Board drops controversial history class

District OKs new social studies curriculum

Posted: Wednesday, June 21, 2000

The Juneau School Board, facing public criticism, has backed off its plan to have a required year-long high school course in Western civilization.

The board instead approved a new social studies curriculum Tuesday that includes a required world history course, in keeping with the curriculum developed by a committee of teachers.

Board members Alan Schorr and Chuck Cohen voted against it. Schorr had favored a Western emphasis and was concerned also about the sequence of teaching American history. Cohen favored the world history approach, but he didn't like the way American history was handled.

The world history course will devote half the year to Europe and Western civilization, and the other half to studies of China, Japan, Africa, India and the Middle East. It's similar to the way the course is now taught, although the former curriculum had called for a Western civilization course.

Tuesday's board action approves the first new social studies curriculum since 1989. It covers all the grades and emphasizes what students should be able to do, such as research and critical thinking, as well as what they should know.

It requires Alaska history in grade school and offers it as an elective in high school. And it works in economics and geography throughout the curriculum.

Teachers said it could start being implemented this fall, although it's not clear how quickly new textbooks can be chosen and bought. The board voted to phase in the curriculum as materials are available.

The board's concern with the world history course, when it first looked at the proposed curriculum in December, was there wouldn't be enough time to cover the topic in a year.

A majority thought an emphasis on Western civilization, with some links to the rest of the world, would be workable and more relevant to Juneau students. In February the board also proposed an elective half-year course in non-Western history.

But teachers publicly opposed the changes. Maureen Crosby, the social studies department head at Juneau-Douglas High School, said they can't teach European colonialism, for example, without teaching what happened in Africa and Asia prior to that.

``India is the fastest growing country in the world,'' Crosby told the board at a hearing June 6. ``China is a sleeping giant we will be contending with. We need to understand where those people are coming from ... beyond the interaction with Western culture.''

And Crosby said there aren't enough teachers to offer another elective without giving up a current popular elective such as psychology or law. The social studies faculty is the same size as it was 20 years ago, even though the student population has grown, she said.

School board members on Tuesday said the public they heard from was overwhelmingly in favor of a world history approach.

``You have to learn how to live in the new world we live in,'' Tor Wallen, who graduated from JDHS in 1999, said in an interview. And the high school itself reflects a variety of cultures. In 1999, four of the five top student body officers weren't white, said Wallen, who is from Thailand.

Meanwhile, in approving the new curriculum, the board let stand a sequence of courses on American history that also concerned some board members and parents.

The curriculum focuses on the years up to 1815 in fifth grade, then focuses on 1801 to 1877 in the middle schools, and focuses on 1865 to the present in 11th grade. Each course also includes a review of other periods that could last several weeks, teachers said.

But critics said it would be more appropriate for high school students to cover all of American history in their course. Students wouldn't be able to remember the periods they had focused on only in grade school, board member Schorr said.

Children need a complete overview of American history in the elementary and middle school years so they can put information in context, parent Gaye Willis said in an e-mail.

And Willis and others said students can only learn at their level of maturity.

``I don't think it's adequate to talk about reviewing something that was taught in the fifth grade. I think it needs to be taught at a level appropriate to high school students,'' parent Jim Housley told the board at a hearing in late March.

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