History curriculum update delayed by interest groups

Quoted in this piece by Cabinet Report

Voltaire, the French philosopher, once observed that history is a trick played on the dead by the living.

If so, the California Department of Education and the little-known Instructional Quality Commission have been put in the difficult position of deciding who is going to play – at least as far as public schools are concerned.

Since September, the CDE has been inundated with nearly 700 specific suggestions – some more like demands – for revising what serves as the state’s fundamental guide for teachers to communicate details of the world’s most significant events to students.

The public comments have proved so vast and complex that the commission – which is charged with overseeing development of new curriculum standards and frameworks – has put off any further activity for now. The commission needs to hire a troop of academics and policy experts to sort through the submissions and recommend which to accept – work that so far has not been funded by Gov. Jerry Brown.

“We don’t have the funding to hire all the necessary scholars in all these different fields,” said Tom Adams, CDE’s director of Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division. “Because this is not just U.S. history we are dealing with, but in many cases this is world history and all the areas within world history.”

In the nuanced world of developing what is taught in the classroom, content standards define what a student should know and when they should know it. The frameworks serve as the blueprints for implementing those content goals.

California has not revised its history and social studies standards since 1998 – meaning that everything that has happened since is not officially identified for instruction by the state. For a variety of reasons – saving money being primary – the decision was made in 2008 that the best vehicle for bringing the curriculum up to date would be the history frameworks, not the standards.

The current controversy, in which a long list of ethnic, racial and political groups have weighed in, is likely to push back adoption of the history frameworks even further and perhaps spark new interest in starting over with the standards themselves.

Adams said his office was not surprised that the history frameworks attracted a lot of attention. What was somewhat stunning, however, was the depth and intricacy of some of the suggestions that went well beyond the expertise at the department.

About 40 percent of the comments came from teachers, who generally expressed concern that the frameworks call for more instruction than can be reasonably accommodated in the school year. The other 60 percent of input came from parents, community members and people outside the school system – most calling on the state to add more topics into the frameworks.

“Some of what has been asked for is fairly easy to do,” Adams said. “Such as a line correction or things that are pretty obvious. But the volume of proposed changes was overwhelming.”

Among the requests for revisions, some are familiar – the call to expand coverage of the 1915 Armenian genocide, for instance. Some might be considered new – such as the many requests to delete references to former Vice President Al Gore’s efforts against “human-initiated climate change.”

Among those commenting was Camille Alfred, identified in a summary report as a teacher, who criticized the framework for not providing “inclusive” lessons on religion.

“We have two chapters on Islam,” she pointed out. “But nothing about Judaism, a little about Buddhism, and Christianity is interspersed but not really focused on.”

Julie Balcom, a seventh grade teacher at Upland Unified, spoke for many when she pointed out that the proposed frameworks are not well aligned to the new Common Core State Standards in English language arts – which call for fewer topics of study but a deeper dive into those that remain.

For seventh grade, she noted, topics for study include ancient Rome, Arabia and the rise of Islam; China, Japan; all of medieval Europe; the Renaissance and the Reformation as well as the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Exploration, the Age of Enlightenment, Latin America and Africa.

“If I simply taught straight through the textbook without allowing students any opportunities to further develop a meaningful understanding of the content, then yes, we could “finish” in an academic year,” she said. “Something has to give!”

Anytime work is undertaken to update new standards or frameworks there is usually a lot of interest among educators. But when the discussion is focused on science or history, the stakes often become much bigger because of the social and political implications of what might be taught in the public schools.

A large number of responses to California’s history proposal came from advocates of the LGBT community – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Sixteen years ago, when the history standards were last updated, the LGBT community would not have enjoyed as much mainstream presence as it does today and including their story as part of the historic curriculum is seen by many as an important milestone.

“How communities are represented in public schools has largely been determined by people in power,” said Simran Jeet Singh, Senior Religion Fellow at the Sikh Coalition, which is itself pushing the state to refine how its community is represented in the frameworks.

“It’s a unique moment in our history that minority communities are starting to develop enough that they are able to tell their own stories and not always have their stories told for them,” he said.

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