A Conversation with Avi Black
WHC's interviews reflected its audience: world history scholars and front-line teachers. Avi Black doesn't fall into either category. Yet Avi's perch as History Coordinator for Alameda County's Office of Education in California, puts him in a unique position to survey the entire landscape. A familiar face in world history, Avi helped found the new California World History Association (CWHA) and organized its second conference at San Francisco State University in November.
Avi's work puts him at a nexus where academy meets classroom. Whether through professional development or writing curriculum, Avi's job is to translate scholarship into learning that students will find "compelling, meaningful and engaging." Avi has also sought to inject a global perspective into US history in Alameda County, through his work with the "Words that Made America II" project, funded by a Teaching American History grant.
Between rubber and road, there's friction: teachers in California as elsewhere must contend with severe fiscal constraints, politicized textbook adoptions, educational policy debates, and of course the growing socioeconomic polarization in the schools. Alameda County's districts, including Berkeley and Oakland, represent some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest households in the country – and some of the most culturally diverse.
WHC's Tom Laichas spoke to Avi Black on December 9, 2008. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Laichas: How you got interested in history. In college? In high school?
Black: You might want to edit this judiciously: I hated history in high school.
Laichas: Ha! That won't get deleted! What made it so awful?
Black: I went to four different high schools. I just had a series of bad teachers who were really into the "memorize the dates" kind of history. I suffered from moving around a lot: I would learn in my second year the same thing I'd learned in the first year, but I'd miss what the second school had done in the first year. So I repeated a lot and had a lot of holes.
Another big aspect: I was a hard-core science and math person. I did a biology degree, with a focus on neurobiology, as an undergraduate at Harvard, and went to med school for three months.
To me, the problem of history was that it didn't have answers. I wanted things hard-and-fast. When I did get half-descent teachers, they'd say "What do you think?" and I'd say "What do you mean what do I think? Either tell me I'm right or tell me I'm wrong."
Where my biggest change happened was in a course that I took in systems dynamics, after I graduated. It was an extension course or something, taught by … I can't believe I can't remember the name of the guy who taught it, because he really influenced my life… but he was connected to the Club of Rome. So I got to know Jay Forrester at MIT, and I got to know the Meadows, Dennis and Donella.1
I went to a systems dynamics conference at Dartmouth. Because it had a quantitative element to it, it was the first thing that ever turned me on to the social sciences. Period. That was the first hook, I would say.
After that, I went to med school – Case Western in Cleveland. I loved med school. I always wanted to be a primary care physician, but I started right when HMOs were coming into play, eroding the medical profession. So I [left med school] but channeled my interest into public policy, going to Berkeley's School of Public Policy, with an interest in health policy.
So I was just out of public policy school – no teaching experience or anything. I got a job in Berkeley's School of Education with the Clio Project [in History and Social Science]. They got a grant, and I ended up running a summer program called the California Institute for History Education. We brought in a hundred teachers from around the state. I had two liaisons, Diane Clemens, a diplomatic historian, for US history [at UC Berkeley] and Bob Brentano, a renaissance historian, for world. We brought in people like David Keightley, who's a historian of China, Stephen Ambrose and others.2
For three weeks in a row I got to listen to these phenomenal historians – and that's when I really turned on to history.
Laichas: Did you go straight into teaching?
Black: I didn't really get at that time that I was in an ivory tower – it was just this fun new job that I'd gotten. But at the end of the conference I went up [in front of the teachers] and said, "I really respect the kind of work you guys do, and I can't do it unless I have the experience in the classroom. So I'm going to get a teaching credential." And they all gave me a standing ovation.
So I got a teaching credential. I planned to teach three years. But I ended up teaching 6th grade world history – ancient world history – at the Horace Mann Middle School in the Mission District. in San Francisco for about ten years. While I was doing that, I came to know Ross Dunn [now emeritus professor of history at San Diego State University]…
Laichas: When was that?
Black: That was 1990 to 2000.
Laichas: How did you get from there to social studies coordinator?
Black: While I was teaching, I took on mentorship positions, and did a couple of programs inside the district. I did a world history professional development program for the district. I ran a service-learning program called "linking San Francisco". Then I was the history specialist in the San Francisco School District. It wasn't until 2004 I got this job at the county office of education.
Laichas: Nationally, the big push, and the money, is behind United States history. What made you push world history so vigorously?
Black: Well, I'm doing US History now, and I'm finding US history to be more and more interesting as I get into it. But even my interest in US History tends to be in terms of international relations, and in the context of global studies.
A big reason is that I taught world history myself. And as much as anything else, I taught world history because of my experiences travelling.
I started travelling when I was in high school. Every summer I was teaching, I'd go off somewhere. I did a Fulbright trip to India. I played in a Balinese orchestra – I've been to Bali six or seven times. I spent a sabbatical traveling through Southeast Asia.
There's also this: my college biology advisor was Stephen J. Gould.
Laichas: No kidding! You lucked out.
Black: I totally lucked out. It was before he was really well-known, so I was talking to him when he was just starting to write. I was very interested in evolutionary biology, paleontology, anthropology, and stuff like that.
So when I got into [the classroom], I wanted to teach ancient world history, because it linked to all these other things.
Laichas: How did you go about teaching world history to elementary kids?
Black: You know, it's remarkable: until the 12th grade, nowhere in the Standards is there any explicit connection to the contemporary world! There's just no context to talk about the relationship between history and the present. I think that one reason to teach [world] history is to help students understand their own world and how they might change it.
The way the [California State Social Studies] Standards talks about the ancient world, it's like the dead culture of the month club. For instance, if you take the Standards literally, kids will come out assuming that each stage of human development excludes the others: first there was hunting and gathering, then agriculture, then cities. In fact, the stages overlapped. Even now there are a handful of hunter-gatherers left. And until just a short time ago, most people lived in agricultural communities.
So, at the beginning of the year, I'd put together a unit on modern human societies around the world. I started by asking them questions. For instance, I asked 6th graders what percentage of the USA is white. They'd say 10%: they didn't have any sense of what the world outside their own neighborhood was like. What they didn't know – that's what I'd start with. We might look at cities around the world. I'd have them look [particularly] at regions where they assume there aren't any large cities: Africa, for instance.
Laichas: And from there back to ancient history?
Black: Right. I was fortunate enough to be in a school structured around "families" – scheduling could be nontraditional. We had projects called "challenges". The idea was to create real world challenges for kids, funded through the National Science Foundation's Project 2061.3
What we did was have the kids create a bazaar. We wanted it grounded in a particular time in a particular place: for instance, Babylon in 230 B.C. The timing was great: during the Seleucid Empire that succeeded Alexander the Great, just after the death of Asoka in India. Students formed Greek, Chinese, Indian and Egyptian trading missions. It's a little unrealistic: would all these people be there at the same time?
Laichas: So students had to research their roles.
Black: Right. I had the Egyptian group. I gave students a timeline for the hundred years since Alexander's death. I told them that my father had been a physician during the reign of the last pharaoh before Ptolomeic times. I said that Alexander had befriended my father, who had joined him in his travels to India. I said that now that I was a hundred years old, I wanted once again to retrace his steps.
So a kid goes, "you may remember you had a dalliance" – he said "dalliance" – "with a woman on your travels. I am your illegitimate son." And he was from Rome. So now we were talking about the Roman Republic. Once he said that, we were off to the races, every kid adding another story.
We had an exhibit in the auditorium, and we built a ten-foot tall ziggurat, and we had hanging gardens on the stage – well, hanging houseplants. We used refrigerator boxes to make the Gate of Ishtar. Kids from other schools came to the exhibit and in exchange for a quarter got a "talent of silver" for the bazaar.
Laichas: And you integrated all that with the Standards?
Black: It was very thoroughly standards-driven. We covered the history. The work was cross-disciplinary: math, language arts, and so on. But what good is "coverage" if it doesn't make sense to the kids? I've run into these kids years later: they still talk about it. I ran into one of them at Berkeley, who told me he's an anthro major because of what we did in 6th grade.
Laichas: What have you been doing this year apart from the American project?
Black: The interesting stuff? I've been working on a scholar talk series at the Oakland museum focusing on Presidents in times of economic crisis.
Laichas: Can't be more timely than that.
Black: Well, we had the luck that we were still planning it when all this happened. So we said, well, here's an interesting topic.
We're developing a program with the museum as well that's going to develop leadership teams with the district dealing with race and racism in history. It's pinned around an exhibit they're going to be doing that's been travelling around on Africa and Mexico. We're working on units for the Education and Environment Initiative, which is a California initiative incorporating environmental studies in the history curriculum. We're doing work on integrating history with nutrition and with the arts.
Laichas: This is all K-12?
Black: All K-12. Well, particularly the Teaching American History things are collaborations. Our main partners are Cal State East Bay and the Martin Luther King Institute at Stanford, which has the electronic depository of the King papers. That's interesting because our focus there has been on reframing studies of the Civil Rights movement, looking at it not just as a phenomenon of the American South in the 1950s, but is connected to longer-term struggles in the United States and around the world – especially struggles in Africa and Asia.
Laichas: Are there other ways US history gets globalized in California?
Black: That US history gets globalized?
Black: You know, it's interesting. There are. Another partner that we work with is Carl Gaurneri.4 It's interesting: I've not found a lot of others who are doing this. You ask if there's other stuff that's going on. I don't want to say no, but I also would dare say there's not a lot. If you look at the California History-Social Science Project and others, it's an emerging field of study. People will know if you mention [Thomas] Bender – people will know who he is, but you won't find a whole lot that's being done in the classroom.5 And when you talk, for example, about the Teaching American History project, they actually for quite a long time explicitly argued against [globalizing US History]. Their focus is on what they call "traditional American history". That's been interpreted a lot of different ways, but one of the things they were pretty strongly insistent on was that US history [in the classroom] would not be done in a global context.6
I've talked to people who have sent in proposals that talked about the US in a global context that were just outright rejected. It's indicative of how narrow a perspective a lot of people have.
Certainly, there are teacher who do it, but there's not any kind of unified effort that I know of to do that.
Laichas: Do you find that the California Framework in Social Studies helps or hinders teachers in their work.
Black: You know it's being revisited and revised as we speak.
Black: I think that it depends how it's interpreted – and it's often misinterpreted. It has the potential to be a powerful and positive tool.
Um, you did say the Framework. It think there's an important distinction to be drawn between the Framework and the Standards.
Laichas: You're right… what is the difference?
Black: Well, to look at it historically, it's important to know that the Framework was developed before the Standards. The Framework established a narrative around world history. It was one that was oriented around Western European history, and ancient studies are very much a regional civilization-by-civilization approach. But it did do it in a way that was narrative-based. It wasn't hugely prescriptive.
The Standards came later, and they're part of the whole high-stakes accountability system that's developed.
Just to differentiate between the two, the Framework talks a lot about the need to focus on historical thinking skills, it calls for integration of US and world history explicitly and, if you read it in depth, it's actually potentially a really powerful document. But what happens is that people, almost in a fundamentalist sense, read the Standards and it becomes – especially because of high stakes testing – a checklist for teachers who aren't particularly experienced, and for administrators it becomes a tool for putting teachers into a box, where they have to be teaching, "to it". So this results in people very narrowly interpreting what they should be teaching.
I've used the Framework and I've used the Standards in professional development. I talk very carefully about what it means and how teachers can use it to teach effectively. Then people see it as a really useful tool.
Standards do have some really positive aspects to them. For instance, I talked about my experience as a kid going from school to school. Well, when you have a Framework and Standards, you don't get that kind of repetition from one grade to another, because you don't have districts that are each following their own schedules. You have the same general scheme.
Hopefully, the focus is on narrowing the gaps and making a good education accessible for groups that really need that.
The problem is that it's not funded; the problem is that there's high stakes testing attached to it, and that creates all kinds of aberrations.
Laichas: What is the debate over change look like right now? What's the state of the revision?
Black: Legally, the Standards can be changed only by an act of the Legislature….
Laichas: I didn't know that.
Black: …and it won't happen. The main reason is the money that's attached to it: all the textbooks, for instance, are based on the Standards. There's a whole intricate system based on them. It could happen, and it was, I think, intended that the Standards be revisited periodically, but nobody ever wrote into the law a system for doing that. It's essentially become ossified. It would take huge political will to ever revisit that. It could happen, but it will be a long time before it does.
Laichas: Does paralysis of Standards revision ossify history curriculum around the state as well, or do people just work around it?
Black: Mmm… well, it's complex, but… Look: it doesn't have to, but it does. There's bourgeoning resistance. I think you can say that there are spots where you'll see some emerging changes in practice.
You know, the reason it becomes ossified that when you have the Standards and the testing system is based on it, then teachers are put under great pressure to teach to the tests. Unless there are forums for people to challenge the thinking of teachers, administrators and so on, then there's pressure to read the Standards in a very literal way.
Textbooks are written [to meet the Standards], and when you have teachers who are not getting funding for professional development to enter into conversations about how to teach the material, then teachers too take things literally. And so yes, things get ossified. That's the bottom line.
Laichas: What kinds of history testing are there in California?
Black: I'll give you the basics. The only testing is at grades 8, 10 and 11. Here's an aside: because testing drives things to such a degree, it really, really, really takes away incentive at the lower grade levels for history to be taught.
Laichas: At all?
Black: At all. Studies I've seen suggest that a student may get 20 minutes to a maximum of 60 minutes of history a week on average.
Laichas: So the problem isn't that there's a social studies exam at the elementary level, but that the other exams suck up the oxygen history curriculum needs to breathe.
Black: Exactly. Teachers think, we're being judged by how well students do on these tests. They'll do remedial instruction at the lower levels in, say, language development. A lot of publishers market materials that, in the worst cases, advertise themselves as – and I've heard this directly from the sales agents for these publishers – as being, quote, "content-free" because they say that actual consideration of content intrudes on students' learning how to decode text and be able to read. Which is really striking. That's one of the focuses of energy in California's history community: for example, some people have called for more testing at lower levels so that there's some pressure to teach history. Others have called for, at the very least, incorporating history items into the language arts tests, items that are standards-aligned to grade level. As a matter of fact, there was an Assembly Joint Resolution that called for that to happen.
So there's some motion, but it's glacial.
That's all at the elementary level. At the Middle School level, there's even dissolution of classes. There's no requirement that history be taught. Well, there is a requirement that it be taught and that it be taught in alignment with standards. But a school can very easily say, "we covered all that in ten hours of instruction." Nobody's going to question them about it. P.E. is the only class that actually has a time requirement. All the other pressure comes from testing. So when you have an 8th grade history test – and 8th grade in California is US History. But the 8th grade test is 50% US history and then a little bit of 7th and a little bit of 6th grade. It creates an environment where there are a lot of schools which say, "We're just not going to do this. We're not going to teach history until 8th grade, because we need to put kids into remediation for their math and language arts."
Laichas: What happens in the high schools?
Black: High schools vary. High schools are different because now you're starting to get into graduation requirements for entry into the Cal State and University of California systems. So that drives the process at the high school level. And there's also AP programs. So high schools tend to be better in that respect.
The problems come when you're talking about dropouts. For example, civics education is a 12th grade class. But a lot of kids have dropped out by that time.
But those are ills of the school system as a whole. The biggest problem for teaching history in high school is that a lot of kids come in… You know, the way the framework is set up, it's sequential: US history is taught chronologically in 5th, 8th and 11th grades, and World History goes from 6th to 7th to 10th. So kids get to high school and they really don't have any preparation from the lower grade levels. While they're supposed review what they've done at the lower grade levels, there's a lot of pressure to just cover the entirety of history or just skip it. So a lot of kids get a pretty spotty education, unless they went to schools that are more secure in what they're teaching.
By and large, what I'm talking about… they're far more severe problems at schools which are under scrutiny because of low test performance.
Laichas: So in short, there's an equity issue…
Black: There's a huge equity issue. A huge, huge, huge equity issue. In my more radical moments, I actually would love to see the NAACP bring a suit against the state on the basis of equity claims. I really think it needs to get done. I just think it's wrong. It's been shown with data… I don't doubt that there is an equal access issue that is severe and needs to be addressed.
Laichas: You see that in Alameda County?
Laichas: Are you in any position to take action on it, in terms of, say, developing curriculum? What kinds of resources can you bring to the table?
Black: The main things that I end up trying to do… well, I can only provide really good programs for teachers. I can engage in discussions with people who are in a position to make policy. I can participate in larger networks, statewide networks, that are working to educate everyone from the public to administrators to school board members about these issues. There's not a whole lot else you can really do. I need to orient some of the programs I do to focus on ways that history learning supports the development of core literacy.
Laichas: Let's talk about that. How do you bring teachers into doing history well? Let's start with new teachers.
Black: First thing is, how well does world history get done? Most of what happens is on a very local basis that depends on the skills and interests of the people who are connected to different institutions that do that kind of work. For instance, if you're talking about pre-service education, you'll find that people at San Diego State and people at Cal State Long Beach are providing quality preservice training to teachers that involves two things that are needed.
You're talking about world history, right?
Black: First of all, I think it's an education in recent scholarship, in understanding what world history is about, and getting background in the "new world history" if you want to call it that. Even if we're talking about a basic, good core background in European history, that's okay. That's where that needs to get done.
Schools are generally spotty in giving students a good background in the subject matter, and I see that all the time when I'm working with teachers in a development setting. Teachers' actual knowledge of the subject area is pretty spotty. And when you're talking about real world history, it's even less. It's very rare to find someone who's gotten a good education in that way.
They may get it if they've gone to San Diego State or, outside California, with people like Linda Black in Texas, people like that do good work. There's stuff going on in Michigan now with Bob Bain and Craig Benjamin, who have been involved in developing the standards. But there's not much out there. There isn't yet a core group of people providing that to teachers on a pre-service basis.
Laichas: When I got my credential, I remember that my undergraduate major didn't matter very much: I had a B.A. and had to do a semester of preservice workshops, certain courses required by the Legislature for people with disabilities, for instance, and methods courses. Then you'd do a semester of in-classroom student teaching. Is that still standard?
Black: Here you go. I'm going to embarrass myself. Who am I? I'm the history coordinator for the Alameda County Office of Education. My history background – my academic history background – involves taking a class in archaeology as an undergraduate. And that is it.
Laichas: The truth comes out.
Black: No, I took a class in mythology. And that was it. You're talking about doing undergraduate coursework? That wasn't enough to get a credential, so I tested out, just on the basis of general knowledge. I read enough so that I do just fine. It was actually embarrassing for other people who did do some history and I scored in the 98th percentile on that test with no academic background – I just read all the time. But it tells you something about what people are learning when they were taking the classes. I mean, I'm a good test-taker, but come on!
Laichas: You're not particularly satisfied with the whole way credentialing is done.
Black: You're right: what you talked about hasn't changed. Like many states, California has a deal with the Feds on credentialing.7 As long as you have a social science background, you can teach any area of social science. So it's what you said: you don't have to have a history background. And when you get in the credentialing program, there's no content – none, zero. It's all methods classes. It's still that way.
So that's a huge gap in pre-service: teachers just don't really get a firm foundation in the subject they're going to teach. Then they get into pre-service situations, and the money's not there. There's no money for world history professional development. None. It does not exist.
The History and Social Science Project in California has put some of its money at some of its sites in world history. Those programs, funded with state money, have been the only source for professional development in world history around the state. The only program I know about other than that is the one at Long Beach State.
Laichas: So how many people can your programs reach? I mean, people in your position, in California's fifty-some counties…
Black: Doing world history? Doing world history professional development?
Black: I don't really know how many people attend those programs statewide.
Laichas: How many people in Alameda county attend your programs?
Black: In world history?
Black: It would hugely surprise me if 5% of teachers in world history got any professional development in their subject area.
Laichas: So I take it that it's entirely voluntary – they're not required to do any professional development.
Black: By and large, the professional development teachers are required to do under current provisions of state law are handled at the district level. Districts almost entirely have their social science teachers participate in, quote, "humanities-based training" that focus on reading and writing across the curriculum. It tends not to incorporate any kind of content considerations. So it's voluntary in terms of county office programs.
You know, L.A. [County Office of Education] is an exception. L.A. has a county office that has developed a lot of history programs. But they don't do a lot of world history. Most of what they do is US history.
It's amazing. We did a pre-conference before the CCSS [California Council for the Social Studies] conference last year. There were people who were leaders across the state: county level people, people who participate in social science projects… that was the first time many of them had been exposed to the new work in world history.
None of them knew anything of [the New World History]. So if they don't know anything about it, I don't see how there could be any professional development going on.
Laichas: So first the leaders in each county, each district have to buy in.
Black: Absolutely. I do a lot of stuff in a lot of different realms, but people at that level are telling me, man, keep this stuff happening, because we don't get enough of it. But, at the same time… it's interesting. You know, just ten teachers showed up last month [at the California World History conference.
Now, I did such a huge blitz of advertising to get people to come to that. I almost killed myself for a month, I put so much energy into that. And that has a lot to do with the barriers we face just getting teachers to do things in this atmosphere. While it doesn't sound like much to say, take a Saturday to do something that will change the way you look at your teaching, and where $30 doesn't seem like a lot of money, there's no way. In going to districts, I realized after the fact what I needed to do and what I'll do in the future. I need to be, at this point, a thorn in people's sides and say "you need to spend money on this." And, of course, they don't have any money. I understand that. But they'll find money for language arts and math. It's not a heck of a lot to put $30 to send each of your teachers to a Saturday conference. I should have done that. I should have said: you need to pay for it. If I had this to do over again – and I'm sure I will – I would add, you need to pay $100 for each of the teachers as a stipend to spend a Saturday doing it. That's the only way you'll get teachers to come at this point. It's emblematic of this whole atmosphere around this kind of work that's going on. When you engage people in conversations, they really love it. But there's no support that really enables them to do it.
Laichas: Is there any effect yet from the state budget crisis?
Black: Not directly, not yet. Well, there is in that these crises that I'm talking about in school funding is even more acute. So, maybe if I'd done this before the crisis, if I'd harangued principles to spend $130 on a teacher, they'd say okay. At this point they'd say "Are you kidding? We don't have any money for anything – we can't even pay for toilet paper in the bathroom." So that's even worse than it was before.
Laichas: I talked to a colleague at a community college who's facing a 30% across-the-board cut. That's hard to imagine.
Black: It's not the fat that gets cut. It's not even the bone. It's brain tissue!
Laichas: There was a lot of to-and-fro among history mavens about the organization of Hindus regarding the last go-around with textbooks. Is that exceptional? The last person I spoke to about this had her textbook rejected by the state. Didn't want to talk about it publically. I'll give you that option too.
Black: I think it was unusual in how far it went, in that there was a lawsuit brought against the state that affected its practices of textbook adoption. It actually shifted the schedule for adoption. But is it unusual in terms of communities scrutinizing the process and looking for inclusion? I think not at all. I think it's merited given the way that what we teach is being taught. But I think it's also in that sense symptomatic of … Ross Dunn did a little article recently about the battles within the teaching community over multiculturalism versus more traditional ways of teaching.8 But he put both of them into the same box and said: they're in one box, separate entirely from the New World History approach because they both tend to fragment teaching. Instead of teaching world history as a history of humanity… to me, when you're teaching that way, you're naturally looking for ways to draw everyone into the picture. Instead it becomes a case of everyone looking for a piece of the [curriculum] pie – or a bigger piece of the pie. But the pie itself doesn't get any bigger. It's a competitive model as opposed to a cooperative one. So it's not surprising. And it generally comes up when a group reaches a critical mass of people and has some political weight. It has to do with numbers, the history of the community as it develops, the people involved with the issue. And of course it's what's going on in India too: Hindu nationalism, interpretations of Indian history, that's being reflected here. All those things go on in all communities. While it may be about Hindus and Indian history today, it was about Italians and Italian history before and it'll be about another group in the future.
Laichas: Are there teaching practices that are peculiar to or particularly useful in world history, more so than in, say, US History or Economics?
Black: I think that good teaching practice is good teaching practice. I like to experiment, and I was into doing projects with the kids, but I also think that there's a place for good lecturing if someone knows how to do it. Socratic method is really good. There's a place for it. In world history, those techniques have a place, just as in every other field. But: I do think that there are differences because of the nature of world history as a discipline. Your challenge in any kind of class is figuring out what to include and what to leave out. That challenge is even more acute in world history. So a lot of the things that are uniquely challenging to world history teaching, have to do with structuring a class and figuring out how to organize your material, and what story to tell. That's not necessarily a "teaching practice", but it's a big part of what we do. When I give workshops, I frequently talk about the historian's craft and the teacher's craft: how do we translate content to the classroom. I think that has to do with the craft of being a historian, which I think is different for a world historian than an American historian, and I think the translation of content to classroom, once you've decided what's important to tell in the story, how you organize your classes to be able to look at things like interactions between societies and patterns in human history are maybe more central than they are in US History.
Laichas: Well, there's a much more broadly accepted narrative in US History than in World. It may or may not be recognized as valid…
Black: Yeah, it's questionable. I look at the chapter titles in textbooks that teachers commonly use, and I go, well, that narrative needs to be challenged today, tomorrow and every day.
Laichas: But there's a default in US History. If you are in your first three or five years of teaching, it's a usable narrative. One of the things I remember when the AP World program was developing back in 2000 was a lot of anxiety: there really was not a lot of agreement on what the narrative ought to look like.
Laichas: Which brings us back to the Framework. I understand that there's some disagreement between those who take a civilization-by-civilization approach and those who want the kind of global narrative promised by World History. Would that be fair?
Black: I think that would be fair. There are a variety of perspectives represented on the revision committee. But frankly, the Framework will only really change classroom instruction insofar as it gets used. At this point, the Framework doesn't really get used very much. And it won't get used unless it's incorporated into professional development, unless there's funding for that kind of professional development. Without that, most people won't even know what happens in the Framework.
Laichas: What about textbooks and other materials? California and Texas are said to drive the textbook market – to what extent do California's statewide decisions drive instruction?
Black: High schools are totally free. They can use anything they want; adoption only goes up to grade 8.
The adoption process uses a set of standards to identify specific materials that are sanctioned for school district purchase with state funds. A school can buy materials the state hasn't adopted, but can't use state money to do it. They're very unlikely to buy it. There's a limited number of available texts. I think five 6th grade world history texts were adopted; for a long time, there were only one or two textbook series that were state-recognized in 6th and 7th grade.
Laichas: Teachers complain about the quality of adopted textbooks.
Black: By and large, they're terrible. Some have better content, but are still not written to be accessible to all kids.
Laichas: Do publishers realize this?
Black: You know, I've had conversations [with publishers]. There's a problem with balance. Either they emphasize content and [the language is] too dense, or they emphasize accessibility and sacrifice content. California's adoption process ensures that the textbooks are "standards-aligned." That's all the adoption process does. It puts a stamp on the textbook series. In terms of content, that's the standard publishers must meet – that their materials are standards-aligned.
As for the districts, there are places, but I don't think they're all that common – where the real quality of the content in those books is a major concern. But there's little time to choose among the possible texts, and many considerations to take into account. A deep analysis of the quality of the history presented in the textbooks is difficult. Generally, districts choose on the basis of textbook accessibility to students, and whether there are supplementary materials.
There was one district – I'm not naming it – that chose a textbook in US History, honest to God, in part because it came with a rollable caddy!
Laichas: It was a marketing tool.
Black: It was a marketing tool. It gives you an idea of the kind of marketing that's done.
Laichas: By that time, of course, the book's already written.
Black: Right. More serious than the caddy is the approach that one textbook publisher took. They organized each chapter around one substandard. I mean, each chapter is just four pages long. The first page is an overview with a bunch of big pictures. The next two pages takes two or three words or short phrases from the substandard makes little paragraphs out of each of them. Those paragraphs are always in the exact order that they appear in the Standards.
Say, for example, that the Standards speak about the early explorers and then one about Columbus and so on. The textbook will have a paragraph on early explorers, a paragraph about Columbus, and right down the line. Then on the last page, there will be some questions, all geared to lower-order thinking The book literally follows the Standards in lockstep.
That book totally loses the organic nature of history, the dynamism of it, the sense that there's a story.
Laichas: That must create real difficulties for you as you design professional development programs for teachers. You're offering an approach to pedagogy and an approach to content that's diametrically opposed to the materials they actually have in hand, and to the expectations of their school administrations, to the extent those administrations actually have any specific expectations at all.
Black: Yup. Exactly. You have to fight against that. They've taken history and they've freeze-dried it. All teachers have to do, supposedly, is add water. And what do they get? Bland coffee. What you want is a complex, rich and tasty version of history. Instead of having it at hand, teachers have to create it.
Laichas: Have you been able to educate principals about this?
Black: I try, but it's not a top priority for principals. They don't have a lot of incentive to do a lot in history, unless they see the ways in which integrating history into other subject areas enhances literacy development. That's their focus.
There are places where principals don't understand history, where they take the standards very literally. That attitude can feel constraining to good teachers. The way to deal with that is to educate the principals. There are schools where you have principals – and you hear stories like this all the time – who say, "What standard are you on today? What page are you on in the textbook?" Where that's happening, teachers are totally constrained. But by and large, if teachers know what they're doing and if they use other materials, nobody is going to stop them from doing it. And better teachers do that.
Laichas: What makes your job a joy?
Black: It is a joy. It's the good fight, that's one thing. Teachers are wonderful people, and they don't get a lot support – and that's true of history teachers in particular. It's gratifying to lend them that support. And I can feel the gratitude that comes from people. You get an opportunity when that work is well done to engage in that kind of conversation. Teachers don't usually get the chance to talk at a high level about the subject they teach, they don't get a chance to collaborate with other teachers, and I get to provide those opportunities to people. It's endlessly gratifying.
The subject matter is a joy. I get to work with it at a really deep level. It's fascinating to be able to take a complex historical topic and figure out how to get students excited about it and to figure out ways to get them to understand why it matters to them and inform them in their lives.
I'm in a position in my job where I find that people at the university level are really excited by the prospect of working with teachers. It's wonderful to call on eminent historians who are really responsive and want to do this work. I get a chance to work with them and to engage in all this fascinating dialogue about the subject matter as well as effective ways to teach it.
Laichas: Last question: We've talked a lot over the last hour about the bad news: lousy textbooks, the lack of resources, the socioeconomic inequities, and so on. What's the really good news about world history education in California right now?
Black: I think the state of the discipline is one where it's inevitable that the type of world history that's being done at the colleges will eventually make it into the schools because it's compelling, it's meaningful, it's engaging, and it addresses history in a way that will ultimately prove useful. When you get into conversations with teachers about it, they are thirsting for it. So when the winds change, I think there's no doubt that this kind of history will be taught in the schools, and I think that not only the scholarship in the discipline, but the scholarship around teaching about it has evolved in leaps and bounds. The people who are teaching to that scholarship are doing so in a way that is so much better than anything I ever encountered when I was a student that it gives me tremendous optimism and tremendous hope that when the circumstances change, those kinds of positive scenarios will proliferate.
Laichas: Avi, thank you so much. I really appreciate your giving your time for this.
Black: My pleasure. It was fun talking about it.
1 At MIT, Jay Forrester pioneered much work in systems analysis and computer engineering. The Club of Rome is a think tank, founded in 1968, and is best known for the Dennis and Donnella Meadows report Limits to Growth (Universe Publishers, 1972, currently out of print) and Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (Chelsea Green, 2004).
2 Diane Clemens teaches at Berkeley, where David Keightley is professor emeritus. Both Robert Brentano, and Stephen Ambrose died in 2002.
3 For more on Project 2061, visit American Association for the Advancement of Science, "Programs" at http://www.project2061.org/
4 Carl Guarneri teaches at St. Mary's College near Oakland, California and author of America in the World: United States History in Global Context (2007)
5 Thomas Bender is professor of history at New York University and is author of A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in the World (2006).
6 The Teaching American History Project, created by Congress in 2002, awards grants for teaching US history in the schools. For more, see http://www.ed.gov/programs/teachinghistory/
7 For more on California's compliance with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), see California Department of Education, "Improving Teacher Quality" at http://www.cde.ca.gov/nclb/sr/tq/index.asp.
8 Ross Dunn, "Two World Histories". Social Education 72(5) September 2008, 257-263.
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