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A 'Roadmap' for Teaching Civics and History Is Coming. Will It Restart an Old Curriculum War?

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Nearly a quarter century after the meltdown of a national effort to set history standards, two federal agencies are putting a toe back into troubled curricular waters: determining what history and civics content students should learn—and the best ways for teaching it.

The National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education have made a $650,000 award to the curriculum and advocacy group iCivics and several university partners, to design a "roadmap" to guide teachers, publishers, and state officials on how to create integrated history and civics content. The document will be unveiled in September 2020.

Both NEH and iCivics officials emphasized that the project will not attempt to craft grade-by-grade content standards. But it will detail "high priority" content areas that bridge the two disciplines, along with teaching methods and principles for curriculum development.   

"We would not be issuing in any way national teaching standards," said Jon Parrish Peede, the current chairman of the NEH, about his expectations for the project. "I think the outcome everyone is looking for is A, to bring greater awareness to civics education and the importance of teaching civics, and B, how to deliver that knowledge for students," Peede said. "And if we do A and B successfully, then there's certainly a possibility it may impact teaching standards down the line, but that is not the outcome we're pursuing. That may be a byproduct of bringing greater awareness to these best practices."  

Civics and ethics centers at Harvard University, Arizona State University, and Tufts University will all work with iCivics on the initiative.

Threading the Needle

In short, iCivics and its partners want to thread the needle here. They want to produce a document that's flexible enough that states will still have room to tailor as they write their own standards—but more specific and useful than other recent guidelines for civics and history.

And they want to do it all while avoiding the partisan culture wars that doomed the 1994 effort to craft national history standards.

(That NEH- and Education Department-funded effort got off to a good start. But ultimately, Lynne Cheney, on whose watch the NEH had awarded the grant, lambasted a draft as too critical of the United States and too politically correct. The blowup eventually led to widespread criticism and, ultimately, a 99-1 repudiation of the draft by the Senate. Education Week reported extensively on the rise and fall of the national history standards effort. It's all still relevant reading in the context of this new initiative.) 

While there have been important advances in K-12 history and civics teaching since then, content has largely been a third rail. The College, Career, and Civic Life, or C3 framework produced by the National Council for the Social Studies in 2013, for example, outlined broader skills and dispositions that students should learn, but not the content they should apply them to. A typical C3 standard for 8th grade reads: "Detect possible limitations in the historical record based on evidence collected from different kinds of historical sources." 

iCivics' leaders say they envision "teaching civics through the arc of American history," rather than as separate disciplines, to underscore the connection between of how American civic ideals and institutions have been historically created and sustained—sometimes to the exclusion of some groups. (Education Week explored in a story last year how K-12 history education tends to be divisive in part because the way it's taught often communicates unspoken, and contested, civic values.)

The group's executive director, Louise Dubé, said the effort will look at both the "gory and the glory" of the United States' founding, history, and successes and failures in living up to its ideals. It will also acknowledge that in an increasingly diverse country, all learners need to see a version of history and civics that's relevant to them.

"I know that we have to acknowledge our patriotism, that we need to believe in this country," she said. "I know that there is reluctance on both sides on these issues. Some do not like the term patriotism, and some do not like to talk about the really dramatically bad parts of our national story, but my hope is we can get beyond that and understand that both co-exist. Our democracy asks that of us." 

The group has convened a steering committee of 30 individuals. Most of the hands-on work will be done by three separate task forces—one each on the topics of history, political theory and civics, and pedagogy, each with a mix of academics and educators and a staff of research assistants.

Among other things, the panels will examine at the quality of each state's existing standards, consider advances in higher education pedagogy, and look at the emerging field of media literacy. They'll also meet in two working sessions to be held early next year, one at Louisiana State University and the other at Arizona State University. 

It is not yet entirely clear what opportunities the public will have to weigh in on the document before it's released.

Long Shadows

Dubé promised the panels will be balanced in terms of representation, political perspectives, and disciplines. Still, it's undeniable that this is going to be a challenging task.

For one, the new funding is far less than the 1990s effort, which received more than $2 million. And it was hard enough at that time to balance 30 organizations' perspectives let alone the more than 100 individuals who'll be contributing to the new effort, noted Gary Nash, a distinguished professor of history at the University of California Los Angeles, one of two experts who co-chaired the national history standards committee in 1994.

"It could ignite another history war that could be even fiercer than the one in the 1990s," he mused. Conversely, "it may end up just being oatmeal, in an effort to be so broad and so general everyone can say, 'That's a good thing.'"

Dubé acknowledged the challenges ahead.

"I'm obviously concerned; we are all," she said. "We are hoping to be as transparent and open as possible given the task that needs to be done in a short time frame and are hoping that everyody comes to this with the goal to ensure schools are nonpartisan organizations, and that we can bring people together with the strength of that idea. Is there the potential for partisanship? Of course there is."

The award is part of NEH's newly announced More Perfect Union initiative, which funds a broad portfolio of projects on American history and civic culture. The Education Department funding comes from the national activities portion of its American History and Civics Education grant.

Read the project narrative below.

Image: Getty

Education Week is partnering with the Purple Project for Democracy in its civics education coverage this month. Find out more about the project, a nonpartisan coalition of media organizations and civics groups, at wethepurple.org.

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