Playing Games With History

By Karen Diegmueller — November 15, 1995 32 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In a chilly, windowless ballroom in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Crystal City, Va., the National Council on History Standards officially met for the last time in May 1994. The group had nearly completed two years of work on a set of national standards that recommended for the first time what every schoolchild should learn about this country’s history. And it was well on the way to finishing a companion set of standards for world history. The group’s undertaking had been an unprecedented one, involving the direct participation of roughly 200 historians and educators from every part of the country, every historical discipline, every political stripe, and all levels of schooling. There was a sense of relief and celebration around the room.

One by one, the men and women gathered around the conference tables offered final words and praise for the American history documents that were nearly completed.

“Bravo,” said a representative from a private schools’ group. “Extremely admirable,” enthused the American Federation of Teachers’ liaison to the project. “Commendable,” offered a historian.

Not that there wasn’t criticism. One conservative educator warned that “political correctness reared its head in too many places” in the group’s work. And more than a few complained that the documents were too voluminous to be useful to busy teachers. In addition, there was still plenty of healthy debate over the world-history standards. For the most part, though, the assessments offered were positive ones.

Yet eight months later, the plaudits heard around that hotel ballroom had been replaced by scorn. The documents had become the eye in a hurricane of political controversy. Lynne V. Cheney, who had helped fund the standards project when she headed the National Endowment for the Humanities, was writing widely discussed commentaries damning the U.S. history standards. Ninety-nine U.S. senators voted to condemn both the U.S. and world-history standards, and talk-show hosts were lampooning them. To a one, those critics claimed the documents pedaled a brand of history that sold short American heroes, Western civilization, and democratic principles and overemphasized the roles of the nation’s minority groups and portrayed them as perennial victims.

What went wrong? Or, as one person intimately involved in the project asks, “Who wore the bloody gloves here?”

The answer lies in a tale of political intrigue, missed opportunities, unheeded warning signs, power plays, and personal attacks. It was a game in which the stakes were high. The outcome would determine not just the winner but whose version of history would be taught in schools.

What happened, says Bill Honig, a former California state schools chief who sat on the project’s main policymaking panel, was “everybody dropped the ball.”

The irony of it all is that, from the outset in 1991, the history-standards project had all the earmarks of a politically moderate or, some would say, conservative venture. The project was funded by a Republican president, supported by a Republican U.S. education secretary, and championed by Cheney, a prominent conservative.

What is more, its co-director was Charlotte Crabtree, who had long been associated with projects that Cheney funded at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Crabtree, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles, had served as a consultant on a critical NEH report in 1987 decrying the status of humanities education in the nation’s schools. A year later, she became the director of the National Center for History in the Schools, an NEH-funded center at UCLA designed to promote history education.

Both Cheney and Crabtree also served on a history panel for the National Council on Education, Standards, and Testing, a congressionally chartered panel that in early 1992 kicked into gear plans to create national standards and assessments in core subject areas.

Crabtree was also well-known to Diane Ravitch, the assistant secretary who oversaw the history project for the U.S. Department of Education. The two had collaborated in the mid-1980s to write a pioneering set of guidelines for teaching history and the social sciences in California. Those guidelines were widely praised for telling the stories of often-neglected minority groups, but a few critics complained that they did not go far enough.

Gary B. Nash, who later became co-director of the national history-standards project, was also a visible figure in the campaign to enhance history teaching in schools. Not only was he the associate director of the UCLA center, he wrote the only textbook series that California school officials determined met the new history and social-sciences guidelines for elementary and middle school students.

Although Nash is a self-described political liberal, his textbook wasn’t liberal enough for school officials in Oakland, Calif. Saying his volumes did not adequately address the contributions of blacks, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans, among others, school officials in that district turned down the state’s offer of funds to buy Nash’s books.

Looking back on that period, Linda Symcox, who helps direct the center and the history-standards project, views the current criticism of the standards with incredulity.

“We were called neoconservatives and went to politically correct with no transition,” she says.

From the beginning, however, the project’s leaders sought to avoid all political labels. In their proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities, they recommended a panel made up of the major players in the history and education fields. They included: the National Council for History Education, the National Council for the Social Studies, the American Historical Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

NEH officials, however, recommended broadening the panel still further. The original 15-member group nearly doubled in size.

In addition, at NEH’s suggestion, a second advisory group was added. Called the forum, it included conservative groups, such as the Educational Excellence Network; religious-based organizations, such as the National Catholic Educational Association and the Lutheran Schools; and ethnic organizations, such as the National Alliance of Black School Educators and the National Association for Asian and Pacific American Education. It also involved mainstream education groups, such as both national teachers’ unions and the national associations representing elementary and secondary school principals.

Eight of the participating organizations also formed focus groups drawn from their own memberships to review drafts of the standards as they were completed and to offer feedback.

In addition to those groups, task forces of teachers and scholars wrote and reviewed the draft standards.

When all was said and done, Crabtree and Nash had gathered together nearly 200 participants in their consensus-building process. And, although the project leaders did not ask for their political affiliations at the time, the participants spanned the spectrum of American politics. Eventually, more than 6,000 drafts were circulated for review.

Crabtree “went out and organized the field,” Ravitch says today. “She’s a masterful organizer, and she got everybody who had anything to do with it.”

And at nearly every meeting, a representative from each of the project’s two major funders--the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities--was in attendance.

“No one expects that the work of the history center will be easy ... history is a contentious discipline today. ... But just because history is a contentious discipline doesn’t mean it is an intractable one.”

Lynne Cheney spoke those words on Dec. 16, 1991 at a press conference where she and then-Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander unveiled the history-standards project. Under the terms of the grant to the National Center for History in the Schools, Cheney’s endowment would provide half the $1.6 million needed to fund the two-year effort. The Education Department provided the rest. Another $500,000 was funneled into the project from September 1992 to March 1994. Some of the money, however, was designated for the center’s other ongoing projects.

The history-standards project was the second of seven projects that would, over the course of the next two years, receive federal grants to forge a consensus for what students should know and be able to do in commonly taught subject areas. In a nation where what gets taught had always been a local matter, the entire standards-setting movement was a radical departure. It would mean that a child in the poorest villages in Alaska could potentially learn the same things as the child in the most exclusive suburbs in Connecticut.

The notion of setting voluntary, rigorous expectations for students grew out of a bipartisan education summit held in Charlottesville, Va., in September 1989. Convened by President Bush, the meeting drew almost every governor, including Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

As was the case with all the federally funded standards efforts, there was no open bidding for the history-standards grant.

Ravitch, for one, worried that opening up the grants for bidding would create friction among the very groups that would ultimately have to work together to build a consensus in their fields. “The idea was,” she says, “so there would be nobody sulking outside the tent.”

The task that faced the architects of the standards project was daunting. A number of commissions had suggested that American students were getting too little history in schools. Some studies showed that in at least half the states, high school students needed but a single year of U.S. history to graduate.

Besides having to satisfy the council’s constituent groups, the standards developers had the formidable job of compressing the ever-lengthening history of the United States and the world into a few years of a child’s schooling. In world history, moreover, they had to fashion a canon to replace what was traditionally taught as only Western civilization.

Eventually, the group decided to produce three separate volumes--U.S. history, world history, and a set of combined world and U.S. history standards for students in kindergarten through 4th grade.

Even as early as the group’s second meeting in April 1992, however, there were hints of the fireworks to come. One by one, representatives of the various ethnic groups who SAT on the forum told the standards-setters that they did not see their heritage in the history that was taught in schools. And they asked the panel to be sure to include their stories and contributions as they set about their task.

But one observer at the meeting offered some words of warning about any move to make history multicultural.

“I fear the so-called multicultural agenda in history will serve to Balkanize America,” said Steven Remy, a staff assistant for the Atlantic Council, a conservative think tank. What is most important to emphasize in history studies, he added, are the democratic principles that bind the nation together.

The advice from the forum helped solidify the history panel’s decision not to base the standards on Lessons From History: Essential Understandings and Historical Perspectives Students Should Acquire, a guide for teaching history that the UCLA center had just completed. Critics said the tome was too narrowly focused on U.S. history and fell short in its treatment of minority groups. This decision was important because Cheney complained two years later that she had always expected the final standards to be an expanded version of Lessons From History. The center’s proposal for the standards project cited the guide as one of at least five key documents that would be the starting point for the standards.

A bitter and prolonged debate also emerged early on in the process over the place of Western civilization in the story of the world. And it would continue into the group’s last meeting two years later--the meeting where participants vigorously praised the U.S. history standards.

The argument arose over criteria set as guiding principles for the standards.

The first version stated: “Standards in world history should include both the history and values of Western civilization and the history and cultures of other societies, with the greater emphasis on Western civilization and on the interrelationships between Western and non-Western societies.”

But some participants, such as the American Historical Association, argued for a more global perspective--one that would give less prominence to the West. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development backed the historians’ position.

The debate became so acrimonious that the historical association threatened, in a letter to the project’s administrators, to walk out of the standards-setting process.

Noting that the AHA is the nation’s largest group of historians, one participant in the process says, “If they pulled out, it could have been a substantial, if not lethal, blow to the legitimacy of the standards project. It could’ve been a crippling blow.”

Consequently, he says, project leaders made numerous attempts to keep the historians’ group on board, giving that group more influence than some others who were seated around the table.

The controversial criteria went through four more revisions. In the end, the historians got their way. The final version reads: “Standards in world history should treat the history and values of diverse civilizations, including those of the West, and should especially address the interactions among them.”

“By saying `including those of the West,’ the West becomes a parenthesis--as if somebody was going to forget the West,” says Mary V. Bicouvaris, a former national teacher of the year who sat on the policymaking panel. Bicouvaris, however, agreed to go along with the wording. “You have to step back to some degree in order to go forward with the rest of the work,” she explains.

In the long run, though, it has not been the world-history standards that have caused all the hand wringing outside academic circles--a situation that observers can only attribute to Americans’ general disinterest in events beyond U.S. shores.

The aim of the project from the outset was to build a consensus. Like Bicouvaris, several other panel members say they swallowed their views to help forge that agreement.

As they were wrapping up their discussion on the U.S. history standards in May 1994, Sherrin Marshall, the Education Department’s liaison to the project, reminded the group of that mission.

“Consensus means that we don’t always get our way and get it to work out exactly the way each would like individually,” she said then. “That whole process of give and take is going to have a lot to do with the success of these standards.”

“Much of the contentiousness ... comes from the fact that this project has been extremely open about involving many groups, many individuals, and many points of view,” she said.

For the most part, however, few panelists raised many objections about the content of the standards. If they did, they tended to understate them.

Gilbert T. Sewall was one of the few council members to approach Crabtree with his qualms about the direction in which the standards were heading. Sewall, the director of the American Textbook Council, wrote Crabtree several letters and prepared an opinion piece that he hoped to publish. Crabtree, however, persuaded him to wait.

But a reading of that rough draft suggests that even Sewall, who has a reputation as a tough critic of textbooks, was not very blunt. The article never takes direct and critical aim at the standards project--save for an oblique reference at the end: “It would be a shame if the Europhobic tendencies in multiculturalism were to prevail and be ratified in a normative and widely applied framework for the whole country.”

“They didn’t let us know,” Symcox of the history center says now of those critics. “They didn’t share with us their concerns. Gil Sewall shared his concerns about world history, but in a very low-key manner.”

Still others say the project administrators glossed over their complaints.

“The guys in charge just didn’t have the sensitivity to these issues because that’s not the way they see the world,” says Honig, who believes he made his own concerns clear. He told other disgruntled panelists, however, “you guys had a responsibility at the meetings to be clearer about what was bothering you.”

The project leaders say they heard no objections from the two agencies funding the projects. In fact, Cheney praised the standards effort. In August 1992, she told the National Council on the Humanities that Crabtree and her colleagues were making “wonderful progress.”

“It is very, very difficult to develop consensus and still to hold to important principles that history should be multicultural, but it should also be about what we share,” she said then. “These ideas are sometimes the subject for heated debate, but Charlotte is an amazing consensus setter in this subject, and I think we are all going to be proud of what comes out of this. It may be the single most important legacy that those of us who have been working on education reform since 1983 leave--the idea and the fact of externally set standards.”

Then in November, Cheney cited the history-standards project as the most important--and her favorite--grant awarded during her 6-1/2-year tenure at the endowment. “When you think about what we are doing that is good and important,” she said, “remember history standards.”

Whether Cheney actually saw any of the early drafts is unclear. Crabtree says both the NEH and the Education Department routinely received at least five copies of every draft that emerged, as well as progress reports.

Jeff Thomas, the NEH’s liaison to the history-standards project, says he forwarded drafts to Jerry L. Martin, then the agency’s assistant chairman for programs and policy. Thomas says he also briefed Martin on potential trouble spots, such as the American Historical Association’s demands and the council’s decision to limit its reliance on Lessons From History.

“My impression is it was going smoothly,” says Martin, now the president of the National Alumni Forum, a group committed to academic freedom and excellence that Cheney chairs.

“I’m sure whatever impression I had at the time I shared with her if it was noteworthy,” Martin says of his boss. “From time to time, I gave her progress reports.” But he says he doubts that he gave Cheney drafts of the documents.

Cheney, whose passion for history was well-known, says she never read a version of the standards until “someone called it to my attention in late summer or fall of 1994.”

When she left the endowment on Inauguration Day in 1993, at least two of the 10 eras of U.S. history were in a form that would not change substantially from the finished product. Those eras in U.S. history cover the time that Cheney has been so sharply critical of--namely, the founding of the republic and the diminution of George Washington, Paul Revere, and other historical stalwarts. The period from 600 A.D. to 1500 A.D. in world history was also submitted to the agency well before Cheney departed.

Cheney says she never kept close tabs on the project while she headed the endowment.

“It wasn’t unusual,” she says now. Typically, she says, the chairman does not see projects until after they are completed. As for letters she wrote in praise of the project’s progress, Cheney now says she does not recall writing any such letters. “People wrote letters for me that I sometimes signed because they were an important part of the grant-giving process.”

Ravitch, a friend of Crabtree’s, left office about the same time as Cheney. She later became one of the more prominent critics of the effort, offering an analysis that was critical but stopped far short of condemnation. She acknowledges, however, that she had access to early drafts all along.

“But I never read them,” she says. “I was very concerned not to be seen as directing the process, so I stayed at arm’s length.”

“I kind of blame myself,” she adds. “Maybe I should’ve been more involved.”

Cheney’s and Ravitch’s concerns over the U.S. history standards were not evident, however, when the council met for the last time in May 1994. But the emerging world-history document, however, was another matter.

The educators and historians on that task force were scrambling to have a document ready for publication by midfall. Consequently, at its May meeting, the council saw a draft that later underwent significant revision. The revised version was sent out for another round of reviews, and council members were privy to the revisions and reviewers’ comments. But they never had the opportunity to discuss it as a group as they had the U.S. and K-4 standards.

Such prominent historians as Theodore K. Raab of Princeton University and Carol Gluck of Columbia University implored the project leaders to postpone publication of the world-history standards. “Don’t put something out that will scuttle the whole enterprise,” Gluck told them. The historians said the volume left the relationships among nations and cultures unclear, lacked any unifying themes, and left out key historical events.

But Nash insisted that the standards could be ready to go by fall. “The money runs out four months from now,” he said.

The lack of money precluded the developers from staging a glitzy Washington affair to release the three volumes of standards as the drafters of the arts and geography standards had before them. Nonetheless, the history-project leaders planned to distribute copies of the standards along with press releases to major media around the country.

They never got a chance. Two weeks before the standards were to be unveiled, Cheney, by now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, blew the roof off the effort in a pre-emptive strike. In October 1994, she wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal assailing the standards. Complaining that traditional American heroes are de-emphasized in the American history standards, Cheney pointed out, for example, that Ulysses S. Grant is not mentioned at all while Harriet Tubman rates six mentions.

She blamed the Clinton administration for fostering a climate that allowed political correctness to bloom and flourish in the document.

The drafters hurriedly released the U.S. history standards in the belief that once people read the document they would realize that Cheney’s criticisms were mischaracterizations. Two weeks later, they released the K-4 and world-history volumes.

The approach Cheney used--some call it bean-counting--struck a nerve. Who among the American public was not likely to be outraged that taxpayer money went to creating history standards that forgot to mention that George Washington was the first president of the United States and didn’t bother to mention Paul Revere or Thomas Edison at all? Yet, such blights on the nation’s history as Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose campaign against communism destroyed many Americans’ reputations, and the Ku Klux Klan received prominent play.

That line of argument proved to be perfect fodder for the talk shows. Rush Limbaugh, the popular conservative radio talk-show host, told his audience of self-described “dittoheads” that the standards should be flushed down the toilet. Conservative groups like the Family Research Council soon fell in step, releasing what the council called an “alternative to the history standards.” Even some educators and historians who SAT on the main history-standards panel lent their voices to the barrage of criticism.

It wasn’t the first time that Cheney had pre-empted a report sponsored by her former agency. In 1987, she borrowed the major findings from a soon-to-be-released book that Ravitch and Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant secretary in the Reagan Education Department, had written to publicize her own book. The episode poisoned relations between Ravitch and Cheney for years afterward.

Observers offer a variety of reasons for Cheney’s pre-emptive strike against the standards. Some speculate that Cheney, who had been a cheerleader for the standards, feared she would ultimately be blamed for them. Others suggest more darkly that her husband, Dick, was preparing for a possible run for the Republican nomination for president at the time and that the publicity generated by her disowning the standards could raise the Cheneys’ profile. Still others accept Cheney’s assertion that she was genuinely appalled by what she had found in the documents.

“I just saw something that was wrong and something that I felt responsible for,” Cheney says now. “Under those circumstances, I felt completely obliged to speak out.”

David Vigilante was one of many participants in the project to be caught off guard by the flak over the standards. At the meetings he attended, he says, he heard no criticism at all vented against the U.S. history standards.

“You had a forum in which to criticize and to have the corrections made then and there,” says Vigilante, a retired history teacher who helped write the standards. “To hold back and wait until it’s published and then attack, to me, is a reflection of a political motive rather than a motive of trying to improve the history education of students in K-12.”

It did not help that the project’s leaders’ first response to the criticism was to “circle the wagons,” as one observer puts it. Feeling that the standards were well in hand, Crabtree retired after the council’s last formal meeting. But critics say both Crabtree and Nash took the attacks that followed personally.

Crabtree denies that she and Nash were defensive. Rather, she says, they listened to legitimate criticism and pledged to revise the standards accordingly. But she says they also felt obliged to speak out against false accusations. They were also subjected to hate mail from such quarters as neo-Nazi groups after Cheney’s commentary was reprinted in Reader’s Digest.

As the debate escalated, Cheney founded the Committee to Review National Standards, a panel of critics. But the group, which has received funding from the Reader’s Digest Association and the conservative John M. Olin Foundation, has yet to meet formally.

In January 1995, officials of some of the standards projects met with leading critics of the history standards in an effort to defuse some of the controversy. At the meeting, Nash, speaking for the history panel, agreed to revise the standards. John Fonte, the executive director of Cheney’s new committee, told the media that he still had doubts about the standards-setters’ commitment to change. Others at the meeting said they were surprised because he did not express those concerns during the closed-door session.

A few days later, the U.S. Senate voted 99-1 to condemn both the U.S. and world volumes of the history standards. Later, the senator who cast the lone “nay” vote said he had misunderstood the measure and meant to vote “yea.”

Aides said the measure, a nonbinding resolution, was a compromise aimed at staving off damage to the entire effort to set academic standards.

By this time, of course, the criticism was coming from more than Cheney and a few conservative pundits. Ravitch, too, contended that the U.S. history document presented a pessimistic view of the story of America. But she also believed that most of the problems lay in the teaching examples that accompanied the standards and not in the standards themselves. And she believes that the standards, with some modifications, can be saved.

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, complained that both the U.S. and the world-history standards slight the 20th century and particularly the Cold War era.

“I still haven’t figured out how much of the criticism was healthy and appropriate and how much was unfortunate exaggeration and opportunism and destruction,” says Ramsay Selden, who kept tabs on the panel for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

To be sure, the documents are heavier in social history than traditional historical accounts have been. The developers themselves acknowledge that nearly a quarter of the U.S. history document is devoted to the stories of ordinary men and women, minorities, and the forces that shaped their lives.

The standards and the teaching examples also contain an abundant supply of material on women, African-Americans, Native Americans, and, to a lesser degree, Hispanics, interweaving their perspectives throughout virtually every historical era. Sometimes, that information offers a refreshing perspective; at others, it belabors the point.

Both the U.S. and the world-history books also present a more ignoble portrayal of American society and the West than do the more celebratory accounts of the past. One teaching example, for instance, asks high school students to conduct a trial of the 19-century industrialist John D. Rockefeller on the charge that he had “knowingly and willfully participated in unethical and amoral business practices.”

A handful of other standards use language that seems to bend over backwards to be politically correct. In a section on American industrialization, for example, the book asks students to demonstrate understanding by “explaining the growth of African-American communities in the cities and analyzing the rise of white racial hostility.” The possibility that racial hostility could stem from other ethnic groups is ignored.

The negative, analytical tone comes from the heavy representation of historians whose goal is not the inculcation of patriotic values, says Honig, the former California schools chief. “Historians see history as history,” he says. “They don’t see history as motivation. You know, ‘Let’s get kids to believe in democracy,’ and schools have got to do both.”

And even the standards-setters concede that the science and technology information in the standards needs to be beefed up.

But many other criticisms are, at best, mischaracterizations and, at worst, outright lies, according to some observers.

In her Wall Street Journal commentary, for example, Cheney contends that not one of the 31 standards mentions the U.S. Constitution. But in the era covering the founding of the United States, one standard states that students should understand “the institutions and practices of government created during the revolution and how they were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundation of the American political system.” Nothing plays a more prominent role during that time frame than the Constitution.

The Cheney piece also does not differentiate between the standards--what students should know--and the teaching examples--suggested classroom activities. For example, she says that the U.S. history volume mentions nine times either Seneca Falls, N.Y., or the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a document suffragettes produced there in 1848. Though the count is accurate, these citations do not pop up throughout the text. Most of them can be found in two consecutive pages in one section about changing gender roles. Some fall under teaching examples for grades 7 and 8, and some under the activities for high school students.

The standards-setters acknowledge that not all of the examples, which number more than 2,000 in the three volumes combined, were written with the same care that was devoted to the standards themselves, given the deadline pressures and sheer numbers of examples with which they were dealing.

“There was no time to make a matrix and find who’s listed and who’s not listed,” says Vigilante. Besides, he adds, “keep in mind this was a guide for states and also for textbook publishers. We thought it was useless to repeat things that are automatically in the textbook. As a classroom teacher, there is no way to deal with the beginnings of the republic without dealing with Washington.”

Washington and many other of the nation’s traditional historic figures, however, play a major role in the K-4 history standards that have received so little attention. Some critics, in fact, concede that they have not read, or perhaps only skimmed, this volume that encompasses U.S. and world history for the younger set.

One of the four broad topics that make up this work is devoted to Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and the like, as well as the Constitution, the Liberty Bell, the Pledge of Allegiance, and other fixtures of American history.

Nash and Crabtree stress that the three volumes were never meant to be used as disparate works. Instead, the U.S. and world-history standards for 5th- through 12th-grade students were designed to build on what the children had learned earlier in elementary school. As a result, students would already have their patriotic underpinnings before they faced the more somber aspects of their nation’s past.

Another frequently overlooked feature in all three volumes are the historical-thinking standards, which lay out the skills students need to understand and analyze content. The five standards--chronological thinking, comprehension, analysis and interpretation, research capabilities, and issues-analysis and decisionmaking have received nearly universal praise.

In fact, supporters and critics alike say the American history standards are not all that different from other guidelines for history education, such as those for the new National Assessment of Educational Progress exams in U.S. history. The task force that put together that framework included a number of educators and historians who also SAT on the history-standards panel.

“U.S. national standards, I think, are pretty much kissing cousins of the California framework and pretty much also with the NAEP framework,” Nash says. Neither of those documents, however, came in for attack from conservative critics.

“The deeper issue is I do think these standards, with all their flaws, represent where the field is and probably shows the gap between the field and the public,” Ravitch says.

Ten months after the U.S. history standards were released, the debate was resurrected in the popular media. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who is making a run for the White House in 1996, gave a Labor Day speech to the American Legion in which he said the purpose of the standards “seems not to be to teach our children certain facts about our history, but to denigrate America’s story while sanitizing and glorifying other cultures.

“This is wrong, and it threatens us as surely as any foreign power ever has,” he added.

Later that week, the Education Department visibly changed its stance toward the history standards. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, whose only comments on the standards until then had been terse responses to questions, suddenly took the offensive. In a back-to-school speech, he called the standards “a setback and a disappointment.”

“They portray American history in a bad light, and that is a mistake,” he told members of the National Press Club in Washington. “Those aren’t our standards. We had nothing to do with them.”

Up to that time, top Education Department officials had tried to remain neutral on the content of the standards. They had also skirted involvement in the debate that took place in the Senate over the standards months earlier.

The notion of setting strong, voluntary, federally supported academic standards was an integral part of the Bush administration’s America 2000 plan for improving schools. President Clinton carried over that idea in his own Goals 2000 program, which had been approved by Congress early on in his administration.

But critics now were laying the blame for the history-standards debacle squarely on the Clinton administration. The months of fingerpointing had taken their toll.

“There’s a point at which that kind of myth takes on a life of its own,” says Michael Cohen, Riley’s senior adviser. At that point, Cohen says, the administration had to move from making neutral comments on the standards to a more aggressive stance.

Some observers suggest that the standards were sacrificed for the sake of political expediency.

Riley’s predecessor, Lamar Alexander, who had actually helped fund the history project, himself abandoned the academic-standards idea after he took to the campaign trail in search of the 1996 Republican nomination for president.

Says one participant: “The Bush administration should have set standards for the standards. The Congress should have forced them to set the standards. The Clinton administration saw it as a right-wing Bush thing, and they let it go for far too long.”

Two independent panels set up to review the standards said in a preliminary report issued last month that the standards are well worth saving--despite some flaws. The Council for Basic Education, a private group that promotes liberal arts in the schools, convened both panels--one for U.S. and one for world history--with funding from several prominent foundations. The panels included historians, teachers, and public figures of diverse political backgrounds.

More specific recommendations are to come, but the biggest change the group has called for so far is to dump the teaching examples that accompany the standards.

But, as Steven Muller, the president emeritus of Johns Hopkins University and the chairman of the world-history panel, pointed out at the time, “if you think this is the end of controversy, and we’ve satisfied everybody, no sir.”

His words turned out to be prophetic. Twelve days later, Cheney published a second opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, this time disparaging the panels’ recommendations. Rather than fix the standards, she says, the federal government should recall them as if they were defective toys or car seats.

Some educators and policymakers now fear that the tumult over the history standards will doom the entire effort to set academic standards at the national level.

“There’s absolutely no interest now in having any kind of national activity on standards, and that’s a major problem,” says Selden of the CCSSO. “The whole issue has become like a political toxic-waste dump, and nobody wants to go near it.”

Despite the controversy, the UCLA center has sold just under 30,000 copies of all the history-standards documents and has given away 5,000 more.

Textbook reviewers are also seeing evidence of the standards in the generation of history and social-studies schoolbooks that is now emerging.

“These culture wars are of little practical consequence to teachers in the classroom and curriculum developers who take seriously their charge to use the national standards as resources,” says Michael Wildasin, the high school social-studies curriculum specialist for the Fairfax County, Va., public schools.

In the end, the standards will face their truest tests in the classroom.

“I resent personally as a history teacher the assertion that we aren’t going to know that George Washington is missing or McCarthy is listed 52 times,” says Peter Pitard, the history-social science coordinator for the San Diego County office of education. “I’m going to teach about George Washington. You can’t help but teach about that.

“Give teachers a break. We know what we’re doing.”

Epilogue: The U.S. Education Department this month released results from the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in history. The results show that nearly three-fifths of 12th graders could not even reach the “basic” level of achievement. The 4th and 8th graders who took the exam did not fare much better.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 1995 edition of Education Week as Playing Games With History


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.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

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 Briefly Stated: June 19, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: June 12, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: May 29, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: May 8, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read