Panel Unveils Standards for U.S. History

By Karen Diegmueller — November 02, 1994 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The national history standards that were released last week spin a complex and kaleidoscopic tale of the settling and development of the United States.

Woven throughout the 271-page standards document are characters and themes designed to enable girls and boys across racial and ethnic spectra to identify with the U.S. history taught in their classrooms.

But the embodiment of these very elements that supporters say so enrich the standards have provoked outcries of imbalance and revisionism from critics who contend that such a portrayal of the United States is deceptive.

So vocal--and prominent--has the criticism been that the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California at Los Angeles released the standards for grades 5-12 two weeks early.

World history and K-4 history standards are still scheduled to be presented next week in Washington to Sheldon Hackney, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the project’s major benefactors.

History is among a dozen projects under way or recently completed that will offer guidelines of what students should know and be able to do in a given subject at certain grade levels.

It is also one of seven standards projects to receive federal funding. The N.E.H. and the U.S. Education Department spent more than $2 million to develop the history standards.

Controversy Expected

From the very beginning, history was expected to be one of the most, if not the most, controversial of the voluntary national standards projects.

Outside of education circles, scant attention has been paid to other standards’ projects as they have been issued.

But history has awakened the national media and soon may prove to be fodder for the radio talk-show circuit.

It is no small irony that the individual largely responsible for endowing the history project is now its harshest foe--Lynne V. Cheney, the former chairwoman of the N.E.H.

Last month, she pre-empted the official release of the U.S. history standards by writing a scathing commentary that appeared in The Wall Street Journal. In it, she vowed to fight the certification of the standards once a national panel is in place.

She maintains that the U.C.L.A. center’s grant proposal was based on a previous volume it had published, Lessons From History, but that the result is far different from that work.

“My overall objection is that they give us this warped and distorted version of the American past in which it becomes a story of oppression and failure,” Ms. Cheney said last week in an interview.

“The things that we have done that are successes, the triumphs, the progress that we have made are not given sufficient emphasis, so that students learning history according to these standards would have a very warped view of our past,” said Ms. Cheney, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

She notes, for instance, that there is no standard mentioning the U.S. Constitution, although the Great Depression merits three standards.

According to Ms. Cheney, the document also gives short shrift to such stalwarts of traditional U.S. history lessons as George Washington, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell.

She also contends that the standards become partisan, as well as politicized, the further they get into the 20th century.

“Ollie North gets mentioned more than Robert E. Lee,” said Ms. Cheney of the retired Marine officer who was a prominent figure in the Iran-Contra incident and who is now running for the U.S. Senate in Virginia.

“It is fine to include stories of men and women we used to not pay attention to,” said Ms. Cheney, “but that is no excuse to drive out consideration of the greats who, after all, did give shape to the history we are living as a consequence.”

But the standards’ developers say her arguments are disingenuous. For instance, while the U.S. Constitution has no stand-alone segment, it is embedded throughout the document.

And the volume is full of references to racism and sexism, as well as slavery and the brutal treatment of Native Americans.

“Those may not be the most agreeable subjects, but they are part of the historical record,” said Samuel L. Banks, a member of the National Council for History Standards, the group that oversaw the standards’ development.

Mr. Banks also noted that discussion of minorities and women are not treated as isolated subjects, as they often have been in school curricula.

“When we talk about the Revolutionary War, we portray the fact that blacks fought in the war,” said Mr. Banks, the executive director of compensatory education for the Baltimore public schools. “Youngsters will be able to see that,” he said. Students will “be able to see the remarkable role that women played in the Civil War.”

An Early Release

Gary B. Nash, a co-director of the standards project and a history professor at U.C.L.A., said the decision to release the standards early was made after Ms. Cheney’s commentary appeared.

“Since the charges she made are unfounded, we found it best that everyone should have an opportunity to see for themselves,” Mr. Nash said.

He points to the inclusion of Richard M. Nixon, who is cited 27 times, and Ronald Reagan, who is named 14 times. “It’s not that white males are slighted,” Mr. Nash said. “They are there, but their names are supplemented by a lot of people who are left out of history books.”

But Mr. Nash said he welcomes the criticism. “I think it just indicates that history matters. The discussions are healthy and should go on, but we can’t expect complete agreement. This is a country where I hope we have no official history.”

Others criticisms of the standards have been more tempered.

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said he found many strong sections in the document.

“Unfortunately, as it moves into the present, the history becomes more contentious and less balanced,” said Mr. Shanker, who urged states to consider the standards as one source as they draft their own sets of standards.

Diane S. Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education, said that, on balance, she found the standards to be a very good effort.

“I would give it a score of 75,” Ms. Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University, said. “They should keep working on it, make it more parsimonious, and get out whatever seems to be biased in terms of politics. It shouldn’t have a whiff of political partisanship from the left or the right.”

Sheer Volume

At one of the last gatherings of the history standards group, the overall complaint from the hundreds of reviewers across the country was the sheer volume of the document--not the content.

There are 31 standards that run across 10 overlapping eras beginning with the pre-1492 societies that converged on the Americas and ending with the MTV society of the 1990’s.

The standards also cover more than the traditional political and institutional history. They include social, scientific, economic, and cultural history as well.

Each standard lists what students should be able to do at various grade levels.

Lastly, there are examples of classroom activities for teachers to use if they so choose.

Copies of Exploring the American Experience are available from the National Center for History in the Schools, U.C.L.A., 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 761, Los Angeles, Calif. 90024-4108. The price is $18.95 for educators and $24.95 for institutions, plus a $5 shipping and handling fee for each book. Checks should be payable to Regents, University of California.

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 1994 edition of Education Week as Panel Unveils Standards for U.S. History

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP