The Coming Wars over Curriculum: A Case Study on Politics, History, and Social Studies Standards

Kevin S. Krahenbuhl

This summer I was part of a statewide effort to revise the social studies standards of a state in the northern plains.  I had hoped to provide a positive influence that both respected the content of history while supporting the development of appropriate skills.  Four two-day sessions were held throughout the summer and the group consisted of approximately twenty K-12 teachers and two university professors (including myself).  I spent my time on the high school history standards and witnessed some of the major challenges they are now facing.

The last time our state revised its standards, it reduced United States history coverage to nothing but Reconstruction (1877) through the present.  While this is not unheard of, this revision has not shown any demonstrable gains in the depth of historical knowledge among high school graduates.  Aside from the general lack of evidence in favor of such an approach it also seems as if the course would be better off only receiving one-half a credit should this situation remain.  The state’s official standards only endorse topics from 1877 to the present and include explicit language in the preface suggesting they are the only ones permitted.  Yet, the state also indicates that it will award one full credit for completion of a U.S. history course that is from 1492 to the present, from 1492 to the Civil War, or from Reconstruction to the present.  So, as of now, it leaves districts the authority to decide what is best but provides standards that only address one of three options, which is incoherent.  Furthermore, it seems more sensible when considering national standards that have been offered through UCLA’s National History standards, which include 10 total eras of U.S. history (only 5½ of which are covered in Reconstruction through the present). 

In this Reconstruction through the present model, our state only covers half of the content that would be associated with U.S. History, so one-half credit would be more logical.  Finally, it seems unlikely that any state could field high school history teachers capable of giving proper coverage and depth to a similar degree of collegiate courses dedicated to specific topics in U.S. History (not survey courses).    

Within the state workgroup I served on this summer, members were split into “expert” areas where their experience in teaching, education, etc. was most aligned.  With undergraduate and masters’ degrees in areas related to history, eight years teaching every course in social studies (9-12), and a doctoral degree in education, I felt well-suited for any group but joined the high school history group to give our state’s students the opportunity to get a high school experience in topics such as the American Revolution.  I was able to convince the entire “expert” group working on the high school American history standards that we should propose changes for teaching the full scope of American history.  Unfortunately, our unanimous proposal was met with a series of concerns.  The middle school teachers felt we were suggesting they didn’t do a good enough job, the non-U.S. history teachers expressed concern that their colleagues wouldn’t like the change, and numerous members repeated the tired argument of breadth versus depth (i.e. “we should teach a smaller segment in more depth instead of a broad survey”). 

In response, I shared approximately twenty peer-reviewed articles which drew from experts in the fields of history, pedagogy, and cognitive science (a list of references is reproduced below), which demonstrated the value of covering all of United States history as evidenced by cognitive science, proper historiography, and other relevant fields of research.  Unfortunately, this presentation of research—along with support of the only Ph.D. in History who was assigned to the civics group—was met with emotional outcry at each stage.  Ultimately, the state informed our group that we had to take out all standards that included anything specific in content from any year prior to 1877.  Our group agreed to do so but I refused to have my name on the document.  That brought forth a polite threat that either I add my name and support to the document or they would have to inform all the other members of the workgroup that this document could not be adopted.  Unwilling to give up on my intellectual honesty, I stood fast and a last-ditch effort was made to see if there was support statewide for this reform.  An email was sent out and 58% of respondents were in favor of extending the scope of the course to a compromised starting point of the “Revolutionary Era.”  The state was not comfortable with that percentage and so the standards document is now on hold.

This story tells of but a case study in the larger field of education.  It ought to both encourage and concern those of us who value cognitive science research, which is increasingly supporting the importance of building a strong foundation of background knowledge.  Although our group’s work remains in limbo, the process did seem to obtain serious consideration from some members of the Department of Education, and we will continue our efforts.  I would encourage any NAS members and readers who support a more rigorous and content-rich American history curriculum for K-12 students to contact me, write op-ed pieces, or directly contact those involved – in your own state or others where you have an interest after you do a bit of homework.  We cannot vacate the battleground and leave it to defeat by abdication.  The curriculum wars are coming to the forefront of American educational policy and we must engage with reason, with logic, with respect, and for the great sensibilities of what make this Constitutional Republic so strong – those rooted in its history, which we cannot neglect.

Image: Public Domain

Sources in support of the premises for this article

Premises of article:

  1. Content knowledge and disciplinary skills are learned together, not in isolation.
  2. Cognitive science has empirically demonstrated that increasing knowledge and processes stored in long-term memory increases learning capacity.
  3. Historical inquiry requires solid comprehension of the historical context in which a document is written, competence in document analysis, and the proper use of evidence in support of historical arguments.
  4. History is best learned when students actually know the content associated with a particular era first, after which analysis, evaluation, and argumentation are appropriate.


Sources of relevance:

Carpenter, S.K., Pashler, H., & Cepeda, N.J.  (2009).  Using tests to enhance 8th grade students’ retention of U.S. history facts.  Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23: 760-771.

Christoloudou, D.  (2014).  Minding the knowledge gap: The importance of content in student learning.  American Educator, Spring: 27-33.

Hess, F.M.  (2008).  Still at risk: What students don’t know, even now.  Arts Education Policy Review, 110(2): 5-20.

Hirsch, E.D.  (2001).  Seeking breadth and depth in the curriculum.  Educational Leadership, October: 22-25.

Hunt, L.  (2002).  Against presentism.  Perspectives on history: The newsmagazine of the American Historical Association.  May.

Mayer, R.E.  (2004).  Should there be a three-strike rule against pure discovery learning?  The case for guided methods of instruction.  American Psychologist, 59(1): 14-19.

Pearchy, M. & Duplass, J.A.  (2011).  Teaching history: Strategies for dealing with breadth and depth in the standards and accountability age.  The Social Studies, 102: 110-116.

Roberson, B.  (2006).  Getting past “inquiry versus content”.  Educational Leadership, December 2006/January 2007: 67-70.

Roediger, H.L. III, & Butler, A.C.  (2010).  The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention.  Trends in Cognitive Science, 1-8.

Rotherham, A.J. & Willingham, D.T.  (2009).  21st Century Skills: The challenges ahead.  Educational Leadership, September: 16-21.

Stern, S.M., & Stern, JA.  (2011).  The state of state U.S. history standards 2011.  Thomas Fordham Institute, February.

American Academy of Arts & Sciences.  (2013).  The Heart of the Matter: The humanities and social sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation.  Cambridge, MA.

Sung, P. & Yang, M.  (2013).  Exploring disciplinary background effect on social studies teachers’ knowledge and pedagogy.  The Journal of Educational Research, 106: 77-88.

Willingham, D.T.  (2006).  How knowledge helps: It speeds and strengthens reading comprehension, learning – and thinking.  American Educator, Spring: 30-37.

Willingham, D.T.  (2007).  Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach?  American Educator, Summer: 8-19.

Willingham, D.T.  (2009).  Ask the cognitive scientist: What will improve a student’s memory?  American Educator, Winter: 17-25, 44.

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