This article looks at the World History portion of the recently adopted Texas state standards by noting some of the positive aspects, the discussion of certain content not found in other states, and the negative aspects, how implementation could portray an overly Eurocentric view. This discussion is framed with the current education policy focus of the standards movement to allow insight to the discussion that is often ignored.
What should students learn in their history classes? This has been a hot topic throughout the United States since the recent revision and adoption of new social studies standards in the state of Texas and Florida. When looking at the Florida standards, the American Historical Association (AHA) stated that the authors of the original draft of the social studies standards have little knowledge about current trends in history. They also added that history “cannot ever be a uniform recitation of truths,” as historians often disagree about the facts of what happened in the past (AHA, 2007). Despite this major concern over what students would learn as history in their classroom, the Florida revisions received very little media attention. It was not until the more recent revision of the Texas standards that national media outlets made the debate more public. Part of this outcry came from those outside of Texas. Educators across the nation feared that textbook companies would design textbooks and instructional material that conform to the new Texas standards because of how large the Texas market is, and that these other states will have no choice but to use this material. The debate in Texas largely centered on the changes to the U.S. History portion of the standards with the main concern being that minorities and liberal political leaders were neglected as conservative leaders of the later part of the twentieth century were being highlighted as the center of the national narrative. It was this fear of the Texas version making its way into the classroom that made this debate different than that of Florida and why more attention was directed towards Texas. However, what seemed to be missing from this debate is why do states even have standards, how does Texas standards compare to other states, and what impact will the standards have on instructional practices?
The aims of this article are to first discuss the “good” or positive nature of the Texas standards in that they provide content that other states do not. Second, I want to mention the “bad” component of the standards in that how they could be interpreted and implemented might be counterproductive to what the role or purpose of world history should be. In addition, I want to briefly discuss why state standards exist and how they impact instructional practices. The Texas revisions need to be placed within the context of the standards movement, which has been the focus of education policy since the implementation of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. The need to hold teachers accountable through mandatory testing has a major influence on how states develop curriculum and will serve as the basis for future debates regarding history education that will mostly likely pop up again in other states.
Why Standards and How Do they Impact Instruction?
Organizational sociologists who study education have long noted that schools are loosely coupled within their organizational framework. The term, “loosely coupled,” refers to the basic freedom with how teachers interpret and implement instructional guidelines allowing for there to be more local control and uniqueness in instructional practices (Weick, 1976). In short, a teacher can interpret and teach a specific subject matter in the manner they feel is best, while the teacher in the next classroom teaches the same material in a very different matter. However, the drawback is that one classroom may cover specific material while another does not. State standards are designed and aimed at creating more uniformity in content coverage. Additionally, states have been under extreme pressure to develop forms of accountability that assess what students are learning. In short, these tests are used as a way to hold teachers accountable and further decreases the degree of loose coupling by strengthening the relationship between the standards and the content taught by the teacher creating more uniformity in the education organization.
A review of the literature regarding state assessment demonstrates several findings about the impact on teachers and teaching practices. In states where testing puts a lot of pressure on schools, like Texas, teachers not only realigned their curriculum to focus on state standards, but found that their pedagogical approaches, attitudes, and practices were being shaped by their standards-based assessment (Hamilton, Stecher, Russell, Marsh, & Miles 2008). Additionally, testing in social studies was found to narrow the curriculum and that instruction had become a study of memorizing facts and developing analytical skills associated with free-response portions of state assessments when present (Burroughs, Groce, & Webeck, 2005; Horn, 2006; Willis, 2007; Au, 2009). Willis (2007) concluded that these types of changes and approaches often led to students’ displeasure with history as a subject because group discussions, activities, and role-plays were not present in lessons.
In relation to state testing and its impact on the curriculum, the content portion of the standards is shaped by the interest and views of those designating and outlining the curriculum. The basis of content is produced by how political, not pedagogical, interests see what the nation-state should be and the meaning of civic responsibility (Westheimer & Kahne, 2004; Abowitz & Harnish, 2006). Yet, with a curriculum designed on teaching and testing historical facts, the debate over what to include as part of classroom instruction is only further intensified in an attempt to include other content held to be important by those not involved in the revision/creation process. This is the central issue with Texas standards and why there needs to be more discussion about the curriculum and testing.
Looking at the Standards
There are some limitations when comparing various state standards and trying to understand how the standards will be implemented. First, the curriculum guidelines and design are not uniform between states. In states where mandatory testing is implemented, the standards mention more specific content in order for teachers to know areas that might be tested. This analysis will interpret standards literally, assuming that teachers will focus their instruction on how the standards present content. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has published several reports on state standards in a variety of K-12 subjects and has maintained a similar approach in some of their analysis. Realistically, it is fair to also note that teachers still enjoy a degree of autonomy and can choose to include or not include content mentioned in the standards.
In addition, one of the major concerns of the standards movement is how the standards will be implemented within classroom instruction. When looking and interpreting state standards the assumption is that teachers will cover the material found in the standards as it is outlined. However, the degree to which this happens is closely tied to the incentives, both positive and negative, that are linked to student performance on such test. Studies have noted the that state-mandated tests have led to a narrowing of the curriculum, because, though state standards drive the curricula, teachers spend more time focusing on test related material (Gordon & Reese, 1997; Haney, 2000; Srikantaia, 2009). However, there is a lack of research in secondary social studies that assess how much instruction differentiates between teachers in places where testing occurs. So while instruction is more closely tied to the standards, a teacher can still choose to teach for two weeks on the Second World War, while in the classroom next door it may only be taught for two days. Additionally, there is also no research that indicates if teachers will adopt a particular philosophy found within the standards. Just because the Texas standards are based on a conservative view of history does not mean that teachers will necessarily adopt that point-of-view. Because of this researchers generally assume the standards will be implemented as they are written. In discussing the implementation of the standards, I take this approach in that I assume teachers will cover the material as outlined. But, I also acknowledge that they have the independent agency to still instruct from their own personal views.
Finally, defining what “good” World History is has some shortcomings. The reasons for the majority of debate about the standards is that people have their own biasness, criteria, and interest as to what they hold to be important and what their children should learn. Having begun my own academic training as a Japanese historian and now pursuing further training within the education field and Secondary Social Studies, the importance of World History within secondary education is that it should address large themes and interconnectivity between various groups of people. Despite these limitations, the analysis I provide will hopefully demonstrate the variation that exist between states and how the standards could be implemented to generate some discussion over what content needs to be covered within a Secondary World History class.
The Good - Learning from Texas
Despite many of the criticisms regarding the content of Texas standards, there are some positive portions in comparison to other states. The inclusion of these items and their design can perhaps serve as an example to other states to perhaps address larger themes that could or are part of classroom instruction. The first of these is the focus on pre-Columbian civilizations. The Texas standards state:
The student understands the characteristics and impact of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec civilizations. The student is expected to:
A. (A) compare the major political, economic, social, and cultural developments of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec civilizations and explain how prior civilizations influenced their development;
B. (B) explain how the Inca and Aztec empires were impacted by European exploration/colonization;
Some states, like Alabama and New Hampshire, fail to mention these pre-Columbian civilizations at all. However, a majority of state adopt similar standards like that of New Mexico, where their standards state “Describe and explain the significance of the Line of Demarcation on the colonization of the New World” and “Compare and contrast the influence of European countries (e.g., England, France, Holland) on the development of colonies in the New World.” Here pre-Columbian civilizations are only placed within the context of world history through their interaction with Europeans. This approach appears to address a key component of world history standards in that they are largely Eurocentric using Europeans as the driving force of the narrative. Not including of these takes an approach that focuses more on “our” heritage and not “their” heritage.” While Texas is guilty of this to some extent as well, the inclusion of pre-Columbian civilizations denotes at least the authors’ intent to discuss a variety of cultures, which may be important for those within Texas.
Another area where the Texas standards also vary from other states is their focus on women, children, and families. Here the Texas standards state:
The student understands the roles of women, children, and families in different historical cultures. The student is expected to:
(A) describe the changing roles of women, children, and families during major eras of world history; and
(B) describe the major influences of women such as Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Mother Teresa, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, and Golda Meir during major eras of world history.
The role of women, children, and families is absent from almost all of the other state standards, despite the fact that there is a plethora of leading male historical figures mentioned. New Jersey provides the only other example similar to Texas in their standards were teachers are to “Explain how industrialization and urbanization affected class structure, family life, and the daily lives of men, women, and children” and “Analyze how feminist movements and social conditions have affected the lives of women in different parts of the world and women’s progress toward social equality, economic equality, and political equality in various countries.” However, New Jersey seems to place these within a particular periodization and do not necessarily call for a thematic approach that covers the whole historical narrative. I believe that this discussion of how the roles of women, children, and families have changed over time and vary between cultures allows for another theme to be integrated into the classroom that is often ignored. This allows students to compare roles within their own family to those of other cultures and time periods and the often hidden contribution that women have made. Although the examples of women that the standards provide are largely Westerners, these examples were part of the language changes that the Texas State Board of Education implemented within their first reading. However, these women are just some examples of major figures that could be included within the course.
While many state standards provide merely a political narrative of World History, Texas standards place a more comprehensive emphasis on highlighting examples of art or architecture:
The student understands the relationship between the arts and the times during which they were created. The student is expected to:
(A) identify significant examples of art and architecture that demonstrate an artistic ideal or visual principle from selected cultures;
B) analyze examples of how art, architecture, literature, music, and drama reflect the history of the cultures in which they are produced; and
(C) identify examples of art, music, and literature that transcend the cultures in which they were created and convey universal themes.
Much like the previous standard, this focus on the arts allows for universal themes to be discussed within a larger framework. Many states do not go this in depth in the discussion regarding culture, and when states do it is generally within the context of one certain time period and geographic location. An example of this would be from the Virginia standards were students are to “Characterize Byzantine art and architecture and the preservation of Greek and Roman traditions.” The Texas standards do not provide any examples of forms of art, architecture, music, etc., to be used in classroom instruction, which can either be a negative aspect in that teachers may only include works that they are familiar with or can be positive in that they are not limited to a specific culture or period that they can use sources from.
Bad – How the Standards Could Be Implemented
The problems that exist within the Texas standards are its overly Eurocentric approach to World History with particular focus on the rise of capitalism and Western democracies. The focus on a European driven narrative is not just a problem with Texas, but is also readily apparent in a majority of states, making it far from an outlier in any sense (Marino & Bolgatz, 2010). Some states, like Texas, do focus on non-European civilizations and discuss their development, but these other groups are not equal with those of Europe in terms of total percentage of content to be covered in classroom instruction. As in many states, the World History focus seems to be on heritage instead of history as illustrated by the focus on key ideologies of Western civilization. The Texas standards start off like many of the other states with the “starting line” approach touching upon major civilizations. However, from 1750 to the present the content begins to focus more intensely upon Western civilization.
The only major political conflicts discussed relative to this is what the standards denote as “major revolutions” between 1750 – 1914 where the standards state that students should, “compare the causes, characteristics, and consequences of the American, and French, revolutions, emphasizing the role of the Enlightenment, the Glorious Revolution, and religion.” The only non-Western revolution mentioned within this portion is the “revolutions of Latin America, including the role of Simón Bolivar.” But, even here Latin America is only discussed within the context of the spreading of Western ideas of “liberty, equality, democracy, popular sovereignty, human rights, constitutionalism, and nationalism.” Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of discussing the rise and spread of Western democratic ideas is the emphasis on the relationship between democracy and Christianity. The Texas standards state, “explain the relationship among Christianity, individualism, and growing secularism that began with the Renaissance and how the relationship influenced subsequent political developments.” Though the standards do touch upon how Islam has influence the development of law and government in Muslim countries, it is not clear whether the distinction of separation between Christianity and adoption of democratic governments will be properly delineated. In other words, with the way the standards are set up, will students think that because democracy is seen as the most “successful” form of government, will they also assume Christianity is a better religion, because of the relationship it shares with democracy? While teachers will be the main instruments to make this connection, which could or could not happen, the fact that the standards allow for this type of assertion to perhaps develop is indeed a place where revisions could be made.
If those in Texas and in other states were to look for a model that might help them move a way from a European-dominated narrative, then Michigan standards would be a good place to start. In the Michigan standards, not only is there is a section for each chronological period that focuses on interregional or comparative approaches, but the standards also outline several regions of the world detailing the content focus. Michigan includes several regions that are not normally discussed, including South and Southeast Asia, that allows for more content to be discussed than is global and not solely focus on a Western/European narrative. Though this design is different than that of Texas, it is perhaps something that can be adopted to allow for more variation in regional content.
It’s Only Going to Get Uglier – The Future of World History Standards
Over the past few years I have studying how state world history standards have changed and developed within the last decade to better understand the role of world history within the secondary social studies curriculum. In short, I believe that though many of the standards are outlining more content to be studying by students, that the standards themselves are not necessarily improving. The criticisms that Texas has received is perhaps deserved, but what I find more alarming is the little debate and attention that other states receive in the creation and revision of their social studies standards. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recent report on U.S. history standards gave twenty-eight states a ranking of a D or lower. However, many have responded to the criticism that the report rates states based on the authors’ conception of what good standards are, often ignoring those that might take a different approach (Anderson, 2011). The issue here is who or how should content be selected to be included in the standards as personal bias will impact the creation process. There does not seem to be a clear answer, as the manner that this is already done in a variety of states is just as different as are the curriculum designed between states.
Additionally, a central issue is trying to understand how standards can be implemented. As noted in the previous sections, the problem with standards is how they will be interpreted and carried out in classroom instruction. Teachers still have a degree of autonomy in interpreting what is meant by a particular standards and how to teach it in preparation for state testing, which makes it difficult to know the outcome of a particular curriculum design. The next logical step in making sure that teachers are perfectly clear in what content to cover is to implement a scripted curriculum where teachers have the lesson plan already designated for each day of instruction allowing for uniformity at all levels of an education organization. According to Eisner (1985), the designing of assessment as part of curricular goals and the reasons why we value a curriculum can be compromised. I think in many instances this has already taken place and has led us to training students instead of teaching them.
Edited by Jeanne E. Grant
(c) 2011 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 3, Fall 2011.