Before I crack into my ideas about standards, let me state a few points of note:
• I love social studies, all of it, the facts, the thinking, the philosophical underpinnings, the minutia. But, my loving of it does not mean that I believe everyone should love it like I do. Rather my job is to try and tell a compelling story so as to encourage critical thinking and analysis in the hopes that students become informed and effective citizens.
• I have taught social studies in 4 distinct regions of the country, which influences the manner in which I frame and process this issue.
• I fought very hard inside the social studies standards debate in Arizona during 2006. It was eye opening.
I closely watch the development of the Common Core standards in English/Language Arts and Math. Inevitably, my mind floats to my own discipline, social studies. As I try to parse out the potential ugliness that may ensue, a few issues occur to me. The largest complicating factor, for me, is best summed up by the fact “that there are simply not enough hours in the day to cover everything everyone thinks is important.” The people, the places, the battles, the bills, the court cases, the trivia of history are often the most difficult to assess value, placement and inclusion in standards.
E.D. Hirsch and the Core Knowledge advocates have identified what they believe is most important to teach, to learn, to know about being an informed and well-rounded citizen. Each state has also spent copious amounts of time defining standards for Social Studies at the state level, debating and passing those standards. In each state nothing is more sacred than the local stories, the small town heroes, the state lore, as well as the regional sacrifices and the battles fought on their soil. As I have lived in a variety of American regions, I can say, the locale, the quirks of the region, the racial and ethnic composition make them all distinctly unique. These local oral histories and photos and diaries and newspapers and court records all serve to tell different stories in locally interesting and engaging ways. The stories of Oklahoma are fascinating, but may not be as valuable to the people who tell the stories of Alaska or Wisconsin or Maine. We are one country, yes, but are regionally distinct and notable.
America’s story is compelling because it is about the national and the state and the local; that the intervening balance and interplay is complicated. Yes. It’s downright messy. It is a fact that certain pieces of history are more valued than others in different parts of the country. Certain interests that control state boards are both politically and religiously motivated to influence the development of such standards. These conflicts, interests and motivations are hard to reconcile at those levels. Imagine the difficulty with a national envisioning of those standards.
Deciding how history and social studies is defined and assessed on a national level is poised to be as divisive a conversation education has entered into in recent memory. This is no small issue, as education is mired in a myriad of contentious conversations about reform and renewal and renaissance. Ohio, Texas, North Carolina and a number of states have been in all out verbal brawls over the statewide standards. When we try to combine those ideas into national standards, I anticipate an exponentially gruesome battle.
E.D. Hirsch seems to feel confident that he knows what every American child should know about history. I however, after living in a variety of American regions, am almost as certain that flexibility in content is critical, respect and validation for regional identity imperative and we need to temper a desire to turn my content into a national checklist of facts and dates. We can do better than this and the complex informational landscape demands that we do.
I would rather not have national standards in any subject area, but I think the impending push for them will be overwhelming to many states that are cash strapped and desperate, as I anticipate the adoption of national standards will be tied to federal dollars. Having the Common Core focus move past ELA/Math and potentially into Social Studies/History worries me, greatly.
Part two of this post will outline how I think we could get this right, if pressed into national history standards. I would love to know what you all think about this, what is the right path, how is this best accomplished, assessed, etc. Colorado seems to have some interesting ideas.
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