Hang out in the staff lounge in some California school. Eventually, you’ll hear something like this:

Standards stifle teacher creativity. Standards are unachievable. Standards impose an oligarch’s curriculum on all of us. Standards must be stopped.

I used to accept that out of hand. Who was I to argue? I had never planned a lesson or directed a classroom before. For all I know, my teachers were right to say that.

Once I started planning lessons, I found that standards were far from the lumbering, cumbersome beast all those other teachers made them out to be. They were actually pretty helpful.

For instance, I was having trouble deciding on Supreme Court cases for one of my jigsaws. Instead of racking my brain and worrying, I looked at the standards. Standard 12.5.3 requests that we cover Marbury v. Madison; McCulloch v. Maryland; United States v. Nixon.

Done and done. See how easy that was?

I never taught in that golden age that was apparently “teach whatever the hell you feel like.” Maybe there never was that golden age. Either way, I’ve resolved to stop trying to live in that past and ignore curmudgeonly teachers who insist that these standards amount to nothing but bureaucratic garbage.

Sure, maybe one of my advisers insists that historians were involved in no part of designing the history standards. I’m no actual historian, either. Therefore, I don’t mind compounding the error. If this makes me sound incompetent, don’t worry — I passed a test.

Even an actual history major just starting out on this teaching thing should welcome the standards as the conscious, if incomplete, checklist that they are.

Thank your lucky stars that these standards, even if forced, keep us non-history majors from just making things up.

Moral of the story? If some teachers seem like they’re a pension plan away from yelling at kids on their lawn, respect them as such.


  1. I have this love/hate relationship with standards.

    Like you, I enjoy being able to look at the standards to make decisions like that. I like having an overall idea of what I’m supposed to teach my students. A certain amount of standardization of curriculum makes sense to me.

    Unlike you, I was a history major and spent more time in college thinking like a historian than a teacher. You know what? My state standards are TERRIBLE from a historian’s perspective. There’s mistakes, flat-out falsehoods, and all sorts of “essential understandings” that perpetuate common-but-historically-unproven ideas. Also, I don’t know how they decided that I needed to teach them about Louis XIV and Frederick the Great but barely mention Elizabeth I. ???

    So, yeah, love/hate. It would help if Virginia’s high school social studies standards weren’t written almost entirely on a knowledge/comprehension level. (I admit to a high amount of prejudice because I liked the PA state standards and then I moved here and had to change…)

    The other point I think is important to make about standards is that the way they are interpreted is often more of a problem than the standards themselves. It is possible to teach a fun, thematic US History course that would cover all of the VA USH standards. However, most districts turn the standards into a linear, chronological curriculum. I think there’s a lot of ways in which it would be possible to teach to standards and yet have more freedom.

  2. I’m with you on the standards thing. Though, in some cases it would be nice to view them more as ‘guidelines’ than MUST DO’S- I still value them. I’m pretty sure I would be overwhelmed if I just got to teach whatever the hell I wanted. Having some sort of guidelines ensures that I don’t drive myself crazy.

  3. Penelope: I hear ya. Though I won’t know what I’m talking about for the first year or so — perhaps to my credit, I do remember most of AP US History from high school — I trust myself to teach better than most of those coaches who ended up teaching history, and usually from the textbook, because coaches have to teach something.

    Administrators have this idea that history is the subject that “anyone can teach.” With that frame of mind, they have no problem letting just about everyone teach it.

    If they’re most of my competition, I think I’ll be fine for the first year or so. The kids get the short straw for now, but I don’t plan on staying stupid forever.

    Brandy: It really is all a matter of sanity for me. Once I get a grip on this teaching thing, I’ll end up finally having time to curl up with a few histories.

    I’m blessed with a pretty good memory for factual recall, so a few runs through “A Short History of the American Nation” and I’ll have most of this American history stuff down.

    It’ll be a while before I finish it.

  4. Penelope, could you give some of the mistakes / unproven ideas in your state standards?

  5. Jason–

    I should probably make a distinction between the standards and the curriculum framework in Virginia. Standards are things like WHII.6 “The student will demonstrate knowledge of scientific, political, economic, and religious changes during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries by a)describing the Scientific Revolution and its effects…” The standards, although primarily centered on knowledge/comprehension, are unoffensive.

    The curriculum framework then goes into detail about what the standards mean, listing what the students should be able to describe, specific “pioneers of the scientific revolution” and “importance of the scientific revolution”. This is the part of the standards set up that I get frustrated with.

    The first thing that pops to mind is actually something small, claiming that the Cold War ended with the Berlin Wall being torn down rather than the dissolution of the Soviet Union (in fact, not mentioning the dissolution of the USSR). In the big scheme of things, not that big a deal, but it threw me off when I saw it.

    A lot of the other mistakes are things like that–crediting Louis Pasteur with the discovery of bacteria (I guess because Antony Van Leeuwenhoek is harder to remember?) because he did some experiments that proved the germ theory of disease. Small things, but they frustrate me.

    Thinking about it now, the bigger picture stuff that annoys me would be addressed by the World History course actually being a World History course. (It’s really European history with world history icing in its focus.) Acknowledge that the “rebirth” of Greek and Roman history in the Renaissance had a lot to do with the exposure of Europe to Byzantine and Arab civilizations, that discoveries of the scientific revolution often reproduced/drew on ideas already understood by Arab mathematicians. Not spend so little time on Japan that a student’s understanding of Japanese history is “there were shoguns then Matthew Perry showed up the end.”

    The US history standards are better, even though I disagree on their focus sometimes. The World stuff after 1900 is better too. I think that a lot of what I see as problematic is because I had an early modern history focus in college, and the standards seem to be written by people who have a basic and outdated understanding of pre 20th century events.

  6. Our high school harbors no pretenses: the World History course is, in fact, Modern World History. Even then, some little buggers complain that 1910 isn’t even close to being modern — shows what they know.

    Therefore, my Modern World History kids know something about “there were shoguns and then there weren’t and then there were again and then there was the atomic bomb and now Japan makes very, very small electronics.”

    I understand your objections, now, to the standards. Standards are fine to me as long as they’re kept listed as if they were touchstones on a checklist, or, for some of the learn-as-you-go history teachers, puzzle pieces.

    Even with my master teacher, where I get frustrated is when I’m told how and in what order to put those pieces together, and which pieces I should ignore for the sake of curriculum time.

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