser acknowledged that the revised document leans more heavily toward Western civilization. "However, I think that that distribution makes sense," he argued, "because one of the principal goals of the curriculum is to improve citizenship" in a nation whose historical and political heritage has been primarily influenced by the West.

Process Ignored?

But critics of the board's version aren't just upset about the content of the draft. They also argue that board members ignored state-mandated procedures for seeking outside comment.

Mr. French said that the first committee had intended to revise the initial draft to balance its pedagogical guidelines with more content, but that "Dr. Silber came on, and the whole process was brought to a halt."

Mr. French also accused Mr. Silber of delaying action on the initial draft, which was presented to the board more than a year ago, until he was successful in reducing the size of the board from 17 members to nine with a majority supporting him. A second committee appointed by Mr. Silber also failed to create a draft the chairman could support.

The conflict, Mr. French said, is based on opposing philosophies. "There is a fundamentally differing philosophy toward improving education. Dr. Silber doesn't believe committees can reform schools," Mr. French said. "He believes one small group of people knows best."

The draft submitted last month sent members of the initial committee and their supporters to the phones, sparking a letter-writing campaign and a flurry of requests to speak at the board's meeting last week.

Scholars Weigh In

National education experts and scholars with vastly different views on the essential components of a comprehensive history curriculum have also weighed in on the debate.

Diane Ravitch, a senior research associate at New York University and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, said that she was "greatly impressed with the richness, conciseness, and appropriateness of these learning standards" in a letter to the board.

"They will assure that Massachusetts will be one of the very few states in the nation to adopt a first-rate curriculum framework in the field of study," said Ms. Ravitch, who was embroiled in the social-studies debate in New York several years ago. ("American Historians Enter Multiculturalism Debate," Feb. 29, 1991.)

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. Anthony Appiah, professors of Afro-American and African studies at Harvard University, expressed an opposing view--one that was taken by most of the more than 200 educators and parents who submitted comments to the board. They argue that the framework should be more inclusive of diverse cultures and contributions.

"Since these documents essentially detail what Massachusetts students must know, it is vital that the frameworks propose a content that is global and reflects the rich diversity of our American heritage," Mr. Gates and Mr. Appiah wrote.

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