Reflections on the National History Standards

By Nash, Gary B. | National Forum, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Reflections on the National History Standards


Nash, Gary B., National Forum


In a country where arguing about politics, baseball, and every other conceivable topic is a national pastime, it should be no surprise that we argue about history - particularly about how to teach the past to young students in the schools. Yet, in the heated controversy over the National History Standards so much ink was spilled and television and radio time occupied that future historians may conclude that the three plainly presented curricular guidelines making up the standards represent a special moment in our very old arguments about rethinking the past. This essay examines the genesis of the National History Standards, the controversy over them, and what their future is likely to be.

WHO WROTE THE BOOKS

As with national standards in science, civics, geography, and the arts, the history standards originated in the National Education Goals adopted by the nation's fifty governors in 1989; in these goals, state leaders specified one of the key goals as the creation of challenging discipline-based standards. Endorsed by President George Bush, these goals led to a Congressionally appointed National Council on Education Standards in 1992. As a result of this mandate, funding for writing the history standards came from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Department of Education, headed by Lynne Cheney and Lamar Alexander respectively. The task of coordinating the writing of standards fell to the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA, earlier funded by NEH.

Aware that history was a dynamic field and a contested terrain, the History Standards Project, cochaired by Charlotte Crabtree, an expert on K-12 social studies, and me, Director of the National Center for History in the Schools, built a structure for involving dozens of national organizations concerned with history education. In sharp contrast to how curricular frameworks are constructed in other countries (usually in ministries of education), the Project cast a nationwide net to maximize democratic involvement. Components of the Project included the following:

* a policy-setting body, called the National Council for History Standards, consisting of the presidents of nine major organizations and twenty-two other nationally recognized administrators, historians, and teachers.

* two taskforces of teachers in World and United States history - drawn equally from elementary, middle, and high schools - who would work with academic historians to draft the standards.

* nine organizational focus groups that would critique drafts of the standards as they were generated.

* a national forum, consisting of thirty-one national organizations that would have input into the creation of the standards and review the penultimate draft.

Whatever the outcome of the resulting history standards, the project's codirectors were determined that they would be created through open debate, multiple reviews, and the active participation of the largest organizations of history educators in the nation. This collaboration and consensus-building between K-12 teachers and college historians was altogether unprecedented. Never in the long history of public education, reaching back more than three hundred years, had such an attempt been made to raise the level of history education. Never before had such a broad-based group of history educators from all parts of the country gathered to work collaboratively on such an enterprise. The History Standards Project represented the building of bridges between two groups of largely separated educators. These bridges may even outlast the standards themselves.

It took the teacher-scholar task forces thirty-two months, five drafts, and mountains of critiques before the supervising National Council for History Standards decided that three books were ready for publication. In November 1994, NCHS released National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience (Grades 5-12); National Standards for World History: Exploring Paths to the Present (Grades 5-12); and National Standards for Grades K-4: Expanding Children's World in Time and Space. …

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