Social Studies Opinion

Clio’s Lament

By Alan Stoskopf — February 02, 2000 9 min read
In this age of accountability, one wonders where Clio, the ancient muse of history, would find inspiration.

There is a terrible irony that hangs over the educational crusade for standards-based reform. In the push for accountability through high-stakes tests, many policymakers are inadvertently undermining high-quality teaching and learning. When teachers convey a passion for their craft, and students experience a deep engagement with learning, schools are doing something right. When these experiences are diminished because they get in the way of preparing for externally imposed tests, then we know something is very wrong.

The case of how history is taught highlights our current malaise. The discipline is being driven into a grim mediocrity in the name of reform and accountability. The new “reforms” mandated by state tests across the nation are draining the passion and rigor from a subject matter that should be encouraging our students to critically examine their connection with the past. In this age of accountability, one wonders where Clio, the ancient muse of history, would find inspiration.

To better understand what constitutes inspired history teaching and learning, it is helpful first to describe the problem. Educators from across the country echo similar complaints about their new state standardized history tests. A chairperson of a social studies department in a high school outside Boston complains that the design of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, “including the open-ended questions, [does] not assess students’ thinking, but only their retention of disconnected information.” In a Northern Virginia suburb, a superintendent fears that the state’s Standards of Learning exam in history will “narrow our focus and narrow our curriculum.” A history teacher in Portland, Ore., believes that to adequately prepare students for that state’s “certificate of initial mastery,” classrooms are turning into “vast wading pools of information for students to memorize without critical reflection.”

These are not isolated comments. The Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory has estimated that it would take 6,000 extra hours of classroom time to cover all the information required on most state standards, roughly the same amount of time that it takes to earn a master’s degree. Certainly, all disciplines face the problem of information overload, but it is especially acute in history, where one can easily be seduced by thinking history is only knowing an endless array of dates, places, and events. The obsession with this kind of approach to history guarantees students will gain a superficial and temporary exposure to the past without grasping the whys and hows in history.

As excellence is reduced to results on test scores, this problem is confounded. Teachers are determined to boost scores in their subject matter at any cost. This consequence of high-stakes testing on teaching in general is brought into sharper relief when we step back and actually look at some of the benchmarks for learning history well. Since the days of Thucydides in ancient Greece, through the establishment of history as an academic discipline in 19th- century Germany, and into the beginning of the 20th century, when it became a professional enterprise in American universities, history developed its own standards of excellence. They included the following key elements:

  • Using chronology to place events in historical perspective;
  • Recognizing the point of view expressed in a historical document and/or interpretation;
  • Testing the validity of sources—both primary and secondary;
  • Acknowledging multiple causality;
  • Viewing history in ways that take into account the values, attitudes, and motivations of the individuals and groups involved before making judgments; and
  • Recognizing multiple perspectives that are grounded in a genuine search for the truth.

Students developed these skills within a community of learners where views and interpretations could be challenged and re-examined. Evaluation originated within this framework and was not imposed by a standardized external exam.

These historical modes of thinking have developed over centuries. They form part of the canon of the discipline. Most of the 20th century has seen a widening of the scope and audience in the teaching and learning of history. Once the province of white, gentleman scholars, the discipline has been expanded to include more diverse voices. With greater ethnic, class, and gender equality, the field of history has gone through a wonderful, if at times contentious, expansion. New perspectives have forced a rethinking of the dominant assumptions of how history is written and for whom. The triumphalist narrative that characterized the political history of great men at the turn of the century has given way to many narratives and expanded into such fields as social, economic, and cultural histories.

Both the old and modern approaches have been built on the proposition that students need time to do in-depth work, and that teachers need to be passionate about their teaching. Only then can high standards of excellence be realized. The American historian Gerder Lerner explains why this type of learning is a cornerstone of the discipline:

We [teachers] seek to focus concentrated attention upon ourselves long enough to allow the students' minds to be directed into unexpected pathways and to perceive new patterns. ... We extend the learner's thoughts and feelings, so that he or she can move into past worlds and share the thoughts and values of another time and place. We offer the student the excitement of puzzle solving in our search for evidence and the sense of discovery in seeing general design out of a mass of particulars.

Cramming for high-stakes tests that are created outside the classroom is mining for fool’s gold.

Gerder Lerner’s notion of history teaching and learning has been reflected in best practice in our schools over the past 30 years. Perhaps not as often and not in enough schools, but some teachers have tried to make their classrooms laboratories, where both the classical historical-thinking skills and a more inclusive approach to “doing history” are part of a passionate pursuit of truth and personal connection. What does this pursuit look like when done well?

It happens when a 3rd grade teacher does a four-week project on life in a Colonial village. Students create a replica of the village in a sandbox that sits in the corner of the room. They use their notes from a visit to Plimoth Plantation and entries from diary excerpts to guide them in laying out their model. Students make tools, bring in old clothes to alter into period dress, and devise rules for a town meeting. The teacher tells them each step of the way what qualities he is looking for in their work (his standards), and they are asked to think about whether their ideas are realistic for the time period. The students give feedback to one another for each task in a way that allows them to see why they need guidelines for their work.

Or, best practice can be found when a high school teacher in Los Angeles teaches an in-depth unit on immigration in early 20th-century America. She has framed the students’ inquiry into American history with some essential questions. One of them is, “How do we define membership in our society?” To help her students explore this question, she has them read a variety of primary sources to better understand the attitudes many Americans had toward immigrants in the 1920s. They examine newspaper accounts, short stories, congressional testimony, and excerpts from textbooks of the time. They also view photographs and magazine cartoons.

With each of these historical artifacts, the teacher asks students to consider what factors might influence the point of view of the creators of the documents. As students discuss their views in small groups and write in their journals, they start making connections to their city today. The teacher pushes them to clarify their remarks when some say, “What is happening to undocumented migrants is just like what went on in the 1920s.” The teacher asks students to elucidate the similarities and the differences between the two examples. A lively discussion of past and present ensues for several class periods. Students put their final reflections on this question in a portfolio. They then compare their thinking and writing on the question from other important historical episodes they have studied.

What both examples have in common is sustained engagement by students built upon solid historical-thinking skills. These skills are not remote; they are embedded in multitextured narratives that students both construct and deconstruct. Students learn dates and events, but they take more time doing it and make meaning of events by going into more depth from a variety of perspectives. Because the tasks encourage higher-order thinking skills developed within an intimate context of learning, assessment tools need to honor the type of learning involved. In each case, the students had some input into assessing each other’s work, and there was a clear understanding of the teacher’s standards for historical inquiry.

Unfortunately, it is this kind of history teaching and learning that is most at risk in the new age of accountability. Rather than continue to devise new ways for students to grow as learners and allow the general public to view student work over time, we are settling for second-best and told it is world- class. Cramming for high-stakes tests that are created outside the classroom is mining for fool’s gold. Yes, we all want high standards, and of course there needs to be some kind of legitimate assessment that can be made public. But a single high-stakes test severs the bond between teacher and student, imposing a disembodied subject matter on students from a source far removed from the site of the real learning. Students do not get to discover for themselves what Gerder Lerner terms the “general design out of a mass of particulars.” There are plenty of particulars they must know, but little room for original interpretation and critical questioning.

What must be done to restore quality and equity to a reform movement gone wrong? Teaching and learning is much too complex to prescribe an easy formula that sets things right. However, there are some basic starting points that might point toward another way:

  • The national discussion of standards can start by rethinking the assumption that excellence begins and ends with scores on high-stakes tests.
  • Each state needs to review the consequences of the current battery of tests on teaching and learning in schools. Input from teachers, students, and community groups must be sought.
  • Research about the effects of high- stakes standardized tests on student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and school culture should be reviewed.
  • Those concerned should investigate alternative assessment measures to be used in addition to, or as a replacement for, the single sit-down, externally mandated test.

Clearly, these recommendations go beyond the discipline of history. All subjects and all students are at risk with the current policies. Yet, through the particularities of one discipline, the general peril of standards-based reform becomes all too vivid. As we approach the 21st century, Clio’s lament is not just for her discipline; it is for what the new age of accountability has come to mean for all of public education.

Alan Stoskopf is the associate program director for Facing History and Ourselves, a national foundation based in Brookline, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2000 edition of Education Week as Clio’s Lament


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