For our constitutional democracy to survive, much rests on our ability to resolve “…differences even as we respect them,” which is The State of State Standards for Civics and History in 2021 report’s definition of the social purpose of civic education.
State standards range from a “skills” orientation, where academic content makes a scant appearance, to content-heavy standards with embedded skills. A good educator will deliver deep learning using any set of standards, and many believe that standards are irrelevant as a result. Yet standards play a particularly critical role in history and civics precisely because these subjects aren’t tested at the same rate as other disciplines. In the absence of such tests, standards are the only roadmap that educators share. They ensure that education stakeholders have a shared understanding of a coherent learning progression that has the potential for young people to graduate equipped to be engaged in civic life.
As the foreword notes, I was a principal investigator of the Educating for American Democracy (“EAD”) initiative. Our roadmap provides guidance to educators, as well as local and state administrators, about how to achieve excellence in K–12 U.S. history and civics. The report recommends approaches also found in the EAD roadmap, such as the benefits of braiding instruction in history and civics together. The report criteria have a bias toward content rigor and depth, which is particularly important in disciplines that have shied away from potential controversy. To support the social purpose of civic education, states should lean into the design challenges inherent to our nation. It is impossible to imagine a quality instructional program in STEM without molecular composition, so why would civics and U.S. history be content with a requirement to “present adaptations of arguments and explanations that feature evocative ideas and perspectives on issues and topics to reach a range of audiences and venues outside the classroom ….” While adapting arguments using evocative ideas might be useful, this standard needs to be anchored to rigorous content to serve as an effective learning goal.
The report makes a significant contribution to the field precisely because of the specificity with which the authors illustrate what constitutes rigorous standards. The detailed explanations and illustrations will prove helpful to state administrators as they evolve their standards.
Among other highlights, I welcome the report’s focus on the importance of elementary preparation for higher level work, which has been overlooked for too long.
I was also glad to see the report attend to race and diversity. These hotly contested issues require transparency and focus precisely because they represent the legacy of the country’s history. However, the debate about how to teach about racism goes well beyond slavery. In part, it is about what stories are told and which ones are not and whether our country has one story or many. The stories we tell should reflect the students we teach and be selected to help students understand today’s world. The report isn’t sufficiently explicit regarding these issues, and the evaluation criteria would have benefitted from the inclusion of specific criteria about whether racism, equity, inclusion, and diversity issues are adequately covered in state standards.
I would have also welcomed more emphasis on digital informational literacy, precisely because our polity is struggling with the scale and noise of digital (mis)information. This is a recent development that would have warranted attention in the review criteria.
Setting standards reflects choices about what to teach given the time constraints in K–12.
Today, the complexity of our constitutional democracy requires that students know more, not less, but the time available for instruction has not been extended. Therefore administrators are asked to make choices that are even more difficult than those they made in the past. While it would be easier for administrators to add to already long lists of standards, that will only place the burden to choose on individual educators and provide no clear path to meet states’ instructional goals.
Given the tough choices that will need to be made, I urge state administrators to place greater emphasis on conceptual understanding or meaning making in a world that needs historical perspective to untangle. Learning expectations should extend beyond learning about individual historical events or facts, and link to larger themes in U.S. history and civics, as in, “Describe the efforts that have been made over time to build a ‘more perfect union,’ and explain how the perspectives on this question differ depending on whether people have or have not had access to political rights.” EAD has proposed seven themes and sets of questions that encompass this body of knowledge for K–12 U.S. history and civics. The difficult task for state administrators will be to set out what students should understand to graduate prepared for civic life—and no more. The EAD roadmap will prove a helpful guide in that process.
As state administrators update and upgrade social studies standards, it might help to assess the traditional approach to improving literacy over the past several decades, which has relegated discipline knowledge (and importantly, learner interests) to the background. Without the learner engaged in the act of learning, nothing is gained. Putting history and civics, as well as STEM, at the core of the school experience, should be viewed as an important—and more effective—approach to literacy.
I welcome the report and the guidance it provides state administrators and other stakeholders. It is exhaustive and well researched, and will prove to be a useful guide to strengthen U.S. history and civics standards, and a guide as to how to do so.