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Do the Common Core Standards Flunk History?

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By now, virtually every public school teacher has heard about the Common Core State Standards (referred to here as CCSS, the Standards, or the common core). Set forth in their final version in May of 2010, they claim to “represent a synthesis of the best elements of standards-related work to date and an important advance over that previous work.” (p. 3 of the CCSS) The CCSS have been adopted by 46 states so far for English language arts (ELA) and 45 for mathematics. They primarily address those two fields, but they fold other subjects, including history, into the ELA standards. As the Standards took shape, the National Council for the Social Studies expressed an understandable concern that they include a meaningful presence for social studies, but made no objection to their basic approach to reading and writing. The National Council for History Education was similarly concerned about the role of history, but concluded that “[t]he Literacy Standards for History/Social Studies focuses [sic] on deep and critical, discipline-specific reading, writing, and thinking at grades 6-12.” Rearguard resistance notwithstanding, in the states that have adopted them, school districts are advancing toward implementation, with testing set to begin in 2014-2015.

The ELA Standards do represent an improvement over most state standards in the rigor of their learning expectations. But in spite of the apparent inevitability of the standards, scholars and educators have raised a range of criticisms. In a series of critical essays on education reform in the New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch has pointed out that the standards have never been field tested, making their effectiveness unknown and nation-wide implementation premature.  Others have raised more specific objections, including the obvious role of poverty in diminishing student achievement, which challenges the putative need for new standards; the inevitable proliferation of new tests that will be needed to measure performance; the deceptively central role of the U.S. Department of Education; the insufficient rigor of the standards; the fallacies of the “career and college readiness” exit standard; and the problems with the emphasis on “informational texts,” as the CCSS has termed the non-fiction reading material it favors.

Aside from the NCHE’s praise, however, few critics have evaluated the impact of the CCSS on teaching the humanities, or more specifically, on the teaching of history. It is my contention that the CCSS express an antipathy to the humanities in general and insensitivity to the practice of history in particular, and that this problem is closely related to their nonhistorical approach to historical texts. This approach also permits the allocation of historical texts to English teachers, most of whom are untrained in the study of history, and leads to history standards that neglect the distinctiveness of the discipline. If implemented as their authors intend, the common core will damage history education. 

At the outset, I must note a few limits to my critique. I will discuss the impact of the Standards on history specifically, not the various disciplines that comprise social studies. Among these disciplines, history lays the strongest claim to membership in the humanities, but the problems I raise regarding the Standards and history have clear applications to the social sciences. Examples of the harmful consequences of the common core for history education could be multiplied, but I will limit myself to one representative illustration. 

Why study history? This pursuit serves many purposes, but surely one of its fundamental objectives is to make us more human. Sam Wineburg, in his essential book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, argues that history both enables us to situate ourselves in the present by making sense of how we got here, while also acquainting us with the often jarring strangeness of the past. This encounter with bizarre, brutal, and peculiar behavior humanizes by encouraging us to understand historical events and actors in their own terms and by leading us to the humbling recognition that, generations hence, we, too, may be regarded as curious, primitive, and benighted. It is uniquely the job of the historian to engage with the frailties as well as the strengths of historical actors, and to render the limitless past into understandable terms. These are eminently humanizing enterprises.

Such historical understanding results from the practice, or discipline, of history. The study of history requires the use of specific concepts and cognitive skills that characterize the discipline -- concepts like evidence and causation and skills like contextualization, sourcing, and corroboration. These concepts and skills are largely distinct from those employed in literary analysis.  Both disciplines engage in close readings of texts, for example, but with different purposes. The object of the literary critic is the text, or more broadly, the genre; for the historian it is, however limited or defined, a wider narrative of human history, which textual analysis serves. Historical thinking and humanizing outcomes are linked. As with literary skills, the more deeply history’s concepts and skills are grasped the more profound are the humanizing consequences. And like the intellectual skills called upon in the study of literature, historical thinking skills are enduring, even more so because they are applicable to a wider field of contemporary issues.

To what extent does the common core incorporate these purposes and practices into their proposed curriculum? The answer is very little; their intentions lie elsewhere. The Standards adopt an instrumental approach: Their ultimate objective is not the development of sensitive and discerning citizens but rather a career-and-college-ready high school graduate. They refer to “discipline specific content,” and “the norms and conventions of each discipline,” (60) but, the NCHE’s statement notwithstanding, the actual use of discipline-specific thinking must often be inferred, and suffers from telling absences. In fact, the Standards for ELA devote only a single, mostly non-discipline-specific page to reading in social history and social studies (61), and then apply their writing standards to social history/social studies, science and technical subjects in common, as if these diverse fields share the same modes of written analysis. (63-66) Their explanations of skills standards are abstract and remote from the specific practices of the historian.

The standards contained on page 61 of the ELA Standards suggest an author or authors un-versed in the practice of history. A close reading of the most advanced skills, for grades 11-12, reveals an uneven deployment of historical thinking skills, often to the point of disappearance. The first three standards, assembled under the vague heading “Key Ideas and Details,” are non-history specific. Number 1, for example, mentions the expectation that students will “Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole,” while numbers 2 and 3 ask students to “[d]etermine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas” and “[e]valuate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain,” respectively. These standards call for close reading and making connections, and refer to “primary and secondary” sources characteristic of history. But the first two skills suffer from an exclusion of sourcing and contextualization skills, typically the first cognitive actions taken by a historian examining a document. Number 3 focuses on the accuracy of a text, but not on how the text illuminates a broader question or narrative; there is no reciprocity between text and context. The standard is also not history-specific -- “actions or events” could be studied by political scientists, economists, or anthropologists.

Standard 4, under “Craft and Structure,” asks students to “[d]etermine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).” Once again, an exclusive focus on text prevents the standard from expressing a historical skill. To illustrate, Madison’s understanding of “faction” in Federalist 10 was shaped by a shared discourse among the American political elite during and after the Revolution, culminating in the debate over ratifying the Constitution. Madison’s essay was a part of that discussion, and “faction” consequently has a meaning that transcends Madison’s use of the term in Federalist No. 10.1 Confining students to an examination of his use and refinement of the term in the text of Federalist No. 10 amounts to little more than an intellectual exercise without this essential context -- that is, without establishing its relationship to and significance for a larger narrative. The standard fails the “So what?” test.

Standard 5, under the same heading, asks for a similarly non-contextual, and therefore nonhistorical, reading, but standard 6 -- “Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence” --= offers greater possibilities for historical analysis. There is a specific reference to history, and context appears to come into play. But how should a student go about evaluating the claims, reasoning, and evidence? The standard fails to mention the critical skills involved in such analysis: sourcing, corroboration, contextualization, inference, and others. Most fundamentally, what is the purpose of the exercise -- to develop a particular skill abstracted from historical content, or to develop that skill by applying it to a specific event in order to better grasp the event and the narrative of which it is a part? In other words, is the skill divorced from the content, in this case historical narrative, or integral to it?  The standard prompts another “So what?”

The next three standards, under the heading “Integration of Knowledge and Ideas,” are better, though still not specific to history.  Number 7 asks students to “[i]ntegrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.” This skill could apply to any discipline, though it is certainly useful to the study of history. But again, the specific skills called into play -- comparison, corroboration, and inference, for example, go unmentioned. Number 8 asks students to “[e]valuate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.” This standard calls most clearly on the historical skill of corroboration, but sourcing -- evaluation of the character and reliability of a source -- is an essential, but, for this standard, unacknowledged element of corroboration. Finally, number 9 asks students to “[i]ntegrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.” This standard asks for synthesis, but one should hope that the discrepancies are evaluated and, if possible, resolved.2

The history standards state what students must do, but not how, because they do not engage the distinctive practices of the discipline of history. They require students to marshal evidence, engage in close reading, make connections, and corroborate evidence -- all important skills and all important to the discipline of history. But they are so text-focused that for most of them document analysis becomes hermetic. Sourcing is absent except by inference, as is the closely related practice of contextualization. Both require the application of knowledge external to the text under study in order to amplify its meaning, and both are indispensable to historical thinking. Concepts like causation and chronology and skills like periodization and assessing significance are all missing. Humanizing practices, like empathy, recognizing the limits of one’s knowledge, and understanding the past on its own terms are nowhere to be found, even by generous inference. Although the CCSS must be credited with recognition of the crisis in literacy in the United States, their solution for history emphasizes a blinkered form of reading comprehension.

Why have the authors of the Standards adopted this narrow approach? One of its sources may be found in the subject area designated for the page: “History/Social Studies.” The authors’ approach suggests a confusion of purpose. “Social Studies” does not constitute a discipline; rather, it is a grouping of social science disciplines for K-12 grade levels that is rarely found in higher education. The combination has its origins in the Progressive era, a time when many, though not all, professional educators favored downgrading traditional areas of study like classical literature and history, as mass immigration transformed the U.S. population and led to advocacy of a more “practical,” less academic curriculum. Unfortunate consequences ensued, and now the CCSS has provided one more example. 

Why does the common core lift history out of the collection of disciplines of which it has been a prominent part and separate it with a slash mark from that time-honored but problematic “field” of social studies? The authors of the Standards seemingly hope to achieve two purposes: They want to address the practices of history while at the same time applying those practices to the other social sciences. This explains, at least in part, the abstract and non-specific character of the History/Social Studies skills, and their remoteness from the habits of mind that characterize the discipline of history.

There is probably more to it, however. The authors of the Standards have concluded that “Students must be able to read complex informational texts in these fields [social studies/history, science, and technical subjects] with independence and confidence because the vast majority of reading in college and workforce training programs will be sophisticated nonfiction." (60) This fixation on textual comprehension may have caused them to lose sight of crucial understandings that lie outside of, but exist in reciprocal relation to, an assigned text. Their failure to acknowledge, in this statement or elsewhere, any distinctive, intrinsic value in the various disciplines reflects their utilitarian approach. “Informational texts” may be the common core’s signature contribution to education jargon, but to justify the recommended preponderance of such texts by citing the demands of career and college begs the question of the purposes of college and career (not to mention the question of which college and which career). The CCSS do not entertain the question, but one may fairly surmise the authors’ response: to get a good job, and, perhaps, at a further remove, restore American prosperity. Good jobs are, of course, hard to find these days, and therefore to be prized, but to reduce education to job training will actually diminish the intellectual capacities of high school graduates by ignoring the value of the humanities and their characteristic critical thinking skills to a discerning citizenry.

The standards for social studies/history do compare unfavorably with the new historical thinking skills developed by the College Board for its Advanced Placement history courses, created as part of the AP history program’s new and welcome emphasis on historical thinking. Although the AP rubric concentrates on skills and neglects important historical concepts, it is firmly rooted in the practices of the historian. Four broad skills are given substance through the articulation of their components. For example, Skill 1, “Crafting Historical Arguments from Historical Evidence,” includes the components “Historical argumentation” and “Appropriate use of relevant historical evidence.” Regarding the use of evidence the rubric explains:

Historical thinking involves the ability to identify, describe and evaluate evidence about the past from diverse sources (including written documents, works of art, archaeological artifacts, oral traditions and other primary sources), with respect to content, authorship, purpose, format and audience. It involves the capacity to extract useful information, make supportable inferences and draw appropriate conclusions from historical evidence while also understanding such evidence in its context, recognizing its limitations and assessing the points of view that it reflects.

Unlike the standards for History/Social Studies, the AP expectations demonstrate familiarity with the work of historians and emphasize the importance of sourcing and contextualization. By noting the limitations on knowledge and interpretation and the irreducibility of conflicting views, the rubric also engages with the humanizing purposes of history.  Skill 4, Historical Interpretation and Synthesis, confirms the integration of reading comprehension with historical understanding, at best a tenuous relationship in the CCSS treatment of history. The other two skills and subordinate components are similarly rich and integral to the study of history. 

The common core’s history standards may not be irretrievably flawed, however. Teachers familiar with the discipline of history will be able to infer and extrapolate from the generic formulations on page 61 to justify a rich and stimulating curriculum. Unfortunately, such a favorable outcome is not assured; the CCSS text is open to more than one interpretation. To assess the potential consequences of the Standards for history education, it is illuminating to examine how an adopting state has gone about implementing them. In New York, a state-sponsored website called EngageNY.org offers “exemplar” lessons in ELA and math, and workshops have been organized across the state to assist in the implementation of the Standards.  The ELA exemplars demonstrate a careful fidelity to the common core. In a piece published in the Washington Post last March, Jeremiah Chaffee, an English teacher in New York, explained his dissatisfaction with the lesson on the Gettysburg Address he and his colleagues were asked to develop using an EngageNY exemplar. His complaints included the exemplar’s scripted lessons and instructions to read the speech to students without affect, but his main objection was the exemplar’s insistence that teachers permit no contextual knowledge to enter into student consideration of the Address. Indeed, the exemplar advises teachers that “This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.”3 History teachers will quickly register several objections to this statement. Shouldn’t contextual knowledge be valued, not derogated as “privileged”? As Chaffee asked, can students really be expected to forget their outside knowledge? Wouldn’t student sharing of that knowledge “level the playing field”? And what if their contextual knowledge is inaccurate, in which case, shouldn’t it be explored and clarified at the outset? 

All the “Guiding Questions” provided on Lincoln’s Address are “text-dependent,” and most of them demand a literal, as opposed to interpretive, understanding of the text. A few examples illustrate the approach: 

“What does Lincoln mean by ‘four score and seven years ago?’”

“When Lincoln says the nation was ‘so conceived and so dedicated’ what is he referring to? 

“What if Lincoln had used the verb ‘start’ instead of ‘conceive?’”  

“What four specific ideas does Lincoln ask his listeners to commit themselves to at the
end of his speech?” 

“What does the word ‘dedicate,’ mean the first two times Lincoln uses it, and what other verb is closely linked to it the first two times it appears?”

These questions reveal an aversion to interpretation of the speech’s historical significance, consistent with the Standards’ emphasis on information extraction. 

A page of the exemplar is devoted to explaining why “non-text dependent questions” like “Why did the North fight the Civil War?” and “Did Lincoln think that the North was going to ‘pass the test’ that the Civil War posed?” divert students from text comprehension:

Answering these sorts of questions require students to go outside the text, and indeed in this particular instance asking them these questions actually undermines what Lincoln is trying to say.  Lincoln nowhere in the Gettysburg Address distinguishes between the North and South (or northern versus southern soldiers for that matter). Answering such questions take the student away from the actual point Lincoln is making in the text of the speech regarding equality and self-government.”

But the exemplar offers weak examples of “non-text dependent questions.” The first one is too broad to be effective in the context of a discussion of this speech, and, if taught in a history class, would already have been addressed. The second question is unanswerable. There are, however, many obvious and important “non-text dependent” questions that would enhance student appreciation of the speech.  For example, how might contextualization help explain what Lincoln meant by “a new birth of freedom?” This question might elicit discussion of how the Emancipation Proclamation, issued nine months earlier, invested the phrase -- and the speech -- with indispensable meaning. Such an approach should be apparent to U.S. history teachers.

In fact, no historian or history teacher could read the Gettysburg Address in the manner insisted upon by the exemplar, which should, at minimum, remand it to the drawing board. Its admonitions against a historical approach reveal a disheartening ignorance of historical thinking. In the hands of the common core’s New York exemplarians, the Address is to be utilized as an “informational text.” Here we come to a portentous implication of that term: the divorce of reading comprehension from historical meaning. This alienation of meaning opens the whole undertaking to a deadly tedium. Sequestered from historical meaning, what is there to remember from such a lesson? As Chaffee concluded, the Gettysburg lesson “was intellectually limiting, shallow in scope, and uninteresting.”

Situating the Gettysburg Address lesson in a U.S. history class and employing the tools of the historian would offer students a far better opportunity to grasp the significance of the speech and make their own meaning out of it. History relies on chronology, which is essential for understanding causation. By the time of a Gettysburg Address lesson, students would already be familiar with the causes and outbreak of the Civil War, and banishing this context would be absurd. A close reading of the speech could proceed with reference to this context, as well as other skills of historical cognition like sourcing and corroboration. The Address offers dramatic evidence of how the war’s aims had shifted from the limited objective of preservation of the Union to the revolutionary objective of preservation through emancipation. EngageNY’s approach obstructs such an understanding.

Why do the CCSS assign history texts to ELA teachers? Chaffee, the English teacher who criticized the Gettysburg Address lesson, did not pose this question, but many English and history teachers have. Apparently, once texts are redefined as informational, they can be severed from their disciplinary moorings and moved around the curriculum like interchangeable parts. According to the CCSS, ELA teachers enjoy a “unique, time-honored place ... in developing students’ literacy skills,” (4) so the Standards simply assign them texts recognized as important by other disciplines. As part of ELA’s new responsibilities for historical documents (for grade 11 only), the Standards mention The Federalist Papers, presidential addresses, Supreme Court opinions and dissents, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century “foundational documents” including the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address -- all delegated to English teachers. (40) Only James Madison’s “Federalist Number 10” is mentioned on the History/Social Studies page. For grades 9-11, Appendix B adds fifteen US history documents to the ELA list and three for History/Social Studies. (Appendix B, 10-13)

This disproportionate delegation of responsibility endangers both disciplines. For history teachers, it means that English teachers who are untrained in the study of history will assume significantly greater responsibility for crucial historical texts. Because they need not concern themselves with teaching vast expanses of history, ELA teachers can devote more time to these documents than most history teachers can afford, and their lack of training in history combined with the Standards’ emphasis on ahistorical reading comprehension risks confusion and diminishes learning.

English teachers should be disturbed, too. Most of them study and teach ELA out of a love of literature and the arts, but they will search the common core in vain for guidelines on symbolism, imagery, or metaphors. Students will be expected to read widely in literature, but in the new world of the Common Core Standards, the dazzling turns and leaps of the human imagination are subordinated to the barren extraction of information. English teachers cannot find the prospect attractive. 

The CCSS appear to be unstoppable, so how might teachers who object to them proceed? First, discontent with the Standards has apparently been strong enough to cause three states (Minnesota, Massachusetts, and South Carolina) to consider withdrawing from them, and pressure is mounting in three others to withdraw. Political options may remain viable. Exemplar lessons like New York’s may be improved. As noted, history teachers can interpret the Standards to advance the aims of history thinking. But the Standards appear to leave little freedom to venture from their fundamental approach. Under the heading “What Is Not Covered by the Standards,” the authors assure teachers that they do not specify how to teach, that content is still open, the suggested texts are incomplete, and so on.  Still, any improvisations must be “consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.” (6) Testing will soon strengthen those expectations. Teachers are capable of creative recalcitrance, however, especially when asked to inflict bad pedagogy on their students. History and ELA teachers may find themselves agreeing with Jeremiah Chaffee and his colleagues at the end of their training in New York’s common core exemplars: “[W]hen it came time to create our own lessons around the exemplar, three colleagues and I found ourselves using techniques that we know have worked to engage students -- not what the exemplar puts forth.”  Do rejections like these mean the common core has flunked history?  A failing grade seems too harsh; after all, the Standards do ask students to read closely and think hard. A C+ more accurately measures the room for improvement.    


1: See the discussions in Gordon Wood, The Creation of The American Republic, 1776-1787 (New York:  Norton, 1969), 58-60, 402-403, 503-505, and Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (New York:  Hill and Wang, 2007), 8-9, 10, 172.

2: I am ignoring standard 10, a generic reading comprehension skill.

3: There's a video of common core author David Coleman similarly banishing context from a lesson on Martin Luther King’s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

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