History standards called lax

Late-night talk show host Jay Leno can make a history teacher flinch with his "Jaywalking" segment.

Random individuals stopped on the street appear stumped when asked who the Americans fought in the Revolutionary War.

They can be wildly off the mark in blaming the North Vietnamese for bombing Pearl Harbor. (It was the Japanese).

Carson City School Board member Joe Enge thinks it's because history education has been dumbed down.

Enge, a former history teacher, said that fact-driven, chronologically taught history is being replaced with something less in public schools. History instruction is moving toward a thematic approach that seems "high-sounding," but is really shallow in content, Enge said.

The Carson City School Board member fears that if Nevada's Council to Establish Academic Standards, which meets today, approves new history guidelines for K-12 education that are thematic in approach, the state will be making a mistake.

His criticisms led the standards council to postpone a vote on the guidelines in June. The state reviews its educational standards every seven years before ordering new textbooks. Enge said the proposed standards should be "voided for vagueness."

"They're so broad I could drive a truck through them," he said, pointing to "gobbledygook" draft proposals.

One example: "Through a thematic approach, students identify relationships among the historical eras in building a new nation."

In another example, middle school students were expected to learn "the concepts of the American Revolution" but the draft did not identify the concepts.

"What concepts?" Enge wanted to know.

Stephanie Hartman is the Nevada Department of Education social studies consultant who worked with the panel of K-12 history teachers, university professors and community representatives that developed the standards. She said Enge's criticisms were off base and unfair.

If the standards were more specific, the document would "be 500 pages long," Hartman said.

As for the American Revolution, she said the concepts were "not identified because every good history teacher already knows them."

It's not the job of the state standards to dictate curriculum to a local school district, but to a provide a reference and a framework, Hartman said.

So it would be fine if teachers in different parts of the state emphasized different ideas from the Revolutionary War, she said. A teacher in Washoe County might choose to explain "No taxation without representation." A Clark County teacher might emphasize the impact of the American Revolution on the French Revolution.

Stephanie Hirsch, Clark County School District director of social studies education, likes the proposed history guidelines for their flexibility. For instance, if the theme is the civil rights movement, students will study the Constitution, the Civil War and Reconstruction without being stuck on one timeline.

David Wrobel, University of Nevada, Las Vegas history department chairman, said history education is inherently controversial because the subject is so hard to condense. Critics will always question what was left out and what was included.

While not a member of the committee that recommended the new standards, Wrobel said teachers have sought ways to make history more relevant and approachable so it's not just a march through time. Wrobel said he often encounters people who tell him that learning history in school "was painful and boring."

Lynne Munson, president and executive director of Common Core, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates keeping traditional subjects or "core curriculum" in schools, also was critical of the new direction in history education.

"There is a strong trend toward the thematic approach, though there is very little evidence to show it works better than the chronological approach," Munson said.

The thematic approach has been growing ever since a controversy 10 years ago, when nationally recommended history standards were perceived by some to emphasize "victims' groups" at the expense of American heroes, Munson said. The U.S. Senate even weighed in with a 99-1 vote against the proposed standards.

Enge said educators like the thematic approach because it offers an easy way out of teaching history chronologically. Teachers complain that today's students lack the concentration to memorize important names and dates, which Enge said is "nonsense."

Enge, who helped develop the state's first history standards in 1997, also faulted the proposed standards for lacking a "scaffolding" approach to history. They don't build on new material with a review of past lessons.

He said it's like teaching high school English without going over the basics of good writing.

Enge called the proposed standards "truncated" because they start high school history lessons in the 1900s and ignore what went before.

This month, the Bradley Foundation, an independent grant-making organization in Wisconsin, released a report called "E Pluribus Unum," that called on schools to emphasize the importance of American history, especially the founding period, so students don't lose their sense of national identity and common democratic values.

Hartman said the proposed Nevada standards do not preclude high school teachers from covering the founding period in their lesson plans. It just does not recommend that as a starting point.

Mike Green, professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada, said the debate over thematic and chronological approaches to history is circular because "they're really inseparable."

The good history teacher uses both approaches, Green said. Imagine teaching about the Civil War by starting with the shots fired on Fort Sumter and proceeding day-by-day, without talking about bigger themes such as the impact of slavery or the strategy of the generals, Green said.

He often tells his students that "history may be chronological," but it doesn't follow an easy order.

"We're way too complicated for that," Green said.

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug @reviewjournal.com or 702-799-2922.