Social Studies

History a Flash Point as States Debate Standards

March 25, 2010 11 min read

As debate continues around the development and adoption of common standards in English and mathematics, several states are independently wrestling with rewrites of standards in a content area largely absent from that national discussion—social studies—and encountering their own shares of controversy.

Flash points in the social studies debates tend to occur in the teaching of history, from what should be taught to when and how much.

History, in fact, appears to be repeating itself. Many of the issues are throwbacks to the squabbles that enmeshed the voluntary national standards in that subject a decade and a half ago, when critics complained about an ideological bias and contended that the standards omitted key historical symbols and figures. (They were there, in the elementary school document, though not repeated in the standards for secondary students.)

“This is probably the hardest set of standards to get right, because you’re getting into social debates about whose history matters and those sorts of things,” said Terry Ryan, the vice president for Ohio programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

In the current climate, the Texas effort has attracted the most attention, with its arguments over the separation of church and state, whether hip-hop merits study as a cultural movement, and a successful push to highlight the “conservative resurgence” in recent decades, including such players as Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority. Led by a bloc of staunch conservatives, the state board of education this month gave tentative approval to the standards on a party-line vote of 10-5, with all Democrats opposed.

North Carolina’s state education agency, meanwhile, has promised to rethink the handling of American history outlined in a December draft of social studies standards, in the face of an avalanche of critical feedback. Many teachers and historians complained that the document gave short shrift to U.S. history, especially in high school, where coverage of the subject would have begun in 1877, after Reconstruction.

In Ohio, discussion over revising social studies standards appears more subdued so far, though a number of groups have expressed concerns with drafts put out for public comment recently. For instance, the Ohio Council for the Social Studies is criticizing the lack of a required course in modern world history and asserts that the draft fails to build in sufficiently and clearly so-called “21st-century skills” as mandated under a recent state law, while others have complained about changes to scale back U.S. history content in the 5th grade.

A related concern in Ohio goes beyond the standards and raises questions about their classroom relevance. As a result of budget cuts, the state recently suspended for two years its social studies tests in the 5th and 8th grades (along with writing tests in grades 4 and 7).

“Most people know that if it’s not tested, it’s not taught,” said William A. Harris, who teaches history and government at Cedarville High School in Cedarville, Ohio, and is the president of the Ohio Council for the Social Studies. “It’s the continued marginalization of social studies that we’re seeing, not only in our state, but nationwide.”

Too Many Names?

State efforts to rewrite social studies standards come as concerns persist that this and other areas of the curriculum, such as the arts, are getting squeezed out of the classroom, in large part because of the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on reading and math.

In addition to North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas, at least two other states, Oregon and South Carolina, are currently revising social studies standards, though both are early in the process and have yet to release a draft for public comment.

In Texas, the standards are being revised for the first time since 1997, following recent updates in other subject areas, including math, English, and science.

The project has drawn national interest not only because of the political controversy, but also because the standards will guide the state’s selection of new textbooks in 2011. Given the size of the Texas market, the state’s work is seen as influencing the textbooks some other states and school districts use.

A committee assembled by the state, including teachers, academics, and others, worked last year to revise the standards, in collaboration with seven “expert reviewers” named by the state board of education. The state board began debating, and amending, the draft standards at a round of meetings in January, and continued with three more days of deliberations this month. In all, the board has debated more than 300 amendments and is scheduled to reconvene in May to adopt the final standards.

Social conservatives on the elected Texas board have said one priority is to balance a perceived liberal bias in the presentation of history to Texas students; critics contend that the conservatives are using the standards to promote a right-wing agenda.

The conservatives have pushed, and won passage of, a variety of amendments. One measure, narrowly adopted, calls on schools to describe the “conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association.” Another that won approval says students should consider the “unintended consequences” of the Great Society programs of the 1960s, affirmative action, and Title IX.

GOP members, meanwhile, shot down an amendment put forth by Democrats that would have required schools to “examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.”

Board member Terri Leo, a Republican, hailed the standards as a “world-class document” after the plan won tentative approval March 12, while Democrat Mary Helen Berlanga said she had a “very long list of reasons for voting against it,” including concern that it fails to “depict history in an accurate fashion.”

At least one Republican, Bob Craig, who voted against his GOP colleagues on some amendments but ultimately supported the package, said he has misgivings.

“I’m still not convinced that we’ve got the best document right now, but hopefully by May, with additional input from the public, from teachers, maybe we can reach that goal,” he said.

Beyond concerns about the influence of political and cultural agendas on the Texas standards, another issue is the sheer volume of information, especially names of people that schools will be expected to teach. The list grew steadily, thanks to board amendments.

“If we could just condense the [number of] names,” Democrat Lawrence A. Allen Jr., urged his fellow board members at the March meeting. “It takes away from the value and the ability to really do some critical analysis and teaching and evaluation. ... You only have time to deliver the information.”

The composition of the Texas board will see some changes, based on this month’s Texas primaries, though new members won’t join before the final vote on the standards in May. Perhaps most notable was the defeat of Don McLeroy, a leader of the board’s social-conservative bloc, by moderate Republican Thomas Ratcliff. Eight of the board’s 15 seats will be on the November ballot.

‘Too Precious’

In North Carolina, education officials have encountered plenty of resistance to a first draft of new social studies standards, especially because of concerns about when U.S. history is taught and how much attention it would get. The state education department received thousands of e-mail comments criticizing the draft, plus a strongly worded letter from a powerful lawmaker.

“Any changes the state makes to teaching U.S. history must be an enhancement to what students learn in high school and not downshifting in any way,” said Democratic Sen. Marc Basnight, his chamber’s president pro tempore. “Do not carry on with the thoughts of the changes as presented. U.S. history is too precious and important and must be taught in its entirety during the high school years.”

Vanessa W. Jeter, a spokeswoman for the department, emphasized that North Carolina’s draft standards will go through several rounds of revisions, and that the agency anticipates significant changes to the high school component, with more time likely to be carved out for U.S. history.

“One course probably will not cut it,” she said.

In general, department officials have emphasized, in responding to criticism of the first draft, that the idea in scaling back the breadth of the 11th grade U.S. history course was to allow students more time to study history in depth and to spread around some of the coverage, with additional emphasis before high school.

“We have been criticized in the past for having a curriculum that is an inch deep and a mile wide,” Ms. Jeter said.

But Holly Brewer, an associate professor of colonial and revolutionary American history at North Carolina State University in Raleigh who has worked to galvanize opposition to the draft, said recent statements from department officials have been misleading.

Ms. Brewer, a state coordinator for the National Council for History Education, takes issue, for example, with the notion that the plan would ensure students ultimately get “more history.”

“We looked all through the standards quite carefully at all the grade levels,” she said, and did not find evidence to support the state education department’s claim.

Ms. Brewer added: “In the early grades, there were huge gaps in coverage.”

She also asserted that because of pressure from No Child Left Behind Act requirements, most elementary schools “spend 15 minutes a week” on social studies.

John Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a Raleigh-based think tank, said he sees the dispute as a “classic clash” between ensuring students learn about the “global world” while also attending to U.S. history.

“I hope we can find a middle ground on this,” he said.

Lynne Munson, the president and executive director of Common Core, a Washington-based group that advocates giving students a strong grounding across disciplines, said it would be a big mistake to scale back the breadth of American history coverage in high school.

“I do think once you’re in high school and your intellectual development and background knowledge [have expanded], ... you can restudy the American past in a way that will bring more meaning than you might have been able to glean at earlier grades,” she said.

Nevertheless, analysts say that at least some states split U.S. history between a survey course in the 8th grade and another in high school. The North Carolina draft did not include such a survey course in the 8th grade, but did contain a 7th grade course called the “State, Nation, and World” from the 1600s to the early 1970s.

‘Kind of an Art’

In Ohio, the draft social studies standards, first issued for public comment in November, with a second draft released this month, would replace ones approved in 2002.

Stan Heffner, an associate superintendent at the Ohio education department, said the state has long been getting suggestions from teachers and others on how to improve the standards.

“Most importantly among them, and it’s not limited to social studies, teachers said, ‘We’ve got more standards than we know how to manage,’ ” he said. “If we want to get some depth, we want to identify the real key, fundamental standards, and also try to organize them in a way” to promote more sound “learning progressions.”

Furthermore, the state is aiming to better integrate the standards with essential skills, he said.

Mr. Heffner said Ohio has heard from a lot of groups advocating increased focus on specific areas of history and other topics, such as the American Revolution or military history, but is trying to find the right balance between appropriate coverage and giving teachers leeway to spend more time on a particular subject.

“It’s kind of an art,” he said.

In Colorado, meanwhile, the state board of education in December adopted a new set of social studies standards. Several people involved in that undertaking say it produced relatively little, if any, significant controversy.

Fritz Fischer, a history professor at Northern Colorado University who co-chaired the committee that led the standards rewrite, contrasts the effort in several ways with the process in Texas.

The Texas standards, Mr. Fischer noted, “have devolved into this long, long list of names, keeping people in, keeping people out. That’s going to be an endless debate.”

The mantra in Colorado, he said, was to devise “fewer, clearer, higher” standards. Also, unlike both Texas and North Carolina, he said, “we can’t dictate curriculum at the state level.”

In the end, one of the most striking differences compared with the Texas experience, Mr. Fischer said, was how the Colorado state board—whose members, he said, span the ideological spectrum—responded to the standards committee’s work.

“The state board, with very few exceptions, let us do our work and accepted what we did,” said Mr. Fischer, who is also the chairman of the National Council for History Education. The standards ultimately won unanimous board approval.

“It’s about good history and teaching and learning,” Mr. Fischer said. “It’s not about partisanship.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week


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