Mass. activists want high school history to stress political activism over founding principles

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In another year, parents may notice a change in emphasis in the history and social studies curricula at their children’s schools. Where once American history courses focused on our country’s founding principles, their roots, and their application, soon such courses may start to emphasize political activism and the grievances of various subgroups in American society.

These changes are taking place on the recommendation of a small, stealth committee appointed in 2014 by the chair of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). The changes are intended to dramatically alter the Massachusetts History and Social Science standards, which enjoyed broad bipartisan support when adopted in 2003.

Where once high school American history courses focused on our country’s founding principles, such courses may soon start to emphasize political activism and the grievances of various American subgroups.

At the time of its adoption, the History and Social Science Curriculum Framework was fully supported by the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, Board of Education, Governor’s Office, and key legislators. At most grade levels, the standards integrated history with the relevant content of geography, civics/government, economics and related concepts and skills. At the high school level, the document allowed for two continuous years of study of U.S. history. To unify study of U.S. and world history across the grades, the document suggested several overarching themes on the origins and development of democratic principles, democratic institutions, and individual freedoms.

Although regarded as among the best in the nation, the Massachusetts History and Social Studies Curriculum Framework was not without its critics. After all, the 2003 curriculum framework is not a politically correct document; it addresses the U.S. and rest of the world honestly, without a double standard. The U.S. history standards offer, in grades 3-5 and high school, strong standards on the Framers and the Founding, on our political principles and institutions and their origins and evolution. And they stress the Founding as politically revolutionary, not as a reflection of the thinking of slave-owning sexists.

The Massachusetts standards adopted in 2003 tied American and World history together with overarching themes on the origins and development of democratic principles and individual freedoms.

The world history standards clarify the roots of Western Civilization (a moral code stressing individual worth and personal responsibility), explore the origins of democratic institutions and principles, and address the presence, nature, and history of slavery in non-Western as well as Western cultures up to the present.

At the time of its adoption in 2003, critics — several superintendents and so-called multicultural educators – said the document was too Eurocentric. In particular, they complained of insufficient standards on native Indian tribes and on Africa, Asia, and South America before the 16th century.

They complained that the standards on Islam were biased — if not outright racist — because they addressed both positive and problematic aspects of Islamic civilization (such as asking students to learn about the trans-African slave trade to the Middle East from the 7th to the 20th century and to explain why Islamic societies failed “to keep pace” intellectually, technologically, economically, militarily, and politically with Europe after 1500).

They complained that the Frameworks lacked “overarching” themes (because they did not like the overarching themes on the evolution of democratic principles and personal freedoms). And they charged that the document would require students to learn too many facts and leave little room for “creative” teaching.

The critics tried to delay the vote on the standards, and then to delay implementation of the standards by the schools. Nevertheless, as the state began development of the History and Social Science MCAS exams to measure student achievement in these disciplines, most Bay State high schools steadily – if slowly – began to implement the standards.

But critics ultimately succeeded in 2009 in getting the state board to postpone the first administration of the grade 10 exam, at which point implementation in some towns ground to a halt. As noted by Tom Birmingham, former Senate president and a co-author of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act, a History/Social Sciences MCAS test that would be required for a high school diploma was ready to be given when the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick jettisoned its implementation, citing the “cost” of administering the test and remediating students who failed. BESE later voted to postpone the grade 10 test indefinitely, in effect killing the requirement itself.

Not surprisingly, critics complained the standards were too “Eurocentric” and convinced the Board of Ed to drop the History and Social Science 10th grade MCAS test.

Not content to have killed the test and eliminated the incentive for school districts to fully implement the standards, some critics are now pushing to revise the standards themselves, claiming that the 2003 document lacks encouragement of political activism.

Bouncing off a 2012 legislative report prepared by former State Senator Richard Moore, the critics got a “working group” appointed by BESE to deliver the coup de grace to the 2003 Framework.  This “Working Group on Civic Learning and Engagement” was appointed single-handedly by then BESE chair Maura Banta, deliberately excluding history and government teachers in Massachusetts public schools. Its report was presented in June 2015 to BESE.

Most members of this Working Group were unknown to K-12 teachers and to the field of history or political science then and remain unknown to this day. Not only did Massachusetts history and U.S. government teachers (never mind academic historians and political scientists) not participate at all in the “working group,” they have never been informed that its June 2015 report asked for revision of the 2003 K-12 history/social science standards, with no reason given for a revision of these standards.

Critics are now pushing to revise the standards themselves, claiming that the 2003 document lacks encouragement of political activism.

Nor have they been told that BESE accepted the June 2015 report and all its recommendations in the fall of 2015, and that all the 2003 history, geography, economic, and civics and government standards are to be revised by a committee whose membership is now being formed by DESE staff and Secretary of Education James Peyser as I write. (A supplementary document providing standards for “civic engagement” could just as easily have been recommended.)

Because of the “stealth” process in which it was developed (described in the introduction of the report), the 2015 report of the Working Group on Civic Learning has been largely ignored by the Massachusetts press. As a result, very few parents or other citizens to this day know what this group recommended.

In the fall of 2015, BESE voted to accept all the Working Group’s recommendations despite the fact that its report contains no analysis of the 2003 History/Social Science standards. Nor has DESE or BESE sent a survey out to the state’s high school and college-level history and government teachers asking them what revisions, if any, they would suggest for these 2003 standards or asking for their participation on the committee now being formed to make changes in the 2003 Framework.

The 2003 history, geography, economic, civics and government standards will now  be revised quietly and behind closed doors by stealth committees and without appropriate educator input.

Most important of all, no one seems to know that the 2015 report recommended, among other things (pp. 14-15), the establishment of “regional advisory councils”— to take the place of local school boards on matters of “civic learning.” It suggested no details on who would appoint the members of these “councils,” how they would function, or what their legal status would be. Why BESE accepted such a recommendation without broad public discussion and legislative input is unclear.

Parents and others should press to find out what changes the standards revision committee (now being formed) has proposed by means of public comment drafts before BESE makes them a fait accompli. They will want to pay special attention to whether their children are being taught to become “global” citizens or active but informed American citizens.

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky, former Senior Associate Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, is Professor of Education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.