Social Studies Explainer

Who Decides What History We Teach? An Explainer

By Sarah Schwartz — August 11, 2021 15 min read
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The recent spate of laws restricting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom has generated outrage from some educators, and praise from others. And it’s rekindled a perennial debate: Who gets to decide what history we teach?

Over the past year, Republican state lawmakers have championed measures that could prevent teachers from teaching about the history of racist oppression in the United States, or in one case, describing slavery as anything other than a departure from American ideals.

At the same time, parents have poured into school board meetings in districts across the country, challenging lessons and books about discrimination, bias, and anti-racism—but also about historical events, like school segregation.

In many cases, critics of these materials and lessons argue that schools are placing too much emphasis on the darker moments in American history, to students’ detriment. “The narrow and slanted obsession on historical mistakes reveals a heavily biased agenda, one that makes children hate their country, each other, and/or themselves,” wrote a representative from Williamson County Moms for Liberty, a group in Tennessee, in a complaint about books on the civil rights movement used in a 2nd grade curriculum.

But this central conflict—how should educators portray and make sense of the nation’s past—is hardly new.

For decades, competing interests have fought over this issue—in controversies over revisions to state standards, in (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to develop national history standards, and in local challenges to curricula and other materials.

In this explainer, Education Week breaks down how politics and civic values have long been embedded in these decisions about what kids learn, and how new laws and other state level actions may affect this process.

How are history standards set?

There are no national history or civics standards in the United States. Each state develops its own—50 states, 50 different sets of criteria for what students should learn in social studies. These guidelines are usually developed by committees of educators, curriculum specialists at the state department of education, academics, and community members. States update them periodically—generally every seven to 10 years— through a revision process. State boards of education, which vote to adopt or not adopt revisions, are the final decisionmakers.

For reference, the Common Core State Standards were an attempt to get states to adopt similar learning goals for math and English/language arts across the country. But ultimately states made their own decisions on adopting and revising them.

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Hammering out what should be in history and social studies standards has long been a contentious process, underpinned by deeper debates about politics and values. Take Texas’ social studies standards revision in 2010 as an example.

The majority-conservative school board voted to require students to examine the “unintended consequences” of affirmative action and Title IX, and to encourage high schoolers to question the separation of church and state. Critics of these and other changes accused the board of pushing a right-wing agenda, but the conservative members argued that they were counteracting long-standing liberal bias in the field.

More recently, in North Carolina, opponents of new standards have argued that they lean too far left. Revised standards, adopted in February 2021, place more emphasis on the experiences of marginalized groups and require learning about discrimination in U.S. history. Proponents of the new document say it places a long-overdue emphasis on how racism has shaped the country and our notions of citizenship. Critics argue that the standards paint too negative a view of America’s past.

But not all the differences between states come down to a left vs. right political bent. There’s also a great deal of variation in how specific social studies standards are about what to teach.

Some states focus more on broad concepts and themes. Others note key eras, actors, and events that students need to study and interpret. In Rhode Island, for instance, 3rd and 4th graders are expected to “demonstrate an understanding that innovations, inventions, change, and expansion cause increased interaction among people.” Tennessee’s standards are more specific, asking 3rd graders to “identify the economic, political, and religious reasons for founding the Thirteen Colonies and the role of indentured servitude and slavery in their settlement.”

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, put out a report earlier this year giving higher ratings to states with more specific standards. Those results can be found here.

So there’s no national consensus on what students learn?

There are a few sets of guiding documents at the national level that address social studies skills. But none of them outline what specific content students should know.

The most well-known of these might be the C3 Framework, developed by the National Council for the Social Studies with a coalition of teachers, academics, and professional organizations in 2013.

The framework doesn’t list names and dates; instead, it was designed as a conceptual guide for states to use as they developed standards in geography, civics, economics, and history. It focuses on four skill-based dimensions:

  1. Developing questions and planning inquiries;
  2. Applying disciplinary concepts and tools;
  3. Evaluating sources and using evidence;
  4. And communicating conclusions and taking informed action.

The common-core standards also includes a section on social studies literacy. It outlines expectations for how students parse informational text in history, politics, and other related fields—saying, for instance, that middle schoolers should have the ability to distinguish between fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment.

It’s not happenstance that these national guides skirt the question of what history is most important to teach: The decision is in the crosshairs of the culture wars, and it’s incredibly hard to come to consensus.

So we’ve really never had national standards in history?

National history standards were last considered almost three decades ago, in 1992. Bringing together about 200 educators and academics from across the political spectrum, the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities funded an extensive development process that spanned almost two years and more than 6,000 drafts. But on the eve of the final version’s public release, the document sparked a firestorm of controversy.

Lynne Cheney, the head of the NEH when the project was funded, came out in strong opposition to the standards her agency had crafted, saying they were too concerned with “political correctness.” The U.S. Senate voted to condemn the standards, 99-1. (Cheney is also mother to Liz Cheney, the Republican congresswoman from Wyoming who sits on the commission charged with investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.)

In the years since, echoes of these concerns have reverberated through critiques of national efforts to diversify and broaden schools’ telling of the American story—even before the recent debate over “critical race theory” exploded.

At the high school level, there is one course that operates under a uniform set of national standards for U.S. history: the Advancement Placement course for that subject. While states all set their own guidelines for general high school history courses, AP teachers all work from the same frameworks and their students take the same tests.

In 2012, the College Board released an overhauled AP U.S. History framework. A few months after it went into effect during the 2014-15 school year, Republican state legislators and school board members started to voice complaints: The new framework put too strong an emphasis on the negative aspects of American history and didn’t underscore “American exceptionalism.” The pushback eventually led to another rewrite, which offered more detail on the founding fathers, the U.S.’s positive contributions to world affairs, and the “productive role” of free enterprise.

Even as efforts to come to a definitive consensus on what to teach in history are thwarted again and again, organizations haven’t stopped trying.

Most recently, a national panel of dozens of academics, educators, and civic nonprofit leaders released the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy, a history and civics framework for K-12. The guiding document—which its creators are quick to emphasize is not an attempt to create national standards—centers on the idea of “reflective patriotism,” or the notion that students should learn a commitment to American ideals while also being able to recognize when the country has failed to meet them.

OK, so standards—or learning goals—are set by states. What about the curriculum? Who decides the details of how to teach and what materials to use?

At the macro-level, about half of state departments prepare a list of approved resources for districts to choose from. This can include textbooks, but also curricula or other materials from publishers and social studies education organizations. Many of these states also allow districts to apply for waivers for materials that are not on these lists. The rest of the states allow districts to pick their own.

Because different states require that different content be covered in their standards, commercial publishers often create several versions of their materials to meet these competing requirements. This can lead to the same textbook telling vastly different stories in different states, as illustrated by a 2020 New York Times’ comparison of U.S. History textbooks from Texas and California.

Of course, textbooks and year-long curricula are not the only resources that teachers use in the classroom. Many school systems also choose to adopt other materials at the district level, like standalone units that cover certain historical periods or aspects of civic life. For example, Chicago Public Schools mandated a curriculum on the history of police torture in the city.

And individual teachers often bring in other resources that they source or create themselves. Groups like the Bill of Rights Institute, the Zinn Education Project, the National Constitution Center, and Learning for Justice all provide standalone lessons on certain historical events or civic ideas. There’s also a host of social studies materials of varying quality available on lesson-sharing websites, like Teachers Pay Teachers.

Because there are so many different resources available, and because the landscape is so fragmented, it’s very difficult to say definitively what materials teachers are actually using in classrooms—despite the existence of state-approved adoption lists.

With all of these options, how can schools know if what they’re using is good? How can teachers know?

There’s not much external vetting of social studies materials—at least, not compared to the evaluation metrics that have been developed for other core subjects.

From time to time, high-profile examples of lessons gone wrong make headlines, often around historically inaccurate or insensitive treatment of slavery. But there’s no one source that’s responsible. Sometimes, activities that ask students to play-act as enslaved Africans or justify slavery have come from lesson-sharing websites. Other times, problematic language is in the textbook itself—like in 2015, when a Texas student highlighted an excerpt in a McGraw Hill book that called enslaved people “workers.”

Recently, Johns Hopkins University attempted to conduct a broader survey of the landscape. Its Institute for Education Policy released a series of “knowledge maps” this summer that outline the content covered (and omitted) in five sets of social studies materials.

In deciding what content to look for in these materials, Johns Hopkins considered what knowledge students would need to be successful in college courses, and consulted social studies knowledge standards in Canadian provinces and the United Kingdom.

“It’s kind of a landscape analysis of the potential areas that a social studies curriculum could attend to,” said Ashley Rogers Berner, the director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. “We’re not making a normative judgment about what should be covered.” That’s up to individual school systems, she said.

And therein lies the challenge of trying to evaluate social studies materials, or even social studies standards: It requires making normative judgments about what’s “good” and what’s not good, what’s important to include and what can be left out.

Is it better to place more emphasis on the founding fathers, or on the economic and social lives of regular people? How do we define “citizenship”? Should teachers say that slavery is a core part of our founding, or a deviation from our ideals?

These kinds of questions are animating the current national firestorm over history education. And they’re one of the factors driving the steps that Republicans have taken, in 11 states, to restrict how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom.

What effect will these new laws have on this process—the adoption of standards and the choosing of materials?

It’s hard to know for sure. Some of the actions taken by state lawmakers and officials explicitly ban certain resources—like Florida’s new department of education rule, which states that instruction can’t use materials from the 1619 Project, a New York Times series that reframes the American story by putting the legacy of slavery and African American history at the center.

Even more complicated is the question of what to do when these laws seem to contradict state standards.

Texas’ law, for instance, states that a teacher can’t be “compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” If they choose to do so, they have to present the issue from diverse perspectives.

But the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for U.S. Government, the state’s standards in the course, require teachers to cover things that could easily fall under the category of a “widely debated and currently controversial issue.” For example, students are required to analyze contemporary examples of citizen movements to bring about political change or to maintain continuity.

So, could a Texas teacher present a lesson supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement and claim cover under the TEKS? Not necessarily, if the way they present it doesn’t follow the law’s requirements, said Lynn Rossi Scott, an attorney with the law firm of Brackett and Ellis in Fort Worth, Texas.

But she added that it’s possible for teachers to follow the standards without breaking the law. When students are discussing current political or social issues, teachers have two options—they can let students guide the discussion, or they can make sure to present both sides, Rossi Scott said.

Does this mean that publishers are going to revise their textbooks and materials?

Again, it’s hard to know yet. There has been at least one challenge to materials under one of the new state laws, in Tennessee. In Williamson County Schools, a group called Moms for Liberty challenged four books in the Wit and Wisdom English/language arts curriculum, published by Great Minds. The books included Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story, written by Ruby Bridges, who at 6 years old was one of the first Black children to integrate New Orleans’ segregated school system.

The group complained that the book, and other materials in the program, sent the message that all white people were bad and oppressed Black people.

Chad Colby, Great Minds’ senior director of communications, said that the materials develop background knowledge in part through the study of history, “which should include historical figures like Ruby Bridges and Martin Luther King, Jr.”

“None of Great Minds curricular materials teach ‘Critical Race Theory’ and Wit & Wisdom is in full compliance with the Tennessee legislation,” he said in an email.

Education Week also reached out to several of the largest educational publishers, McGraw Hill, Savvas Learning Company (formerly Pearson), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Cengage, asking if they planned to change any of their products in response to new laws and other state-level actions.

“We’ve been following, and will continue to follow, the development and passage of this legislation to understand what the effects will be, and listening to our educator and administrator partners to hear what schools and districts will need from us,” said Tyler Reed, the senior director of communications at McGraw Hill.

A Cengage company spokesperson also said the company was “actively monitoring legislative developments on a state level.” The spokesperson also affirmed the company’s commitment to diversity and multicultural content.

In a statement, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s general manager of core solutions, Jim O’Neill, said that the company’s programs don’t draw upon or cover critical race theory, “nor do they advocate for a particular ideology or agenda.” He said that HMH has a “commitment to developing inclusive, culturally responsive, respectful and balanced content,” but also that the company aims to provide resources that can be tailored to districts’ individual needs.

Savvas did not respond to request for comment.

What about other kinds of pushback, like parents petitioning school board meetings? Can that change curriculum or standards?

School board meetings have become a central battlefield in the culture wars over critical race theory, with parents packing into meetings in Loudon County, Va., Fort Worth, Texas, and other communities.

Voicing critiques at local school board meetings can lead to changes in instruction—within the areas that local systems can control, like curriculum choices, materials selection, or personnel issues like disciplining teachers. Local school boards don’t have the power to change state standards, though.

Just last month, a district in Pennsylvania tabled a donation of books to elementary school libraries because parents complained that the books taught critical race theory. Titles included Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story and Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race.

The parents who spoke to the board didn’t challenge these books under any kind of state law regarding how teachers discuss racism—Pennsylvania is considering such a bill, but it hasn’t passed—but rather on the grounds that the books were inappropriate for the school community.

While parents may now invoke “critical race theory” to support book challenges, the concept of petitioning a school system over books deemed inappropriate is hardly unique to this era of anti-CRT pushback. The American Library Association has long tracked these kinds of challenges and bans and provides data on its website about the most contested titles going back three decades.

A version of this article appeared in the August 25, 2021 edition of Education Week


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