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Standards and Multiculturalism

By Bill Bigelow

Almost 40% of the men who wrote the Constitution owned slaves, including George Washington and James Madison. In my U.S. history classes we look at the adoption of the Constitution from the standpoint of poor white farmers, enslaved African Americans, unemployed workers in urban areas, and other groups. Students create their own Constitution in a mock assembly, and then compare their document to the actual Constitution. They discover, for example, that the Constitution does not include the word "slave," but instead refers euphemistically to enslaved African Americans, as in Article 4, Section 2: "No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due." It's a vicious clause, that sits uncomfortably in the "preserving values and principles" rhetoric of Oregon's standards.

It is probably inevitable that school curricula will reflect the contradictions between a society's myths and realities. But while a critical multicultural approach attempts to examine these contradictions, standardization tends to paper them over. For example, another benchmark -- "Explain how laws are developed and applied to provide order, set limits, protect basic rights, and promote the common good" -- similarly fails the multicultural test. Whose order, whose basic rights, are protected by laws? Are all social groups included equally in the term "common good?" Between 1862 and 1890, laws in the United States gave 180,000,000 acres (an area the size of Texas and Oklahoma) to privately-owned railroad companies, but gave virtually no land to African Americans freed from slavery in the South. Viewing the Constitution and other U.S. laws through a multicultural lens would add texture and depth to the facile one-sidedness of Oregon's "neutral" standards.

Indeed the "R" word, racism, is not mentioned once in any of the seven 1998 11th-grade field tests nor in the social studies standards adopted in March 1998 by the state board of education. Even if the only yardstick were strict historical accuracy this would be a bizarre omission: the state was launched as a whites-only territory by the Oregon Donation Act and in racist wars of dispossession waged against indigenous peoples; the first constitution outlawed slavery but also forbade Blacks from living in the state, a prohibition that remained on the books until 1926. Perhaps state education officials are concerned that introducing the concept of racism to students could call into question the essentially harmonious world of "change, and continuity over time" that underpins the standards project. Whatever the reason, there is no way that students can make sense of the world today without the idea of racism in their conceptual knapsack. If a key goal of multiculturalism is to account for how the past helped shape the present, and an important part of the present is social inequality, then Oregon's standards and tests earn a failing grade.

Despite the publication of state social studies standards and benchmarks, teachers and parents don't really know what students are expected to learn until they see the tests, which were developed by an out-of-state assessment corporation, MetriTech. As Prof. Wade W. Nelson points out in a delightfully frank article, "The Naked Truth about School Reform in Minnesota" (that might as well have been written about Oregon), "The content of the standards is found only in the tests used to assess them. Access to the tests themselves is carefully controlled, making it difficult to get a handle on what these standards are. It seems ironic to me that basic standards -- that which every student is expected to know or be able to do -- are revealed only in tests accessible only to test-makers and administrators. This design avoids much of the debate about what these standards ought to be" -- a debate which is essential to the ongoing struggle for a multicultural curriculum.

Discrete Facts

It's when you look directly at the tests that their limitations and negative implications for multiculturalism become most clear. Test questions inevitably focus on discrete facts, but cannot address the deeper, multi-faceted meaning of facts. For example, in the field tests Oregon piloted in the fall of 1998, one question asked which Constitutional Amendment gave women the right to vote. Students could know virtually nothing about the long struggle for women's rights and get this question right. On the other hand, they could know lots about the feminist movement and not recall that it was the 19th and not the 16th, 17th, or 18th Amendment (the other test choices) that gave women the right to vote.

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