New History and Social Studies Standards Set for Massachusetts Public Schools

Doug Page

Thomas Jefferson is out and Frederick Douglass is in.

The former slave and civil rights advocate replaces the nation’s third president, author of the Declaration of Independence and founder of two universities in the introduction to the new Social Studies and U.S. history standards, setting the tone, tenor, teaching and priorities Bay State public school children will soon experience with the subjects.

“The 2018 introduction was written with an intent to foreshadow the standards that follow, particularly with regard to U.S. history and government,” said Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education (DESE) Spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis. “It is intended to be more reflective of current scholarship and more consistent with the new framework’s standards and recommended documents, which give increased weight to the ideas and experiences of women, African-Americans and Native peoples.”

Unanimously approved by the Massachusetts Board of Education (BOE), which oversees the Commonwealth’s K-12 public schools, at its June meeting, the nearly 200-page document, entitled The 2018 History and Social Studies Framework replaces the standards from 2003 and lays out the learning expectations for Bay State public school students, from kindergarten to high school.

The new frameworks come on the heels of legislation passed by the state Senate and state House of Representatives, which strengthens civics education in Massachusetts public schools. A final bill has yet to be approved by both legislative bodies because they differ on whether a civics project should be required to graduate high school. The Senate is for it but the House of Representatives is opposed.

“There’s an increased emphasis on civics at all grade levels, including a new grade 8 course on civics,” wrote DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley in the new framework’s introduction, which will guide teaching in Bay State public schools.

The new standards “reflect the diversity of the United States and world cultures, with particular attention to the contributions of women and men of all ethnicities and backgrounds in the United States and the connections among world cultures,” Riley wrote.

The new standards are important, says Ludlow Schools Superintendent Todd Gazda, because they “serve as a curriculum road map for all public schools in the Commonwealth, articulating the state’s expectations for what students will know and be able to do in each content area at each grade level. This provides for continuity and consistency in learning expectations across the state.”

The new frameworks took two years to complete, said Westborough High School Social Studies teacher Casey Cullen, who helped revise the frameworks. The committee revising the standards, he says, included 44 educators, community people and activists.

The new standards require Bay State public high school students to learn about the civil rights challenges of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) community, the Gay Pride movement and how other state courts provided equal protection for same gender marriage.

Casey acknowledged there’s controversy around teaching LGBTQ rights but said, “It’s something being discussed in the national media, the state media and not to go into the history (of this movement) would be negligent.”

In what appears to be a reaction to “fake news” and extremist opinions on social media websites, which may have influenced the 2016 presidential election, the new history frameworks include lessons on digital news and social media for 8th graders and high school students.

“Students have access to knowledge – any kind of fact – at their fingertips,” said Cullen, noting the proliferation of hand-held wireless devices, whether phones or tablets, many children carry. “They need to know how to look at sources and be able to make value judgments on their own. There’s so much information today that it’s a battle for some of the more pertinent facts to be known.”

Critics of the new frameworks – especially the pending 8th grade civics course – suggest students will be ill prepared for the class.

“You can’t understand civics until you understand the history of the government, the American system and the country’s founding,” said Jane Robbins, a co-author of “No Longer A City On a Hill: Massachusetts Degrades Its K-12 History Standards,” a paper critical of the new standards that was published by the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank. “You don’t have the foundation to build upon them.”

“The strongest, single problem with the 8th grade civics class is that one gets rid of the chronological sequence of events,” said David Randall, a co-author of the same paper, who’s with the National Association of Scholars.

Eighth grade students, say Robbins and Randall, will lack the historical knowledge to understand U. S. Supreme Court cases and rulings, which they’ll review in the upcoming class.

Massachusetts state law requires students to pass a Social Studies test to graduate from one of its public high schools. The BOE is expected to decide this fall on the type of test high school students will take to meet the requirement.

“If you talk to a lot of high school history teachers, they don’t want another standardized test, but they don’t want civics and history being slighted either,” said Cullen.

The risk, he said, of not having some sort of test or project for students to complete to meet the Social Studies/history requirement for high school graduation is that if it’s not tested or in some way assessed, the subject won’t be given its due diligence.

Noting that there are already three required tests – English, math and science – students must pass to graduate from a Massachusetts public high school, Lisa Guisbond, who leads Citizens for Public Schools, an advocacy group, said, “We think the state should join the encouraging trend of states that have abandoned graduation testing. Massachusetts is now just one of 13 states with (high school) graduation exams, down from 26.”

Bay State law says the Social Studies and history standards need to instruct students on “at least the major principles of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.”

The state law also says the standards need to “inculcate respect for the cultural, ethnic and racial diversity of the Commonwealth and for the contributions made by diverse cultural, ethnic and racial groups to the life of the Commonwealth.”

DESE Spokeswoman Reis says the new standards took effect immediately with the BOE’s vote but it’s likely many school districts will not introduce them until the 2019-2020 academic year.

While there was a committee assigned to write the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson is credited as the document’s primary author. As president, he founded the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., which prepares students for careers as Army officers. In 1819, he founded the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Frederick Douglass was born a slave around 1818 in Maryland and, when in his 20s, escaped to Massachusetts. He became a leading abolitionist, a newspaper publisher and pushed for women’s suffrage. He advised President Lincoln about African American soldiers fighting for the Union during the Civil War.