HM - September 2018 - MSU

The History Corner


Who Decides What Our History Students Learn?
by Margaret S. Crocco, Anne-Lise Halvorsen, Avner Segall, and Erin Bronstein
Michigan State University


Recent news reports related to U.S. and World History education raise serious concerns about who decides what gets included in K-12 history courses and how such decisions affect curriculum content. The involvement of politicians and businesspeople in determining what’s in or what’s out represents a threat to the quality of history education and, thus, to the provision of first-class history education for students in our schools.

We argue here for the position advanced by Andrews and Warren in a recent publication, which asks: “Are non-experts with political agendas being given too much power in state-level educational decision making?”[i] In this essay, we raise questions about the proper role of politicians in state-level decision-making about social studies standards, although the same concerns might be raised for other subjects such as science.  We also raise questions about the role of commercial (albeit non-profit) entities such as The College Board in shaping curriculum that is at odds with the recommendations of professional organizations such as the American Historical Association (AHA).[ii] Although the College Board describes itself as a membership organization, it is governed by its Board of Trustees, comprised of its Chief Executive Officer and over twenty higher education administrators and superintendents from around the country, only two of whom can be identified as professional historians.

 Our concern here is related to what we see as the dangers in ceding authority to non-history educators concerning both curriculum content and historical thinking skills. The influence of non-experts has the potential to undermine educational efforts to advance disciplinary inquiry and the progress of the last several decades in making the content of school history more inclusive of the experiences of diverse peoples. Especially during the last decade, scholars, K-12 educators, and teacher educators have collaborated to infuse historical thinking skills and disciplinary inquiry into social studies curriculum and teacher preparation just as the academic field of history has opened up new areas of social, intellectual, and racial/ethnic histories that have contributed to a more multi-dimensional understanding of the past.

Disciplinary inquiry lies at the heart of the National Council for the Social Studies’ College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for State Social Studies Content Standards Framework.[iii] This framework reflects significant educational research about disciplinary inquiry that is drawn from the learning sciences, psychology, and the disciplines of history, political science, geography, and economics about how students learn. As former teachers, teacher educators and social studies scholars, we believe this approach has the potential to increase student interest and motivation in social studies, a school subject that students all too often describe as their least favorite. The use of inquiry in history education shifts the study of history away from the mere accumulation of facts, dates, and names towards an appreciation of the provisional and constructed nature of historical interpretation and exploration of living historical questions, puzzles, and mysteries.

In making our argument, we offer two cases of recent threats to history curriculum-making that should concern all history educators. The first is the ongoing battle in Michigan over revision of the 2007 state social studies content standards. This example is by no means unique to this state. Rather, the fight echoes previous battles over history curriculum: the 1995 rejection by the U.S. Senate (99-1) of the national curriculum standards for U.S. history;[iv] the 2006 Florida legislation defining history as facts rather than a constructed narrative;[v] and the denunciation by the Republican National Committee in 2014 of changes to the AP U.S. History curriculum, calling it a “radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.”[vi] Of course, many other examples can also be cited such as attacks by conservatives on the Common Core State Standards during the 2016 presidential primaries[vii] or frequent critiques by both liberals and conservatives of social studies textbooks, which serve effectively as curriculum for some teachers, in Texas and California.[viii] A theme common to all these battles is that the insertion of politicians into the crafting of standards introduces a dangerous partisan slant while quieting, at times even silencing, the voices of academics and teachers with expertise in history education.

Michigan educators have been revising the 2007 state social studies standards for over four years. The team of educators and scholars working on the revision process in Michigan aimed at making the standards “fewer, clearer, and higher” in terms of their learning goals, as well as promoting disciplinary inquiry and historical thinking skills. Their work has focused on aligning the Michigan standards with the C3 Framework, which itself was the product of a three-year collaboration led by state organizations and over a dozen professional organizations, including the American Historical Association, the Association of American Geographers, the World History Association, and the Center for Civic Education.

The goals of the Michigan revision process also included changes to content, specifically the charge “to incorporate issues of civil rights.”[ix] In 2017, a focus group including politicians was invited to review the revisions. Enter Patrick Colbeck, a conservative Michigan state senator who is running for governor of Michigan in 2018. The changes suggested by Colbeck (found here) included removal of content related to civil rights and diversity (e.g., the elimination of references to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), women’s rights, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the rights of LGBTQ+ persons).[x] To some observers, these changes suggested a return to the dominant narrative in U.S. history that is focused on the stories of powerful white men as representative of all the nation’s people.

Moreover, Colbeck’s suggestion that the label “core democratic values,” long known in Michigan as CDVs, be replaced by “core values” would undermine the effort to educate students towards a commitment to ideals such as liberty, equality, property, the common good, and pluralism, and, of course, democracy itself. Since the founding of NCSS in 1921, the field of social studies has had citizenship education as its mission. Inducting successive generations of K-12 students into an understanding of citizenship education, both through the study of U.S. and World History, is essential to creating individuals with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will support democracy and the place of the U.S. in the world as a leader of democratic ideals.

We acknowledge the long tradition of public involvement in schooling in our democracy. Nevertheless, should politicians play a larger role than either the public or educational experts, whether teachers or scholars, in deciding what gets taught in the nation’s schools? We believe that involving any politicians, no matter their party, can introduce partisan perspectives that not only further insert politics into education, but also interfere with and undermine the efforts of educators who know students, classroom contexts, and the content being taught. Even if suggestions by lawmakers are reasonable, aligned with research, and reflective of the values of diversity and inclusion, we do not believe lawmakers should be the ones driving or influencing the content of standards. Social studies education involves taking multiple perspectives and considering alternative viewpoints, and politicians by nature hold strong, partisan beliefs. Standards should be grounded in empirical research and established educational theory about how students understand content in economics, geography, history, and political science and how best they can engage in inquiry and historical thinking about the past.

The second example we focus on here concerns the announcement in 2018 by the College Board that it was reducing the scope of the Advanced Placement World History course by starting in 1450 CE, rather than in the pre-historical era, and relocating the excised material to a pre-AP course that may or may not prove popular with schools. This news has provoked widespread criticism across the historical and teaching professions about the decision-making process and the implications of the change.

Over the last two decades, the College Board has worked aggressively to expand its franchise beyond the private school sector and elite public high schools, its traditional market, to a broader representation of public schools, including urban high schools. News reports since the early 2000s demonstrate that the College Board faces significant retrenchment in the number of private schools now offering AP tests.[xi] Some complaints from these institutions focus on superficiality, emphasis on memorization, and lack of opportunity for digging deeply into subject matter. Anyone who has ever taught AP history courses recognizes the legitimacy of these complaints. In fact, changes to the tests over many years, such as introduction of the “document-based question,” along with other more recent revisions, reflect an effort to infuse more attention to historical thinking skills. Admittedly, the recent, controversial changes shrinking the test’s chronological coverage so dramatically also represent an effort to create more space for historical thinking skills.

We acknowledge that it is perhaps paradoxical, given this context, to raise concerns about the truncation of the overstuffed curriculum of AP World History. Nevertheless, the AHA, the World History Association (WHA), and past Chief Readers of the AP World History exam, along with numerous bloggers, letter writers, and other history educators have joined the online debate in places like H-Net and the History News Network. Their concerns center both on how the decision regarding these changes was made and the message sent by defining World History in a way that removes so much non-Western history from what high school students encounter there, essentially beginning the story of the world’s peoples with the colonial era. We share these concerns.

What unites these two examples from U.S. and World History is the fact that the individuals in the best position to make decisions about curriculum—history teachers, teacher educators, and scholars—have found their perspectives either overridden or ignored by individuals without the disciplinary expertise to make decisions in light of current scholarly thinking about best practices in schools. As a result of this decision-making process, the opening up of the school history curriculum by way of incorporating the histories of women, people of color, and the LBGTQ+ communities in U.S. history and pre-colonial and post-colonial content in World History are in jeopardy as is the emphasis on historical thinking skills and disciplinary inquiry.  Efforts to rollback such changes and return to a dominant or truncated representation of the past need to be questioned and perhaps resisted. In the case of Michigan’s social studies curriculum, the selective removal of topics such as the NAACP, women’s rights, Americans with Disabilities Act, and LGBTQ+ persons represents a step backwards.

For educators working in states in which standards do not reflect content informed by experts, that exclude non-dominant narratives, and silence voices of the minority, we believe the C3 Framework could serve as a roadmap to uncover neglected histories, explore why they may be “neglected,” and develop historical thinking skills along the way. The inquiry process involves asking questions, collecting and analyzing data, using disciplinary processes, communicating conclusions, and taking action. Students might analyze their standards (and textbooks) and highlight whose voices dominate and whose voices are excluded, and then fill those gaps with resources (e.g., documentaries, websites, diaries, images, oral histories, and other primary sources) that provide alternative perspectives. We believe students should be taught to be critical consumers of school curriculum so that they learn to question the validity and credibility of sources, seek multiple narratives, evaluate the truths of all narratives, and take action to correct falsehoods or omissions.

In the case of World History, the College Board needs to take seriously the guidance of the AHA, WHA, and other educators in its ongoing process of revising the course. Whatever the educational merits of its recent decision from the standpoint of reducing the emphasis on coverage are more than outweighed by the message sent by the decision. School curriculum is a normative enterprise, essentially a statement of what knowledge has most worth in educating the next generation of citizens. History is also a selective enterprise, especially although not exclusively in World History, where tensions will always exist between breadth and depth in deciding what to include and what to omit.

That said, to effectively erase the histories of Africa, the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East, and Asia and introduce these regions chiefly after their encounters with European colonists would send a very unfortunate message about the (non)-importance of these regions in and of themselves in World History, making what was once World History into a troubling version of European History. Thus, we were heartened by the news in July 2018 that the College Board at its annual membership meeting responded to the widespread criticism about the changes to AP World History by pushing back the starting date to be used for the course from 1450 to 1250 CE, allowing for a somewhat more inclusive treatment of the world’s peoples and their histories.[xii]

In sum, we believe that relinquishing decision-making power in matters of school history curriculum to politicians and business leaders rather than teachers, teacher educators, and scholars may result in fossilized forms of the subject that do not comply with the standards of the discipline nor do justice to the needs of American students—and the country more broadly—in the 21st century. The Michigan Department of Education is currently seeking public input on the revised standards (online public comment is open through September 30, 2018). Throughout the summer, the department has hosted a series of “Listen and Learn” public input sessions throughout the state for public comment and questions, and additional sessions have been scheduled, based on the attention paid to the standards. We encourage all Michiganders to read the revised standards, ask questions, take action, and make their voices heard—in other words, to engage in the democratic process that is at the heart of social studies education. We also encourage all history educators across the country to participate actively in their professional organizations in order to share their expertise and insights into teaching K-12 history through the use of disciplinary inquiry and other historical thinking skills aimed at uncovering the richness of the past and the diverse experiences of all the world’s peoples.

[i] Gordon P. Andrews and Wilson J. Warren, “How the Politicization of History Education Led to Michigan’s Downfall,” Kappan, 99, no. 8 (2018): 19-24.
[ii] Mary Beth Norton and James Grossman, “AHA Letter to College Board Regarding AP World History,” American Historical Association, June 12, 2018,
[iii] National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History (Silver Spring, MD: NCSS, 2013).
[iv] Linda Symcox, Whose History? The Struggle for National Standards in US History (New York: Teachers College Press, 2002).
[v] Bruce Craig, “History Defined in Florida Legislature,” Perspectives on History, September 1, 2006,
[vi] Jenny Deam, “New U.S. History Curriculum Sparks Education Battle of 2014,” Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2014,
[vii] Tom LoBianco, “Common Core Attacks all the Rage for Trump, Republicans,” CNN, January 28, 2016,
[viii] Gail Collins, “How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us,” New York Review of Books, June 21, 2012,
[ix] Michigan Department of Education, “Draft Michigan K-12 Standards Social Studies,” May, 2018,
[x] Patrick Colbeck, “Social Studies Standards Suggested Revisions,” 2018,
[xi] Brenda Iasevoli, “Private High Schools in D.C. Ditch AP Courses,” Education Week, June 19, 2018,
[xii] Valerie Strauss, “College Board Restores 250 Years to AP World History Course after Outcry over Plan to Cut 9,000 Years,” Washington Post, July 20, 2018,

About NCHE

The National Council for History Education provides professional and intellectual leadership to foster an engaged community committed to the teaching, learning, and appreciation of diverse histories.