2 New Volumes of Standards for History Unveiled

By Karen Diegmueller — November 16, 1994 6 min read

Two new volumes of national standards for history were unveiled last week, presenting a sweeping view of the world that few precollegiate students have likely encountered before.

With intentionally little fanfare, the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California at Los Angeles released voluntary benchmarks in the study of history for K-4 students and world-history standards for middle and high school students.

Until recently, the content-standards developers had planned to present their work in Washington to Sheldon Hackney, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the major benefactors of the project.

But criticism of the U.S. history standards for grades 5-12, which were released last month, and the ensuing flurry of media coverage, led them to forfeit a celebration. The arts and geography standards were released with fanfare earlier this year, and a celebration is planned this week when civics standards are released. (See Education Week, 11/02/94.)

The quiet release of the world-history document did not allow it to avoid critcism, however.

Lynne V. Cheney, the former N.E.H. chairwoman who had been a chief sponsor of the creation of academic benchmarks for history and had helped choose the U.C.L.A. center to head the project, continued her assault on the standards last week.

In the world-history document, “there is the same kind of bias against the West that you had in the history of the U.S.,” said Ms. Cheney, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

“The charge that this has dumped on the West is just preposterous,” Charlotte Crabtree, a co-director of the history-standards project, responded.

Ms. Cheney’s criticism of the world-history standards did not extend to the history guidelines for early-elementary students.

“There is a nice spirit in the K-4 standards,” Ms. Cheney said of the excerpts she had seen. “They’re not entirely uncritical, but [are] willing to talk about the Founding Fathers.” Ms. Cheney had complained that many traditional American heroes had been omitted or downplayed in the U.S. history standards for grades 5-12.

An Early Start

History is one of a dozen disciplines for which voluntary national standards are being developed or have been developed that chart what students should know and be able to do at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

The federal government has financed standards-setting projects for seven of the core academic subjects listed in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.

The N.E.H. and the U.S. Education Department have spent more than $2 million on the history project.

Both the K-4 and the world-history standards embody elements that rarely have been introduced in the nation’s schools.

In many elementary schools, students often get their first introduction to history in the 4th grade.

But many of the educators, historians, and policymakers who drafted the standards believed that students should get acquainted with the history of their nation and the world as early as kindergarten.

The 78-page K-4 curriculum guide is organized around eight content standards under four broad topics. It covers the familiar, such as family and community, as well as the more exotic “History of Peoples of Many Cultures Around the World.”

Similar to many of the other standards projects already completed, the K-4 history standards include what a student should know, what a student should be able to do, and examples of classroom activities highlighting student achievement.

In an effort to engage the younger students’ interest, the drafters have sprinkled the standards with suggested historical literature.

The standard that calls for students to understand the evolution of democratic values is steeped in tradition.

Students are expected, for example, to show an understanding of American values and principles expressed by such symbols and leaders as the Liberty Bell, George Washington, Ellis Island, and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Yet, they are also given a prefatory look at the world beyond the United States.

At the K-2 level, students might be asked to read about a 19th-century Scandinavian Christmas celebration, the Mexican celebration Cinco de Mayo, the Chinese New Year, and the Japanese Tea Ceremony and then to draw pictures or dramatize aspects of the celebrations.

Third and 4th graders might be asked to “compare and contrast various family structures, such as matrilineal families in some African societies and the extended families of China.”

All three history-standards volumes--the two released last week and the U.S. history volume for grades 5-12 issued in October--also contain separate sections outlining historical-thinking standards. Although they get their own chapters to show how important the developers view them to be, the thinking standards are not meant to stand alone. They can be found within brackets at the end of each sub-standard.

All told, the three documents underwent 6,000 reviews.

Spanning the Globe

World history for grades 5-12, meanwhile, contains 39 standards spanning eight historical--and somewhat overlapping--eras.

Each era begins with a description of its major developments and an explanation of the reasons for studying the era.

For instance, Era 5--Intensified Hemispheric Interactions, 1000-1500 Common Era (or A.D.)--explains that the civilizations that flourished then “created a legacy of cultural and social achievements of continuing significance today.”

In the majority of school districts, where a single year of world history is taught, the curriculum has concentrated on Western civilization.

Developers of the newly released standards deliberately chose a global approach, after debating the issue for more than a year and a half. They did so with the recommendation that three years of world history be taught between the 5th and 12th grades.

Even though it may not be given that much time in the schools, Ms. Crabtree said the council of educators and historians decided that “rather than say let’s go for the lowest common denominator, let’s stand firm.”

How truly global a perspective is incorporated is illustrated in a standard about the causes and consequences of resistance and revolutionary movements in the early 20th century.

Students are expected to be able to assess, analyze, or explain the South African Anglo-Boer War, the Russian rebellion of 1905, the revolutionary government of the Young Turks, the Mexican Revolution, and the 1911 republican revolution in China.

But that very scope of history has provoked Ms. Cheney.

She charges that the 314-page document is so overwhelming and lacking in a sense of priority that the standards “seem almost universally unusable for a teacher.”

“When they decided not to organize around Western civilization, they lost the most logical organizational principle,” Ms. Cheney said.

Ms. Crabtree, however, contended that “Western history is best understood in this global context.”

Citing the United States’ nuclear standoff with Korea, its trade disputes with Japan, and its military confrontation with Iraq, she asked, “Are we saying our students should not understand the history of that part of the world and how we have been caught up in it? It’s incomprehensible.”

Copies of both documents are available from the National Center for History in the Schools, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 761, Los Angeles, Calif. 90024-4108. The K-4 standards are $7.95 for individuals and $12.95 for institutions. The world-history standards are $18.95 for individuals and $24.95 for institutions. Shipping and handling is $5 per book. Checks or purchase orders are accepted.

A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 1994 edition of Education Week as 2 New Volumes of Standards for History Unveiled