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Rewriting History

California's new lesson plan is crammed with facts and names that the students are to learn. Sally Ride, Jackie Robinson and Sitting Bull are in. And so is John Wayne.


Fifteen years after she became the first American woman in space, Sally Ride now has a place in the history California teaches its schoolchildren. She's in pretty fair company, next to Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein and Jackie Robinson in a second-grade unit on heroes past and present.

But Indira Gandhi, the first woman to become prime minister of India and a pivotal figure in the development of the world's most populous democracy, failed to make the cut. The editors of the state's new official history lesson plan dropped her in the final draft to make room for Ride, Sitting Bull, the famous Sioux leader, and Golda Meir, the first female prime minister of Israel.

Such name shuffling was rampant, perhaps inevitable, when the State Board of Education last month approved the first "standards" for what 5.7 million students in California's public schools should learn in history and the social sciences as they advance from grade to grade.

The history standards, like others written recently for mathematics, English language skills and science, will shape the content of textbooks and questions on state achievement tests. Because the California school system is the nation's largest, the standards may well influence how other states teach history.

Although the subject of history education often leads to furious debates, charges of political correctness and countercharges of cultural insensitivity, California this time sidestepped controversy. Experts say the state fought those battles to a conclusion in the 1980s when it developed a history curriculum that is now widely praised across the country.

Heroes of Every Stripe

The new document--drafted by a panel of educators and parents in consultation with historians, and approved Oct. 9 by the state board--is crammed with names and facts. It expects students to know a great deal of traditional American and world history and geography--even in the earliest grades--but also notes in detail the contributions of women and ethnic minorities.

"Every society must have its heroes, and kids love heroes," said Gary B. Nash, a UCLA historian and author of a state history textbook. "It's tough deciding who's going to be in the pantheon. This name game is very difficult. But I think it turned out reasonably well in these standards. I do think it's a great improvement if kids in the classroom see heroes come in all sizes and colors and shapes."

Advocates of standards-driven education, who aim to spell out what all students should learn and who hold schools responsible for success or failure, call the new history standards rigorous but realistic.

"Right now, they're the best in the country," said Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University. "First of all, they are clear. They tell teachers what they should be teaching, and students what they're expected to learn."

Ethnic Interest Groups Have a Say

Many interest groups had a hand in the document. A Ukrainian native lobbied for 10th-graders to be taught about the "Terror Famine" that left millions dead in Ukraine under Stalin's rule in the 1930s. A Jewish woman objected to mention in the 11th grade of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a Jewish couple, as examples of communist spies in the McCarthy era; she said other ethnic groups were not singled out in the same way. The Council on Islamic Education, based in Fountain Valley, urged the name of Islam's founding prophet to be spelled as Muhammad, not Mohammed. All were accommodated.

Whether teachers will fit the new material into their lessons remains to be seen. Though they provide a road map for state policy, the standards are voluntary.

Madeline Antilla, a longtime history teacher at Arcadia High School, said her ninth-grade students already are working intensively in a modern world history class. For example, they compare the American and French revolutions with reference to the political philosophy of Montesquieu, Rousseau and Jefferson.

Each of those figures is named in the new standards. But Antilla said portions of the document seem overly detailed. An 11th-grade example:

"Students analyze the role religion played in the founding of America, its lasting moral, social and political impact and issues concerning religious liberty, in terms of . . . the great religious revivals and the leaders involved, including the First Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, the Civil War revivals, the Social Gospel Movement, the rise of Christian liberal theology in the 19th century, the impact of the Second Vatican Council and the rise of Christian fundamentalism in current times."

All that comes in a year when students are also expected to cover the founding of the United States and American history and geography in the 20th century, including two world wars, the progressive era, the Great Depression, the civil rights movement and the Cold War.

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