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Careful: Implementation Matters!

I am pretty sure I am supposed to be against the Common Core Standards. While I share the concern of many of my colleagues that the new standards are a Trojan Horse for further standardized testing, narrowed curriculum, and hierarchical control of what happens in the classroom, I think the standards themselves represent the greatest opportunity for history teaching and learning to be widely re-imagined since the Committee of Ten set the basic outlines for American education over a hundred years ago.

The Common Core also firmly places writing where it belongs: as the foundation of our discipline.

The Common Core Standards offer us an opportunity to broaden the conception of our discipline from one that focuses on helping students acquire an established body of knowledge to one that emphasizes the historical thinking skills that are central to constructing this knowledge. What the standards do in a simple and elegant fashion is clearly articulate the disciplinary skills necessary not only for reaching the relatively low bar of “college and career readiness,” but also for the much greater calling of creating an informed and critical citizenry.

If implemented correctly, it will no longer be enough for students to be able to list the four causes of World War I. Rather, to meet the Common Core reading standards, students will need to construct their own interpretations of these events from a range of perspectives. Students can no longer simply learn the main idea of a text; they will also need to be able to “delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text” and “analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.” This is much more than any state test currently asks of students, and it gives students the practice and training in the skills necessary to evaluate the information they encounter in our media-saturated world.

The Common Core also firmly places writing where it belongs: as the foundation of our discipline. Students will need to complete the argumentative, informative, and narrative writing that they will need to do throughout their lives. The writing standards also mandate research, which though it is the beating heart of history, is sacrificed in more places than not in order to ensure a superficial breadth of content is covered.

But while I stand by the conceptualization of the standards, they will only be as good as their implementation. My above optimism is reliant on two points. First, these changes cannot be done to teachers, but rather must be accomplished through the collaboration of teachers, and their students. Second, given the depth of thought and knowledge that is required of students by the new standards, it is high time that the sacred cow of the historical survey course be abandoned, and students be given the opportunity to explore a smaller number of topics in greater depth.