What the students say about U.S. history
December 9, 2005
There’s a controversy brewing at Carson High School. Not many of the students know about it, but they are the ones who best know whether they’re being taught pre-Civil War history in 11th-grade U.S. history, a yearlong course.
The issue has received national attention – a clip ran recently on FOX News, and a Washington Post writer addressed it in a column.
So I went to the school last week and asked several students on their lunch break what they were learning in U.S. history.
Only a few asked why I wanted to know (and I told them of the controversy). There were a few others whom I had to prompt for responses – “Did you study the Revolutionary War?”
I made it a point to ask both juniors (who are taking U.S. history now) and seniors (who took it last year) about the content of the class, because it has been alleged that any changes in the curriculum may have taken place this year.
Here are the responses from the students:
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• “The Union movement, factories, the Civil War movement, World War I and II, the Axis powers” – a senior.
• “The Revolutionary War, settling the West, civil rights” – a junior.
• “The topic of Columbus, the colonies up to the Civil War and after the Civil War” – a senior who took advanced-placement U.S. history.
• “The Panama Canal, the Revolutionary War maybe and the colonies. I know we studied the colonies and the Declaration of Independence” – a junior.
• “The Civil War, settling of the West, coming to America, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Revolutionary War” – a junior.
• “How the U.S. was formed,” – a senior.
• “We just finished the Civil War. We didn’t really talk about the Revolution,” – a junior in advanced-placement history.
• “We had a big unit, a whole big unit on the colonial period and Jamestown. We covered it really thoroughly” – a junior in advanced-placement history.
• “I think we covered (pre Civil-War). I’m pretty sure we did. It was a long time ago. It was probably the first thing we talked about at the beginning of the year” – a senior.
• “I hardly pay attention” – a junior.
• “I kind of slept a lot. We learned stuff about rich people, Rockefeller and how poor America was and then started to turn around” – a senior.
• “I remember the Revolutionary War and stuff like that”- a senior.
• “World War I, the Civil War. We started at the Civil War” – a junior.
• “We didn’t really expand much on the Revolutionary War. We kind of touched on it” – a senior.
Anyway, from my understanding of the topic, teachers are given the responsibility to decide what areas to emphasize in their classrooms, based on existing student knowledge. But there are certain standards that teachers must meet, and these are detailed on a curriculum map.
Carson City School District’s curriculum maps are written by teachers in the district. The idea behind the map is to simplify the teaching job for the teachers by culling out the most important standards from the hundreds and hundreds of state standards that exist.
Mike Watty, director of education services for the school district, said he heard of a study that claimed it would take 22 years to teach every Nevada state standard.
Most of the standards on the district curriculum maps are ones on which students are later tested during the state proficiency test – but not for history, as there is no state proficiency in that subject.
A look at the curriculum map for 11th-grade U.S. history directs teachers to teach their students to (among many others):
• Describe the ideas of John Locke, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, and their influences on the American Revolution and the formation of the United States.
• Describe the events, course and results of the American Revolutionary War, including the contributions of blacks and American Indians.
• Describe the issues involved in the ratification of the Constitution, including: main ideas of the Federalist Papers, main ideas of the Anti-Federalists, the Bill of Rights.
Joe Enge, the teacher who has brought the concern to light, has made a list of some of the standards that were left out of the curriculum. They include (among many others):
• Explain issues, events and the roles of the key people related to the development of U.S. political institutions, including: Washington’s administration, the Marshall Court, judicial review, extension of suffrage and political parties.
• Describe the contributions in language, literature, arts and music that led to the development of an emerging culture in the United States, including: Stephen Foster, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hudson River School of Art and Henry David Thoreau.
“It’s been a given from the get-go that some standards are more important than others,” said Watty in explanation of why not every standard is required. “It’s up to each district to mandate what the curriculum is going to be for the district. We’re saying, ‘Cover as much as you can, but you have to cover these.'”