Common core and decline of history teaching : News : The Independent Institute


Every Olympics, a 26.2-mile run celebrates Pheidippides’ grueling race to Athens to herald the great Athenian victory over the Persian army at the Battle of Marathon. According to McGraw-Hill’s California-approved ancient history textbook last year, however, the Greeks “defeated the Persian navy.” The author of this text also wrote the 2006 edition of the same book, from the same publisher. This earlier edition correctly describes the battle as a clash of armies.

What changed between 2006 and 2019?

Answer: the common core.

American ideas of republican and representative government; the dangers of dictatorship; and the tensions between a republic and an empire all come directly from the experience of republican Rome. Our ideas about democracy and a natural law for all human beings come from the ideas and politics of the Greek poleis. Over 2,000 years ago, Greece and Rome wrestled with what citizenship meant, what freedom meant, what justice meant, just as we wrestle with them today. But for us to benefit from what they wrote, we must teach it effectively.

In recent years, debates about teaching math and reading have been intensified by the adoption in virtually every state of the federally promoted Common Core Standards for Mathematics and English (ELA). The new standards go in exactly the wrong direction: they systematically neglect the content of history and literature in favor of reading skills. By focusing on one state, California, and on one subject, Greco-Roman history, we can see that the common core has hurt.

The most compelling evidence is the drop in quality between two versions of a textbook written by Jackson Spielvogel before and after California’s adoption of Common Core. Both were sixth-grade California-approved textbooks. Spielvogel’s previous book is much easier to read and contains fewer errors.

The previous edition was a California-specific subset of Spielvogel’s World History for middle schools (a different subset is used in Florida). This book is itself a simplified version of his world history widely used for high schools; it is used, for example, in Texas. This California edition follows a conventional narrative structure largely based on chronology, but with digressions on relevant topics. The illustrations are appropriate and reasonably well chosen. There is only one “reading skills” interruption per section. A study I conducted with Williamson M. Evers and Victor Davis Hanson found a few errors, but a clear narrative. Our main complaint was that the text was not engaging enough for young readers.

Far from improving teaching about the ancient world, however, the common core made it more difficult – as shown by the later edition of the textbook, which dispenses with a single clear narrative in favor of a structure of trendy and confusing hypertext type consisting of a sequence of disconnected units, each with a title and a few paragraphs of text. It appears that a more continuous text was broken into “chunks” by a later editor who apparently believed that students could not absorb a narrative, only short single-topic units. The new edition contains fewer illustrations, but many more “reading skills” questions, often one per page.

What is the result of the changes to the common core? The new text is harder to follow, less interesting and less well written. More surprisingly, it also has many more errors. We found the same 16 errors in both editions, but 20 additional errors in the 2019 edition. How to explain this degradation? In keeping with the Common Core focus on “reading skills,” implemented in 2016 by California’s 855-page “Framework” for History/Social Studies Education, the editors of textbooks now include “reading specialists” in the editorial process. These editors apparently don’t know a book’s subject matter, so their work introduces errors while seeming to drain the life of the text. These changes can be directly attributed to the common core.

Reading lessons should emphasize reading skills; history lessons should focus on the content, namely the story. We should make the history and literature of the classical world more memorable – more stories, less hypertext – and we should tie them directly to the American Republican experience. Before 1776, before 1619, before 1492, BC, there was 490 BC and the battle of Marathon, which liberated Athens to found our civilization. To fit Milton’s advice, we should “justify America’s ways to her children”. We cannot do this with the Common Core standards, which take exactly the wrong approach to reforming history teaching.


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