AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXVIII, No. 1, Spring 1996


Changes Recommended in National History Standards

A set of voluntary national standards for teaching history published in Fall 1994, representing the thinking of many experts, was widely criticized as pessimistic and biased. The goal was to define what all American students should know and be able to do in history. Among other problems the standards reflected a very low level of attention to scientific discovery, neglecting both its origins and its role as a road to technology, and tended to overlook positive consequences [see article in this Newsletter vol. 27, no. 1 spring 1995,]. A distinguished group has now reviewed the standards.

On October 11, 1995, the Council for Basic Education released the results and recommendations of the two independent panels that conducted the review of the standards (one for U.S. and one for world history). The panels recommended some refinement but endorsed much of the work undertaken by The National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA, which developed the original standards.

While the draft standards were widely and sometimes vehemently criticized in the media and by many scholars, they also received strong support, for example from some organizations of teachers and historians. The review panels concluded that the overwhelming majority of criticism was targeted at the teaching examples in the documents, rather than at the actual standards for student achievements. They found that once detached from the teaching examples, the proposed standards provide a reasonable set of expectation for learning and a solid basis for strengthening history teaching. The panels endorsed the standards' use of five spheres--social, political, scientific/technological, economic, and cultural--to broaden the study of history. The panels made nine recommendations for improvements. One of these was to "Strengthen the standards in regard to the treatment of science, mathematics, technology, and medicine; economic history; the exchange and evolution of ideas; and interactions between and among the five historical spheres."

Two historians of science took part in the review of the standards: Marjorie Malley for world history and David Hollinger for U.S. history. They inform us that there were very substantial discussions and consultation (in particular with Dan Kevles, a historian of physics) on the treatment of the history of science and technology. In the end the recommendation for strengthening the teaching of these fields was accepted by all. In addition to the brief report, the Council sent individual critiques to UCLA for use in the revisions.

"UCLA is now finishing their revisions," says Malley, and these apparently "encompass nearly all of the panel's recommendations. The revised standards will be a greatly improved document." Holllinger agrees that in the draft of the new edition, "the treatment of history of science topics is vastly improved."

The original draft of the standards simply reflected the unsatisfactory state of history teaching that has long prevailed in regard to science and technology. Malley warns, "I have no illusions that [the revised standards] will be everything historians of science would wish... The really good news is that this process will improve instruction in the long run. The usual history text has very little history of science, and if the standards are implemented we should see change. Incremental change, not revolutionary; that seems to be how things work." In order to keep progress on track, Malley concludes, those concerned with the history of science will need to involve themselves in the process of history curriculum development.

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