Thursday, March 31, 2011

AV#76 - Colorado scores an F on our history standards - and what we can do about it

                ANOTHER VIEW #76

      Peter Huidekoper, Jr.                                                                                  March 5, 2011

Colorado scores an F on our history standards    and what we can do about it (without spending a dime)

“World War II was the mightiest struggle humankind has ever seen. It killed more people, cost more money, damaged more property, affected more people, and caused more far-reaching changes in nearly every country than any other war in history. The number of people killed, wounded, or missing between September 1939 and September 1945 can never be calculated, but it is estimated that more than 55 million people perished.”    

Do you find it odd that World War II is not mentioned in the Colorado history standards?  Not once in 100 pages.  At one point, they get close … but then skip over those six horrific years:
“Prepared graduates” will “investigate causes and effects of significant events in United States history.  Topics to include but not limited to WWI, Great Depression, Cold War…”
Something missing?  Go to our standards and do a search for World War II.  Search for Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler.  Try Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima, A-Bomb. Nothing. Zip.

To get an F in college—an Art History course--was embarrassing.  Maybe I shouldn’t have slept through the final exam.  No one likes to get an F, but we should take it to heart and see how we can improve.  That’s certainly what we will be saying to schools if Colorado starts giving them letter grades—as many states are doing.  That is certainly what we would ask of a teacher—or a student—given such a low evaluation.  Unless we want to shoot the messenger, failing grades should force a little soul-searching.

This past month the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released its first report on the quality of state history standards since 2003.  Eight years ago our standards were given a D.  Colorado’s grade today?  F.  Our scores on Content and Rigor – 0/7.  On Clarity and Specificity: 0/3. 
(The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011, by Sheldon M. Stern, Jeremy A. Stern)

Table-1 • 2011 Grades for U.S. History Standards  -  Ranked from Best to Worst

2011 GRADE
South Carolina
New York
12 states
10 states
18 states, including COLORADO

So I ask: What are we doing about it?  Can’t we do better?
As Table 1 shows, we were hardly alone with our low score.  Fordham’s “Key findings include:
A majority of states’ standards are mediocre-to-awful. The average grade across all states is barely a D. In twenty-eight jurisdictions—a majority of states—the history standards earn Ds or below. Eighteen earn Fs.  Just one state—South Carolina—has standards strong enough to earn a straight A. … just ten states—or about one in five—get honors marks.  (These states provide) …several national models … that lagging states could and should emulate going forward.
We learned of the report in The Washington Post, Education Week, and The Economist, but not a word in The Denver Post or Education News Colorado.  It deserves our attention.  I have supported the standards effort since it began in the early 1990’s.  The F does embarrass me, as I suspect it does many Coloradans who believe the standards we commit to reveals our expectations for public schools.  Furthermore, I taught some history when, in my English classes, students read speeches by Churchill and Roosevelt, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X (again, not one of whom is named in Colorado’s history standards). 

What’s wrong with our standards?

First, The Economist’s summary.  It points out that while President Obama and many others remind us how critical it is that we improve the teaching of math, science, and technology, a 2009 test found an even smaller percentage of high school seniors—47%--scored at the basic level in history than in math.  “One problem, (this) new report argues, is that states have pathetic standards for what history should be taught. Good standards do not ensure that students will learn history. But they are a crucial guide…many states emphasize abstract concepts rather than history itself.”

That captures the essence of Fordham’s two-page criticism of our standards (found at

A few bullets from the report (quoted with permission from Fordham):

Overview  -  The 2009 Colorado social studies standards, we are told, were “designed for clarity, rigor, and coherence,” aiming for “fewer, higher and clearer standards.” The result is meant to be “a vision” of “what all students should know and be able to do at each grade level through eighth, and then through high school.” Unfortunately, thematic abstractions dominate the standards—to the near-total exclusion of historical or chronological coherence, obscuring what limited content there is in a confused tangle of categories, subcategories, and jargon.

Goals and Organization  -  Each such expectation consists of a thematic heading—labeled “concepts and skills students master”—laying out broad conceptual themes to be covered. For example, one eighth-grade history grade-level expectation directs students to “formulate appropriate hypotheses about United States history based on a variety of historical sources and perspectives.

The state then provides a series of “evidence outcomes” for each concepts and skills heading. These are thematic summary statements of knowledge that students must master as well as “21st century skills and readiness competencies.” …This jargon-laden snarl of nested categories severely fragments any historical content, making chronological presentation impossible. With content summaries so broad, general, and disorganized, even the basic scope of each year’s course can be difficult to discern.
Evaluation  -  According to the state’s social studies standards, Colorado students are expected to graduate with the skills to understand “how people view, construct and interpret history” and grasp “key historical periods and patterns of change over time within and across nations and cultures.”  Unfortunately, concepts and skills must be matched with content and substance if genuine historical clarity and rigor are to be achieved. Yet Colorado seems much more interested in abstract goals than specific substance….

Content and Rigor Conclusion  -  Colorado’s K–12 Academic Standards in social studies provide virtually no subject-specific content in U.S. history. There is hardly anything in U.S. history that teachers are specifically required to know or to teach at any particular grade level. A complete lack of specific content means that substantive rigor cannot be identified, measured, or evaluated. Even a few vague and brief references to specific eras or concepts cannot raise the score above a zero out of seven for Content and Rigor.

From Education Week – UNC professor responds

As Education Week’s article suggested, some will fault the messenger and dismiss the message:

But officials in some of those low-scoring states and other critics of the Fordham study said the poor ratings owe largely to differences between the institute and various states on how American history is best taught, what it should cover, and how detailed the curricula should be in elementary, middle, and high school.

“The authors seem to want a prescribed and detailed U.S. history curriculum for every state, and this is constitutionally impossible in Colorado,” said Fritz Fischer, a professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado and the chairman of the National Council for History Education. Under the state’s constitution, Colorado officials are prohibited from dictating curricula to school districts, he said. “The biggest problem reflected in the study is that it ignores historical thinking and understanding in favor of weakly defined ‘specific substance,’ ” said Mr. Fischer, who has also advised Colorado on developing social studies standards. “The authors appear to be attracted to lists of names, dates, and events at the expense of standards that require students to develop an in-depth understanding of historical concepts and ideas.”

However, Fordham’s president said its analysis is about making sure students have a firm grasp of historical facts before developing historical concepts and ideas.  “You have to get the bricks before you can get the mortar,” Chester E. Finn, Jr. said. 
(“Report Gives a Majority of States Poor Grades on History Standards,
by Michelle D. Anderson, Education Week, Feb. 16, 2011, online)

Jo O’Brien, Assistant Commissioner for Standards and Assessment at the Colorado Department of Education, emailed me: “It is not surprising that the Fordham reviewers rated Colorado’s history standards as they did given their review criteria is fundamentally different than the framework used to develop all of Colorado’s Academic Standards.  States rated high by Fordham tend to have history standards and addendum documents that are more curricular in nature.  In Colorado, curriculum design occurs at the district level, not at the state level.”  She added: “The need for specific and rigorous curriculum is essential. Colorado is not in a legal position to offer curriculum.  That will always put us crossways with such a review.”

A recommendation for elementary and middle schools

Perhaps the state cannot do more.  I would note, though, that we recently adopted the Common Core standards in English, and here we at least see a list of texts—specific novels, stories, poems, and  speeches--that would help schools and teachers know what literature would meet expectations at certain grade levels*.  I am sure many teachers across the state pay less attention to the amorphous state standards and feel their more specific district standards are a better guide. (This English teacher felt that way about the Douglas County language arts standards, as compared to the state standards). 

Still, I believe many schools and teachers would be glad to have a list of essential names, places, events, and critical ideas to address (which is hardly “dictating curricula,” true?)  It is challenging enough to prepare the best units and lesson plans; I certainly wanted some choices as a teacher, but I was sure there were folks brighter than me who could come up with the big picture, the essentials of what to teach.

For K-8 history and geography, I think it has been done.  The Core Knowledge Sequence— now guiding the teaching of history in close to 100 Colorado public and private schools—offers the specificity that gives teachers everything our state standards do not.  I speak as one who spent most of the past decade teaching English in three schools committed to, or moving towards, Core Knowledge as its guide.  Language arts teachers benefit greatly knowing what our students are being taught by our colleagues who teach history.  The curriculum outline is written in a way that we often piggyback on each other’s work.

Let’s take, say, World War II.  Pages 5 and 6 here give you Core’s guide for that unit in history.  Those who see it as “merely a list to memorize” that demands insufficient “critical thinking skills” show little appreciation for the powerful units created by my history colleagues Mark, Diana, and Miles, or for the heartfelt discussions as our students wrestled with these events.

Language Arts Class: World War II–speeches by Churchill (1940) and Roosevelt (1941), and The Diary of a Young Girl (1942-1944), by Anne Frank

Colorado standards and the Core curriculum expect students to read essays and speeches as well as fiction.  I was glad to use time in English class when students could read Winston Churchill’s “Blood Sweat and Tears” and “Their Finest Hour”; I did so as my Social Studies colleague hit 1940.   As history class entered 1941 and America’s involvement, my class read Franklin Roosevelt’s “The Four Freedoms” and “Declaration of War Against Japan.”  Our close look at these texts gave the students new insight into how these two men spoke for—and led— their nations.  (NOTE: Two of those speeches are referenced in the Common Core English standards.*)

Then we began The Diary of a Young Girl.  (Note—this is recommended for seventh graders in the Common Core Curriculum Map, designed to align with the Common Core standards—see  But if history class isn’t simultaneously teaching WWII, how will students have the needed context to appreciate Anne Frank’s situation?)  Her story moves from the summer of 1942 to the bombings of Amsterdam to D-Day and into August 1944—with the Frank family, like millions, waiting for the Allies to arrive.  Their fears—and their desperate hope for liberation from Nazi rule—came to life in the words of thoughtful teenager growing up, struggling with relationships, with the war and prejudice, and hoping to discover who she is.

From the Core Knowledge Sequence- curriculum guide for 7th Grade History/Geography*

NOTE: This is one page from the four-plus pages in the CK 7th grade curriculum guide – see page 180-185 of the Core Knowledge Sequence – Content and Skills Guidelines for K-8:

V. World War II

• Italy
Mussolini establishes fascism
Attack on Ethiopia
• Germany
Weimar Republic, economic repercussions of WWI
Adolf Hitler and the rise of Nazi totalitarianism: cult of the Führer (“leader”),  Mein Kampf
Nazism and the ideology of fascism, in contrast to communism and democracy
Racial doctrines of the Nazis: anti-Semitism, the concept of Lebensraum (literally, “living space”) for the “master race,” Kristallnacht
The Third Reich before the War: Gestapo, mass propaganda, book burning
• The Soviet Union
Communist totalitarianism: Josef Stalin, “Socialism in one country”
Collectivization of agriculture
Five-year plans for industrialization
The Great Purge
• Spanish Civil War  -- Franco, International Brigade, Guernica

• Hitler defies Versailles Treaty: reoccupation of Rhineland, Anschluss, annexation of Austria
• Appeasement: Munich Agreement, “peace in our time”
• Soviet-Nazi Nonaggression Pact
• Blitzkrieg: invasion of Poland, fall of France, Dunkirk
• Battle of Britain: Winston Churchill, “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”
• The Home Front in America
American Lend-Lease supplies, Atlantic Charter
America First movement
U.S. mobilization for war: desegregation of defense industries, “Rosie the Riveter,” war bonds
America races Germany to develop the atomic bomb: the Manhattan Project
• Hitler invades Soviet Union: battles of Leningrad and Stalingrad
• The Holocaust: “Final Solution,” concentration camps (Dachau, Auschwitz)
• North Africa Campaign: El Alamein
• D-Day: Allied invasion of Normandy, General Dwight Eisenhower
• Battle of the Bulge, bombing of Dresden
• Yalta Conference
• Surrender of Germany, Soviet Army takes Berlin

*Reprinted with permission from the Core Knowledge Foundation, from The Core Knowledge Sequence: Content and Skill Guidelines for Grades PreK - 8, © 2010 by the Core Knowledge Foundation. (Note: updated in 2010.)  Not to be copied or reproduced without permission from the Core Knowledge Foundation, 801 E. High Street, Charlottesville, VA  22902 <

• Historical background: Japan’s rise to power
Geography of Japan (review all topics from grade 5) -- Sea of Japan and Korea Strait
   High population density, very limited farmland, heavy reliance on imported raw materials, food
Japanese imperialism: occupation of Korea, invasion of Manchuria, Rape of Nanking
Japanese-Soviet neutrality treaty
• Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941: “A day that will live in infamy.”
• Internment of Japanese-Americans
• Fall of the Philippines: Bataan Death March, General Douglas MacArthur, “I shall return.”
• Surrender of Japan -- Atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Enola Gay
U.S. dictates pacifist constitution for Japan, Emperor Hirohito
• Potsdam Conference, Nuremberg war crimes trials
• Creation of United Nations: Security Council, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

I use the World War II material merely as one example to contrast Colorado’s standards with Core Knowledge.  Similar specific content enables 8th grade English and history teachers to collaborate as they read: The Good Earth while studying China; Animal Farm after studying the Russian Revolution and totalitarianism; and Du Bois, Hurston, Angelou, King, and Malcolm X during their study of the Civil Rights movement. (King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” is also referenced in the Common Core standards for grades 9-10.)

An F seems right when our standards fail to mention what is perhaps the most critical event of the 20th century.  An outcome that was no sure thing.  So much blood shed.  Huge stakes.  Never again, we tell ourselves.  But hard to learn from this cataclysm—if we fail to teach it.  

What should guide us?  Those who developed our history standards speak of the Massachusetts Curriculum Framework as one resource.  There you will find clear expectations on teaching WW II—see pages 60 and 76—  This part didn’t make it west.  Closer to home, we have 100 schools that find the Core Knowledge Sequence a good place to start.  Perhaps more K-8 teachers will follow.  The bound copy is $35, but at it is free.  I hope you’ll take a look. 

Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the view of any organization he is associated with. Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225. Email 

Peter Huidekoper, Jr.
8802 N. Piney Creek Rd.
Parker, CO  80138

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