Education

Controversy Predicted Over N.Y. Social-Studies Framework

By Karen Diegmueller — June 21, 1995 3 min read
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In a third stab at drafting a set of social-studies curriculum guidelines, education officials in New York State have settled on an approach that is expected to provoke criticism again, only this time from liberal quarters.

The state board of regents this month authorized the distribution of a framework that has much less emphasis on multiculturalism than did previous versions.

The document also represents one of the first examples of a state incorporating national content standards--aside from mathematics--into its frameworks.

The guidelines draw from the national standards in civics, geography, social studies, and even the beleaguered history documents.

“What you’re seeing in New York is fairly typical,” said Martharose Laffey, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies.

States are beginning to “borrow from all the standards projects,” Ms. Laffey said.

Bruises Unhealed

New York is among a number of states where there has been heated debate about how and to what extent to incorporate diverse ethnicities into the social-studies tapestry.

It is also one of the most closely watched states because of its huge and growing minority population.

In a three-page cover memorandum to the document, Thomas Sobol, the New York State commissioner of education, anticipates the controversy that is likely to ensue.

Noting the troubles encountered by the national history standards and other states’ efforts to write a social-studies curriculum, Mr. Sobol writes: “Here in New York we are still bruised from our own social-studies content battles.”

“Our approach to each of these ... controversies has been constantly to seek a balanced, moderate but progressive middle ground,” Mr. Sobol maintained.

This most recent effort at spelling out what students in New York State should be learning in social studies has advanced further than earlier attempts.

Neither of the two previous documents received the state regents’ endorsement for field review by teachers, administrators, and policymakers.

“This is step one,” said Linda Biemer, a co-chairwoman of the state’s social-studies committee and the dean of education at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

Because of severe budget constraints, the timing for disseminating and revising the document is uncertain, although Mr. Sobol, who is stepping down at the end of this month, told the regents that a finished document would be presented to them in late fall or early winter.

Balance or Cop-Out?

The battle over New York’s social-studies framework started in 1989 when the original report was denounced for its emphasis on portraying minorities as victims of an oppressive white European culture. (See Education Week, 8/1/90.)

A second version, in 1991, though toned down significantly, was similarly disparaged.

The latest version, written by an outside consultant, pays far less attention to nonwhite cultures. Where it does, the emphasis is on the unity of different peoples rather than on their differences.

Even the 11 reviewers of the document hold different perspectives.

“It’s an improvement to the extent that they finally move off the dime on some kind of radical multiculturalism,” said Antonia Cortese, the first vice president of the New York State United Teachers. But it is so bereft of specifics, she said, that “it lacks the grist to have a really good debate over social studies.”

Ms. Biemer said that she and other reviewers who were hold~overs from the second committee wanted a strong sense of diversity and global perspectives included in the guidelines.

“It is not as strong as I would like to see it,” Ms. Biemer said.

“I think this document does an excellent job of providing a balance, but there is no question that there are people who are going to think it is a cop-out,” said Steven A. Goldberg, the president of the New York State Council for the Social Studies and the chairman of social studies for the New Rochelle city schools.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 1995 edition of Education Week as Controversy Predicted Over N.Y. Social-Studies Framework

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