Is America a racist country? Or the greatest nation on earth? Or both or neither or some of each?
For the sake of our children’s education (and any number of other reasons), we need a more thoughtful and balanced starting point for conversations about such matters—one that leaves space for nuance, mutual understanding, and hope for the future. Our union is not perfect, but will become more so if its citizens understand, value, and engage productively with the constitutional democracy in which we all live.
Sadly, far too many young (and not-so-young) Americans have only the haziest grasp of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are essential to informed citizenship, in part because we have systematically failed for decades to impart them to our children. Culpability for that failure goes far beyond our formal education system, to be sure, but a considerable portion of it does belong there: on our schools, our school systems, and our state K–12 systems, which have focused—and been pressed by Washington to focus—on other priorities.
The consequences of that neglect are now painfully apparent on all sides, including the sorry state of American politics and the sordid behavior of many who would lead us.
Rectifying the situation is an enormous project to be pursued on multiple fronts, but schools are an obvious starting point. That’s where we can best begin to inculcate the next generation of Americans with a solid grasp of their country’s past and present, its core principles, and the obligations of responsible citizenship.
Ground zero for getting this right is the quality of the academic standards for civics and U.S. history that have been adopted by the fifty states and the District of Columbia. That’s because our federal system ensures that states and their subdivisions bear primary responsibility for education, which includes establishing academic standards that spell out the content and skills they want their public schools to teach and their students to learn. These standards are typically organized by subject, though in the realms of civics and history they are sometimes organized under “social studies.”
We at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have been evaluating states’ academic standards for more than two decades. Consequently, we’re well aware that they’re just the starting point—statements of aspirations, desired outcomes, and intentions. To get real traction, they must be joined by high-quality instructional materials and pedagogy, sufficient time and effort, and some form of results-based accountability. We understand, in other words, that standards aren’t self-implementing. But we also understand that, like any other road map, instruction manual, or recipe, they cannot be vague, badly organized, or misleading if those who rely on them for guidance are to succeed.
Fordham has reviewed states’ history standards four times before (in 1998, 2000, 2003, and 2011). Yet nobody, to our knowledge, has ever reviewed these jurisdictions’ civics standards—a lamentable oversight that we seek to rectify in our new study, The State of State Standards for Civics and U.S. History in 2021.
We do so at an especially opportune moment, given the mounting interest in these subjects that we see on all sides.
Our dual review yielded results that might be compared to a cloudy sky in which one can still glimpse a handful of twinkling stars. Sixteen jurisdictions made our reviewers’ honor roll with grades in the A or B range for their standards in both civics and U.S. history. Encouragingly, these states run the gamut from deep red to deep blue. Collectively, they serve over 25 million K–12 students—roughly half the country’s total public-school enrollment. Still, that leaves thirty-five states that earned C’s or worse, including twenty that got unsatisfactory marks (i.e., D’s or F’s) in both subjects.
That distribution roughly mirrors what the Nation’s Report Card (NAEP) has shown about students’ knowledge and understanding: as of 2018, not quite a quarter of eighth graders were proficient in civics, and even fewer—a meager 15 percent— were proficient in U.S. history. This lackluster showing suggests an enormous challenge for the future of American citizenship. Why are so many states—and students—doing so poorly?
Part of the explanation is simple, if painful: Faced with so many other demands, including NCLB- and ESSA-driven accountability requirements imposed by the federal government, states just haven’t paid enough attention to ensuring that their standards for civics and U.S. history are strong, that teachers are well prepared in these subjects, that districts and schools give them their due, and that students actually learn them. But another—and fast-growing—part of the explanation is more fundamental and worrisome: basic disagreement about how to tell the American story and determine what’s most important for young people to learn.
One potential response to this challenge is to abandon the quest for consensus, plunge into schismatic politics and culture wars, and just duke it out. (See, for example, President Trump’s 1776 Commission and the New York Times’s 1619 Project.) Alternatively, we can paper over differences, avoid specifics, and settle for vague generalities that everyone can pay lip service to but that convey no useful guidance to teachers. (Why argue about the three-fifths clause when it’s so much easier to say that “students should study the Constitution?”) Or states might simply delegate all responsibility for selecting civics and U.S. history content—if any—to districts, schools, or teachers.
In our view, none of these responses will do. Every young American needs and deserves a rich and balanced civics and U.S. history education. Informed citizenship is impossible if you don’t know how a bill becomes a law or why many African Americans were denied suffrage even after passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Many skills and dispositions that are commonly associated with civics education, such as respecting other persons and their opinions, are also part of character education.
Furthermore, the broader social purpose of civics education is to provide a common framework for resolving our differences even as we respect them—that is, to manage peacefully and constructively the eternal balancing and rebalancing of pluribus and unum—and ultimately, that calls for shared allegiance to a common set of ideas and core principles that is grounded in a common understanding. In other words, there is no such thing as “progressive civics” or “conservative civics,” because if you have to put an adjective in front of it, it isn’t really civics.
Hence our insistence throughout these reviews that civics and U.S. history standards both give America’s core principles and many achievements the respect they are due and that they not whitewash, downplay, or neglect the many painful chapters in our nation’s history. Quality standards neither falter under obsessive wokeness nor avoid the threats posed to present-day civil discourse by gerrymandering, closed primaries, and echo-chamber media (among other forces).
No, it’s not easy. But the actual proves the possible, and the sixteen jurisdictions with honors grades—and the awesome five with A’s in both subjects—demonstrate that it has been and can be done.