Social studies, history standards debate finally heating up

Interest is building over how best to teach history to Ohio’s public school kids. Largely ignored thus far by the media, the draft social studies standards – read, history – have been noticed by the education and history community.

In fact, they’ve been so noticed that the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) has taken the comments it has received on the original draft and is using the input to modify the draft and re-release it in coming weeks. “We’ve got some really good feedback. We’re going to post again. We will have another loop for feedback,” said ODE Associate Superintendent Stan Heffner.

The State Board of Education must approve the standards by its June meeting.

Some opponents to the first draft were concerned with moving early American history from the fifth to the fourth grade, and limiting high school American history to what happened from the 1870s onward.

At their most basic, the proposals from ODE would change when certain periods of history are taught and the way it is taught. These kinds of changes are taking place in other states, too. In North Carolina, for example, some worry whether high school students will get enough American history.

In Texas, well, it’s all about history and religion, and whether Indians and Hispanics are included, and even whether America is a hip hop or country western nation (here and here). In the Lone Star State people have their knives out. But it’s no joking matter, since what Texas uses impacts the textbooks that are published for many of the nation’s schools (see here and here).

A real issue for Ohio and other states is that there are simply not enough hours in the day to cover everything everyone thinks is important – especially given the opposition that blossoms whenever the idea of extending the school year or school day is discussed.

Ohio’s draft standards also push the idea of interconnectedness among subjects – that reading, writing, math, history, and science learning should somehow overlap. “All content areas...statute says must be more coherently focused – which means we must squeeze out content – go into depth and thinking skills, besides just memorizing facts,” Heffner said.

Interconnecting subjects makes sense in that one subject can reinforce learning in other areas.

But, alas, the subject of history may be different. It’s more malleable than, say, science. What we choose to highlight and recite to students is shaped by culture and politics, for example, by those running state government whether they are conservative or liberal.

The current social studies standards were adopted in 2002. The new draft standards move very basic, early American history from the fifth grade to the fourth grade where it will be taught in conjunction with Ohio history. Students get another, more substantial dose in the eighth grade when they will be taught how America evolved in the early days of colonization to the Civil War, a span of about 250 years. It sounds like basic historical civics. After that, they get a year’s worth of American history in high school – from the 1870s on.

That’s not the only history the kids will get. In fifth grade they will learn about the origins of other countries of the Western Hemisphere and sixth graders will learn a little eastern hemisphere history. Seventh graders will study world history from about 1000 B.C. through about 1750.

These plans have elicited some concern.

“Think about this for a moment: Unless Ohioans choose to study pre-1877 American History after they leave high school, the only knowledge of the founding of our country will come from elementary and middle school level instruction,” current state board of education member Susan Haverkos and former board member Colleen Grady wrote recently in their blog.

History buffs are outraged. “I have no problem with fifth grade students learning about Latin and South America but I do not believe it should be at the expense of Ohio students learning about their own country first,” said Scott Fisher, a trustee of the Friends of Fort Laurens Foundation (see here). The fort, in Bolivar in Tuscarawas County, is the only Revolutionary War fort in Ohio. The Friends claims support from the Ohio Society Sons of the American Revolution, Ohio Society Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Brigade of the American Revolution.

According to the draft standards, however, students will learn about their own country first – at least a little – in the fourth grade before they study South America.

According to ODE spokesperson Scott Blake, the social studies committees working on the standards recommended the change to strengthen the study of geography in the middle grades. Grade five social studies looks at the peoples and regions of North America, leaving out the study of most of Latin America and especially South America.

“Grade six then had the daunting task of teaching people and regions of the world. The conclusion the committees came to was to focus grades five and six on geography, with Western Hemisphere coming first because it includes North America and the U.S.,” Blake said. “This serves as a strong reinforcement to the grade four study of Ohio in the United States. The grade four theme grew out of the concern that the study of Ohio history be presented in a context that would help students understand Ohio’s role in the development of the United States,” Blake added.

In an interview with The Gadfly, Fisher said it’s important to study foreign cultures but not at the expense of American history. He believes repetition is important and that certain concepts and events in history should be studied more than once. For Fisher, what the draft represents is even worse and he fears that large amounts of American history, especially Revolutionary War history, will be eliminated and that it won’t be made up in the eighth grade. “ODE proposes to eliminate American history,” he said. “I fear Ohio’s education system will create a generation of American history illiterates.”

Actually, it’s too late for that. Those crying for change in education continually lament the poor performance of American students in math, science, and other subjects compared to students in other nations such as Finland and South Korea. It seems we’re no better in history – both children and adults. The sad fact is Americans really know embarrassingly little about their country’s history.

When the Intercollegiate Study Institute surveyed 2,508 Americans on their history prowess, the average score was 49 percent. College educated adults scored a little better at 55 percent. Our young people score just as poorly. While the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed that overall, knowledge of history was improving in lower grades, NAEP found only 47 percent of the high school seniors demonstrated a basic understanding of our national history.

This is bad for democracy. “Let us be concerned so many young people leave high school, of age to cast their ballot, lacking the knowledge of history that our democracy demands of all of us,” former Thomas B. Fordham Institute board member Diane Ravitch said after the 2006 results were released (see here).

The new standards – however they turn out – are supposed to help cure these worries. According to Heffner at the ODE, “If you look at the Ohio core, students need to have American government and American history. American history is part of the assessment. We aren’t diminishing American history,” he said, adding the new system also will have rigorous end-of-course exams.

Moving early American history up a year, also, will align it with the NAEP test and should help boost Ohio’s NAEP scores, Heffner said, since many Ohio students have not been exposed to the information when they take the test.

“In the end these aren’t our standards. Rather, they belong to Ohio and we need to hear from the people who will use them,” he said.

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