Wednesday, February 4, 2004

The truth about state’s new history curriculum

State School Superintendent

A Georgia teacher [Joseph J. Jarrell, world history teacher at McIntosh High School in Peachtree City] claimed that our new social studies curriculum would not serve the state’s students well [The Citizen, Jan. 28, 2004].

The truth is that nearly all of the laundry list of names and events listed in his letter actually are in the new curriculum, and were never in the old curriculum to begin with!

The truth is that the old curriculum has failed Georgia’s students for too many years. A Phi Delta Kappa audit of the social studies curriculum showed that it not only lacked depth and could not be covered in a reasonable amount of time; it did not even meet national standards.

And the truth is that, yes, there has been a “dumbing down” of Georgia’s students; it has been taking place over the last 20 years, and we are ending it now.

We have incorporated more world history than ever before, ensuring that African, Asian, and other non-western civilizations, ideas, and religions enhance students’ understanding of the development of the modern world.

Judaism, for example, was not even mentioned in the old curriculum. Now students will learn of the origins and significance of Judaism as the first monotheistic religion, study the role of the patriarchal figures, and examine the impact of the Hebrew concepts of justice and personal responsibility on the modern world.

Classical civilizations, meanwhile, were covered in one sentence in the old Quality Core Curriculum. The extent of the guidelines teachers received was that they should “identify the characteristics of each of these classical civilizations: China, India, Greece, and Rome.”

This type of one-sentence directive forced teachers to pick and choose what should be taught. The new curriculum, on the other hand, provides teachers with extensive guidelines, supplemented with suggested tasks, sample student work, and commentary that will enable teachers to present material in ways that will enhance student learning and critical thinking. Rather than relying solely on textbooks, classroom lectures, and student regurgitation of memorized facts, teachers will be able to use primary sources, famous historical works, and research.

In the unit on ancient Greece alone, teachers will see that their students should “examine ancient Greece and analyze the role of geography in the development, growth, and expansion of the Greek civilization.” They will analyze the “development of government in ancient Greece and its influence upon the democratic system of government in the United States.” They will learn of the “importance of Greek mythology and how it continues to influence our literature and language today.” They will read and hear of “important historical events in ancient Greece,” and they will examine the “enduring contributions” of that civilization.

And those are just the performance standards. Additionally, teachers have been provided with suggested student assignments, including the development of annotated timelines of the life of Alexander the Great, an examination of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” and a comparison and contrast of Athens and Sparta.

The writer contended that “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” weren’t mentioned in the new curriculum. Actually, neither of Homer’s epic works were included in the old curriculum, but now Georgia’s students will study them in both the sixth grade and in their high school World Literature class, where they will examine Greek, Roman, and western European literature and the historical context of each work.

Far from eliminating Plato, the Civil War, and the very foundations of society itself from the curriculum, we have actually raised the bar in Georgia by infusing these concepts at earlier grades than ever before, ensuring that our students master the material before they enter high school. For the same reason, we are now requiring that all of our students take algebra as middle schoolers, in the eighth grade, rather than in the high school years as in the past.

Is it too much to ask that our students learn and master material at earlier grades? Research shows that elementary and middle school students are capable of handling more complex material than the previous curriculum required. We don’t need to dumb down expectations for our younger students and leave challenging material for the high school years alone.

Will students remember the Alamo? Yes; they will remember it from their fifth grade studies. In much the same way that our rising ninth graders will be expected to remember the algebra they learned the previous year, our high school students will be held accountable for having learned the foundational elements of American history when they enter U.S. history courses in high school.

The Civil War is a conflict the writer contends will be neglected entirely in the high school curriculum. What he fails to mention, however, is that students will have learned of our nation’s most devastating war, and of such personages as Lincoln, Tubman, and Douglass, in substantial detail and in two separate grades (fifth and eighth) before ever entering his classroom.

There are those who think maintaining the status quo and preserving a curriculum that has failed our children is the way to bring success to our schools. I disagree. With the new Georgia Performance Standards, we are no longer forcing our teachers and students to settle for a shallow view of history. Instead, we are giving them a curriculum that will allow our schools and students to lead the nation in improved achievement.

If you would like to provide input about the new Georgia Performance Standards, they are available for public review and comment at Your feedback will help us make final revisions to the document, which will be up for approval by the State Board of Education in May.

You can compare and contrast Georgia’s old Quality Core Curriculum with the new Georgia Performance Standards at our website,

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