National History Standards

The National History Standard was developed by the National Center for History in the Schools, at the University of California, in 1996. This standard was developed after four years of intensive work by history teachers, social studies specialists, school supervisors and other state education professionals and professional historians in order to address the disturbing fact that American students knew very little about American history and even less about world history. In a national test in 1988 only a small minority of seniors were able to show even a general sense of the history of America and were not familiar with important texts like the Declaration of Independence. The National Standards of World History were produced in order to help schools and teachers improve the teaching of history and social sciences and also to outline which topics should be taught in grades 5 to 12.

A lot of the underlying problems highlighted by the National History Standard can be traced back to the fact that many social science teachers are not trained and have no specific background in the subject they are teaching. Instead of competence in teaching history being valued, the state educational authorities would rather the teacher is enthusiastic and has a degree in pedagogy instead, as these two values are deemed more important than teaching a subject, particularly as the school takes the place of the care that a traditional two-parent home used to give. This emphasis on the way the subject is taught, but not what is taught, is one of the main grievances of teachers and the main reason why they say that history education in schools is substandard.

The development of history standards also turned out to be contentious politically, which is not surprising due to the interpretative nature of the subject. History can be taught factually or with a subjective perspective, and this subjectivism got caught up in other ideological arguments within American society between different interest groups and institutions in all levels of society. With the changing society in America, the national history standards needed to reflect this and take the changes into account which overall diluted the effect they had on history teaching.

For example, the fact that by the 1990s America was accepting that it was becoming a multi-cultural society meant that the teaching of history now had to respect this change. However, conservative American history teaching would teach rather the history of America than the history of the immigrant communities now living within its borders. The history of slavery and Black History Month would be controversial to and stir up feelings among both the descendents of slaves and also among the southerners. Also, when teaching the subject, thought must be given to the sources, both primary and secondary, that would be used. The sources are important as they give a bias one way or another toward the events, and it is this bias that was caught up in societal debates about the formation of American multi-cultural history. This debate was further exacerbated by the existence in America of well-funded groups at the extremes, both left and right, of the American political system; for example, Rush Limbaugh, who would prefer to tell a narrative of American history from the view of the white male rather than take into account any minority groups, including women. These public attacks on the formation of the national history standards meant that the national history standard became more politicized than it had any right to be.

The attacks on the national standard on history then took on a great importance as it came to represent a battle over the national story that would be taught to students in all schools and a knowable historical truth. History teachers would rather focus on the teaching of analytical skills that would help students analyze the different sources and evidence available to reach their own conclusions. Unlike mathematics, history is not a subject that is objective and the interpretative nature of history meant the national history standards became a political battlefield to create an approved history of America (and the world) rather than a genuine attempt to improve the standards of history teaching in American schools.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The History Standards Controversy and Social History
Nash, Gary B.
Journal of Social History, Vol. 29, No. SUPP, Winter 1996
Everything Old Is New Again: Social History, the National History Standards and the Crisis in the Teaching of High School American History
Bienstock, Barry W.
Journal of Social History, Vol. 29, No. SUPP, Winter 1996
What's College For? The Struggle to Define American Higher Education
Zachary Karabell.
Basic Books, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "History Standards"
What's at Stake in the K-12 Standards Wars: A Primer for Educational Policy Makers
Sandra Stotsky.
Peter Lang, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Why the Battle Over History Standards?"
The Great Speckled Bird: Multicultural Politics and Education Policymaking
Catherine Cornbleth; Dexter Waugh.
St. Martin's Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Includes "Standardizing America" in Chap. 7
The Double-Consciousness of the Academic Historian
Lewis, Jan.
Journal of Social History, Vol. 29, No. SUPP, Winter 1996
The Battle over History Standards: A Survey of Recent Articles
.
The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 4, Autumn 1995
Pathways to Success in School: Culturally Responsive Teaching
Etta R. Hollins; Eileen I. Oliver.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999
Librarian’s tip: "Establishing National History Standards" begins on p. 132
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