Social-Studies Teachers Get 1st Look At National Standards for Students

By Karen Diegmueller — November 30, 1994 5 min read
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The pages in Marcie Taylor-Thoma’s national civics and government standards were dog-eared within hours after she purchased the document here last week. Already she had plans to copy the quotes of famous people from the book and place them throughout Stevensonville Middle School on Kent Island in Maryland, where she teaches.

“Every teacher needs to have a copy of these at their fingertips,” said the teacher of U.S. history and ancient civilization, referring to national standards for geography and history.

As much as she liked what she had seen so far, though, Ms. Taylor-Thoma made it clear that she was not prepared to embrace all the standards wholesale. “I have to go back and make some sense of all of them,” she said.

Ms. Taylor-Thoma, along with thousands of other educators, got her first look at most of the completed national standards that fall under the social-studies umbrella last week at the National Council for the Social Studies’ annual conference here. The documents have been unveiled, one after the other, since September.

Although no consensus was forged here to endorse or accept the voluntary social-studies, geography, history, and civics and government standards, many of the educators said they were willing, even eager, to read the documents and consider how the benchmarks might fit into their states’ and districts’ curriculum needs.

The conference also gave the standards-setters an opportunity to sell their work, both figuratively and literally, to the primary audience for which it was written--curriculum specialists and classroom teachers.

A Big Attraction

The conference drew the second-largest crowd in its 74-year history--4,579 registrants--and n.c.s.s. officials attributed the attraction in large part to the emphasis on the national standards.

More than 300 people showed up for an overview of the four social-studies-related projects before the conference started.

And with more than a day to go, the National Center for History in the Schools had sold all but about 30 of the 800 volumes it had brought from the University of California at Los Angeles.

In addition to offering overview sessions of each of the standards projects, the conference included, for example, programs explaining how some states and districts have used draft versions of the documents. But even at sessions that did not advertise discussion of the standards, the issue came up.

How did a new U.S. history textbook for 8th graders meet the U.S. history standards, asked an educator at a session on effective textbook-based teaching.

“I think it comes up pretty well,” said C. Frederick Risinger, an author of the text and the associate director of the Social Studies Development Center at Indiana University.

“We do have Henry Ford and Robert E. Lee in the book,” quipped Mr. Risinger, a member of the council that oversaw development of the controversial history standards, which critics say ignore or underplay those and other leading figures.

Rallying Round History

As much as educators expressed interest in all of the standards projects, the conference was abuzz about history and the high-profile debate about those standards.

Lynne V. Cheney, who as the chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities was the major benefactor of the project, ignited the firestorm by contending that the standards portrayed the United States and the West as oppressors of racial and ethnic minorities and developing nations. She argued that the United States’ founding fathers and other traditional historic figures were given short shrift. (See Education Week, 11/02/94.)

Many of the educators at the conference supported the standards, and some complained that critics were citing isolated examples out of context.

What they are saying “is so incredibly inaccurate,” said Tim Arnold, a middle school teacher from Durango, Colo.

“My school board members are going to read [Ms. Cheney’s] piece in The Wall Street Journal; they’re never going to wade through these,” said a teacher from Ohio. “Is there a way to set up some kind of information system to help fight these charges?”

The other projects also received their share of comments from those who had had a chance to digest them.

“I’m extremely pleased with [civics],” said Denee J. Corbin, a professor of social-studies education at Purdue University. (See Education Week, 11/23/94.)

Geography also had its supporters. “They are an excellent way to begin taking a look at content,” said Lori Morrow, the coordinator of a geography-frameworks project for Colorado. (See Education Week, 10/26/94.)

A Tough Task

The geography standards that Colorado has drafted largely parallel the national standards, although the language differs somewhat. Where the national standards claim 18 benchmarks, Colorado has six, but most of the other concepts are incorporated into the state standards.

Teachers and curriculum specialists also benchmarked the state standards at narrower intervals: K-1, 2-3, and so forth. The national standards are benchmarked at grades 4, 8, and 12.

“It doesn’t give a message to the 4th-grade teacher [that] you have to do it all,” said Marianne Kenney, the Colorado education department’s social-studies consultant.

At the local level, teachers have been writing lessons with the guidance of the curriculum specialists. They are looking for areas of overlap between geography and other standards so that they can integrate rather than duplicate instruction. They have found, for example, areas where geography and science are likely to intersect.

Meanwhile, the Lincoln, Neb., schools have decided to develop the elementary curriculum using the social-studies standards as their organizing structure. (See Education Week, 09/28/94.)

The complaints of educators came down to practical concerns: How can teachers fit curricula derived from all the standards into their crowded schedules? How will geography fare in a district with a history-driven curriculum?

“It’s pie in the sky,” said a teacher from Palo Alto, Calif., whose students in one class range from the gifted to the learning disabled.

But as Ellen Neupert of Illinois summed up: “Isn’t the value of all of that to serve as guides? They have all been written on paper. There wasn’t a burning bush.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 1994 edition of Education Week as Social-Studies Teachers Get 1st Look At National Standards for Students


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