Board says social studies need to be more rigorous

Posted: Wednesday, January 12, 2000

The Juneau School Board, concerned about whether high school students would get enough American and Western history, sent back a proposed new social studies curriculum for further work.

School board member Alan Schorr said some high school graduates, even those going on to good colleges, have no historical sense at all. He wants students to survey history in the middle schools and then again in high school.

Social studies teachers presented the draft curriculum at a work session Tuesday, following more than two years of work by a committee of teachers. It's the curriculum's first update since 1989.

The public wasn't involved in the revision, perhaps because the committee met during the work day, said Charla Wright, the school district's instructional services coordinator.

The committee brought together teachers from kindergarten to high school to say what would be taught and at what level of sophistication, said co-chairman Les Morse, Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School principal.

In articulating what each grade should cover, in content and student skills, the curriculum makes teachers more accountable, proponents said.

Morse called the document a ``thinking curriculum.''

It addresses not only what students should know, but what skills they should have to study history, such as map-reading, researching primary-source documents and analyzing data.

The current curriculum is a list of topics, like a table of contents, Morse said in an interview. The proposed curriculum still studies chronology, but it asks students to think as historians, he said.

But what troubled some school board members and two parents who attended the work session was that the chronology was divided up between the middle schools and the high school.

The proposed middle school curriculum would include American history up to the Civil War, and world history up to the 16th century. Then, a few years later in high school, students would study what's left.

Jamie Marks, a middle school teacher on the committee, said high school teachers were stressed out trying to teach world history - from the beginning of time - in a year.

``It can be done, but it comes at a cost,'' said high school teacher Gary Lehnhart.

A survey approach leaves teachers covering World War II in two days, he pointed out.

The draft curriculum would shorten the scope of what was covered in high school, but increase its focus and make it more meaningful, Lehnhart said. High school teachers would still review earlier periods and constantly draw links with the past, he said.

But the proposal assumes 12-year-olds can understand history at the same level as 17-year-olds, critics said.

Jim Housley, a parent and a former middle school and high school teacher, said 12-year-olds have trouble learning anything very complicated. He said his daughter didn't learn much or retain much from middle school American history classes.

Housley also said the high school global studies class, which the current curriculum says is supposed to be called western civilization, spent more time on China, India, Japan and Africa.

He said his daughter ``has a great knowledge of certain parts of the world and great holes in her knowledge of parts of the world that are a whole lot closer to home.''

Schorr said more time and effort needs to be directed to teaching western civilization.

And Assistant Superintendent Drew Alexander questioned whether the curriculum would meet the history requirements colleges ask of high school students.

Other elements of the draft curriculum weren't criticized.

It includes more economics than before and weaves geography throughout the curriculum. Those topics are currently electives, and many students don't take them, teachers said. It also adds Alaska studies as a requirement in the middle schools because it's an elective in high school.

The curriculum adds a greater understanding of global connections in fifth grade and awareness of cultures in kindergarten and first grade, said Nina Massey, a Riverbend Elementary teacher on the committee.

The teachers' committee will meet next week to incorporate the school board's concerns in the document.

Copies of the first draft are available at city and school libraries, school offices and on the Web at When you reach the school district's main page, click on ``district information,'' then ``staff publications'' to reach the downloadable document.

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