Education

Revise History Standards, Two Panels Advise

By Karen Diegmueller — October 18, 1995 5 min read
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Williamsburg, Va.

The voluntary national history standards that were enmeshed in controversy even before they were released last fall are not perfect, but they are not the fatally flawed documents their sharpest critics have contended they are, two independent review panels concluded last week.

“The proposed standards provide a reasonable set of expectations for learning and a solid basis for strengthening history teaching, but these standards need improvement,” panel members said at a news conference in the old Capitol building here in a restored colonial village that evokes the traditional view of U.S. history.

The panels, made up of historians, teachers, and business and political figures, also reaffirmed the importance of having rigorous standards that outline what students in the nation’s schools should know about history, and they released broad recommendations for revising the documents.

Foremost among the panels’ recommendations is the advice to scrap the hundreds of teaching examples that are incorporated in the three volumes that cover U.S., world, and K-4 history. This supplementary material has drawn the most politically charged criticism.

A more detailed report is expected to be released next month and will be sent to the developers of the standards at the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California at Los Angeles.

In a telephone interview, Diane Ravitch, a panelist who not only had criticized the documents but had commissioned their creation when she served as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, said: “The main message here is the standards can be fixed, should be fixed, and will serve as a basis for good national history standards. My own hope is that if the national center agrees to undertake the task for revision, we can declare this particular battlefront in the culture wars to be ended.”

Targeting the Examples

Since last fall, the history standards have been under attack from a variety of quarters.

Most of the objections, however, fall into a single category: The standards undercut the great figures that traditionally have dominated the landscape of history and portray the United States and the West as oppressive regimes that have victimized women, minorities, and third-world countries. Consequently, the critics said, the accomplishments and uplifting ideals of the United States and the West are lost, leaving students with the impression that they live in an ignoble nation.

To salvage the history standards--and perhaps the movement for national standards in other subjects as well--the Washington-based Council for Basic Education, a private group that promotes intellectually challenging school curricula, convened the two panels with the financial backing of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation.

The panels found that most of the criticism had been directed at the teaching examples accompanying the proposed standards, rather than at the standards themselves. “People have a tendency to see the example as the standard,” said John Obert Voll, a professor of history at Georgetown University in Washington and a panel member.

It is within these examples that critics have charged that figures such as George Washington and Thomas Edison are ignored, while lesser-known women and minority figures are elevated in stature.

Steven Muller, the president emeritus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the chairman of the world-history panel, said the examples also give the appearance of a national curriculum, which a number of policymakers and educators, as well as many members of the general public, disdain.

Teachers, the panelists concluded, could find good classroom activities from many other sources.

Examples of Bias

In some instances, the panels agreed with the critics.

The panels found evidence of political bias and complained of “political correctness.” A standard in the first era of U.S. history, for instance, suggests that students understand the elements of Native Americans’ religions but not Europeans’ religions. The implication is that “religion was not important to Europeans,” said Albert H. Quie, a former Republican governor of Minnesota and the chairman of the U.S. history panel. “We saw in various places that kind of bias.”

Mr. Quie said the documents also do not provide “enough of a sense that [the United States] is a desirable place.”

But in other areas, the panelists found that criticism was off base. They cited, for example, complaints that the world-history standards downgraded the importance of the West because of their global perspective.

“Students in the United States--a country which plays a leading role in the global economy and world affairs--must develop a historical understanding of the world in which they live,” states the panelists’ overview. “The West is not diminished by studying it in a world context.”

And many of the deficiencies the panelists cited address topics that have not received much, if any, attention from critics. For instance, they found that the standards too often lack adequate connections between eras, between spheres, and between U.S. and world history. “This makes it difficult for students to discover meaning and to see a coherent story,” the panels said.

Reviewing the Reviews

Gary B. Nash, a director of the history-standards project, said he was pleased that the panels found merit in the work. He also said he was receptive to the broad recommendations but was puzzled by the suggestion that the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights should receive more attention, because both have their own standards and are woven throughout.

In a written statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley called the panels’ work “an important step forward in the resolution of the controversy.”

But not everyone was fully appeased.

“The good news is the standards were strongly criticized,” said John Fonte, the executive director of the Committee to Review National Standards. The private group was founded by Lynne V. Cheney, the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities who last year initiated the assault on the history standards. (See Education Week, Nov. 2, 1994.)

Mr. Fonte, however, said he does not distinguish between the achievement standards and the teaching examples, as the reviewers did, and believes both are biased. In addition, Mr. Fonte said the panels should have recommended that the 30,000 documents in circulation be recalled.

Chairman Muller said he had no illusions that the recommendations would disarm all of the critics. “If you think this is the end of controversy, and we’ve satisfied everybody, no sir,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 1995 edition of Education Week as Revise History Standards, Two Panels Advise


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