Why Johnny Isn’t Learning Real History Anymore In Massachusetts

Published March 10, 2021

Parents may have noticed a change in the history and social studies curriculum at their children’s schools after 2018. Where once American history courses focused on our country’s founding principles, their roots, and their application, soon such courses started to emphasize political activism and the grievances of various subgroups in American society.

These changes took place on the recommendation of a small, stealth committee appointed in 2014 by the chair of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). The changes were intended to dramatically alter the Massachusetts History and Social Science Standards, which enjoyed broad bipartisan support when adopted in 2003.

At the time of their adoption, the 2003 standards were fully supported by the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education (David Driscoll), State Board of Education, Governor’s Office, and key legislators. Members of the State Board of Education included at the time Charles Baker, James Peyser, and Abby Thernstrom.  The standards had been approved by the Board in 2002 but were not released until 2003. At most grade levels, the standards integrated history with the relevant content of geography, civics, economics and related concepts and skills.  At the high school level, the document allowed for two continuous years of study of U.S. history. To unify study of U.S. and world history across the grades, the document suggested several overarching themes on the origins and development of democratic principles, democratic institutions, and individual freedoms.

So, why the changes?

In short, because the 2003 curriculum framework was not a politically correct document; it addressed the U.S. and rest of the world honestly, without a double standard.  The U.S. history standards offered, in grades 3-5 and high school, strong standards on the Framers and the Founding, on our political principles and institutions and their origins and evolution.  And they stressed the Founding as politically revolutionary, not as a reflection of the thinking of slave-owning sexists.

The world history standards clarified the roots of Western Civilization (a moral code stressing individual worth and personal responsibility), explored the origins of democratic institutions and principles, and addressed the presence, nature, and history of slavery in non-Western as well as Western cultures up to the present.

At the time of its adoption in 2003, critics—several superintendents and so-called multicultural educators – said the the document was too Eurocentric. In particular, they complained of insufficient standards on native Indian tribes and on Africa, Asia, and South America before the 16th century.

They complained that the standards on Islam were biased — if not outright racist — because they addressed both problematic and positive aspects of Islamic civilization (such as asking students to learn about the trans-African slave trade to the Middle East from the 7th to the 20th century and to explain why Islamic societies failed “to keep pace” intellectually, technologically, economically, militarily, and politically with Europe after 1500). They complained that the Frameworks lacked “overarching” themes (because they did not like the overarching themes on the evolution of democratic principles and personal freedoms).  And they charged that the document would require students to learn too many facts and leave little room for “creative” teaching.

The critics tried to delay the vote on the standards, to delay implementation of the standards by the schools, and to distort the state assessments that were to be based on them. After hibernating for more than a decade, some critics decided to take a different approach claiming that the 2003 document lacked encouragement of political activism.

Bouncing off a 2012 legislative report prepared by former State Senator Richard T. Moore the critics got a “working group” appointed by BESE to deliver the coup de grace to the 2003 history/social science standards.  This “Working Group on Civic Learning and Engagement” was appointed single-handedly by then-BESE chair Maura Banta, deliberately excluding history and government teachers in Massachusetts public schools.

Most members of this Working Group were as unknown to K-12 teachers and to the field of history or political science as they are today. And very few people in the state knew what this stealth committee was up to.

Not only did Massachusetts history and U.S. government teachers (never mind academic historians and political scientists) not participate at all in the “working group” asking for revision of the 2003 K-12 history/social science standards, but they were never informed of the forthcoming revision of these standards by a large committee whose membership was finalized by DESE staff and Secretary of Education James Peyser.  Nor was there one single article on this stealth process by the media, in Boston or elsewhere.

Among other remarkable aspects of the stealth process leading to the “working group’s recommendations was the fact that its “report and recommendations” contained no analysis of the supposed deficiencies of the 2003 History/Social Science standards.  (While an electronic version of the report exists—see the attachment—no working link to the report can found.)

No matter.  BESE dutifully accepted all the “working group’s” recommendations in the fall of 2015, at the recommendation of the commissioner of education and maybe Governor Baker and Secretary of Education James Peyser.  (The recommendations included the establishment of “regional advisory councils”— to take the place of local school committees on matters of “civic learning”—a recommendation that has not yet been implemented.)

Parents and others were able to find out what changes in standards the revision committee had proposed by means of public comment drafts before BESE made them a fait accompli.  They were not asked whether they wanted children to become “global” citizens or active but informed American citizens.

The 2003 Massachusetts History and Social Science Standards are still relevant because they were approved in both 2002 and 2003 by Governor Baker and Secretary of Education Peyser and no report of the 2002/3 standards was ever produced demonstrating “participatory” deficiencies or, of greater importance, public disapproval of their goal. A change in the goals of civic education—the basis for public tax support of all K-12 curricula in a state—requires a vote on a state ballot by the citizens of the state.

The 2003 History and Social Science Standards are also relevant because early Massachusetts history is our national history, and the U.S. Constitution does not allow federal employees or federal elected officials to change the curriculum for civic education in state-governed K-12 schools. The Tenth Amendment to the federal constitution states that powers “not delegated” to the federal government by the constitution “are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” And yet, as Stanley Kurtz at the Center for Ethics and Public Policy pointed out last month, that’s what educrats newly empowered in Washington D.C. have in mind.

The question is whether Massachusetts parents and local school committee members will let them.

[First published at the New Boston Post.]