After Standards and the Future of History

This week I’m at the University of New South Wales (Sydney) for a conference called “After Standards: The Future of History.”

The Australians have managed to do what the Americans failed to do in the 1990s; agree on national standards for history education. Many American history educators will remember what a traumatic disaster it was trying to get national standards in place in the U.S., but here the process was much less painful. Of course, for all it’s geographic size, Australia has a population the size of a mid-size American state…one like Virginia. Maybe it was easier here because there were fewer naysayers. Or maybe the Australians are just more civil when it comes to history education.

Part of my role here is to help make sure Australian history educators don’t make the same mistakes we have when it comes to standards-based education. Anyone with children in school in the U.S. knows those four dreaded words…teach to the test. The hope here is that the good parts of standards-based education can be implemented without the bad.

Given the negative experiences we’ve had with the testing mania that has overwhelmed American K-12 education in the past decade, you would be forgiven if you have a knee-jerk reaction to the very idea of tests and standards. But just because the idea has been implemented badly in most states doesn’t mean standards-based education is necessarily a bad thing in history.

And, as I’ve written here before, post-secondary historians have our heads in the sand if we think we won’t someday come face to face with state level history standards for colleges and universities. National standards are off the table for another generation, I think, but states are much better at implementing such things.

It seems to me that it is incumbent on those who oppose standards in all forms to demonstrate why they are always bad. For instance, I can make a very good case for every college history student…majors as well as students just taking a course…to be able to properly source a document he or she finds online or elsewhere. Tell me you couldn’t devise a test for that skill…

Given that Australia’s higher education system is approximately the size of Virginia’s, I’m hoping I will come away from this conference with some new insights and ideas that can be part of any future discussion of post-secondary history standards in the state system where I work.