Getting the State of Alabama to Improve Its History Standards: Victories and Defeats


Mr. Beito, Associate Professor, History, University of Alabama and Mr. Nuckolls, Professor, Anthropology, University of Alabama co-chaired the Ad Hoc Committee to Revise the Course of Study on Social Studies. They are also officers in the Alabama Scholars Association and members of the Liberty and Power group blog at HNN.

The cause of better education in Alabama achieved an important victory on Thursday. After much delay and thoughtful debate, the state Board of Education approved a new and improved Course of Study (COS) in Social Studies for K-12. Our Ad Hoc Committee to Revise the COS is proud to have played a part in making this happen.

Our role in this process began in February when Margaret Brown and Eunie Smith of the Eagle Forum and others asked us to review the proposed January draft of the COS which had not yet been approved. We were not happy with much of what we read. Some of the questions, examples, and bullet points appeared to be ideologically slanted while others omitted key historical facts and concepts. The section on black history disappointed us as overly narrow. The examples of prominent blacks in history were almost all in athletics, entertainment, or civil rights. Hardly any were included for business or science.

There were other weaknesses too. Despite the world-shaking impact of 9-11, the document virtually ignored the role of Islam as a religion. The discussion of key founding documents was often superficial. It said little about individuals who influenced the Declaration of Independence, such as John Locke, or the underlying principles of unalienable rights and consent of the governed. It was entirely silent on important parts of the Constitution, such as the second, ninth, and tenth amendments. The questions dealing with the human impact on the environment almost always stressed negative examples such as oil spills. It said nothing about the importance of evaluating students through consistent and rigorous grading standards.

To remedy these and other weaknesses, we formed an ad hoc committee of educators and concerned citizens. Our revised COS (see for more details) had hundreds of suggested improvements to the January draft. We urged the inclusion of black entrepreneurs, such as wealthy businessman A.G. Gaston, and medical innovator Dr. Charles Drew. We recommended the addition of black civil rights and literary pioneers such as Autherine Lucy, the first black student at the University of Alabama , and Zora Neale Hurston, a well-known novelist. Other suggestions were to add questions and examples on early nineteenth century abolitionism and the student sit-ins of the 1960s.

We urged revisions of the sections on the environment and the economy to bring greater balance. For example, our draft reworded references to the environment to also mention positive human influences such as reforestation and restocking of waterways with fish.

The Board of Education was receptive to our criticisms of the January draft. In an unprecedented action, it unanimously agreed to Interim Superintendent Joseph B. Morton's recommendation to send our proposed revision to the COS committee so that it could be used as a guide for a revised document.

We were generally pleased by the result. The March draft of the COS committee incorporated more than two hundred of the revisions we had proposed especially in black history. It beefed up the questions and bullet points on the founding documents and restored greater balance to those dealing with the economy and the environment.

Unfortunately, despite the repeated urging of our committee, the Alabama Scholars Association, the Eagle Forum and several board members, the COS committee and the Board of Education rejected an amendment to require students to read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as original primary documents. The proposal lost by a single vote because Governor Riley, a member of the Board, left the meeting before the vote.

We cannot understand why the Board rejected this common sense amendment. Many defenders of the status quo argue that teachers will assign the founding documents anyway but our experience in several years of teaching introductory courses at the University of Alabama indicates otherwise. We often find that students have not read either the Declaration or Constitution before entering freshmen classes. Another disappointment was the COS committee's rejection of revised wording to put greater balance into the question for ninth graders on “imperialism.” Instead, it restored the old wording that indicated that the United States and Europe were guilty of imperialism at the beginning of the twentieth century but Japan was not.

The final document also did not incorporate our wording that students should be evaluated under standards of consistent and rigorous grading. Had this language been included, it would have signaled that the Board of Education has finally lost patience with grade inflation that exists in many of Alabama 's middle and high schools. Perhaps we should be charitable before we throw too many stones at the Board on this issue, however. There is more than enough guilt to go around. Rather than lead by example the administration of the University of Alabama has failed to take any action to counteract the rampant grade inflation and grade distortion among its faculty.

Even so, we are generally pleased by the new COS as approved on Thursday. It is vastly superior to similar documents in other states. If followed, it will greatly enrich the education of students by giving greater exposure to the American heritage of liberty and opportunity, a more varied depiction of black history, and diverse perspectives on the environment and the economy. Much of this achievement was due to the willingness of the state Board of Education to try again rather than be satisfied with less.