By Mack Spencer
Mississippi's history-teaching standards received a failing grade in a report released this week.
The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Dayton, Ohio-based education reform group, ranked Mississippi as one of 23 states whose elementary and secondary curriculum standards for history fail to meet the foundation's desired level of comprehensive historical content, sequential development of historical events and ideas and balance of historical viewpoints.
The foundation cited the state's history curriculum framework for being overly broad and general, while suggested activities associated with the frameworks were rapped for bearing little relation to the framework's concepts.
Mississippi State University history professor Richard Damms said the state's failing grade doesn't not surprise him, and the integration of social studies classes into one framework is good reason for such a rating.
"The problem we have in Mississippi is that history is not a discrete subject unto itself," Damms said. "I believe the report has made valid criticisms.
"This state has some excellent history teachers. But, if the standards are written one way, or students have to learn certain things for a test, there are pressures to teach to the standards or the test," he said.
"Many students are coming to (college) history classes unprepared. They're not getting different points or perspectives on historical information. They come in with the idea that memorization of facts and dates is the way to get through a history class."
Damms said Mississippi State and the University of Southern Mississippi received grants recently to fund classes and seminars that improve teachers' understanding and instruction of historical events and issues, especially for teachers that did not major in history.
"Teachers who go into the classroom straight from the universities are not entirely prepared," Damms said. "Truly qualified people with bachelor's or master's degrees in history are available, but they're often not hired because school officials are looking for a football coach and then a history teacher.
"The State Department of Education should work with local experts in the field to look at the standards, see the weaknesses and suggest improvements," he said. "Mississippi has the people to address this problem. The state would find a lot of professionals willing to work with them to improve the standards."
James Sulliven, a professor in the University of Mississippi's School of Education, disagrees.
"Our frameworks are aligned with the standards of the National Council of Social Studies," he said. "Our teachers are certified in social studies, which covers geography, economics, sociology and even anthropology.
"That's why our standards are overarching and broad," Sullivan said. "They cover the four main areas of social studies: civics, history, geography and economics, and the competencies cover all four areas."
Sullivan said other states, including neighboring Tennessee, certify teachers in history. However, these teachers are not certified to teach other social studies classes.
"When (education) students finish college in Mississippi and pass the Praxis II test, they can teach any of the subjects in social studies," Sullivan said.
Sullivan argued that the standards should remain as they are.
"We don't deserve an F," Sullivan said. "Even in history classes, you have to tie in other strands. It's hard to teach history isolated from other areas É The state doesn't require a lot of social studies courses to graduate, so most of those classes incorporate concepts from all the areas."