Tuesday, December 16, 2003

The history standards are coming, like it or not 

We expect the new social science standards to come out any day now, and so the newspaper drumbeats are continuing. Over the weekend in the StarTribune, Norman Draper looked at history teachers and compared what they teach now to what the standards might suggest. (They're not done yet, so we don't know what the re-draft will be.)
A high-school U.S. history course syllabus is more likely to pose questions about why America has shortchanged minority members and women and dumped on blue-collar workers, and to highlight women's suffrage, the environmental and civil rights movements and the Vietnam War.

The state proposal doesn't ignore those but is more likely to feature names and events such as the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere, the Battle of the Bulge and agricultural implement pioneers Cyrus McCormick and John Deere.

Even the language used -- "robber barons" vs. "rise of corporations" -- is a tip-off that this is one of the battlegrounds in America's culture war, which often pits conservatives against liberals, Republicans against Democrats.

The proposed social studies standards -- of which U.S. history is a part -- are being tweaked before a draft is released this week. There are signs that criticism slamming the requirements as being about too many white men and battles, and too "America the Beautiful," are having an impact.

For instance, the latest version of the high-school requirements includes specific references to Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; they were missing from the first draft. And indications are that the hundreds of requirements might be pared by 30 to 40 percent to make them more palatable to teachers.
That's a fair assessment of what is happening. The rest of the story details the level of coverage of some topics in modern high school history courses. We learn thatIt's not a question of whether those are important, but a question of what you choose to do with the most limited resource a teacher has: time. The decision to include Philliss Wheatley may mean students don't learn of Ethan Allen. While one teacher says it's a "political decision" what to include or not, Draper correctly states earlier in the article that it's a cultural issue. In some places, such as the article's description of Anoka-Hennepin's seventh grade history syllabus, military history is important -- that's fine, but is it as important as the history of American musical forms like blues or rock? If you spend 2.5 weeks on civil rights, plus a week and a half on women's sufferage, what did you choose not to teach?

Probably more frightening than this is what students think. Said one student, "You got a thousand pages on white people, you could at least give Somalia a page or two." Um, it's a U.S. history class, son. Worth reading to see the debate over whether it's "a teacher's job to instill patriotism in a student."

More coverage coming when the standards are posted online in the next day or two.