Common Core: An editorial the Chicago Tribune refused to print

Maybe when a 30 year History Teacher has a problem with Common Core, somebody should listen!  The next question is why did the Chicago Tribune refuse to print it?

“Nothing that is capable of being memorized is history”
R.G. Collingwood

“History is an argument without end”
Peter Geyl

The End of History in Illinois?

As an historian, history teacher, and leader of Illinois history teachers, I am very heartened to observe this country’s love of history, most recently in all of the stories about the March on Washington that have made it into all forms of media. I hope that this interest is not short lived in the Land of Lincoln.

Our city and state are full of wonderful opportunities to learn about and experience history from amazing research libraries at the University of Chicago, Northwestern, and The Newberry, to top notch archives and museums like the Chicago History Center, the Field Museum, the National Archives Midwestern branch (Chicago), and the state of the art Abraham Lincoln Museum and Archives in Springfield. The Illinois Bottom downstate is the site of the first major city on the North American continent, Cahokia, which dwarfed all but a handful of European cities in the late medieval period.

In addition, under the enthusiastic guidance of Lisa Oppenheim, the Chicago Area History Day program has been very successful where it really matters: inspiring all of the social studies and history students in the city and the Chicago metro area to become passionately involved in “making history.” I am especially proud of the accomplishments of the students from the Chicago Public Schools in this program. Our CPS students consistently produce excellent historical projects and papers that reflect a very enthusiastic engagement between history and social studies teachers and their students. The performance of our CPS students also reflects well on the efforts of all of the history educators at all of the institutions mentioned above.

While we have a lot to be proud of as citizens of Illinois when it comes to teaching and learning about history, we face many obstacles in the present and in the near future.

Recent federal mandates adopted by the state (No Child Left Behind and The Race to the Top) that force all public schools in the state to teach to the Common Core Standards are a threat to History Education, and all Humanities related education because administrators concerned about math and reading test scores will funnel scarce resources and time into preparing for more standardized tests.

History is learned best when students read grade level appropriate history books (not textbooks). Students need to use documents to construct analysis and practice a lot of writing. We must substantially increase the amount of reading and writing that students do to prepare them for college. Under the current regime that will assess literacy using Pearson Education produced multiple-choice tests, content knowledge does not matter. This sets up major problems in schools with substantial numbers of students enrolled in Honors and AP courses. These courses are content-dense, but administrators will now be forced to push skills at the expense of content. For seniors there is the additional problem of the requirement of content specific SAT’s (SAT II’s) for college admission. From my perspective as a thirty-year history educator, all of the pressures of the current “reforms” work against the teaching of exemplary history courses. It is one thing to require a basic skills emphasis for students who have difficulty developing basic skills in well served and underserved districts, it is quite another to strip courses of substantial content to accommodate the “one size fits all” approach to education required by the RTTT mandates.

My students tell me that college interviewers from the best colleges always ask about the most inspiring books that they have recently read. College interviewers often want to know about a significant study or research project that has transformed the way that a student sees and experiences the world. In short, they want breath and depth: they want to see a passion for knowing and a boundless curiosity that no multiple choice test or computer graded essay will ever be able to measure. History teachers generally love to encourage students to engage in these research projects, but depth and choice have become scarce under both NCLB and RTTT. Both regimes result in a narrower curriculum and less choice because administrators will push to focus resources and teachers exclusively on what is tested.

I collect stories about history teaching as I meet teachers from all over my state. Many history teachers are very concerned about the Common Core Standards. One history teacher in a well-funded suburb tells me that the History Department in his school has become the Humanities Department because the district’s superintendent wants to hire more English teachers to “teach to the Common Core.” In other words, History will be “crowded out” to accommodate more Common Core writing exercises to get his district’s scores up (remember, history is not tested; literacy skills are). Another History teacher tells me that since being asked to teach to the Common Core, he has had to give up thirty to forty percent of his content. Still another teacher has told me that he has been forced to drop a major research paper assignment because the Common Core does not require depth of content knowledge, and his administrators want close reading of short works of fiction and nonfiction all the time. In another case, teachers in a nearby CPS high school tell me that they have eliminated freshman World History because so much social studies time was taken away in grades K-8 drilling for nationally mandated tests, that most students failed history because they lacked any sense of context or chronology.

My college and university history education colleagues who train pre-service history teachers also tell me that they have been cut out of the history standards and curriculum consulting and writing processes by the State Board of Education once the board chose to adopt the Common Core curriculum. And history education professionals who are department chairs at some of the best schools in the state are also complaining about the institution of value added teacher assessments based on student performance. They say student learning is far too complicated to be assessed by multiple-choice tests or digitized computer grading of essays.

The current President of the American Historical Association, Professor Kenneth Pomeranz, University Professor of Modern Chinese History at the University of Chicago, seems to share these concerns in a recent essay about how he was inspired by his very demanding and unpredictable seventh grade history teacher, Mr. Epstein who would ask provocative questions every day and demand well researched essay responses. Mr. Epstein taught Professor Pomeranz to think about history and do history. The lessons that Pomeranz learned from his teacher kept him thinking about historical issues well beyond an end of the year assessment that could not capture the complexity of a “mind on fire” with curiosity. The questions that Mr. Epstein asked shaped the mind of a great historian over the course of dozens of years. According to Pomeranz, “I have cited this example many times in explaining why I doubt that externally imposed assessment schemes will improve teaching.”

When one of the most accomplished and respected historians of the last twenty-five years who is charged with improving history education all over the country tells the Mr. Epstein story, we all need to listen. The Common Core Standards and the Race to the Top mandates will only discourage very bright young history teachers from teaching kids how to think about history. To keep history alive in Illinois, we too, as citizens of this great state, must demand teachers who will not conform to cookie cutter imbecilities. We are headed down this road now. We need to resist.


Personal interview with Professor Pomeranz, June 4th, 2013: “The essay was a way for me to make my point very tactfully. I see supporting the teaching of history as of my most important roles as President of AHA.”
Paul Horton

State Liaison
Illinois Council for History Education
History Instructor
University High School
The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools

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