The conference I’m attending/taking part in–After Standards: The Future of History–at the University of New South Wales (Australia) almost got off to a rocky start. The Australian Teaching and Learning Council (ALTC) that funded the project has already been defunded by parliament and just last week, the government body charged with picking up the implementation of national learning standards, rejected the history standards as being insufficiently rigorous. I’ll post a copy of those standards here so you judge for yourself.
That rejection meant that the delegates to the conference came to work out how to implement standards no longer acceptable to the government.
Instead of throwing up their hands, giving up, and going home, the delegates decided that instead they would use this opportunity to “get on the front foot” as one of them said. In other words, they decided that they were going forward with the implementation of standards, but at the local rather than national level, and that the local standards they use will be drawn from the now rejected national document.
Two important issues that came up in the first day’s discussion: Who will set the standards? Departments or universities? And how can standards drawn from the national document be used to create a national community of practice?
The first of these questions speaks directly to the issue I’ve raised more than once about standards, namely if we don’t get out in front of those who want to implement standards for history education, we’re going to leave the field to either folks in our local central administrations, or to folks on state level boards of education. But if we implement a standards based approach in our majors, when those outside our departments want to discuss standards, we can say, “Oh, we’re already doing that.”
A track record won’t guarantee success, but it’s certainly a better strategy than pretending something is never going to happen. Also, I much prefer a local approach to a national or state level approach to standards (so long as local standards are set with reference to some wider framework).
As for using standards to build a community of practice, I think there is a real possibility that might work in a state like Virginia. Imagine for a moment an annual meeting of history faculty from across the state devoted to, let’s say, techniques for teaching students to work with letters and diaries, or political cartoons, or archaeological evidence, or how to teach the Great Depression as an American and global phenomenon? I’m convinced there are enough of my colleagues in Virginia who might be interested in comparative approaches to such teaching challenges that they would all drive to Richmond for a day. And it would be nice to meet more of my colleagues in such an environment.