Resolution on Proposed Georgia Social Studies Standards

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Resolution on Proposed Georgia Social Studies Standards

Georgia State University Department of History

February 16, 2004

The Georgia State University Department of History unanimously approves the four attached responses to the proposed Georgia Social Studies Performance Standards.

The responses will be posted on the history department web site. In addition, an effort will be made to disseminate the responses as widely as possible, including through all the history departments of the University System of Georgia, the Board of Regents, members of the legislature, professional history associations, the Georgia Council of Social Studies, H-Georgia and other listservs, the Georgia Association of Historians, and representatives of the media.

Moreover, we encourage fellow historians, teachers, students, and other concerned citizens to review and comment upon the proposed standards posted at the Georgia Department of Education website (http:www.glc.k12.ga.us/spotlight/gps2.htm), and to draw attention to the standards and their ramifications through the Board of Regents, the Georgia Department of Education, and other avenues.

Proposed Georgia Social Studies Performance Standards

State School Superintendent Kathy Cox and the architects of the proposed Georgia Performance Standards argue that the new standards mark a clear improvement over the existing curricular objectives. They maintain that the new standards replace a traditionally bloated curriculum that is "a mile wide, but an inch deep," and constitute "a challenge to the mediocrity and shallow standards that have been accepted for too long." The new standards, they claim, feature "a continuum of learning" from grades K-12, and will foster "mastery of the essential concepts students need to know" as well as "rigor and depth."

These are certainly admirable goals. There is no doubt that the current social studies curriculum contains many weaknesses, in both content and pedagogy. Moreover, it is refreshing to hear state education administrators call for higher expectations of Georgia's children at all levels. Yet, unfortunately, an examination of the proposed standards suggests continued mediocrity. Rather than being a "world-class curriculum for world-class students," the new standards are deeply flawed, at a variety of levels.

The proposed curriculum falls well short of the ostensible goals of the Department of Education. It also falls short of the Georgia State University Department of History's expectations for students taking lower level college courses, let alone advanced courses. A particular source of concern is that there seems not to have been a deliberate and active review process involving content experts in colleges and universities. As constructed, the standards continue to foster shallowness and to poorly prepare students for college.

Eighth Grade Georgia Studies Standards

Subjects Other than History

Three of the fifteen units, including eight of the forty-six proposed standards, are topically based and not historically driven: Unit 1, "Getting to Know Your Own County"; Unit 6, "State and Local Government"; and Unit Seven, "Teenagers and the Law in Georgia." Whatever their merits, to place two of these units in the middle of the year disrupts and undermines the chronological organization of the rest of the curriculum. In fact, these units might fit better in the required high school Citizenship curriculum.

Comparative Weight

Assuming that each of the standards is to have comparable weight, there is considerable discrepancy between the standards and the actual significance of the subject matter. For instance, while there are four standards associated with Unit 1, "Getting to Know Your Own County," Units 12 and 13, on "The Depression and New Deal" and "World War II" respectively, contain but a single standard each. Is "the significance of colonial sites . . . to Georgia today" (Standard 8.16) actually of equal importance as western expansion and Native American removal (8.26)?

Similarly, there exist discrepancies within standards. For instance, while Standard 8.29 addresses the "political, military, economic, and social aspects of the Civil War," ten of the twelve subsections of the standard are political or military in nature, while only two treat the social and economic dimensions of the war.

Omission of Significant Content

Numerous significant content areas have been simply omitted from the new standards. For instance, as difficult as it may be to imagine, there is no mention of the cotton gin in the curriculum. Nor is there any inclusion of such important subjects as the debate over slavery in colonial Georgia, the Yazoo land fraud, Sherman's Field Order #15, the expansion of the railroads after the Civil War, the crop lien system, the Populists, the emergence of Atlanta as the region's hub, blues and country music, rural electrification, the 1946 black voter registration drive, the Sibley Commission, suburbanization, and new immigrants. The absence of the subjects points to the importance of review by content specialists at the university level.

While African Americans and Native Americans are included, their representation leaves much to be desired. As a rule, they are portrayed as undifferentiated groups, without consideration of the divisions and tensions that existed within these communities. They also are often depicted primarily as victims, rather than as active agents in history. There is no mention of the range of Native American survival strategies in the early republic, or of African American survival strategies in the Jim Crow era, only these groups' vague "contributions . . . to Georgia."

Even more egregious is the treatment of women. Outside of a few references to famous women, the proposed curriculum contains no mention of women, gender roles, or gender expectations. Religion is another subject which receives no historical treatment whatsoever.

Questionable History

Some of the standards contain errors of fact. For instance, one of the tasks associated with Standard 8.33 asks students to research anti-lynching legislation passed during the period under question, when in fact no such legislation ever was passed. Standard 8.34 places the boll weevil, which arrived in Georgia in the late 1910s, in the "New South" era from 1880-1900 (a time frame, incidentally, which has no particular internal coherence, and which is not defined as the New South period anywhere in the historical literature).

Inadequate Tasks Associated with Standards

Many of the tasks associated with the proposed standards fail to adequately support the standard. Thus, neither of the tasks associated with Standard 8.13, on "how geographic features such as climate (not a geographic feature by the way) and topography" influenced Georgia's early development, mention geographic features. It is unclear how writing an essay on "The Importance of the Little White House to Georgia" supports a standard (8.38) on "the impact of the Great Depression on Georgia."

Certain tasks seem to foster memorization or busy work more than deep historical understanding. For instance, in conjunction with Standard 8.30 on "the political impact of Reconstruction policies on Georgia and the other southern states," students are to "create an 'ABC' booklet using people, places, and terms associated with Reconstruction." Similarly, it is unclear how "[creating] a flip book containing descriptions and illustrations of each important personality of the colonial period" (Standard 8.12) advances either rigor or depth.

Poor Phraseology

Many of the standards are poorly phrased or constructed. For example, Standard 8.34 states in its entirety,

"The student will evaluate the impact of New South policies on Georgia's politics, culture, and economy from 1880-1900, including:

a) the transition from agricultural to industry. b) the role of individuals such as Henry Grady, Tom Watson, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. DuBois. c) the boll weevil."

Do the authors actually mean "policies"--which usually refer to governmental, organizational, or individual courses of action-or do they mean "developments" or some other more appropriate word? What does "the transition from agricultural to industry" mean, anyway? It certainly implies that industry supplanted agriculture, when, in fact, most Georgians continued to live on farms until the 1920s. In addition to the boll weevil, the preponderance of DuBois's work occurred after the period under consideration. What do subsections a, b, and c have in common-have the authors forgotten the principles of parallel construction? And to which part of the standard do they refer? The net effect is to obfuscate, rather than clarify, let alone help enable students to appreciate history and fruitfully engage with the past.

High School United States History Standards (11th Grade)

A Limited Vision

The initial, defining statement for the high school level U.S. History standards says, "The student will examine the founding ideas and ideals of the United States and then investigate the expansion of the United States from 1876 to the present, noting the challenges and the solutions chosen through the history of America, and how democracy has evolved from 1776 to the present." This statement suggests a rather traditional triumphal approach, a linear notion of history as progress, that hardly does justice to the complexities and contingencies of the past. The United States expands, solutions are found for the challenges which emerge, and democracy evolves. Words like "accomplishments," "successes," and "advances" pepper the document. Yet history is more than a set of problems resolved. It is open ended, explores how and why things happened, involves multiple causes and interpretations, and includes choices, tensions, and conflicts.

The proposed standards also perpetuate a conventional narrative which equates national history with the nation-state, one which has tended to promote insularity, ideas of American exceptionalism, and an undifferentiated, monolithic United States. As the authors of a seminal work on how Americans relate to the past have written, most Americans do not recognize themselves or their families in this narrative, and for this reason among others rank high school history classes as among the least engaging ways of presenting history.1

Moreover, such a framework largely ignores a considerable body of historical scholarship since the 1970s which situates United States history within larger contexts. Historians using a comparative approach have reexamined the idea of American uniqueness, while other historians have explored the complex interconnections and relations between American history and that of the rest of the world, at levels beyond that of the nation-state alone.2 To neglect this historiography fosters a provincialism that seems especially out of place in our increasingly interconnected world.


Except for the introductory unit on "Founding Ideas" of the United States, the curriculum only covers the period from 1876 to the present. Even within this time frame, it is weighted toward contemporary history. Fully half of the eighty standards treat the period from World War II to the present, including two on the twenty-first century. In contrast, the curriculum for the high school Advancement Placement course in U.S. History, also to be completed in one year, covers the sweep of American history from the exploration period to the late twentieth century, with sixteen of the thirty-three A.P. units covering the period prior to 1876. Is one to assume that A.P. students receive only a shallow treatment of U.S. history because of the broad time span they cover? Of course not.

Under the proposed standards, except for eighth grade Georgia Studies, students would only encounter early American history in the fourth grade, and most of nineteenth century American history in the fifth grade. While the idea that fourth and fifth graders can and should learn more than at present is commendable, much of the content presented in elementary school will be largely forgotten by the time eleventh graders return to U.S. History. Furthermore, the cognitive skills (and thus the standards and associated tasks) of an elementary school student are much different than those of upper level high school students.

The proposed curriculum would omit the entire colonial era, which situates American history within world and international history from its inception. The social, cultural, and economic dimensions of the American Revolution would disappear, as would Indian-United States relations and Native American survival strategies in the early republic, the transportation revolution and early industrialization, Irish immigration to America, western expansion, growing sectionalism, antebellum reform movements, the emergence of an "American" culture, the U.S.-Mexico War, and the Civil War-arguably the defining moment in United States history.

In 1847, Daniel Webster declared, "It is an extraordinary era in which we live. It is altogether new. The world has seen nothing like it before." But high school students would learn nothing about this crucial period in U.S. history except for one implausibly large standard (2.3) on "the changes made in the United States from 1776 to 1876 in terms of the expansion of democracy, the expansion of territories, the diversity of people, and major accomplishments of the first 100 years." Such a standard virtually guarantees only a shallow understanding.

Comparative Weight of Standards

The proposed standards sometimes emphasize relatively peripheral developments to the neglect of more central, significant matters. For example, Unit 8, on World War II, contains three standards on personalities, military strategies, and specific events, and only one on the causes of the war. Conversely, some standards are almost impossibly broad, such as 14.2 in which students "will chart the changing ideals and challenges from 1876 to [the] present day." In addition, historical subjects of obviously different importance are given equivalent weight in the standards. Are the "origins and geopolitical consequences (foreign and domestic) of the Cuban Missile Crisis" (Standard 10.3) really equivalent to the "origins and geopolitical consequences (foreign and domestic) of the Vietnam War" (10.4), let alone "the changing political and economic role of the United States in world affairs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century" (5.1)? Accordingly, the standards often encourage memorization or superficiality, rather than the ability to assess evidence, weigh conflicting interpretations, discern causality, formulate comparisons, or trace change and continuity in a meaningful fashion. Eliminating, combining or transforming some of these dubious standards would also provide more time to address American history prior to 1876.

Questionable Conceptualization and Periodization

The framing of historical topics is often problematic in the proposed standards, both within and across units. Unit 3, on "The Industrial Era," illustrates many of the attendant concerns. Some of the listed causes of the "Industrial Revolution" (itself a debatable term, especially for this time period) are more rationalizations or results than causes. The unit seemingly treats the late nineteenth century (although the terms "Industrial Era" or "Industrial period" are never clearly defined), but the content ranges from "Boss Tweed and the cartoons of Thomas Nast" (1868) to "migration of American-Americans from the south" (World War I and afterward) and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (1911). Standards and their associated tasks are frequently not well-coordinated--do we really think that "the move for the direct election of Senators" was central to "the rise of Populism and the agrarian movement" (3.6)? The standards and tasks for the unit are often overly general, vague, or poorly phrased; they also reflect little of the historiography over the past thirty years. Here, as elsewhere, the input of content experts at the college or university level would have been helpful.

In addition to American history prior to 1876, the proposed curriculum slights the history of religion, the arts, and immigration, among other subjects. While women are mentioned more than in Georgia Studies and World History, the treatment of women's history, and of gender more generally, is inadequate.

Inadequate Tasks in Support of Standards

The tasks associated with a given standard are frequently unsatisfactory. This is true even with the treatment of "the founding ideas and ideals of the United States," which ostensibly drives the entire curriculum. One task for Standard 1.2, on "the ideas and ideals that influenced the Founding Fathers from previous models of government, including John Locke, The Federalist Papers, the Enlightenment, and Ancient Greece and Rome," suggests students use Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which, although generally anti-tyrannical, says nothing about Roman government or political thought, was not written in antiquity, and was not a particularly influential text for the "Founding Fathers." One of the tasks for Standard 1.5 employs the Declaration of Independence as a guide to why "representative democracy was an improvement on the monarchial system,"when actually the Declaration identifies inalienable rights and specific grievances, but does not advance or criticize any system of government per se. More generally, the "ideas and ideals" embedded in the Declaration and the Constitution are treated in a vacuum, divorced from their broader social and political contexts.

Similar problems with the tasks exist throughout the proposed curriculum. Thus, to help analyze "the causes of World War I and the reasons for the United States' involvement," students are to use the lyrics to George M. Cohan's "Over There," which, except for a fleeting reference to liberty, contains nothing about the topic. Such sloppy construction of the standards and the tasks does little to advance historical thinking and appreciation; rather it helps perpetuate mediocrity in Georgia's schools, and poorly prepares students for work at the collegiate level.


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Michael Meo - 2/21/2004

I am delighted to have access to this useful material in my work as a hgih-school teacher; thank you, HNN, for making it available.