Study Shows Many States Fail in U.S. History Standards

Ashley Thorne

How did Tocqueville influence the expansion of suffrage in America? Who was Andrew Jackson? What are Carpetbaggers?

Can American students answer questions such as these? Are they being taught sound U.S. history?

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute decided to find out, and recently released a new in-depth study, The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011. The report evaluates each state’s standards for K-12 U.S. history and grades them from A to F, judging content and rigor, and clarity and specificity. This marks the 4th such study by the Fordham Institute, after others conducted in 1998, 2000, and 2003.

The authors are Sheldon M. Stern, a member of the NAS and former historian at the John F. Kennedy Library, and his son Jeremy A. Stern, an independent scholar. They each earned Ph.D.s in history from Harvard and Princeton, respectively.

Only 6 out of the 49 states with U.S. history standards got an A- and only one state, South Carolina, got a solid A. 18 states earned an F.

Interestingly, Texas, which has seen a good deal of controversy in recent years over its history curriculum, got a D, largely due to its rightward ideological tilt, understating the role of slavery as a cause of the Civil War, and almost leaving segregation and American Indians out. Drs. Stern quote former U.S. secretary of education Rod Paige, who in 2010 “explicitly warned that ‘ideology’ had been allowed ‘to drive and define’ the Texas standards. History education should not merely swing ‘from liberal to conservative,’ he declared, or ‘carry political ideology for either party.’” Kansas’s standards were also cited as overly conservative in some places.

Ideology slanted to the left, on the other hand, is present in a number of states but not as blatant as it was in 2003. “The most persistent example [of politicized distortion] is the fictitious notion that the Iroquois League was a crucial influence on the drafting of the Constitution in 1787. There is not a shred of historical evidence for this assertion—yet it continues to appear as historical fact in the academic standards of many states.” Among these states are Arizona, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah.

The District of Columbia is held up as the best example for other states to follow, having gone from an F in 2003 to an A- in 2011. Its drastic improvement was achieved by emulating states with solid standards.

In the foreword to the study, Chester Finn, Fordham Institute president and NAS board of advisors member, along with Kathleen Porter-Magee, acknowledged that standards alone aren’t enough to ensure that students are getting sufficient teaching in history. But we don’t know what we’re aiming for without a target, so standards are a significant part of what it takes to hit the mark.

Finn and Porter-Magee also pointed out the growing gap between history and other subjects, such as reading, math, and science, for which “common” national standards are becoming available: “Nobody is coming to rescue individual states from folly, slackness, or neglect...The reality is that U.S. history standards are entirely up to each state to set for itself.”

The authors of the study set up their own standards for the standards. They classified strong standards as those which tend to:  

  • offer coherent chronological overviews of historical content, rather than ahistoric themes organized into different social studies strands;
  • offer a clear sequence of content across grades, revisiting the content of early grades in later grades in a more thorough and sophisticated manner, appropriate to students’ developing cognitive abilities;
  • systematically identify real (and important) people and specific events, and offer explanations of their significance;
  • integrate political history with social and cultural history;
  • recognize historical balance and context, discussing—for example—both the rise of political liberty and the entrenchment of slavery in America, the growing conflict between these concepts, and the long American struggle toward greater social and political justice;
  • recognize America’s European origins, while also acknowledging and integrating the roles and contributions of non-Western peoples;
  • encourage comprehension of the past on its own terms, discouraging “presentism”—whereby students judge the past through the lens of today’s values, standards, and norms—and avoiding appeals to “personal relevance”; and
  • be presented in clear, jargon-free language, with straightforward internal organization 

Weak standards, by contrast, tend to: 

  • ignore chronology by separating related content into social studies themes and categories;
  • minimize real people and specific events, instead making broad generalizations and invoking specifics only with random and decontextualized examples;
  • divide U.S. history across grades such that standards covering early American history are (typically) relegated to elementary or middle school, when students rarely possess the intellectual maturity and sophistication to study it with the necessary rigor or understanding;
  • ignore political history in favor of amorphous social issues;
  • be politically tendentious, seeking to mold students to specific political outlooks rather than to encourage historical comprehension or independent critical thought;
  • present misleading or inaccurate content;
  • encourage “presentism” rather than contextual comprehension;
  • posit students’ present, personal interpretation of historical events as the main arbiter of history’s significance; and
  • be couched in abstruse and often meaningless edu-jargon, and presented in overly complex and confusing mazes of charts and tables. 

Based on these characteristics, Drs. Stern use a points system to measure each state. They also evaluate and give an A- to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which outlines what students should learn by grades 4, 8, and 12.

Click here to download the entire 175-report.

The State of State U.S. History Standards is a needed and highly useful review of instruction in a subject vital to the health of our republic. Cicero once declared, “History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity.” In that spirit, NAS is undertaking a study of our own that complements that of the Fordham Institute – a review of Western civilization’s place in the higher education curriculum. This report will be coming out soon. 

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