Fordham released their The State of State U.S. History Standards in 2011 yesterday, and the state of this all-important subject is, well, ugly.
Judging standards on their “content and rigor” and “clarity and specificity,” the report deems most (28) states’ standards “mediocre-to-awful,” with grades of D or F. Eighteen states receive failing grades. Only South Carolina earns an A, while six states—Alabama, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York and the District of Columbia—earn A-minuses.
The report’s authors, Drs. Stern and Stern (Sheldon Stern leads the American History Project; Jeremy Stern is an educational consultant), blame the standards’ failings on a foggy understanding of social studies. Choosing to focus on concepts spanning geography, (a touch of) history, civics, economics, social justice and who-knows-what-else, the standards’ writers deny students the narrative of history. Organizing their standards “according to themes or strands rather than content or chronology,” the writers leave no room for the context, the characters and, ultimately, the why’s of history.
“Because social studies practitioners focus more on skill acquisition than knowledge acquisition, students wind up with little true understanding of history,” say the Sterns. The same could be said of our nation’s approach to teaching reading and so many other subjects. Most state standards downgrade content to a mere “tool for understanding concepts” – concepts driven by biased (toward both sides of the political spectrum) perceptions of the world.
According to the report: “Maryland’s standards, for example, declare that students ‘will use historical thinking skills’ to ‘examine significant ideas, beliefs, and themes; organize patterns and events; and analyze how individuals and societies have changed over time in Maryland and the United States.’ Yet … this broad assertion is accompanied by little or no historical content, so it’s unclear what knowledge students will deploy when exercising these ambitious ‘thinking skills.’”
Tellingly, not even half of 12th graders made the “basic” level of U.S. History proficiency on the 2006 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). Considering the shoddy standards, dwindling assessments, and inattention to history across the states, we expect performance on NAEP 2010 to be even worse.