LA, Others Adopt Online History Curriculum From Stanford

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Los Angeles Unified school district has begun to use an online history curriculum made available through Stanford University.

The new curriculum is becoming increasingly popular across the nation as educators consider how to handle the historical illiteracy that is becoming evident among students. Only about one-third of high school students in the district were found to be proficient on last year’s state standardized US and world history exams.  Across the country, only 12% were proficient in US History on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress exam.

LA Unified signed an 18-month, $140,000 contract with the Stanford History Education Group for training and lesson plan collaborations, becoming Stanford University’s largest booster for their curriculum program.  So far, 385 teachers and administrators, including about 40% of the districts’ social science instructors, have been in attendance at Stanford workshops.

Since its launch in 2009, educators have downloaded the curriculum 1.7 million times in all 50 states.

The program provides over 100 ready-made lesson plans covering a variety of US and world events.  The curriculum centers around a historical question and provides primary documents for student use when developing their answers.

“This overturns the traditional textbook,” said Sam Wineburg, the Stanford education professor whose research more than two decades ago laid the groundwork for the approach. “Students explore questions with original documents and cultivate a sense of literacy and how to develop sound judgment.”

Wineburg suggested in a 2001 book that students need to be trained to question history in order to have a better understanding of it.  The curriculum, called “Reading Like a Historian,” allows students the ability to question the credibility of information and sources, which Wineburg says is critical for today’s digital age.

Stanford has also made over 65 assessments available so far that allow educators to estimate students’ mastery of certain skills through essay questions rather than using traditional multiple-choice exams.  On a test five years ago, students who used the Stanford curriculum outperformed those who were taught using traditional classes in factual knowledge and reading comprehension.

The curriculum came at the perfect time for districts like LA Unified, who are currently changing over to Common Core, which focuses on skills such as reading complex texts and the ability to evaluate information taken from multiple sources.

“The Stanford curriculum aligns almost perfectly with Common Core,” said Kieley Jackson, a district coordinator of social science curriculum.

However, some teachers believe the lesson plans take too long to complete.  On average, they take about four days, although Stanford officials say they can be modified for one to two days.  Other teachers believe they do not contain enough information, and others prefer their own methods of lectures and textbooks.

Teachers who attended a training this month overwhelmingly enjoyed using the curriculum and offered ideas on how to modify them by using bingo games, film clips and poetry.  Stanford said they stand in full support of the program modifications.

Students in the district appear to be more engaged by the program than they had been through textbook use.  Many reported that while they felt they could not argue with information found in a textbook, they could debate topics in the curriculum that came in the form of questions.  They say history has become exciting and they are now able to understand and remember it.

“You’re not just sitting there having to listen to him,” sophomore Drew Anderson said. “You get to figure things out for yourself.”