New Study Probes 9/11 Treatment in Standards, Textbooks

By Erik W. Robelen — September 09, 2011 3 min read
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A new analysis finds that most states don’t mention the 9/11 terrorist attacks in their social studies standards, and that the events of the day and their context are typically only briefly described in textbooks.

I gave a preview of these findings in a recent EdWeek story pegged to the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Now, the two scholars doing this work have released a summary of their ongoing research. The document provides a lot more detail, analysis, and nuance than I had space to include in my story.

I’ll offer just a few highlights from the study, but before I do, I wanted to add to my recent list of resources on teaching 9/11 a publication the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released this week on the topic. The Washington think tank suggests that many of the materials on teaching 9/11 “sorely miss the mark” and that its publication aims to offer a counterbalance to what the institute perceives as “the danger of slighting history and patriotism in the rush to teach children about tolerance and multiculturalism.”

Now, back to the new study, conducted by two education professors: Jeremy Stoddard from the College of William & Mary and Diana Hess from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (and also now a senior vice president at the Spencer Foundation).

Since 2001, all but two states have updated at least a portion of their state standards or standards-supporting documents, according to the new analysis. Of the 48 states plus the District of Columbia that have made changes:

• 21 specifically include the 9/11 attacks as part of a standard, a substandard, or an example;

• 14 others include some aspect of terrorism or the U.S. “war on terror” but don’t mention 9/11 specifically; and

• 14 fail to mention the 9/11 attacks or any key content related to terrorism.

The authors caution that many, but not all, states in the last category tend to have broad thematic standards that fail to delve into detail on most topics.

Most states that do address the issues “focus students’ learning on the impact of 9/11 on foreign and domestic policy, to U.S. society overall and, in some cases, to everyday life,” the study says. However, only eight states ask students to consider the causes of 9/11 and terrorism in addition to its effects. And fewer, just five states, ask students to examine cases of terrorism with domestic roots, such as the 1995 bombing at the Oklahoma City federal building.

Meanwhile, four states explicitly address the role of citizens in the context of 9/11 and the war on terror.

Stepping back, the authors say one “promising finding” is that “many states are including standards that ask students to go beyond the rote memorization of simple content related to 9/11. These states, at least in our view, provide opportunities for inquiry into the causes and effects of 9/11 on U.S. domestic and foreign policy and opportunities for students to examine issues related to security and civil liberties.”

With regard to high school history textbooks, the study finds “a startling lack of detail about what actually happened on 9/11.” The authors say this pattern continues with revised versions of textbooks, even though today’s high school students were not old enough at the time of the attacks to have a clear understanding of what happened. At the same time, the analysis sees some changes in textbooks over time, suggesting that “more recent textbooks have more opportunities for students to engage in thoughtful analysis of competing perspectives on issues related to 9/11,” such as over the Patriot Act.

That said, the researchers conclude overall that opportunities to promote higher-order thinking were generally lacking in both textbooks and supplemental curricular materials.

“This was particularly true of the textbooks,” the study says, “which included items that focus on basic reading comprehension that did not ask students to analyze, synthesize, or construct any new knowledge.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.