Red or Blue, Your State’s History Standards Probably Aren’t Great, a Review Says

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education advocacy organization that promotes charter schools, has released a report called The State of State Standards for Civics and U.S. History in 2021.

This review concludes that a bipartisan mix of governments—Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C.—have state-level standards for American history and civics that excel in “content, rigor, clarity, and organization.” At the other end of the grade curve, the report gives its lowest marks to a red-blue mix of ten states: Alaska, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

I’ve read enough to say it’s an interesting document. I don’t share Fordham’s views on “school choice,” but so far, I don’t see any reason for that to affect my assessment of the report. I’m skeptical of the notion that it’s possible to assign a meaningful grade or linear ranking to a state’s standards, but then again, I know how disseminating a report through news media works.

My primary problem with its approach—again, so far—is that I don’t share the authors’ faith that specificity in state history standards is always a good thing. In this respect, I tend to agree with the criticism of the external advisor Meira Levinson (Harvard GSE), who comments on page 11 that “there is just too long a history of teachers’ treating packed knowledge standards as content to be marched through.” On the other hand, I tend to side with the authors, rather than Levinson, on (for example) the importance of chronological organization.

And I deeply appreciate other aspects of the report. For example, it advocates a strong emphasis on U.S. (and other) history throughout K-12 education, calling out state standards that relegate history courses to a small part of a student’s career.

The full document is almost 400 pages long, with assessments of the history and civics standards in every state, so it’s bound to include plenty of observations and claims that teachers of any background can argue over. What I appreciate most is that such debate is likely to be both possible and rewarding. This kind of review is difficult to do in a fair-minded way, especially at the present moment. There’s a lot of material here that seems good for thinking with.

You can read more about the review in Cory Turner’s story for NPR.

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