Two Federal Agencies Launch Project To Develop National History Standards

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WASHINGTON--Federal officials have announced plans to develop "world class" national standards in history, one of the most contentious disciplines in the school curriculum, by 1994.

The $1.6-million project is being funded jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Education Department. It is a response to President Bush's call, in his America 2000 plan for reforming education, to develop national standards in five core academic subjects--English, mathematics, science, history, and geography.

The National Council for Education Standards and Testing, a Congressionally mandated panel, is expected to echo that call in its final report later this month.

Plans are already afoot to develop standards in mathematics, science, and geography. Lynne V. Cheney, the chairman of the humanities endowment, said she felt her agency "needed to move ahead" in history to ensure that the discipline would not be "overshadowed or left behind" by standards-setting efforts in other fields.

Noting that, in recent national tests, two-thirds of the nation's 17-year-olds could not place the American Civil War within the correct half century, Ms. Cheney said national definitions of what students should know and be able to do in the field were sorely needed.

"Other nations set very high standards for their students, and there is growing agreement that our own deserve no less," she said.

Directed by U.C.L.A. Group

The plan to develop history standards was announced last month at a press conference attended by Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander and by Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina and Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, the co-chairmen of the national-standards panel. Ms. Cheney, a member of the panel, headed its task force on history.

The history project will be directed by the National Center for History in the Schools, a research program at the University of California at Los Angeles. Charlotte Crabtree, the director of the center, is well known in the social-studies field as the author--along with Diane S. Ravitch, now the assistant U.S. secretary of education for educational research and improvement--of California's framework for teaching social studies to students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The center is also expected to publish guidelines for teachers on what students should know and be able to do in history by the time they graduate from high school. Due out early this year, the 300-plus-page book, Lessons From History is expected to provide some underpinning for the new national standards.

Not 'Intractable'

The new project is the second attempt by the federal government to support standards-setting in a core subject area. Last fall, the Education Department provided $500,000 to the National Academy of Sciences to oversee standards-setting in science.

In choosing to set standards in history, federal officials are tackling a field riven by conflicts over what to teach and how to teach it.

Textbooks produced under the California guidelines, for example, have been both praised and criticized for their treatment of non-Western cultures, minority groups, and religions.

Supporters have said the books go farther than ever before to include richly detailed, multicultural information in history. Critics, however, argue that they did not go far enough. Members of some minority groups and religious organizations say the books misrepresent or omit important information about their cultures.

Other critics in the social-studies field say California's framework leans too heavily on history at the expense of other disciplines, such as political science and economics, that traditionally fall under the social-studies rubric.

Debate over the multicultural content of the social studies has also been intense in New York State.

Ms. Cheney said such controversies need not deter the new standards-setting effort.

"Just because it is contentious," said Ms. Cheney, "doesn't mean it is intractable."

"It's no longer a question of whether we're going to have a multicultural education," Ms. Cheney said. "The question is whether we're going to do it well or do it badly."

Taking a swipe at New York's plan for making social-studies teaching more multicultural, Ms. Cheney said, "New York has often been the leader in doing things badly.

New York's plan, developed by a panel of scholars and educators, emphasizes teaching the social studies from multiple points of view. In contrast, Ms. Cheney said, California's framework is "a model" because it "emphasizes what we share as well as what makes us different."

Forging Consensus

A goal of the national-standards project will be to forge a consensus from among such diverse voices. For that reason, Ms. Crabtree of the history center said, the 15-member steering committee appointed to guide the history-standards project will include several groups with sometimes conflicting opinions on the subject.

Prominent among them are the National Council for the Social Studies and the Council of State Social Studies Supervisors--two groups that had complained of being excluded up until now from federal curriculum-reform efforts. The panel is also to include representatives from the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the National Council for History Education, and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Ms. Crabtree said a second, larger group would also be formed to serve as a forum for the project.

Some of the groups to be involved are already working, under the direction of the state chiefs' council, on developing national tests in history for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The new tests will be in place by 1994, and Ms. Crabtree said the two projects would build on each other.

No 'Light Canoe Ride'

While plans for the standards-setting project are still sketchy, Ms. Crabtree said the effort would be guided by a few key principles.

"We'll go for depth rather than simply taking a light canoe ride over the surface of history," she said, noting one such principle.

In the end, she said, "Those youngsters who've had the least opportunity to learn will have equal opportunity to learn high standards."

Students already faring well academically, Ms. Crabtree continued, "will have the ceiling moved up for them, also."

Some educators, however, expressed wariness about the quick time frame for the project.

"I think the rush to get standards for the sake of standards could end up with the standards not being achieved," said Frances Haley, the executive director of the social-studies council. "In order to get the community of scholars who are going to be using the standards involved in the process, you need time."

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, for example, the first group to set national subject area standards, took six years to complete them.

Another challenge for all the standard-setting efforts, said Governor Romer, will be the "very interesting reconciliation" that must be achieved "between local control of education and national goals and national standards."

Toward that end, Ms. Ravitch said the Education Department would also begin to provide some financial support for states to develop their own standards in history and other subjects.

"We don't believe that standards come down from Moses at Mount Sinai and then we say, voila,'" she said.

"We're encouraging states to be in touch with and work with national standard-setting groups," Ms. Ravitch said. "We're also trying not to push anything on anyone who doesn't want it."

Vol. 11, Issue 16, Page 25

Published in Print: January 8, 1992, as Two Federal Agencies Launch Project To Develop National History Standards
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