With Vote Set, Mass. Board Still at Odds Over History Standards

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 11, 1997 3 min read
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The tides have again shifted in Massachusetts, where two opposing views on what students should learn about history have divided the state school board and created one of the most heated disputes over academic standards in the country.

The debate over a framework that is more than two years overdue is the latest, and perhaps best, example of just how difficult it can be to build consensus on the issue.

Next week, the Massachusetts school board will consider the most recent of more than a half-dozen drafts--this one satisfying many of the critics and angering the supporters of one rejected earlier this spring.

The creation of the frameworks was mandated by the 1993 Education Reform Act, a five-year plan to improve the state’s 1,800 public schools. Frameworks for English language arts were adopted earlier this year, and those in other core subject areas were approved in 1995 by a previous board whose composition has since changed.

Although it is already too late to design curricula and order textbooks to implement a new framework for next school year, many involved in the process in Massachusetts hope that this will be the final draft and that the lengthy process will end. (“In Mass., Silber Goes to Battle Over History Framework Draft,” Jan. 22, 1997.)

“This is the first time in a year I’ve felt optimistic. I really feel like the concerns of teachers have been heard,” said Susan Szachowicz, the head of the social science department at Brockton High School in Brockton, Mass., and a member of the latest framework panel.

The new document addresses many of the concerns raised in previous drafts, said John R. Silber, the state board chairman, who has been diligent in rejecting proposals that he called inadequate.

Heavy on facts, the latest draft provides flexibility in outlining what material teachers should cover. It includes sections on core content, guiding principles, and reasoning for all grades, allows for a more multicultural focus, and provides for integration of the subject into other disciplines. The guidelines are also more appropriate to each grade, Mr. Silber said.

“I think it’s an excellent document,” Mr. Silber said in an interview last week. “I think of all the frameworks approved so far, this one is better than any of them,” he said.

The National Council for History Education, a Westlake, Ohio-based nonprofit group that promotes the importance of history in schools, which sharply criticized the earlier documents, called it “the best and most improved of all the drafts.”

Business for BU?

Such satisfaction is not shared universally, however.

Although they would not comment on the new draft prior to the vote, state board members James A. Peyser, Barbara R. Schaefer, and Abigail M. Thernstrom have previously expressed their disappointment, and even outrage, with the process.

The three were appointed by Mr. Silber last fall to a new committee after another version of the framework was deemed unacceptable. That group submitted its own framework last December, which sparked protests from teachers and scholars who argued that the document was nothing more than a laundry list of names and dates that were too heavily based on Western culture.

In April, Mr. Silber barred a vote on that group’s revised draft and dissolved the committee. He appointed a new panel, which included board members Edwin J. Delattre, Patricia A. Crutchfield, and William K. Irwin Jr., and three teachers, to revise the draft.

Ms. Schaefer questioned Mr. Delattre’s motivations in writing a 17-page critique of her committee’s draft. She accused Mr. Silber, the chancellor of Boston University, of trying to gain a financial advantage for his institution by handing the project over to Mr. Delattre, who is the dean of education there. Paul A. Gagnon, a senior research associate at the university, was the author of the draft that was submitted last fall.

Having Boston University officials so closely involved with the document, Ms. Schaefer asserted, would allow the school to attract much of the business of writing textbooks and training teachers.

Mr. Silber called the allegations “libelous and slanderous.”

But some educators agree that the framework has become more about politics than academics.

“This is not a debate over pedagogy or content; it’s a debate over who can claim authorship,” said Peter Z. Manoogian, the social studies curriculum specialist at Saugus High School in Saugus, Mass. He preferred a prior draft, charging that the new one marginalizes U.S. history and government in favor of a more global view.

“He who screams loudest and last,’' he said, “will determine the social studies framework in Massachusetts.”


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