History Center Shares New Set Of Standards

By Karen Diegmueller — April 10, 1996 5 min read
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Timbuktu has disappeared. Pearl Harbor has ascended. George Washington is in; Eleanor Roosevelt is out. And names and places like Joseph McCarthy and Seneca Falls, N.Y., whose prominence so irked critics the last time around, have been allotted one mention apiece in the revised national history standards that were released last week.

Students exposed to the new voluntary guidelines that spell out what they should know in grades 4, 8, and 12 also will be introduced to a more uplifting history of the United States and the West.

At the same time, though, the authors have not sugarcoated the past. Episodes such as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II are still expected to be studied.

“The revisions were very successful,” said Diane Ravitch, who awarded funding for the project when she was an assistant U.S. secretary of education and who later became a critic of the standards. “What they have managed to do now is be nonjudgmental.”

Additions and Subtractions

The National Center for History in the Schools, based at the University of California at Los Angeles, undertook the task of rewriting the standards after they became embroiled in controversy when they were released in late 1994. (See Education Week, Nov. 2, 1994.)

Conservatives did most of the criticizing, but more moderate historians and educators also complained. They said the drafters were so concerned about telling the stories of previously neglected minority groups and women--and the unjust treatment they were subjected to--that they disregarded significant historical figures and the positive features of the United States and the West.

Some critics recommended that the entire project be scrapped. But the Washington-based Council for Basic Education, which promotes high academic standards in the schools, impaneled two groups to review the standards. The panels deemed them flawed but salvageable and suggested ways to improve them.

The recommendations are reflected in the new “basic edition.” The three sets of standards--K-4, U.S. history, and world history--that totaled 663 pages the first time around have been incorporated into a single 225-page volume.

The downsizing is the result of eliminating the teaching examples, the most contentious part of the standards.

“To many people, they were exciting examples, but they made it so terribly unbalanced,” said Albert Quie, a former Minnesota governor who was the chairman of the U.S. history review panel for the CBE.

Teachers, in conjunction with the history center, are preparing two stand-alone volumes for classroom use that will include revised teaching examples.

The most extensive changes are in U.S. history. Introductions to each of the 10 eras have been expanded generally with more upbeat additions. To the era on expansion and reform, for instance, has been added: “Students should study how Americans, animated by land hunger, the ideology of ‘Manifest Destiny,’ and the optimism that anything was possible with imagination, hard work, and the maximum freedom of the individual, flocked to the Western frontier.”

The standards also address such issues as the attraction of immigrants to the United States and the opportunities available to them--subjects that were largely overlooked in the original document.

But students also are asked to learn about the difficulties the newcomers encountered.

In the standards for both U.S. and world history, white Westerners no longer seem to be portrayed as the only oppressors. Students are expected to know about gang slavery in the Middle East and the rise of racial hostility on the part of many groups in 19th-century U.S. cities.

The Cold War and the 20th century have been amplified in both subjects as well. Education, science and technology, and economics have also been beefed up. Another addition is the study of ideas, particularly as they relate to democracy.

The authors have added more than they have subtracted, but what is missing is the notion that minorities--and particularly women--were members of monolithic groups.

And while a few names, such as George Washington, have been added prominently to the standards, many more names do not appear. One standard discusses electric power and telephones, but Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, the men who are credited with inventing the incandescent electric lamp and the telephone, respectively, are still not mentioned.

“We didn’t feel we were in the business of writing lists of names for kids to study,” said Gary B. Nash, the UCLA history professor who directed the project. “To do that would have been catering to the bean counters,” said Mr. Nash, referring to the critics who kept track of the number of times the names of lesser figures appeared and the absence of more prominent ones.

‘Political Correctness’ Gone

For the most part, the revised standards have been well received, especially those dealing with the United States.

“This is a much more usable and attractive and far less controversial product, and not because it’s namby-pamby,” said Steven Muller, the president emeritus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the chairman of the CBE’s review panel for the world history standards.

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Ruth Wattenberg, the union’s liaison to the history-standards project, said the U.S. standards had improved substantially.

And though they are still troubled by the world history standards, the pair says that they, too, have been improved.

“The PC problem is essentially remedied,” Ms. Wattenberg said, referring to charges of political correctness, “the anti-Western bias is gone, and the sense that the Cold War was nothing but a neutral competition between the United States and the Soviet Union is all remedied.

“The problem, and it’s still a big problem, is there is no focus in the [world history] document.”

John Fonte, the executive director of the Washington-based Committee to Review National Standards, said the standards are better overall but do not deserve to be a national model.

Lynne V. Cheney, who spearheaded the national history-standards project when she was the chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and later became one of its most vocal critics, founded the private group.

While much of the offensive language and political bias has been removed, Mr. Fonte said, the standards still slight the West, display partisanship, editorialize, and contain inaccuracies.

Mr. Nash, the project director, said: “I’m very pleased there is even broader consensus than we achieved the first time around, and it includes some of the major critics. This has been a long, ongoing effort and a historic collaboration between teachers and historians to do something very positive about the very sad state of history education.

“My hope is it won’t be political season anymore.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 1996 edition of Education Week as History Center Shares New Set Of Standards


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