Social Studies

Ga. History Plan Stirs Civil War Fuss

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 18, 2004 6 min read
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Nearly 140 years have not erased Georgia’s memory of the trail of destruction by Gen. William T. Sherman and Union troops as they burned their way from Atlanta to Savannah during a critical campaign of the Civil War. Those weeks in late 1864 have left a lasting influence on the state’s history and culture.

Now, coverage of what many in the South still call the “War Between the States"—which has dominated high school history courses in the state for generations—could be largely banished to Georgia’s elementary and middle schools.

Under proposed changes to the state’s history/social studies standards, most study of the Civil War would be removed from the capstone U.S. history course and assigned primarily to the 5th and 8th grade curricula. The plan has raised questions about how well the complex and sensitive topic can be addressed with younger children. Large gaps would also be left in high school world-history courses, which would ignore ancient history and begin with the year 1500.

“A lot of these changes came about because teachers said there was no way they could possibly teach everything in their subject from the beginning of the world to the present,” said Robynn Holland, a social studies program specialist for the Georgia education department.

Elsewhere, educators, historians, and lawmakers may not be refighting the battles of long ago, but they are nonetheless embroiled in debates over how to fit the accumulating body of history into the curriculum in a meaningful way.

The proposed revisions to Georgia’s performance standards in history have triggered a new clash on the heels of a recommendation by state schools Superintendent Kathy Cox to omit the word “evolution” from the state’s science standards. (“Ga. Chief Backs Down on ‘Evolution’ Stance,” Feb. 11, 2004.)

Ms. Cox soon reversed that decision amid widespread criticism. But both recommendations have fueled an emotional and intellectual tug of war over what children should know and be able to do in the subjects at each grade level.

“We have people still fighting the Civil War,” said Alan Preston, who teaches history to middle and high school students in Ware County, Ga. Mr. Preston, who is the president of the Georgia Council for the Social Studies, was involved in writing the current draft of the history standards.

Mr. Preston would rather teach his students as much as he can about his subject, but, he concedes, the all-encompassing approach is becoming more and more difficult to do well.

“The current curriculum has been described as an inch deep and a mile wide,” Mr. Preston said. “This [proposal] will allow us to cover less content and hopefully in more detail, instead of just scratching the surface.”

Out of Context?

Under the proposal, the high school course in U.S. history would begin with a review of the Founding Fathers, the Revolutionary War, and the U.S. Constitution, then jump to 1877. Teachers would then be expected to teach about the ramifications of the Civil War. State officials say the approach would provide for a more rigorous curriculum.

Critics of the plan, however, contend it represents a “dumbing down” of the curriculum.

“Yes, there’s a lot to teach, and it’s a constant juggling act to get everything in, but lopping off 40 percent of the U.S. history and world history we now teach? That’s radical,” said Joseph Jarrell, a veteran history teacher at McIntosh High School in an Atlanta suburb. “I don’t think there’s going to be the depth of understanding that students need, ... and it’s going to be a continuing problem for teachers who make references [to much of this material] throughout the year.”

Mr. Jarrell also argued that many students would not be able to gain a solid understanding of the sophisticated and nuanced subject matter in the earlier grades, or remember enough to make connections to the high school content later on.

And, he said, the proposal “ignores the importance of repetition ... and the spiraling effect of learning—that according to their maturity level, students learn some, then learn some more.”

High school students may even have difficulty relating critical information to the more recent events and issues that would dominate U.S. history instruction, said Diane Ravitch, a prominent education historian and former assistant U.S. secretary of education in the first Bush administration.

“You have to deal with the framing events of American history,” said Ms. Ravitch, who wrote a framework for Georgia’s new standards at the state’s request. That proposal included comprehensive coverage of the Civil War in high school, on top of the introductory content provided in the earlier grades. The state-appointed committee that was responsible for writing the standards, however, significantly diverged from her recommendations, Ms. Ravitch said.

“Even in terms of understanding the issues of today—big issues such as federalism, civil rights, and questions of power—it would be difficult without understanding the Civil War,” she said.

Deletions and Additions

Such debates have characterized attempts by other states as well to get a handle on the history curriculum.

Massachusetts, Ohio, and Virginia, for example, have all embarked on lengthy and divisive reviews of their history/social studies standards in the past couple of years.

Virginia’s standards, which had been praised by experts who advocate a return to traditional, content-focused coursework, were pared down in response to criticisms that some of the material was insignificant and that it could not all be covered in a meaningful way.

Sniping about the revised document continues, with some educators and academic experts contending that it does not sufficiently highlight diverse cultures and their contributions.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, a committee charged with beefing up state standards has been trying this school year to balance the demand for more extensive coverage of content with educators’ concerns that the curriculum be engaging and developmentally appropriate.

New Jersey’s proposal would adjust the historical time frames covered at each grade level, recommending that middle school students study U.S. history only up through Reconstruction and world history through 1500. The high school course would then review that material before moving forward through the 20th century, according to Richard Ten Eyck, an assistant education commissioner in New Jersey.

“The intent is not to preclude people from being able to cross over time periods,” Mr. Ten Eyck said. “But rather, this would allow us to present all the content in more manageable chunks.”

Social studies educators in Minnesota worry that draft standards now being considered there would be anything but manageable.

The guidelines, which would replace Minnesota’s controversial Profile of Learning, outline course content by grade and include more detail about what students should know and be able to do in the subject area, according to Bill Walsh, a spokesman for the state education department.

“It is more content-based, and less process-based,” he said. “But it is not meant to be a checklist.”

Teachers and other experts, however, have argued that the 400-plus Minnesota standards that would guide instruction would allow little more than rote coverage.

Moreover, the detractors argue, the changes would be costly, requiring districts to retrain teachers and buy new textbooks and other materials.

Standards in most states have a similar flaw, according to Paul A. Gagnon, a senior research associate at Boston University’s Center for School Improvement. In a review of state standards he completed last year for the Albert Shanker Institute, an entity of the American Federation of Teachers, Mr. Gagnon found that most state history standards are stuffed with topics that are too broad or vague to allow for consequential instruction.

“My study still holds, in that there isn’t a single state whose standards are actually teachable in the time schools have,” Mr. Gagnon said last week. “In a way, the standards at the moment in history and social studies are still pretty much a pretense, and we are probably better off that they are not being tested in most states.”

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