Is America a racist country? Or the greatest nation on earth? Or both or neither or some of each?
The Education Gadfly Weekly: Proof that it’s possible to approach civics and U.S. history in a balanced way
The Education Gadfly Weekly: Proof that it’s possible to approach civics and U.S. history in a balanced way
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.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s review of state standards for U.S. history and civics comes at a critical moment in American civic life. As a nation, we are failing to maintain a high functioning democratic society on multiple fronts. This sorry state of affairs has everything to do with the polarization of our politics, which is partly due to the fact that we have little sense of shared identity as Americans. And that lack of shared identity, in turn, owes substantially to the fact that we lack a reliably shared sense of American history, the workings of our government, and—perhaps most importantly—the expectations associated with a culture of citizenship.
In its outstanding report, the Fordham Institute identifies the ways in which state standards successfully articulate, or fail to put forward, pathways for developing these shared areas of knowledge and civic character development in American students. In so doing, it does a great service by advancing both our general and our specific awareness (in the context of primary and secondary education) of the need for a better roadmap.
In particular, the ideal vision of civics and U.S. history put forward in this report is appropriately rooted in the outline of an age-appropriate, sufficiently comprehensive curriculum (with attention to the elementary school years) that helps students understand what it means to be an American while also developing the skills and dispositions that are essential to fulfilling the responsibilities of citizenship. Toward those ends, the report takes solid inventory not just of the spread of topics and themes that states currently cover but of their narrative consistency. Civic education cannot be about checking the boxes of required topics outside of the necessary historical context. The development of civic skill and character rests most firmly upon the bedrock of historical understanding, which is why the report’s attention to the arc of history is so important to our understanding of the care (or lack thereof) that states currently take in cultivating civic understanding and awareness in our students.
The report focuses on the need for us to find a balance between the unum and the pluribus in American civic life. Therefore part of what it rightly demands is that sufficient attention be paid to the histories of America’s various ethnic groups in a way that weaves these histories into the broader flow of American history. Per the sidebar on page 26, it’s encouraging to read that many states have made real progress when it comes to giving more considerable attention to the rich and complex history of African Americans and other groups within their standards. But the report also makes clear that there is significant work left to be done.
In practice, any attempt to weave the histories of particular groups into a balanced overview of our shared history is an invitation to controversy, and completely eliminating bias can seem an impossible task. But the best corrective that is available to students and educators when it comes to this and other matters of politics and historical interpretation is a civic disposition rooted firmly in respect for the views of our fellow citizens and the expectation that there will be serious and valid disputes in a pluralistic society. So it’s a great stride forward that this report analyzes the attention paid to this, as well as other civic virtues and dispositions, in state standards.
States with inconsistent approaches to the transmission of historical and civic understanding may need to revisit their understanding of the purposes of these subjects. It is tempting, with limited resources and any number of competing educational imperatives, to stick them wherever they seem to fit in our current K–12 system. Likewise, ignoring or glossing over difficult concepts or parts of our history may seem like the safe thing to do. But if we truly care about the long-term sustainability (or even the medium-term stability) of our democratic society, then we must invest the requisite thought and resources.
The cultivation of a deeper appreciation of our shared history as the foundation for an ever-strengthening relationship with the sacred concept of citizenship isn’t a self-executing project. It requires state standards that actually hold us to such standards. Fordham’s report is a vital step forward in the struggle to focus American attention on this duty. May we rise to its call.
John Wood, Jr. is the National Ambassador of Braver Angels.
A crisis like a pandemic can spark unpredictable changes in trends and behavior, like widespread mask wearing in the United States. But it also can accelerate changes that were already underway but otherwise would have taken root much more slowly. For example, working remotely was a relative rarity in early 2020; now many organizations may never again expect all employees in the office five days a week. And outdoor eating spaces, an occasional curiosity in some cities, have popped up nearly everywhere. Lots of cities and small towns have made it clear that they would like to keep this innovation even after the crisis recedes.
So too in the world of K–12 education, where some new pandemic-era practices are likely to persist for the long term. Some of these are simple and straightforward. Using Zoom for parent-teacher conferences and PTA meetings makes life easier for working parents. Online curriculum materials rather than printed textbooks may also have staying power, since so many students have Chromebooks or other internet-connected devices. Others are more complicated, such as recording a school’s or district’s best teacher giving key lessons and using those videos in multiple classrooms. That frees up other teachers to provide support and individualized instruction—a nimble, but politically sensitive, way to rework teachers’ roles and use technology to improve instruction (see “How Big Charter Networks Made the Switch to Remote Learning,” feature, Spring 2021).
But as both common sense and classic conservatism would submit, not all of the changes that have occurred in education during the pandemic are positive. And just as there are some innovations that we should strive to maintain in the post-Covid era, there are others we should leave behind.
Here are my top five—including several that are close cousins (perhaps evil cousins?) of more promising ideas.
1. Roomies and zoomies simultaneously
First, and perhaps most obviously, we should never again ask teachers to instruct half of their students in person and the other half remotely at the same time. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called it “not humanly possible”—and she’s right.
This hugely unpopular “concurrent” model is surely the worst of both worlds, just like a videoconference with half the participants in person and half logging in from afar is particularly unworkable. We know that, done right, remote instruction can work well for some teachers and students. But not when teachers are also trying to engage students in person at the same time. There’s little doubt that this approach has created an enormous amount of stress for teachers and a subpar learning experience for kids.
Careful readers might wonder how I can square this with my previous advocacy for keeping teachers’ cameras turned on once everybody returns to the classroom (see “A Post-Covid Case for Classroom Cameras,” Spring 2021). And that’s a fair question. As I (and others) see it, it’s much more manageable for teachers working in a live classroom to have a handful of students following along at home, or even watching later via a recorded lesson, than try to engage what the Center for Teaching Quality calls “zoomies and roomies” in real time. If kids are home sick or down the hall because of in-school suspension, administrators can make it clear that teachers are not expected to call on them or otherwise engage them. But allowing absent students to watch what’s happening in class is better than nothing at all.
There may be some enduring need for remote learning in the months and years ahead, especially for medically fragile students. In addition, as New York City has decided, districts may do away with “snow days” and keep school virtually open when buildings are closed due to snow. Districts should offer robust online-learning options to families that want it—either by partnering with companies who specialize in this or by standing up their own programs. But this should be separate from in-person instruction.
2. Waiving seat-time requirements
We need to make similar distinctions with the second item on my list: the cancellation of so-called “seat-time” requirements, which award course credit based on a minimum amount of instructional time. Given the need for social distancing, and the public-health priority of keeping adults and kids safe, many states understandably waived requirements that schools hold session for a certain number of hours or days in 2020 and 2021, while allowing students to progress through their classes. Likewise, states temporarily let go of many or all mandates dictating the number of hours allocated to particular subjects.
Education reformers who have been advocating for mastery- or competency-based learning were excited about that development, as moving away from seat-time rules was something they have advocated for years. But during the pandemic, many states simply got rid of seat-time requirements without substituting anything else in return. They did not ask schools to make sure that their students demonstrated competency in critical subject areas, as adopting mastery-based learning standards would require. Nor did they make sure the kids were getting the comprehensive educational experience that states are morally and legally obligated to provide.
By all means, let us continue to experiment with ways to move towards competency-based programs, especially for older students. But while we work towards that vision, we need to put those seat-time requirements back in place.
3. “Asynchronous” days
The reason is related to my third item on the list of “innovations” that should go away: so-called “asynchronous” learning days, which are school days without live, or “synchronous,” instruction. In Montgomery County, Maryland, where my two sons attend traditional public schools, every Wednesday is asynchronous. The idea, as far as I can figure it out, is that custodians would spend Wednesdays doing deep cleaning (which is now understood to be “hygiene theater”), while teachers would provide individualized instruction to the kids who need it most. Meanwhile, the majority of students would do independent work at home.
I don’t think I am ratting out my sons by reporting, though, that very little independent work was happening on Wednesdays, beyond some regular homework that would and should be expected any day of the week. Without a clear plan, “asynchronous” days are just extra time off.
I am broadly in favor of allowing schools to experiment with new schedules. For example, “half-time high school” could include having kids learn from home several days a week, or several hours a day, or even shift to a college-like schedule, with more time for independent work. But that’s not what happened during the pandemic. In that case, some school districts simply gave up on providing a five-day-a-week educational experience to their students and expecting students to put in effort every day, as well. A recent study found that, even before the pandemic, districts and schools that downshifted to a four-day school week rarely offered meaningful learning opportunities for students on the fifth, out-of-school-day, and student test scores in math and reading declined (see “The Shrinking School Week,” research, Spring 2021). There is no reason to keep asynchronous learning days once the pandemic is over.
4. Grade inflation
The fourth big change that isn’t worth celebrating is the rampant rise in grade inflation. When the school shutdowns struck in the spring of 2020, many districts decided that it would be unfair to apply normal grading policies for the fourth quarter, given the unevenness of access to remote learning. Some simply assigned students the grades they had already earned by mid-March or, like my home district of Montgomery County, rounded up their mid-March scores to the next highest letter grade. Others shifted to pass-fail systems.
Those policies could be defended during an emergency, but the downside is obvious. It sends a clear message that kids will not be held accountable for paying attention, doing their homework, and learning new material. Until we reach the day when intrinsic motivation is enough to get most kids and teenagers to prioritize their schoolwork (in other words, never), or when we’ve transitioned to a system focused on mastery, we’re going to need grades to get kids to put in the necessary effort (see “The Case for Holding Students Accountable,” feature, Spring 2018).
5. Diploma devaluation
Finally, let us never again decide to graduate tens of thousands of students from high school regardless of whether they mastered learning expectations or not. A cynic might say that high schools and school systems have been doing that for years, and in some parts of the country, that is probably true. But before the pandemic, in about twenty states, students were expected to pass some sort of exit exam or end-of-course exam to graduate (though that number has been trending down). And in the others, students had to pass a certain number of courses in order to earn that diploma.
States canceled those examination mandates in 2020 and 2021, for obvious reasons. But school districts waved the white flag as well, patting themselves on the back for graduating kids regardless of whether the students had even come close to meeting standards. In Chicago Public Schools, for example, officials celebrated a record-high graduation rate after easing graduation requirements and shifting to a pass/incomplete grading system. It was essentially impossible for students to fail.
To be sure, helping more students graduate high school is an urgent goal. But it also urgently important to make sure they graduate well prepared for what’s ahead. It does students little good to pass them along and give out diplomas without ensuring the kids can read, write, and do math at an accomplished high-school level. Consider Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where a recent review of high-school achievement found a majority of students failed state tests in English, math, and science, despite the district’s graduation rate of 85 percent.
Let’s return to common sense: if a high-school diploma does not reliably guarantee a minimum base of knowledge and skills, then we have created a policy that punishes graduates who earned their diplomas but now have no way to signify to employers that they achieved something worth paying attention to. We are also signifying to students who have not fully earned their diplomas that they are ready for life after high school, and they are not.
It’s become a cliché to say that, post-pandemic, American schools shouldn’t try to go back to normal. That’s true in many respects. But in some cases, back to normal is exactly where we need to go—the sooner, the better.
Editor’s note: This was first published by Education Next.
Across America, states are constitutionally responsible for providing K–12 education, but in practice school districts are the primary structure by which education is delivered. The vast majority of such districts are run by locally elected school boards. Starting in the late 1980s, a number of states set up mechanisms to intervene in certain low-performing districts, moving authority from locally-elected boards to some form of governance ultimately answerable to the governor and/or the state education agency. The number of state takeovers increased in the twenty-first century, and a new working paper attempts to determine whether these efforts improved academic outcomes for students.
The analysts looked specifically at thirty-five districts across the country that were taken over by states between 2011 and 2016. These “treatment” districts are compared to either the full set of similar districts in those states that were never under state control or a random subset of them.
Academic outcomes were standardized across states by use of the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), which norms the various state assessments to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), and allows for cross-state achievement comparisons. SEDA currently includes measures of third to eighth grade academic performance in mathematics and English language arts (ELA) at the grade-district level across all states for the time period being analyzed. These test scores are standardized to the nationwide population of school districts. The analysts conducted difference-in-differences analyses comparing the achievement trends of takeover districts to the trends of comparable districts not experiencing state takeover.
The topline finding is that state intervention produced on average no statistically significant effects in ELA and math performance. Non-significant negative effects on ELA outcomes were seen in years one through three of state control, with some bounce back to pre-takeover levels (still not statistically significant) by year five, although another downturn was observed in the handful of districts for which year-six data were available. The researchers note that they are less confident in their findings the further they go out due to the limited number of districts in the sample with four to six years of treatment. With that caveat, however, math outcomes largely mirror ELA: small and non-significant negative effects observed in years one through four of state control for those districts for which data was available that long, with non-significant positive effects observed in years five and six in the small handful of districts with that many years’ worth of data.
In discussion of possible mechanisms driving the null outcomes, the analysts examined average class sizes and per pupil expenditures and found no significant correlation. And while they did find that the charter sector share of student population increased by a statistically significant 2.83 percentage points in takeover districts—when the data for all post-takeover years were pooled—similar trends were observed in several pre-takeover years, and thus a direct correlation to takeover effects cannot be confirmed.
The analysts conclude that the loss of local democratic control in predominantly Black communities was a high cost for very little academic return. But this ignores the fact that there are indeed takeovers that have produced measurable gains, especially among Black students. Camden, New Jersey, and Lawrence, Massachusetts—both included in the study—are among them. Are they outliers or exemplars? Perhaps they are both. Brown University education professor Jonathan Collins probably put it best when he told Chalkbeat, “Why I think the results are so mixed in the study—the takeover in and of itself is a black box. It can mean anything.” Focusing analysis on the governance model is likely too simplistic an approach. What happens inside each central office, each school building, and each classroom in the aftermath of a change in governance is far more important. What changes do new leaders make and how quickly? Do teachers and principals hired by the previous administration buy in to the changes prescribed or is there resistance? Do parents who once attended the same schools their children now attend embrace new curricula, or do they agitate for the familiar status quo? Does the wider community listen to an outside receiver or CEO, or do loyalties to former leaders persist? These are minute and messy details, vitally important but likely resistant to simple analysis. Arguably the most successful state takeover of a school district, New Orleans, only occurred after every remnant of the previous education model was removed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. If there could be a non-disaster version of such a sweeping change from top to bottom, that would be the model to implement and study.
SOURCE: Beth E. Schueler and Joshua Bleiberg, “Evaluating Education Governance: Does State Takeover of School Districts Affect Student Achievement?” Annenberg Foundation at Brown University (June 2021).
On this week’s podcast, Jeremy Stern, coauthor of Fordham's new report, The State of State Standards for Civics and U.S. History in 2021, joins Mike Petrilli, David Griffith, and Checker Finn to discuss what the analysis found.
If you listen on Apple Podcasts, please leave us a rating and review - we'd love to hear what you think! The Education Gadfly Show is available on all major podcast platforms.
- “New Jersey’s Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the state’s decision to allow the expansion of seven charter schools in Newark.” —AP News
- Some anti-critical race theory bills are better than others. —Rick Hess
- A new book, Districts That Succeed, explores remarkable student gains in five little-known-districts and Chicago. —Washington Post
- Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida has blocked a number of charter schools from opening because they wrongly think doing so helps fill the district’s coffers. —Patricia Levesque
- Education Secretary Miguel Cardona addressed the charter sector, encouraging leaders to diversify their staff and saying he opposes federal funding for for-profit charters. —The 74
- “Education lifts all boats, but not by equal amounts”—though policies to help poorer families care for children early in life can help level the benefits. —New York Times
- Rhode Island’s House just passed a bill to automatically enroll all public school students in charter lotteries. —Providence Journal