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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 05/24/2010

Bad standards: Not just in Texas

By Valerie Strauss

Texas isn’t the only place with lousy social studies standards, though you might be forgiven for thinking so considering all the attention that the Texas Board of Education has received in recent months as it adopted a new set of standards.

The majority of the members voted Friday on the new standards, which were originally written by a team of educators and then revised by a majority of the board who chose to insinuate their own religious and political views into the curriculum of nearly 5 million schoolchildren.

The standards, among other things, now portray the United States as a country founded by men who were guided by religious principles and were not really keen on creating a secular state. Additionally, they promote the benefits of low taxes, little regulation and free enterprise.

There are so many dates and names and events for students to memorize that some educators say that the standards leave no room for higher-order thinking, which is supposed to be the point of education.

Fears have been expressed by some educators that these decisions will affect other states, because the major textbook companies will use much of the material from the textbooks they create for Texas, the second biggest U.S. market (after California), in books used in states that don’t have their own editions.

It is probably time, then, to remember that history/social studies textbooks and standards are problems well beyond the borders of Texas and have been for a long time.

In Indiana, for example, the state Board of Education last year warned local school districts in an open letter not to use many of the social studies texts that were actually adopted by the state because, it said, they are lousy. The letter explains that the state education board is required by statute to adopt textbooks for use if they meet very minimal criteria. But that doesn’t mean board members have to like the books. The letter said in part:

“...As a board we have expressed our concern that the now standardized form of social studies textbooks -- jammed full of facts without interesting prose, racing through data without telling the story (good and bad) of our country -- may jeopardize both student interest in history as a subject and the effective learning of the country’s principles and values as a predicate to participating as a citizen of our nation. You should feel no obligation to utilize the standard form of social studies textbooks.

"To the contrary, we urge schools to move cautiously and not adopt social studies textbooks without giving thought to what book or other instructional materials can best help bring social studies to life. We continue to encourage local districts and educators to make content decisions that are premised on presenting material that both aligns to the state’s subject matter standards and engages students’ interests, that detail the complexity of the human experience and elicit richer student consideration of the history, values and principles important to the meaning of America, its past and developing place in the world and the fabric of its culture. This is critically important in United States history as a foundation element of educating students toward good citizenship.”

Meanwhile, in a post on the blog, Bill Bigelow, curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, writes about the social studies standards in his home state of Oregon:

“This is no bastion of conservatism. We have a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature; both U.S. senators are Democrats, as are four of our five U.S. representatives. But our social studies standards are profoundly conservative -- in big and little ways. There is no recognition of the social emergency that we confront: a deeply unequal and unsustainable world, hurtling toward an ecological crisis without parallel in human history. The standards portray U.S. society as fundamentally harmonious, with laws designed to promote fairness and progress. Today’s wars don’t exist. Nor does hunger or poverty....

“Oregon’s high school World History standards require students to learn about: how the agricultural revolution contributed to and accompanied the Industrial Revolution; concepts of imperialism and nationalism; ‘how European colonizers interacted with indigenous populations of Africa, India, and Southeast Asia and how the native populations responded’; Japanese expansion and the consequences for Japan and Asia during the 20th century; the impact of the Chinese revolution of 1911 and the cause of China’s Communist Revolution of 1949; causes and consequences of the Russian Revolution of 1917; causes and consequences of the Mexican Revolution of 1911-1917; causes of World War I and why the U.S. entered; World War II; the Holocaust; the Cold War; the causes and impact of the Korean and Vietnam wars.

“I’m not joking. In one year. And that’s only a sampling of what students are expected to learn.”

Now we know two states have bad social studies standards. Tell us about the standards in your state.

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By Valerie Strauss  | May 24, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  History, National Standards  | Tags:  Indiana textbooks, Oregon standards, Texas board of education, Texas social studies standards, Texas standards, history, social studies standards, standards, textbooks  
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Last week Fairfax County school board member Stu Gibson proposed an amendment that the Fairfax County School Board provide no financial or logistical support for joint "community dialogues" (or similar community engagement activities), with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, in connection with development of the FY 2012 budget. Do we need someone with this attitude toward public engagement forming PUBLIC school policy?

Posted by: harmony24 | May 24, 2010 9:09 AM | Report abuse

Not all state standards are like this. Check out those approved in CO in Dec 2009 with little hassle.
It would be great if a foundation supported the development of national social studies standards as well as standards in math, language arts, science, and the arts. But the TX debacle has scared off the funders. At what point does this become an equity issue? The feds will require states to adopt national math and LA, but there won't even be a soc st model.

Posted by: paltoff | May 24, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

Textbooks, like the standards that drive their publication, have sucked since Feynman.

Posted by: tfteacher | May 24, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Arkansas--4th grade--we're generally expected to learn about the regions of the United States in preparation for U.S History in 5th grade. Below are just a sample of some of our standards--these are divided up by my district into the second quarter, which means I'm supposed to teach all of the following to mastery in 9 weeks.

This just shows how well-intentioned adults on a statewide Social Studies committee fail to recognize that standards have to be age appropriate and scoped with other grade level standards. In other words, teaching a Fourth Grade student about Napoleon's role in the Lousiana Purchase requires a great deal of previous knowledge if you want the student to have any understanding or retention of this learning. At Fourth Grade, we're really just ready to be learning about the states and the regions.

Frankly, I'm glad we're not in the same boat as Texas, but I'd really like to see some CURRENT CLASSROOM TEACHERS on some of these committees--if only to add a dose of common sense to the preceedings.

H.6.4.21 Identify the following individuals and their roles in the Louisiana Purchase: Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea

H.6.4.13 Understand the transition of the thirteen colonies into thirteen separate states.

H.6.4.4 Name the major causes of the American Revolutionary War: taxation, distance, lack of communication.

C.5.4.1 Identify and explain the role of the Founding Fathers in writing the founding documents: Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington

C.5.4.2 Identify and explain the purpose of the founding documents: Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, United States Constitution

H.6.4.19 Discuss the causes and effects of Westward Expansion (e.g., economic opportunity, resources, forced removal, unclaimed lands, religion)

H.6.4.7 Identify major historical events that occurred during the 20th century (e.g., World War I, Great Depression, World War II, Space Exploration, Civil Rights)

Posted by: inthetrenches1 | May 24, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Apart from the selection of material to be included, the writing in most textbooks is just plan lousy. My mother had a student ask her in study hall how a plane could fly if "lift plus thrust equalled weight plus drag"; another teacher who had been a pilot confirmed that no such plane would ever get off the ground. The SAME DAY, she discovered the school's social studies text told the students that "the population of most of the countries of the world is divided into two sexes." It stopped the lesson, of course; run a sentence like that past a bunch of sixth-grade boys and you'll get nothing done for quite a while.

For a while I worked for a firm that prepared textbooks; even if they started as a manuscript written by a teacher with some knowledge of the subject (and a lot didn't), they rarely ended up recognizable by that same teacher. One English text even rewrote a short story by a famous author to make the reading level lower! That didn't get into print, because one of the people working on the book had recently read the story and recognized it had been changed, but that was the only reason it was stopped--the publisher saw nothing wrong with the practice except the pesky little copyright law.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 24, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

You want to talk about the length of the standards, look no father than Virginia. Second graders learn about Mali and in U.S. history we have one year to cover colonism to present day. If you look at the pacing gude the Civil War gets three days. As a teacher I refuse to spend the whole year racing to jam facts down my students brains. I take three weeks in May to review and teach everyting they missed. I believe it is better to teach 80% well, than a 100% badly.

Posted by: ktksmom | May 24, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

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