Social studies, like its sister school subjects, is the focus of recent state and national reform efforts. As a site in which to explore the current history "wars",1 such reform proposals offer rich territory. This article will examine the New York state social studies framework proposed in 1995, Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Preliminary Draft Framework for Social Studies,2 as a case study of how ideas about teaching and learning social studies are translated into public policy. The specifics of the New York state case may not generalize to other reform proposals. But the development of this framework does reflect several strains in the national debate over social studies.3
Developing the Framework
In the late 1980's, New York State Education Commissioner Thomas Sobol created a task force to review the existing state social studies curriculum. The attendant report, A Curriculum of Inclusion,4 came under attack. Diane Ravitch and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for example, wrote a scathing critique under the sobriquet of the Committee of Scholars in Defense of History.5 Among other things, they accused the task force of "contemptuously dismiss[ing] the Western tradition" and contributing to "the reduction of history to ethnic cheerleading...".6 Casting the task force report as extremist multiculturalism was the opening shot in the battle over the New York State social studies curriculum. But it can now be seen as part of a growing national debate that began in the late 1980s with the History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools.7
Commissioner Sobol did not accept all of his task force's recommendations. But he did take seriously the need to revise the state social studies curriculum. In 1990, a second committee was impaneled. Their report, One Nation, Many Peoples,8 also drew conservative fire. One observer called the proposal "a repackaging of multicultural extremism as moderate academic reform".9 Lynne Cheney stated that her quarrel was not with multiculturalism per se, but with this committee's position: "The question is whether we are going to do it well or do it badly. New York has often been the leader in doing things badly".10
One Nation, Many Peoples spoke to numerous issues, but it did not constitute a state curriculum. New York State in fact has a long history of producing a state curriculum or "syllabus".11 Given that tradition, along with the growing national movement toward curriculum "standards," few observers were surprised by Sobol's appointment of yet a third committee, the Social Studies Curriculum and Assessment Committee, in 1991. Among other things, this group was charged with developing "desired learning outcomes" and recommending "elements" of a state-wide assessment.12
The new committee struggled with it's task for almost three years. Yet when a draft document was readied for the state Board of Regents in November 1994, Commissioner Sobol pulled it back. Now an educational consultant (Tom Ward and Associates) was hired to revise the draft, and the Curriculum and Assessment Committee members were dismissed. The timing of this move was interesting; it closely followed the Republican congressional victory and the conservative outcry over release of the U.S. history standards developed by the National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS).13 In the furor that developed,14 the conservative voices that had rapped earlier New York proposals now took on the NCHS proposal.
New York State Commissioner Sobol acknowledges that his decision to rescind the committee draft was based in part on the controversy over the national history standards, and being "still bruised from our own social studies content battles".15 In June 1995, the Board of Regents authorized the dissemination of the draft framework revised by Sobol's consultant. Commissioner Sobol asserts that this draft represents a "balanced, moderate but progressive middle ground".16 Steven Goldberg, president of the New York State Council for the Social Studies, agrees. The document provides a "balance," he said, "but there is no question that there are people who are going to think it is a cop-out".17
The development of the New York State social studies framework echoes strains of the national debate over social studies. Issues such as multiculturalism have become sharp division points. To social and political liberals, multiculturalism represents an attempt to speak to the experience of all Americans by expanding the traditional Eurocentric perspective on US history. To social and political conservatives, multiculturalism represents a fundamental rejection of Western culture and a fragmentation of U.S. society. This debate over what it means to be an American has raged across the United States. In a state with as diverse a population as New York, it is perhaps not surprising to see this issue flare up around any proposal to define a social studies curriculum.
Surveying the Framework
Before exploring how teachers might read the New York State social studies framework, let me offer a quick tour of the document. The major points are described in four sections that total about 48 pages.
"The Setting" (3 pages) presents a brief description of the context in which the various curriculum, instruction, and assessment frameworks were developed. Key to that context is the New Compact for Learning,18 which the framework authors cite as a "reconceptualization of education in New York State".19 One aspect of this is redefining the relationship between state and local education authorities. According to the framework authors, the state will develop and provide resources to support broad curriculum standards and a state-wide assessment program. Local authorities may "augment and expand" these standards.20 The second aspect follows from the first: the development of new curriculum, instruction, and assessment standards for all curricular areas. The framework authors assert that their effort is designed to "outline what students should know and be able to do," and that the framework "provides direction for schools and districts as they construct curricula".21
"Rationale, Trends, and Issues" (8 pages) offers a rationale for studying social studies, a list of on-going issues, and a set of eight "dimensions" of teaching and learning. With the possible exception of the dimensions, there is little surprise here. The proposed rationale emphasizes the traditional social studies goal of responsible citizenship. The issues are a list of conventional binary distinctions: for example, should teachers focus on factual knowledge or the process of learning? The dimensions are a list of reminders which the authors assert "challenge what we teach, how we teach, and how we assess student learning"22-intellectual skills, multidisciplinary approaches, depth and breadth, unity and diversity, multiculturalism and multiple perspectives, patterns to organize data, multiple learning environments and resources, and student-centered teaching, learning, and assessment.
"The Social Studies Standards" (33 pages) appears to be the heart of the framework. The bulk of this section is devoted to explaining the relationship between Standards (statements of broad goals), Performance Indicators (statements specific to what students should know and be able to do), and Performance Tasks (examples of learning activities at three levels: elementary, intermediate, and commencement). For example, Standard 1 states:
Students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of major ideas, eras, themes, developments, and turning points in the history of the United States and New York.23
Of the four performance indicators, one states that students should "recognize the connections and interactions of people and events across time from a variety of perspectives."24 Performance tasks are then offered to complement these indicators. For example, the intermediate-level task for this indicator is:
Investigate key turning points in U.S. history and explain the reason these events or developments are important (e.g., European settlement, writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Civil War, industrialization, significant reform movements, and the Cold War); use a variety of sources to view these developments from different perspectives and to identify varying points of view of the people involved.25
"Assessment Principles for Social Studies" 26 (2 pages) is the final section of the framework. The authors, citing the New Compact for Learning, argue for new assessments that use "a variety of strategies with increased attention to creative, authentic, and intellectually challenging demonstrations of mastery."27 This short section consists primarily of lists of "General Principles" of assessment and "Challenges of Change."28
"Reading" the Framework
How will teachers "read" the New York State social studies framework? Some may well view it as a nightmare, recoiling at the seemingly bewildering number and array of dimensions (8), standards (6), performance indicators (24) and performance tasks (close to 100). Even more awesome, however, is the scope of the job ahead. For example, just one of the almost 30 tasks listed for elementary students is:
Discuss the basic ideals of American democracy as explained in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Seneca Falls Declaration, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech;..."29
As if that weren't enough, after the semi-colon the authors call for students to, "Explain how these ideals developed and why they are important."30
If some teachers shake their heads, others may take a more sanguine view. For example, it is not hard to imagine teachers seeing some real possibilities in rhetoric that espouses the need for all children to engage powerful ideas that "link content to the prior experiences and knowledge of the students."31 Nor is it difficult to imagine teachers pleased to find support for multidisciplinary approaches and recognition of the need for local flexibility in enacting state standards.
Still others, however, may interpret the New York State framework as an appeasement of or capitulation to the political right. In that view, the framework is a document that neither offends nor enlightens; a document that ratifies the status quo in the language of revolution; a document with pedagogical ambitions that get lost in political entanglements; a document written for educators, but aimed at the politics of appeasing right-wing political interests.
The Framework as a Tale of Appeasement
The story of how the New York State framework developed illustrates how social and political debates play out in curriculum policy. While it contains some language that supports ambitious teaching and learning, overall the draft framework appears to have been cobbled together to avoid the sharpened knives of conservative critics ready for any new "radicaquot; attempt to define the substance of social studies. In a forthcoming piece, I argue that the New York State framework presents a tension between traditional and more recent constructivist views of teaching, learning, and subject matter.32 Here, I offer an analysis of how subject matter is treated, using U.S. history as the illustrative example.
The claim that the New York State social studies framework represents a conservative take on subject matter can be supported in several ways. One involves the categorization of subject matter. For while they presumably had license to do something new and interesting, the framework authors fell back on traditional subject matter distinctions. National Council for the Social Studies took an ambitious stand by proposing curriculum standards based on themes rather than conventional subject matters.33 By contrast, the authors of the New York State framework took a safer course by designating U.S. history, world history, geography, economics, and government as the "central disciplines" of social studies.34 To that end, each discipline is the focus of a separate curriculum standard.35 The framework authors state that this approach "does not mean that courses or instructional units must be organized by discipline".36 They undercut that caveat, however, when they offer no alternatives.
A second indication that the New York State framework supports a conservative view of subject matter is more subtle, emerging more from what is not said than from what is. This seems most obvious in the case of multiculturalism. The authors should be commended for their use of the "M" word. This term (along with "outcomes-based education") has become a signal phrase among conservatives for all that is wrong with schooling in general,37 and efforts like the National Standards for U.S. History in particular.38 In that light, it would not have surprised many observers to see the New York State framework authors avoid it. Yet beneath the surface, one could argue that little is changed, and that the prevailing view of U.S. history represents a conservative stance.
The case for multiculturalism is expressed primarily in two of the eight "Dimensions of Teaching and Learning": "Unity and Diversity" and "Multiculturalism and Multiple Perspectives." In the first section, the authors argue that U.S. history can be viewed from a bifocal perspective. On the one hand, Americans are "united by certain shared values, practices, traditions, needs, and interests."39 At the same time, the continual influx of immigrants means, among other things, that the United States is "one of the most diverse nations on Earth".40 The framework authors conclude that the interactions of all Americans have resulted in a "strong and united nation...committed to a united national identity while preserving many of their (sic) individual cultural traditions."41 Related sentiments are offered in the section entitled, "Multiculturalism and Multiple Perspectives," where the authors contend:
Implementation of the standards should go beyond the addition of long lists of ethnic groups, heroes, and contributions to the infusion of various perspectives, frames of reference, and content from various groups.42
Given this approach, the authors aver that students will develop "greater tolerance and empathy for people holding varying viewpoints... ."43
One might pick at the language of these passages in several ways. For example, in the quotes from the "Unity and Diversity" section, the case for diversity seems overshadowed by that for unity. Groups may keep their "individual cultural traditions," but they must do so within a "united national identity." Similarly, one might wonder about the term "infusion" in the multicultural quotation. In a common sense, "infuse" means to mix or blend in. This would suggest that the "perspectives, frames of reference, and content" of unnamed "various groups" would be mixed or blended into a pre-existing and bounded narrative, presumably reflecting mainstream Anglo-European views. This additive view of multiculturalism is commonly expressed. But it represents a conservative stance, sounding more like the positions advocated by Ravitch44 and Schlesinger,45 than like the ambitious, transformative positions expressed by Banks46 and Sleeter.47
One other piece of evidence for the conservative cut on subject matter emerges when one examines the Performance Indicators and Tasks. For while the rhetoric of sections on unity, diversity, and multiculturalism could be read to support an ambitious view, the absence of any specifics in the bulk of the document is telling.
For example, let us return to the Performance Indicator and intermediate-level task for Standard 1 cited above. The "key turning points in U.S. history" it lists contain hints of a substantive multicultural view, but in general, these are big ticket items from the white male version of American history. Conflicting perspectives on these events might have been delineated, thus giving teachers something to react to, but this was not done.
Other Performance Indicators and Tasks are not much better. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech is tacked on to a list that includes the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The "forced relocation of Native Americans" is buried in a laundry list of 10 "turning points" in US history.
There is perhaps no more contentious issue in social studies than multiculturalism. Rather than help teachers think through the issue, however, the authors of the New York State framework send mixed messages. Statements about the value of multiple perspectives and cultures push in one direction; the lack of specific illustrations that support those stances suggest another. The framework authors, sensitive perhaps to the conservative penchant for reference counting,48 list numerous big names and events, but leave them unexplored and undeveloped. The cost in terms of promoting a substantive conversation about multicultural ideas and practice seems high. I predict that this conciliatory effort will fail to convince the political right wing that anyone other than themselves can produce a suitable document enumerating what students should know and be able to do.
The Framework as a Missed Opportunity
Reading the New York State framework as an act of appeasement has a certain appeal. But upon reflection, I believe the discussion above can be cited as evidence for at least one other reading that sees the framework as a missed opportunity. Two related arguments support this view. One is its lack of attention to research. The other is the dearth of compelling ideas.
The authors assert that the framework "articulate[s] principles based on research and best practices in education..."49 The evidence for this claim, however, is invisible. There are occasional references to other standards documents, but no specific references to research of any sort. A patina of language calls for students to "understand," "examine," "explore," and "investigate." Yet it is rarely clear what students are to understand or investigate, or how they will learn to do so.
The second argument for reading the New York State framework as a missed opportunity is its lack of powerful ideas. I offer this claim from a very particular stance; I argue that state-level policies could be profitably viewed as representing ideas.50 Given an opportunity to talk with teachers about the big ideas in social studies, however, the framework authors demur, offering instead a mix of underdeveloped rhetoric and pallid representations. What assistance do the authors provide to teachers struggling to construct a multicultural stance on American history? If teachers are expected to teach standard topics such as the American Revolution and the Civil War, how will they know what the multiple perspectives on these events are and how to teach them? If they are to teach a reconceptualized American history, what does that look like?
The authors raise issues like empathy and tolerance. But they leave teachers hanging when they suggest that topics like human sacrifice, slavery, and totalitarian government can be "studied in historical context," but that "tolerance for such practices is not acceptable" and they should be "evaluated from our own perspective."51 True, teachers might engage in some valuable reflection in questioning what "our" perspective is. But if they look to the framework for any guidance, they will come up short. As one reviewer of the framework noted, "it lacks the grist to have a really good debate over social studies."52
I am concerned that the New York State social studies framework represents an act of appeasement. But I suspect that teachers who feel this way will both challenge it and look to other more substantive sources. I am more concerned that teachers will see so little of value or "grist" in this framework that they will not only shelve it, but also the notion that they might try anything new or different in the way they teach. This missed opportunity may, in the long run, be the most damning critique of all.
1. Gary Nash and Ross Dunn, "History Standards and Culture Wars" in Social Education 59(1), 1995: 5-7.
2. Thomas Ward, Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Preliminary Draft Framework for Social Studies. (Albany, NY: New York State Education Department, 1995). The draft social studies framework reviewed in this paper was issued in June 1995. In June 1996, the state Board of Regents approved a revised version, the New York State Department of Education, Learning Standards for Social Studies (Albany, NY: Author, 1996). I chose to review the draft policy for two reasons. One is that the Standards represent something of a stripped-down version of the framework. Although the learning standards are virtually identical in the two documents, large sections of the framework dealing with the setting, rationale, trends, and issues were dropped from the standards document. The framework, therefore, represents a potentially richer source of ideas than its replacement. The second reason for my choice is that considerable energy at the state and local levels was invested in dissemination of the framework through professional development sessions. Although the quality of those sessions is dubious, no similar push by local or state officials has responded to the standards. See S. G. Grant, "Opportunities Lost:Teachers Learning about the New YorkState Social Studies Framework"(paper presented at the annual conference of National Council for the Social Studies, Washington, DC, 1996).
3. Catherine Cornbleth, "Controlling Curriculum Knowledge: Multicultural Politics and Policymaking" in Journal of Curriculum Studies 27, 2 (1995): 165-185; Catherine Cornbleth and Dexter Waugh, The Great Speckled Bird: Multicultural Politics and Education Policymaking (New York: St. Martin's, 1995); S. G. Grant, "A Policy at Odds with Itself: The Tension Between Constructivist and Traditional Views in the New York State Social Studies Framework" in Journal of Curriculum and Supervision (in press).
4. Task Force on Minorities, A Curriculum of Inclusion (Albany, NY: New York State Education Department, 1989).
5. Committee of Scholars in Defense of History, "Statement of the Committee of Scholars in Defense of HiIstory" in Perspectives 28, 7 (1990):15.
7. California Board of Education, History-Social Science Framework for the California Public Schools (Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education, 1988).
8. Social Studies Review and Development Committee, One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Independence (Albany, NY: New York State Education Department, 1991).
9. Heather MacDonald, "The Sobol Report: Multiculturalism Triumphant" in The New Criterion 10, 5 (1992): 9-18.
10. Lynne Cheney, "The End of History" in Wall Street Journal, October 29, 1994.
11. Use of state syllabi is not mandated. The mandated state-wide testing system is based on it, however, and most teachers speak of the syllabi as an influence on their practice. See S.G. Grant, "Locating Authority for Content and Pedagogy: Cross-current Influences on Teachers' Practice," Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, New York, NY, 1995.
12. Cornbleth, "Controlling Curriculum Knowledge," 177.
13. National Center for History in the Schools, National Standards for U.S. History (Los Angeles: Author, 1994).
14. Cheney, "The End of History."
15. Karen Diegmueller and Debra Viadero, "Controversy Predicted Over N.Y. Social-Studies Framework" in Education Week, June 21, 1995: 9.
18. New York State Education Department, New Compact for Learning (Albany, NY: Author, 1991).
19. Ward, Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, 1.
20. Ibid., 2.
22. Ibid., 7.
23. Ibid, 19.
24. Ibid., 21.
25. Ibid., 21.
26. The framework ends with three appendices: The 1984 Regents Goals for Elementary, Middle, and Secondary School Students; a list of generic "Essential Skills and Dispositions;" and a statement drawn from state regulations on "Students with Disabilities."
27. Thomas Ward, Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, 1995:47.
28. Ibid., 48.
29. Ibid., 20.
30. Ibid., 20.
31. Ibid., 3.
32. Grant, "A Policy at Odds With Itself."
33. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: Author, 1994).
34. Many will argue that "world history" does not constitute a separate discipline. If they recognize this point, the New York State Framework authors make no note of it.
35. The sixth and last standard is devoted to citizenship education. In the new Learning Standards there are only five standards: the government and citizenship standards have been combined.
36. Ward, Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, 13.
37. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Disuniting of America (Knoxville, TN: Whittle, 1991).
38. Cheney, "The End of History"; MacDonald, "The Sobol Report."
39. Ward, Curriculum Instruction and Assessment, 9.
41. Ibid., 10.
44. Diane Ravitch, "Diversity and Democracy: Multicultural Education in America" in American Educator, (1990): 16-20, 46-48.
45. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Disuniting of America, 1991.
46. James Banks, Multiethnic Education: Theory and Practice, 3rd ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994).
47. Christine Sleeter, "Multicultural Education as a Form of Resistance to Oppression" in Journal of Education 171, 3 (1989): 51-71.
48. In her op ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, Lynne Cheney (1994) attacked the NCHS history standards by counting the number of times historical figures were mentioned. She makes much, for example, of the fact that Robert E. Lee is not specially mentioned, while Joseph McCarthy (or McCarthyism) appears 19 times. See Diegmueller and Viadero, "Playing Games with History" in Education Week, November 15, 1995, 9, for an analysis of the "myth" and "reality" of Cheney's analysis.
49. Ward, Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, 2
50. S.G. Grant, "Nightmares and Possibilities: A Perspective on Standards-setting" in Social Education 59, 7 (1995): 443-445.
51. Ward, Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, 10. Emphasis added.
52. Karen Diegmueller, "Controversy Predicted"
S. G. Grant is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His interests lie at the intersection of curriculum policy and classroom practice.