Standards Opinion

Paul Horton: History Matters: The C3 Social Studies Standards are Fool’s Gold

By Anthony Cody — January 16, 2014 10 min read
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Guest post by Paul Horton.

I could not but help get a little hot around the collar the first time I read the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) C3 “Framework for Social Studies Standards": Social Studies for the Next Generation. Like most of us with history degrees who teach high school history and who take history seriously, we don’t like to closely examine the very bright and glossy NCSS bulletins that we receive, typically from district level curriculum people who have degrees in Social Studies Education.

The fact is that somehow NCSS has a boatload of money, and we history scholar wannabes who have memberships in the American Historical Association (AHA), the Organization of American Historians (OAH), and the National Council for History Education (NCHE) saw money for History professional development dry up when the spigot for the Teaching American History Grants was turned off.

When I saw that the AHA and the NCHE endorsed the new standards on the inside cover, I saw red. This can’t be, I told myself, are these two proud organizations selling out? When I copied an e-mail to the Director of NCHE that expressed my dismay, he was upset with me because I had not taken the time to read the political tea leaves. Many senior members of NCHE had endorsed the standards, and the NCHE’s representative at the curricular table really put up a good fight for history.

The fact is that most education money, public and private, is flowing into the Common Core Curriculum and STEM. The only significant source left is NCSS. It should come as no surprise, then, that NCHE would be left begging at the curricular table because it could not bring very many bucks to the table.

Of the other major Historical organizations that participated, the AHA came to the table because the NCSS document needed some street cred, some History PhD clout. Toward that end, Merry Wiesner-Hanks, Flannery Burke, and Fritz Fischer were asked to advise. Wiesner Hanks and Burke both received their PhDs in History at Madison. Wiesner-Hanks served as co-editor of the Journal of Global History with AHA President Kenneth Pomeranz, a brilliant comparative historian. Fischer, a Northwestern PhD in History, represented the NCHE. The scuttlebutt in the NCHE (I am a member) is that Fischer did everything he could to get a better hearing for history, but left the table very disappointed.

Why the disappointment? History, the course that makes up 75% of the high school curriculum, was reduced within the “Framework” to one of four rubric categories beside Civics, Geography, and Economics. (p. 13) History as a discipline gets five pages. (pp. 45-49)

Such a division makes since in the lower grades, but not in grades 7-12 where history makes up the bulk of the content standards in most states.

I am acquainted with John Lee, a middle school social studies expert from North Carolina State who is one of the principle authors of the Framework. I met him several times at the Georgia State Model United Nations in Atlanta where my kids competed. John, then a professor at Georgia State, and I had several conversations about social studies and history assessments. I remember him saying that the Document Based Question was the best way to assess historical thinking. I said I agreed, but I also thought that “free response essays” required the student to construct their own analytical categories, a more important skill at the college level. We both agreed that multiple-choice questions measured short term memory rather than than historical thinking skills.

John was gung-ho on the DBQ as a way to assess historical thinking. Not surprisingly, so are the people at the Stanford History Education Group who are funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

DBQs are an excellent way to encourage students to think about history. My world history students write fifteen a year. Sometimes they construct DBQs from the Modern History Sourcebook, at other times I create them or I use prepackaged DBQs. By the end of the year with a great deal of practice, the kids get really good at evaluating and grouping sources and using those sources to construct sound arguments when combined with broader narrative contexts.

This DBQ approach, however, while an effective way to teach historical thinking within limited contexts, falls very short of building the skills that most college history professors want their students to possess when they arrive at a solid four year college or university.

Students need to see the big story, the big picture. Unless DBQs illuminate historical issues and themes within a big picture, we lose the big picture. When we rely too much on what we used to call “post holing” we get a good core sample for one place in time, but we don’t get a broad context of the surrounding area. To quote Professors Lee and Kathy Swan, the Project Director, “The Common Core Standards specifically encourage depth of knowledge and higher order thinking, which is sorely needed in the social studies, in contrast to the current tendency to favor breath over depth, or factual minutia over understanding.” (xxi) This is the crux of the problem: as I understand history, historical inquiry combines both depth and breath, facts and theory, primary and secondary sources, corroborative evidence and multiple perspectives. To say that inquiry post holing is what we really need is like saying that micro histories should not be synthesized into synthetic narratives.

We run into this problem when social studies educators have the final say on standards. Within the debate among social studies educators, the focus has been the tension between the inquiry approach and the content coverage approach. The inquiry folks dominated from the sixties to the mid eighties, when the content folks responded to the Bradley Commission Report. NCHE, AHA, and OAH have pretty much come down on the content side until now, but with Common Core and C3, the inquiry folks are making a well-funded comeback. (For an excellent summary of the debate see David Jenness, Making Sense of the Social Studies, 119-164).

But the debate within the history profession has followed a different trajectory. The sixties and early seventies saw the rise of “social history” and the 80s saw the rise of race, class, gender, global and environmental history as well as the absorption of postmodern and neo-Marxist theory that seemed to eclipse the field of intellectual history. However, a strong countercurrent from the eighties forward saw a push to create synthetic narratives that sought to weave together the strands of history created since the 70s that absorbed traditional and “new” history approaches, subsuming the disciplines categorized in C3.

The point is that the profession of History is working its way to broader, more synthetic history, while C3 emphasizes a return to the inquiry based “post holing” that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation support in the Common Core Standards and the Stanford Education Group.

What this means is that the synthetic insights of the new narrative histories, broader histories, will not make it into curriculum packages that emphasize short formulaic essays based on DBQs to “align” with the Common Core Curriculum.

In final analysis, the C3 represent a retreat to a late sixties and early seventies inquiry and constructivist approach. Although the standards list, describe, and create rubrics for “Inquiry Literacies” (Questioning, selecting sources, gathering information from sources, evaluating sources, making claims, using evidence, constructing arguments and explanations, adapting arguments and explanations, presenting arguments and explanations, critiquing arguments and explanations, analyzing social problems, assessing options for action, taking informed action), this is nothing new under the sun: we have been doing this forever. When I ask my student to write a history paper, we go through a far more elaborate process, step by step, as a history exercise using Patrick Rael’s, “Reading, Writing, and Research for History: A Guide for College Students”. There are literally dozens of these guides in print and online for free, written at all levels.

The authors of the C3 sincerely believe that they are refocusing Social Studies Education away from the standard lecture and test mode that emphasizes content. They don’t consider several obstacles:

1) Class size and class loads in average public schools work against the frequency of writing practice that students need to improve their social studies writing skills. Any effective writing program will work to reduce class sizes.

2) Effective citizenship requires social studies to be balanced by social science. AAAS wrote very sound social science standards for Project 2061 that heavily involved the best social scientists.

3) DBQ focus must be balanced with narrative history in the form of reading historical books. Adequate preparation for a college level history course requires the ability to read, think about, and write about historical narratives, so that the forest is not lost in the trees. Learning to read books, and lots of them, is a must for college readiness.

4) Students must learn how to write short analytical essays, research papers focused on proving an argument, they must learn how to conduct academic research using search engines like JSTOR, and they must learn to find books in virtual and non virtual libraries. If they have not acquired these skills by high school graduation, they will have a difficult time adjusting to college history classes.

5) Any serious social studies curriculum should give students effective tools for inquiry. The IB Program’s, Theory of Knowledge, by Richard van de Lagemaat, for example, introduces students to serious epistemological concepts for many disciplines.

6) Strong tools for critical inquiry that cut across disciplines at differing levels of analysis for juniors and seniors exploring topics across disciplines can be found in, Questions of Evidence: Proofs, Practice, and Persuasion Across the Disciplines, James Chandler, Arnold Davidson, and Harry Harootunian. The C3 provides critical concepts that are very limited in scope and depth.

7) C3 is tainted by its connection to The Council of Chief State School Officers, and organization that produced the Common Core Standards that collaborated with Achieve and Pearson Education on tying standards assessment to standardized testing. Although CCSSO withdrew from the C3 in June of 2013, the organization is not to be trusted. C3 could be adapted by a number of states and Pearson could develop standardized tests for C3, betraying the intention and spirit of its writers. As long as Pearson, CCSSO, ETS, Achieve, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are around, they are very likely to highjack any standards framework. We could soon be seeing C3 aligned Pearson multiple choice tests and essay grading algorithms, despite the best intentions of the authors of the C3 Social Studies Framework.

In my judgment as a high school history teacher with 31 years experience, C3 will not adequately prepare high school students for a lower level college history course.

Former President of the Organization of American Historians, Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia, puts it this way, “You can’t just separate fact and interpretation quite as simply as many people seem to think. I would love to see students get a little more experience trying to write history, and trying to understand why historical interpretation changes over time.” According to Foner the key to improving History teaching is not improving “pedagogical approaches,” it is rather “the training of the teacher, the teacher’s ability to inspire students by conveying his or her own enthusiasm for the subject” that makes the biggest difference.

If we are going to make a positive difference in history education, we should consult those who love their discipline rather than the corporate backed, but well intentioned and politically naïve, pedagogues.

Do you think that the C3 NCSS Social Studies Framework for the Next Generation will make a difference in the long run?

Paul Horton has taught for thirty years in virtually every kind of school. He began his teaching career in a recently integrated rural Texas middle school. He then taught for five years in a large urban high school in San Antonio’s West side where the majority of young people were ESL. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the country’s most diverse independent school founded by John Dewey, for fourteen years.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.