Standards for World History A Tough Task

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Arlington, Va.

After two years of work, the effort to draft voluntary standards for the teaching of U.S. history is on target and nearing completion, participants at a meeting convened here by the National Council for History Standards have agreed.

But the task of creating benchmarks for the panorama of human history across six continents and many millenniums remains a daunting prospect, the educators and policymakers who met here last month acknowledged.

The project, involving several hundred teachers and historians, is fine-tuning the content of the U.S.-history standards.

World history, however, is at the stage where U.S. history was a year ago. So some of the historians on the council are questioning whether they can finish work before funding for the project runs out in four months.

The chapter on the tumultuous history of the 20th century since the outbreak of World War I, for example, is still being written.

Moreover, many of the examples that are intended to be included in the suggested teaching activities for world history are sketchy or missing.

"We are trying to do something in the schools that, I feel, no one at the university feels is possible to do at the university level,'' Theodore K. Rabb, a historian at Princeton University, said at the council's three-day meeting. "We're just going to need time to do this in detail.''

But Gary B. Nash, a director of the project, said the world-history standards will have gone through six drafts before the end of summer.

"We're not going to pretend that we can perfect the standards for world history, but we can [prepare] a well-done, rich view of world history in this country,'' Mr. Nash said.

An Open Process

One of seven projects underwritten by the federal government to develop criteria for what students should know and be able to do in key subjects, the $2 million history-standards project has been among the most contentious, both because of the sensitivity of the subject matter and the openness of the process.

The National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California at Los Angeles, which administers the project, has solicited the ideas of hundreds of educators, historians, policymakers, business leaders, and public-interest groups to develop the standards.

Charlotte Crabtree, who directs the project along with Mr. Nash, recalled that the initial drafts of the U.S.-history standards drew some 500 pages of comments each time.

Standards-setting for world history "is the most difficult because this is opening world history beyond Western civilization,'' Ms. Crabtree said.

She cautioned that the council needs to work toward a consensus or face the prospect of endangering the world-history project.

"The English standards were defunded and folded because they couldn't cope with that,'' she said.

The federal government in March withdrew funding for the existing English-standards project, although the groups involved in the effort have vowed to continue it with other resources. (See Education Week, May 4, 1994.)

Beyond Western Civilization

World history is clearly the more formidable of the tasks in setting history standards, experts say, because there is no established canon. At the precollegiate level, Western civilization has traditionally been taught.

Nor do many colleges teach world history. Only this year, for example, did U.C.L.A. begin offering a world-history course, which was spurred largely by the history-standards project.

As a result, nearly all the content to be included is open for debate.

In the current draft, for example, students would be expected to know about developments in East Asia in the era of the Tang Empire, as well as the patterns of migration, long-distance trade, and state-building in sub-Saharan Africa between the 11th and 15th centuries. That would be in addition to more familiar terrain such as the causes and consequences of the Industrial Revolution.

Much of the discussion centers on how to weave Asian and African history into a world-history curriculum long dominated in the United States by the development of Europe and the Americas, while still giving the appropriate weight to the crucial Western influence on such concepts as democracy.

"We're not interested in a history that is Eurocentric,'' said John J. Patrick, the director of the Social Studies Development Center at Indiana University. "We're interested in a global history.''

But Mr. Patrick also noted that developments in the West greatly influenced the rest of the world.

And Mary Bicouvaris, a teacher at the Hampton Roads Academy in Newport News, Va., implored the council not to discard all tradition.

"Why are you turning away from the rise of the West?'' asked Ms. Bicouvaris, the 1989 National Teacher of the Year. "Is there a contempt for the rise of the West?''

But others on the panel said they were not striving to appear "political correct,'' but to insure that other cultures were given their proper place in the story of mankind.

'A Watershed in History'

Drafters of the U.S.-history standards wrestled with similar issues as they sought to incorporate the roles played by women and various racial and ethnic groups in the United States.

While some of those concerns continued to surface at the meeting, representatives of numerous organizations that reviewed the standards for the most part expressed satisfaction with the document.

"My most general statement is, bravo!'' said Joyce McCray of the Council for American Private Education.

"The draft has been a tremendous improvement over the last one I saw,'' said Nguyen Minh Chau, the vice president of the National Association for Asian and Pacific American Education. She noted both a greater inclusiveness and a smoother blending of gender, race, and ethnicity into U.S. history.

Moreover, Ms. Chau noted the sophistication with which the standards addressed such issues as the ambiguity in the treatment of black soldiers who have been honored for fighting for their country but subjected to racism in civilian life.

"The document,'' said Clifford Trafzer of the Native American Heritage Commission, "is a watershed in American history.''

A Literary Richness

Although most of the comments on substantive issues at the meeting focused on relatively minor points, some reviewers pointed to areas they felt had been given short shrift, such as the role of religion in American life.

Another area of disagreement was in the use of literature to teach history, especially for elementary students.

While some reviewers and council members lauded the richness of the literature used to draw children into history, others suggested the standards reflected an overreliance on it.

"It does look too much like it's a language-arts curriculum,'' said Linda Levstik of the National Council for the Social Studies.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive responses to the U.S.-history benchmarks, many reviewers expressed concern that the magnitude of the standards could undermine their acceptance by the public, policymakers, and teachers.

The latest U.S.-history draft runs slightly more than 200 pages, and the world-history document is expected to be about 10 percent longer when completed.

The format spells out each content standard--what students should know--followed by a list of what they should be able to do. Also included are examples of teaching activities broken down by age group. (See examples, this page.)

Chester Finn Jr., a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, recommended that the council prepare a "shorter, livelier, pithier'' volume for the general public.

"What is your worst critic on the Rush Limbaugh show going to say on the long version?'' he asked.

'Battleship Into a Bottle'

Others expressed concern that teachers would be overwhelmed by the amount of material.

"It's like putting a battleship into a bottle,'' said A. Graham Down, the president of the Council for Basic Education. "I just don't think it's going to be possible to cover all of these standards.''

But standards-council members said they were worried that paring down the standards would cut most deeply into the multicultural and gender components that are being included for the first time.

"When you start talking about 'less than more,' some part of inclusion will be left out,'' said Samuel Banks, the director of compensatory education for the Baltimore public schools.

The council left open the possibility of drafting two or three versions of the standards. There could be a summary for the public, a larger volume for the classroom, and a mid-length document for policymakers and the National Education Standards and Improvement Council.

Created under the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, NESIC will certify voluntary national standards for history and other subjects. Its members have yet to be named, and until the panel meets, little will be known about its expectations.

"This is not a good time to lock yourselves in to a definitive packaging,'' advised Sherrin Marshall, the history-project officer for the U.S. Education Department.

Vol. 13, Issue 36

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