Designing and implementing core standards for ELA, math, science, and social studies in the United States has been a huge challenge—as many educators know from their daily experience. But, as I recently learned, U. S. educators are just part of a larger reform movement. As we attend professional development workshops, preparing students for new assessments, and parsing the results—nations around the world are going through the same process. Indeed, as the historian Sir David Cannadine explained in “The Future of History” in the March 13 Times Literary Supplement, similar initiatives are being implemented in the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Russia, Japan, and South Africa. So what does this global activity mean for us?
Cannadine’s thoughtful essay outlines some of the debates in the United Kingdom. He is one of the authors of a survey of history education in his country and this careful study has distinct echoes here. The authors map the many wars that have been waged over whether history education has leaned too left or too right, too rigid or too progressive. (For a hint of the U. K. debates, as seen through a U. S. lens, follow this thread on the Core Knowledge website. Cannadine, however, is not focused on that debate.
“The Future of History” argues that there hasn’t been a great decline from a prior golden age of history education and that different local conditions have influenced how well or how poorly history has been taught. Cannadine generally favors a national history curriculum, but thinks the current debates miss the key point; the problem is not whether more or less time is spent on topic A or person B, but rather that too little time is spent on history. In the United Kingdom, it is not a required subject after the age of 14. In the United States we have the opposite situation. Social studies and science share limited time slots in elementary classrooms and students arrive at middle school having learned and relearned the same small bits of U. S. history, with barely any awareness of a wider world.
Our Common Core emphasis on evidence, argument, and point-of-view will be helpful in remedying the gaps in our students’ knowledge since these are key skills for investigating history. And the increased use of nonfiction may well mean more compelling history books in ELA classes. Indeed, it seems that the Common Core encourages teachers, librarians, and schools to recognize that content matters—that educators need greater depth of knowledge in subjects to match and guide students as their nonfiction reading blossoms. But Cannadine’s essay also suggests a need for educators to expand their horizons beyond local challenges and opportunities.
Why are so many nations considering a national curricula? Because they can, and because they must. They can because our ability to gather and track data is expanding exponentially, which influences everything in our lives—from health-care records to the number-crunching analyses of politics and sports that Nate Silver’s 538 columns in the New York Times have made so popular.
Education is a series of benchmarks on the way to graduation. Those benchmarks are already data points under analysis. We can gather and analyze national educational data, and we will. We must. Because the final impetus for national standards comes from those who receive our students after they graduate—the trades, the military, and the institutions of higher education. This is true from state-to-state and nation-to-nation. Let’s study this global moment—to compare how nations struggle with and implement curricula to prepare their students for global challenges.
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