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California students will be taught a far more inclusive history

History teacher Kristen Manchester uses a laptop computer and a large screen TV to teach at Winston Churchill Middle School in Carmichael in February. The state Board of Education has adopted a new framework for history and social science courses.
History teacher Kristen Manchester uses a laptop computer and a large screen TV to teach at Winston Churchill Middle School in Carmichael in February. The state Board of Education has adopted a new framework for history and social science courses. rbenton@sacbee.com

Students throughout California are about to learn an updated version of the past in their history and social science courses. Last week, the State Board of Education adopted a new framework for teachers, administrators and textbook writers for K-12 history-social science.

California’s teachers have gone without new materials for more than a decade. Instead of outdated and limited views of history, students will now learn a more inclusive narrative that emphasizes inquiry in studying our past.

The new framework is not without controversy. History and social science are often contentious. After all, if one goal of K-12 education is to teach a sense of national and international identity, what gets included? And who decides?

In California, the process of updating the state framework has been occurring in starts and stops since 2009, when the budget crisis halted its progress. By 2012 the Legislature authorized the process to resume, though it was delayed until other subjects were addressed and it had virtually no funding. By the time the update began in fall 2014, much had changed in the world of education and history. The state was implementing the Common Core standards, which include a section on how history and social sciences should be taught.

The Legislature passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed a number of bills declaring that the history of lesbian, gay and transgender Americans should be taught, along with that of the disabled. Lawmakers also required teaching of financial literacy, the Bracero guest worker program, Filipino American contributions to the farm labor movement, and many other topics.

My office, the California History-Social Science Project at UC Davis, served as the lead writers for the new framework, and we drew from scholars and educators across the state as we updated every chapter.

The new document is a road map for teachers that brings the most up-to-date educational strategies and historical research into K-12 classrooms while also reflecting the tens of thousands of public comments that have been submitted over the past 18 months.

In a state where nearly half of students are non-native English speakers, live below the poverty line and will not attend college, the stakes and purpose of K-12 history education could not be higher. To make the past meaningful and accessible to all of California’s students, the new framework promotes four purposes: to teach content, to support literacy development, to teach critical thinking skills and to make concrete the value of citizenship.

Of course, these four components look different between second grade when students first learn about biographies, and eleventh grade when students will learn about the movements for equality. But at the core, California students will hopefully be learning about the past while also learning to ask questions, weigh evidence and understand context more than how to memorize facts that will quickly be forgotten after the test.

Beth Slutsky is a historian at the University of California, Davis, with the California History-Social Science Project. She can be contacted at bsslutsky@ucdavis.edu.

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