Arizona history teachers struggle to find time to teach their subject thoroughly, finding too few days in the school year to cover the millennia from Sumerians to the Hohokam to al-Qaida.
"Some very current issues are touched upon, but it’s not uncommon to find the school year ends just as the teacher is getting to World War II," said Kim Greenawalt, a teacher at Desert Mountain High School.
New social studies standards adopted last month will make it easier, said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.
Starting in the 2007-08 school year, all children will learn lessons in five areas — American history, world history, geography, civics and government, and economics. And they’ll learn them every year, from kindergarten through high school.
Horne said that will help solve the problem of teaching recent history, and also — for the first time — give teachers specific, year-by-year standards that will help them figure out which lessons are the most important.
He said a similarly rigorous curriculum he helped implement in the Paradise Valley Unified School District required children to learn history basics as early as kindergarten.
"Those kids are now arriving at high school and the teachers are ecstatic at the background knowledge the kids have coming in," Horne said.
Under the current standards, he said, some schools are still using older curriculum that subjects young children to "tedious lessons about the family and the neighborhood."
Under the new standards developed by the state Department of Education, second-graders will study ancient civilizations in China and India, as well as how inventions of paper and fireworks in Asia contributed to the development of later civilizations.
Elie Gaines, a first-grade teacher at Greyhawk Elementary School, who helped create the new standards, said the the new curriculum "spirals," meaning concepts are introduced early on, then revisited later for more depth.
"When they leave high school they will have had 13 years of world history," she said. "A big change in the social studies standards is that K-12 teachers are all teaching U.S. history and world history. It divides that responsibility amongst all teachers."
Previously, many districts would only teach subjects like economics or world history in one or two grades, virtually ignoring the subjects in the grades between.
Ken de Masi, a teacher at Mesa Vista High School in Mesa and president of the Arizona Council for the Social Studies, said he believes the renewed emphasis on social studies means the subject is no longer taking a back seat.
"It elevates the importance of social studies. In the last decade, perhaps longer, with the emphasis on reading, writing and mathematics, social studies has been kind of lost," he said.
Steve Beckwith, a social studies teacher at Supai Middle School in Scottsdale, said he is excited about the changes — because they mean his eighth-graders will learn history from the Cold War to the present, instead of learning only up to the Civil War.
"I’ll be teaching all the things that happened during my lifetime," said Beckwith, who has taught for 38 years.
When he started college in the 1960s, he never dreamed he’d be teaching about things like John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which he said he puts on a personal level for his students — telling them about how his pet dog died the same day of the assassination.
"(They are) just simple things, but then we talk about what really happened, and it’s an experience they can relate to," he said.
Teens and adolescents really enjoy modern history, teachers say.
"They believe it’s very important to teach about Martin Luther King and Vietnam and the experiences with the space program, and not a single one of them was alive during that time," de Masi said. "They grew up believing those things are absolutely crucial, and those were formative events in my own life."
Not everyone, however, is convinced the new standards will allow students to get a good grasp of such events.
Wendy Moss and Heather Mueller, world history teachers at Scottsdale’s Arcadia High School, said the new requirements mean they will have to add ancient history and geography to their full slate of modern history lessons.
The result, they say, will be a watered-down survey course with no time to delve into historical events.
"If you can’t teach anything in depth because you have this enormous time frame to teach, it becomes meaningless," Moss said. "You can’t spark a student’s interest."
For example, she said, she currently spends four weeks teaching World War I — but next year that time will dwindle to about a week and a half.
What will they know?
New standards: Here’s a sampling of some of the new requirements social studies teachers will be required to teach, starting in the 2007-08 school year:
• Describe events of the presidency of Ronald Reagan (e.g., Star Wars, Iran-Contra affair)
• Analyze issues of globalization (e.g., widespread use of English, the role of the global media, resistance to "cultural imperialism," trade, outsourcing)
• Summarize the significance of the Supreme Court case Korematsu v. United States
• Explain how a candidate can be elected president without receiving a majority of the popular vote (e.g., Bush-Gore)
• Examine the fall of communism and the unification of European nations: Russia — Gorbachev, Glasnost and Perestroika
• Examine geographic issues in places and world regions (e.g., desertification of the Aral Sea, Tibet)
• Explain the revolutionary and independence movements in Latin America (e.g., Mexico, Haiti, South America)
• Explain the roots of terrorism, such as religious conflict (e.g., Chechnya, southern Thailand, Kashmir) and background of modern Middle East conflicts (e.g. Israeli-Palestinian conflict)
• Examine genocide as a manifestation of extreme nationalism in the 20th century (e.g., Armenia, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo and Sudan)