Diverse Group Begins Process of Developing Standards for History

By Debra Viadero — March 04, 1992 4 min read

WASHINGTON--A diverse group of 28 scholars, educators, and school administrators began work last month on developing national standards for what students should “know and be able to do” in history.

The formation of the National Council on History Standards is the latest step in a process that began in 1989 when President Bush and the nation’s governors met to establish national goals for education.

To monitor progress toward the third goal, which calls for students to demonstrate competence in challenging subject matter, the National Council on Education Standards and Testing in January called for the development of voluntary, “world class” standards in five subject areas--English, mathematics, science, history, and geography. The resulting standards are not meant to be used as a national curriculum, the Congressionally mandated panel said, but rather as guideposts for education in those subject areas. (See Education Week, Jan, 29, 1992.)

Efforts have already been launched to set standards in three disciplines--math, science, and geography. But the standards-setting process in history is the first to get under way in the wake of the national standards’ panel’s recommendations. It is being led by the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California at Los Angeles with $1.6 million in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Education Department. (See Education Week, Jan. 8, 1992.)

Broadly Based Panel

In attempting to define what a “historically literate” public-school graduate would look like, however, the group is tackling one of the most contentious areas in the school curriculum. For that reason, directors at the center have chosen a broad-based panel to lead the effort, and they have outlined a process for including a wide range of other perspectives on the subject.

“They really are going to get a national discussion of history standards going,’' said Francie Alexander, the Education Department’s deputy assistant secretary for policy and planning and the former director of the national standards panel. “We haven’t ever had scholars and state educators come to the table like this to talk about what we want our kids to gain from history.”

The panel includes both prominent historians who have made their reputations in world history, an area not universally taught in schools, as well as those who specialize in U.S. history. It includes classroom teachers, a state school superintendent, state and school-district curriculum coordinators, and representatives of professional organizations in the field. Members of minority groups and women also are members. (See list, this page.)

The purpose of the council, which met here for the first time on Feb. 21, is to set a vision and policy for the standards-setting effort. It also will have the final word on the development of the standards.

To inform its deliberations, the group will appoint a 25-member “national forum.” While the composition of that group has not yet been determined, Ms. Crabtree said it would likely include such groups as the National School Boards Association, the Alliance of Black Educators, and both national teachers’ unions. That group will meet in April.

“What we want them to do is tell us what history they think is most important for all children to be taught,” she said.

A ‘Full Platter of Work’

In addition, the council has already tapped eight national professional organizations in the field to form their own “focus groups’’ to examine some of those same questions. The council will synthesize all of the reports from those groups later this spring.

“We want this to be as open a process as possible,” Ms. Crabtree said.

This summer, groups of approximately 15 classroom teachers appointed by the council will begin the task of writing the new standards.

“Their job will be to determine, under good teaching and good resources, what can we expect youngsters to accomplish by the time they finish 4th grade, by the time they finish 8th grade, by the time they finish high school,” Ms. Crabtree explained.

She said the council could complete its work as early as fall 1993.

“Obviously, we have a full platter of work to do,” Ms. Crabtree said. “On the other hand we’re not starting from scratch.”

Both California and Florida have already developed their own frameworks for teaching history and social sciences. And New York State last year developed a plan for providing more multicultural perspectives in those subject areas.

The history center also has its own guide for history teaching, titled Lessons from History. The 300-plus-page document, which has not yet been released, was developed by a panel made up primarily of historians.

And a draft of new standards has also been completed to guide the development of the 1994 American history examination for the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

If the new standards-setting process resembles the efforts already completed in California and New York, however, there will likely be controversy over the extent to which it reflects the contributions of minorities and non-Western cultures and religions.

“That issue,” said John J. Patrick, a social-studies educator on the council, “is one that history educators will be debating for the rest of this decade.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 1992 edition of Education Week as Diverse Group Begins Process of Developing Standards for History