Report Gives a Majority of States Poor Grades on History Standards

By Michelle D. Anderson — February 17, 2011 6 min read
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A majority of states received failing or near-failing grades on the quality of their standards for teaching history in K-12 schools, according to the latest review from the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

In “The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011,” the research and advocacy group says the average grade across all states was barely a D. The majority—28 states—received scores of D or lower and only one state, South Carolina, earned a straight-A score.

“If students are not going to get the history in K-12, they’re not going to get it at all,” said Sheldon M. Stern, a historian formerly with the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston and one of the study’s co-authors. “The irony in the whole thing is that it’s not very difficult to improve state standards.”

Since Fordham’s last such review in 2003, 45 states have changed their history standards. While some states improved, others worsened. Delaware, for instance, tumbled from a B to an F, while the District of Columbia jumped from an F to an A-minus.

Besides the District of Columbia, five states earned an A-minus rating: Alabama, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, and New York. Oklahoma, Georgia, and Michigan are the three states that earned ratings in the B range. Because it has not implemented statewide social studies standards, Rhode Island was the only state that did not receive a grade.

Facts First

But officials in some of those low-scoring states and other critics of the Fordham study said the poor ratings owe largely to differences between the institute and various states on how American history is best taught, what it should cover, and how detailed the curricula should be in elementary, middle, and high school.

“The authors seem to want a prescribed and detailed U.S. history curriculum for every state, and this is constitutionally impossible in Colorado,” said Fritz Fischer, a professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado and the chairman of the National Council for History Education. Under the state’s constitution, Colorado officials are prohibited from dictating curricula to school districts, he said. Colorado was one of the states given a failing grade in the report.

“The biggest problem reflected in the study is that it ignores historical thinking and understanding in favor of weakly defined ‘specific substance,’ ” said Mr. Fischer, who has also advised Colorado on developing social studies standards. “The authors appear to be attracted to lists of names, dates, and events at the expense of standards that require students to develop an in-depth understanding of historical concepts and ideas.”

However, Fordham’s president said its analysis is about making sure students have a firm grasp of historical facts before developing historical concepts and ideas.

“You have to get the bricks before you can get the mortar,” Chester E. Finn, Jr. said.

Lack of Emphasis

The study’s authors looked at multiple factors to determine which states they deemed had high-quality standards. They favored, for instance, states that offered chronological overviews of historical content rather than “ahistoric themes” and those that recognized both the nation’s European origins and the roles and contributions of non-Western people.

The ratings come at a time when schools are allotting less time to history instruction, according to figures released by the National Center for Education Statistics, and some states do not require testing in that subject. Critics often cite the federal No Child Left Behind Act, for instance, for contributing to de-emphasizing the subject because of its initial focus on mathematics and reading. It does not require schools to test student proficiency in U.S. history.

Mr. Finn said that the lack of testing, even in states with favorable history standards, reflects a lack of accountability.

The study also reviews the framework for the National Assessment of Education Progress in U.S. history, giving it an A-minus. The authors suggest that the NAEP model could be a source of inspiration for states that want better ratings from the Fordham Institute.

State Responses

While Illinois’ State Board of Education did not comment specifically on its D score, it said it will be reviewing history standards this year, according to the education department’s spokesman, Matthew Vanover.

The state’s Standards and Assessments Division has already begun planning to identify and bring together a group to look at its current history standards and will most likely look at the Fordham report as part of the process, Mr. Vanover said.

Texas, which also received a D, said it thought its rating was based on misinformation, according to the state education agency officials.

Fordham criticized the state’s “rigidly thematic and theory-based social studies structure” and said it offered a “politicized distortion of history.” Texas has received national attention for what many consider a conservative- and Christian-influenced curriculum, according to the report’s authors.

They take issue with the state’s standards for obscuring complex historical issues and dismissing the history of separation between church and state. The report also cites the absence of Native-American and African-American history and suggests that the state puts too much emphasis on celebrating “the free-enterprise system and its benefits.”

Gail Lowe, the chairwoman of the Texas state board of education, disagrees that the state has ignored slavery, segregation, and native people. “It is not possible to teach American and Texas history without covering these topics,” Ms. Lowe said. She also said the Texas Education Code requires the state to teach the free-enterprise system and its benefits.

“That’s the primary reason the free-enterprise system is emphasized throughout our document rather than just relegated to a high school economics class,” Ms. Lowe said.

Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott said he thought Fordham’s critical review of the state’s standards is the result of its affiliation with the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and that philanthropy’s bias against states that oppose efforts to develop common curricular standards across the nation. Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week, also receives support from that foundation.

Mr. Fischer said the 2011 study was “somewhat better” than the study Fordham released in 2003, because it occasionally praises more curricula that focuses on complex historical understanding.

Holly Brewer, the Burke professor of American history at the University of Maryland College Park and an associate professor of colonial and revolutionary American history at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, said the Fordham study is an assessment of how detailed the content is.

Ms. Brewer, who helped galvanize opposition to planned changes to history standards in North Carolina that would have reduced history instruction and eliminated U.S. History Before 1877 and World History After 1945 courses said the authors prefer a chronological approach to history and their report “tends to be dismissive of thematic approaches.”

But history is moving toward a thematic approach, Ms. Brewer said. “That’s what makes history more relevant.”

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Michelle D. Anderson is an editorial intern for Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as Report Gives a Majority of States Poor Grades on History Standards


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