Historians and the Public(s)

Politics and Standards: The Illinois Story

Arthur Zilversmit, May 2000

Schooling and the curriculum are inherently political—what is taught in the public schools reflects the values of the different groups that are served by them. Therefore, the effort to impose standards was bound to arouse the interest and often the passions of groups that have different values. The most important of these issues have been confronted by the standards movement in all of the states.

Foremost among these is the issue of equality: should we devise and impose standards on a school system that is characterized, in Jonathan Kozol's terms, as exemplifying "Savage Inequalities"? In what sense is it fair to impose the same standards on schools that have vastly different resources? This issue has not been adequately addressed, let alone solved by the proponents of standards. In Illinois, the sharp contrast between the assets supporting each pupil in the affluent suburbs of Chicago's North Shore and rural and inner city schools presents a formidable challenge to efforts to equalize results.

Second, is a system that imposes uniform standards compatible with a belief that children are inherently different and that they exhibit what Howard Gardner has called multiple intelligences? Can a single "high-stakes" test adequately define what a student has learned?

Third, is the development of standards compatible with imaginative teaching? Are we in danger of forcing teachers into a narrowed definition of their role, teaching primarily to prepare students for a test which they have had no hand in devising?

These are political questions that confront all of the states that are developing a standards-based curriculum.

In Illinois the politics of school reform involved a number of other issues and several different groups. Among the most important of these was the business community, which provided much of the impetus for the imposition of state standards. The idea of a curriculum that would produce students with a predictable base of knowledge and skills fits a business model of schooling. It would be efficient in producing a relatively uniform product, suitable for a variety of social functions. As David Tyack has shown, this business-efficiency model has been influencing education for most of the 20th century. The business model, however, conflicts with the historic tradition of American education—local control over the curriculum. Although members of the business community were pushing for uniform standards, there is a powerful tradition of local control of the curriculum that resisted state imposition on matters of curriculum.

A second group that played an important role in the standards movement in Illinois was that of representatives of the "religious right" who were concerned with what they perceived as the imposition of values by the schools and undermining of parental authority. They were particularly opposed to the teaching of evolution in any state-mandated biology curriculum in the public schools. (Fear of opposition by this group meant that the word "evolution" could not be used in any of the standards; in history we could not, for example, ask students to describe the evolution of the modern family.)

The third interest group was the state's educational bureaucracy, which was determined to keep tight control over the development of the standards. Because the efforts to develop standards had aroused so much controversy in other states, the superintendent of public instruction was determined to keep tight control over the movement. Never far from the minds of those who were responsible for developing Illinois's standards was the hostility that had greeted the national history standards developed by the group led by Gary Nash and Charlotte Crabtree. These became the focus of vicious attacks that were really thinly disguised attacks on the academic revolution of the 1960s. It was an attack on the new emphasis on inclusion—putting women and minorities back into our national narrative, a new focus on world history as opposed to the history of the West, and a narrative that was less patriotic than that which had been the basis for textbooks in the 1950s. In an effort to avoid this kind of controversy, the committee that drafted the social science standards (which included history) was dominated by people affiliated with the state superintendent's office.

Other groups that played some role in drafting and approving standards were teachers, principals, and parents. Because of the dominant role played by people affiliated with the state Department of Education, the influence of these groups was relatively weak.

Another group completely excluded from the committee that initially drafted the history standards was that of academic historians. The reason for this is not completely clear, but it may well have been related to the fact that professional historians (as in the case of Gary Nash) were identified with the newer definitions of history and were less likely to follow the lead of the state's educational bureaucracy. Another reason may be that supporters of social studies played an important role in the definition of history. They succeeded, early in the process of developing the state's standards, in having history defined as part of the social sciences. The national call for the development of standards, Goals 2000, had selected history as one of the five fields in which standards were to be developed. Social studies was left out of the national movement for standards. However, in devising its standards, Illinois adopted the social studies model and put history in a category of social science, as an equal partner of political science, geography, economics, anthropology, psychology, and sociology. This took history out of the humanities (where many of us believe it has an important base) and served to dilute the historical nature of the standards.

The decision to subsume history as a branch of the social sciences had other important consequences. It is linked to a view that tends to see history as a field valued not so much for its own sake as for the purpose of discovering "laws" and generalizations—very much in the tradition of David Hume and the 18th-century enlightenment. This is not a view that most professional historians accept, based as it is on Hume's false premise that human nature is always the same. Moreover, it leads to such false assumptions that history repeats itself and that the past is very much like the present. (The Illinois history standards are prefaced by Santayana's dictum, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.)

While the field of social studies originally emerged from history as an effort to broaden it beyond "past politics," recently it has come to rival history instruction. In 1991 the National Council for the Social Studies adopted a new definition of the field that rejected the idea that history was the center of the social studies. In the case of the Illinois standards, the decision to make history a part of the social sciences, rather than a separate discipline, was in line with this new definition of social studies.

Because history had already proven its ability to raise conflict on the national level, the state employees involved in drafting the standards wanted to be very careful in this area. This probably contributed to the idea that the process of drafting standards should remain under their control and that social science standards, which tend to be broad, were preferable to history-driven standards that are specific and therefore more directive and prescriptive.

The first draft of the standards, submitted for public comment in the summer of 1996, was extremely vague and unhistorical. After repeated and strong objections by the American Historical Association, the National Council for History Education, and the Organization of American Historians, an academic historian, Lawrence O'Brien of Illinois State University, was asked to join a committee to revise the standards. After another draft was completed, at the last moment, and after further protests by academic historians, I was invited to spend two days in helping to revise that draft.

This final draft was sent by the superintendent of public instruction to a 25-member External Standards Review Team, a committee dominated by businessmen. It also included a representative of the Chicago Urban League, two representatives of teachers' unions, and three representatives of the Christian Coalition and other groups of the religious right. The members of this latter group issued a minority report rejecting the standards. Their major argument was that "If we are to have state-mandated instead of locally defined education standards, then they should be considered from the viewpoint that parents have the primary responsibility for the education and upbringing of their children." In addition, the minority specifically objected to the emphasis on developing vocational skills.

While the standards adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education in July 1997 were somewhat improved as compared to the draft developed the previous summer, they were still very vague and unlikely to win the endorsement of academic historians. The history standards in Illinois are still limited by the basic social science approach that sees history not as a coherent narrative, but as a sort of grab bag from which one can select specific incidents to relate to present concerns. (In dealing, for example, with the results of wars, any war will do.) A major defect of the standards is that they do not convey the sense that the past is different. An example of this came up in a discussion of what are called "performance standards"—that is, activities that students can submit to demonstrate that they have learned what the state standards require. In this example, a student would be asked to assume the guise of the Empress Theodora and to prepare a resume, applying for the position of Secretary General of the United Nations. That certainly does not reflect a view of history that most of us could recognize.

Although I had many reservations about the process of developing standards, I still believe that they can serve as a vehicle for reestablishing connections between academic historians and the schools by offering a vehicle for our assistance in ways that will help teachers prepare to meet the demands of a standards-based testing program. If we want to improve history teaching, we need to have a variety of programs for teachers to help them to develop appropriate historical curricular materials. Academic historians should accept that challenge.

—Arthur Zilversmit, Distinguished Service Professor of History Emeritus, Lake Forest College, is the author of Changing Schools: Progressive Education Theory and Practice, 1930–1960. He served as chair of the OAH Committee on History in the Schools and was the academic director of the National Council for History Education's Ohio Academy for History Teachers.