Heather Cox Richardson
In early June, the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers released the Common Core School Standards. Alaska and Texas opted out of the project, but officers of the other forty-eight states (plus two Territories and Washington D.C.) came together to design standards they hoped would provide uniformity and high standards to K-12 teaching across the nation.
While news reports have focused almost exclusively on the English and Mathematics standards in the CCSS, there are also suggested history standards. What is in them is significant.
The history standards are very short. Unlike many state curriculum standards, they do not specify content. Rather, they call for the development of critical thinking. They establish that students in middle school should be taught to distinguish the information in a primary source from opinions in secondary sources. They should also learn to “distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.” In the first two years of high school, they should learn to identify key arguments in secondary texts, and be able to compare and evaluate the arguments of different authors by examining supporting primary evidence. A student leaving high school should be able to identify the central ideas of primary and secondary texts, compare them, and evaluate different arguments about the same historical event “by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.”
It’s easy to see why Texas, with its politically charged State Board of Education, opted out. These standards are not so much bipartisan as nonpartisan.
But the CCSS also challenge Texas—and any states similarly inclined to skew history—by embracing another dramatic pedagogical change. The new emphasis on the use of primary documents in the teaching of K-12 history will drastically reduce the ability of any state to develop its own version of history. The rising cost of textbooks and the ubiquity of the internet mean that it is growing far easier and cheaper now to teach history directly from primary sources than from textbooks. This emphasis on primary sources shows up in the CCSS.
Indeed, the focus on primary sources, embraced by the CCSS, has already been a driving factor in the Texas curriculum debates. Late last year, the Texas legislature changed the way the state funds classroom materials. No longer are schools tied to the choices of the Texas Board of Education, the body that wrote the widely-castigated curriculum). Instead, while schools are obliged to buy at least a few of the books selected by the Board, they can use any allotted funds to buy digital material, or to gather material provided free on the internet to create a long-term stockpile of information for students.
For history teachers, this means the ability to use primary sources in their classrooms, just as the CCSS recommends.
This pedagogical change has the potential to restore open inquiry to history. It is no accident that the Texas Board of Education fervently opposed the laws that set this change in motion, complaining that standards would slip if it could no longer regulate the curriculum that Texas schools could teach.
The states have steadily adopted the CCSS over the past two months. How the standards will be implemented—or even if they will survive in states that have not won Race to the Top grants—remains to be seen. But historians interested in the way schools teach history should probably be paying attention.