Exemplars & Common Pitfalls
1: Problems of Sequencing and Grade-level Rigor
Studentsâ€™ understanding, sophistication, and attention span increase dramatically between elementary and high school. Yet far too many states â€” even some with otherwise sound standards â€” make the fundamental error of splitting all U.S. history standards into a once-through progression across grade levels, so that some periods are only covered in elementary or middle school.
- Alabamaâ€™s decision to require two two-year courses on American historyâ€”including a full course in high school, when students have achieved considerable sophisticationâ€”shows an unusual and admirable commitment to American history education. Taken together, these standards give teachers and students substantial tools with which to build solid history education,
- Like many states, California treats the U.S. history curriculum as a once-through sequence split over three grades. The capacity for historical understanding changes dramatically between fifth and eleventh grades. The early grades should not be treated as intellectually equivalent to high school, yet early American history is taught only in fifth grade. Despite limited recapitulation in the later grades, much of the substance of preâ€“1789 U.S. history is still taught only when children are too young to consider it with genuine sophistication.
2: Content Organization
Social studies dogma dictates a convoluted, artificial and abstract organizational scheme. Historical content is broken up among the various categories, or â€œstrands,â€ of social studies theory: the most common are history, geography, economics and civics/government, although others may be tacked on as well. Even within these arbitrary strands, history is not presented chronologically or coherently, but rather it is splintered among thematic â€œsub-strands,â€ â€œbenchmarks,â€ â€œperformance descriptors,â€ etc.
- The D.C. standards are presented in a straightforward format: Each grade/course is organized in subdivisions, beneath which appear â€œbroad concepts,â€ followed by grade-specific content expectations. Sample classroom exercises are offered for selected content items. The curriculum is not divided into typical social studies strands; rather, historical material is presented chronologically and analytical categories pertinent to each content item are noted parenthetically (these include geography, economics, politics and government, religious thought and ideas, social impact, military action, and intellectual thought).
- The South Carolina Academic Standards provide grade-specific outlines for grades Kâ€“8, and for four high school courses: global studies, United States history and the Constitution, economics, and United States government. Each grade or course is provided with a numbered series of thematic/chronological â€œstandards,â€ each of which is followed by specific â€œindicators,â€ or content expectations. Four â€œstrandsâ€â€”history, geography, political science/government, and economicsâ€”are invoked, but content is not broken up among them. Instead, relevant strands are noted parenthetically at the end of each indicator. Sample classroom exercises are also offered for selected indicators.
- The â€œconflict and consensusâ€ sub-theme jumps from European/Native American interaction, colonial settlement and leaders, and the impact of slavery, before suddenly moving to the American Revolution. The â€œmovementâ€ section then skips back to the early colonies before abruptly leapfrogging to nineteenth-century expansion. The same pattern holds for the other sub-themes, and also for the sixth-grade U.S. history courseâ€”which opens with Reconstruction, moves to twentieth-century technology, then to the Great Depression, back to the womenâ€™s suffrage movement, then on to the Allied/Axis powers, late twentieth century technology, and the space program. After all of this, the next sub-theme jumps back to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Spanish American War, and so forth.
- Coloradoâ€™s Kâ€“12 Academic Standards for social studies are divided into four strandsâ€”history, geography, economics, and civicsâ€”that are common to all grades. Within each strand, the state provides grade-level expectations for individual grades from Kâ€“8, and for high school (grades 9â€“12) as a block. Each such expectation consists of a thematic headingâ€”labeled â€œconcepts and skills students masterâ€â€”laying out broad conceptual themes to be covered. For example, one eighth-grade history grade-level expectation directs students to â€œformulate appropriate hypotheses about United States history based on a variety of historical sources and perspectives.â€ The state then provides a series of â€œevidence outcomesâ€ for each concepts and skills heading. These are thematic summary statements of knowledge that students must master as well as â€œ21st century skills and readiness competencies.â€ The latter are comprised of â€œinquiry questionsâ€ (more specific queries about the content), â€œrelevance and applicationâ€ points (drawing parallels between the content and current issues) and, in the history strand, â€œnature of historyâ€ points (regarding the nature of historical study).
Many state U.S. history standards offer teachers and students little more than isolated fragments of decontextualized history â€” often presented in absurdly overbroad directives
- The standards cover (among other things) the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary period with commendable specificity. For instance, students are to consider â€œefforts to mobilize support for the American Revolution by the Minutemen, Committees of Correspondence, First Continental Congress, Sons of Liberty, boycotts, and the Second Continental Congress.â€
- Many state standards rush through the last few decades of U.S. history, but Indiana encompasses Lyndon Johnsonâ€™s Great Society and social programs, U.S.-Soviet relations (to the 1980s), the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, the Iran-Contra scandal, the Clinton impeachment, the disputed 2000 election, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and both Gulf Wars. Even such details as the air traffic controllersâ€™ strike and the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act are included.
- A particularly clear and specific standard from Hawaii lists â€œnatural rights, government by the consent of the governed, and â€˜all men are created equalâ€™â€ for the key ideas of the Declaration of Independence.
Many states include standards that are so vague as to be instructionally meaningless, such as:
- Students in grades six through eight are to â€œexamine historical materials relating to a particular region, society, or theme; analyze change over time, and make logical inferences concerning cause and effect.â€
- Students must â€œexplain how specific individuals and their ideas and beliefs influenced U.S. history.â€
- Students are directed to â€œdiscuss the causes and effects of various conflicts in American history.â€
Less egregious but still alarmingly thin examples include:
- Detail in the Minnesota standards often remains skimpy. For example, the state provides two bare examplesâ€”â€œPequot War, French and Indian Warâ€â€”to explain â€œthe differences and tensions between the English colonies and American Indian tribes.â€
- Students are asked merely to â€œExplain the political viewpoints of Patriots and Loyalists during the Revolutionary periodâ€ [fifth grade]).
Finally, some states pose broad and generic questions, but provide no specifics that outline what a student must know to answer them. For example:
- â€œTo what extent did individuals and their ideas contribute to the foundation of the United States government?â€
4: Historical Balance and Context
Exposure to the full truth about complex historical events is essential if students are to learn to avoid simplistic and politically correct finger-pointing and instead achieve genuine understanding of historical causality. Too often, uncomfortable and complex historical realities are evaded and oversimplified. Other times, states offer little more than diversity-driven checklists of historically marginalized groups, rather than balanced lists of historical figures who had the greatest impact in particular periods. Also widespread in state history standards is politically correct â€œpresentismâ€ â€” encouraging students to judge the past by present-day moral and political standards, rather than to comprehend past actions, decisions, and motives in the context of their times.
- The introductory material in fifth grade encourages a balanced approach, noting the perspectives of different groups in colonial America (Europeans, Native Americans, Africans, etc.) without being tendentious or presentisticâ€”that is, without judging the past through the lens of todayâ€™s values, standards, and norms. The English colonies are even explicitly identified as the essential core in the development of the United Statesâ€”which is somewhat unusual these days.
The framework properly emphasizes the significance of American liberty rather than slavery, explaining that the inherent contradiction created new challenges to slavery during the Revolutionary period and after.
- In multiple states, the World War II home front is reduced to the experiences of women, African Americans, and interned Japanese Americans * students would hardly guess that all Americans participated in and were personally affected by the war effort. Political bias is, indeed, less strident in many cases than it was in 2003. Yet bias by selective emphasis is still bias.
Many states also prod students to fault the revolutionary generation for denying full equality to women and blacks â€” without explaining that in the context of the late eighteenth century, the idea of government based even on the votes of white, property owning males was itself radical and untested.
Far too many states promote the entirely mythic historical importance of the Iroquois League in American constitutionalism.
- The Arizona standards promote the idea of the historical importance of the Iroquois League, but fail to mention the crucial experimentation that took place in the state constitutions between 1776 and 1781. When students are asked to analyze the experiences and perspectives of various groups in the Revolutionary era, the list of choices is extremely skewedâ€”of the five groups, four are clearly intended as marginalized victims: African Americans, women, Native Americans, and indentured servants. The only other group mentioned is â€œproperty ownersâ€â€”whom students are plainly meant to judge negatively in comparison.
- North Dakota offers this slanted, chronologically muddled, and historically nonsensical selection of famous Americans in the early grades: â€œGeorge Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Susan B. Anthony, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, CÃ©sar ChÃ¡vez, [and] Sacagawea.â€
In discussing pre-contact cultures of the Americas, the Arizona standards present an idealized portrait of â€œthe achievements and features (e.g., mathematics, astronomy, architecture)â€ of the Mayan, Aztec, and Inca civilizations. Surely, students should also learn about the existence of aggression, war, slavery, and human sacrifice in these cultures. Even as late as sixth grade, the standards merely add â€œgovernment, social structure, [and] arts and craftsâ€ to the earlier list of Mesoamerican achievements. Some of the more graphic details are probably inappropriate at the earliest grades, but leaving them out entirely is dishonest and misleading.
Second graders are asked to â€œexplain the contributions of historical figures.â€ The diversity-driven examples include: â€œGeorge Washington, Harriet Tubman, Sacagawea, Squanto, Abraham Lincoln, CÃ©sar ChÃ¡vez, Martin Luther King, Jr., [and] Rosa Parks.â€ Third graders are to â€œexplain the significance of events surrounding historical figuresâ€â€” and the suggested examples consist of the same list of random names.
In addition to the bias and political distortions mentioned under â€œHistorical Balance,â€ some standards present information that is inaccurate. The most persistent example 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 â€” yet it continues to appear as historical fact in the academic standards of many states.
—The best standards in the nation are free from errors of distortion, omission, or outright error.
- In eighth grade, the U.S. history strand now receives nine grade-level expectations. For instance, students are again to describe â€œconflicts that have been resolved through compromise.â€ The bizarre example highlights â€œcompromises over slaveryâ€â€”a textbook example of a conflict that was not resolved through compromise, as the Civil War would seem to indicate.
- There are occasional errors in the fifth-grade outline: John Adamsâ€™s election is incorrectly dated to 1798; John Singer Sargent is listed as a colonial artist, when John Singleton Copley is surely meant.
- The high school section on the American Revolution likewise promotes the entirely mythic historical importance of the Iroquois League in American constitutionalism, yet fails to mention the crucial experimentation that took place in the state constitutions between 1776 and 1781.
- Students are to discuss â€œthe economic and political reasons for the American Revolution,â€ yet the only example given is â€œattempts to regulate colonial trade through passage of Tea Act, Stamp Act and Intolerable Acts.â€ Even this example lacks specifics, and the acts are cited out of chronological order. Most importantly, though, the statement itself is wrong: The issue was taxation without consent, not trade regulation (which the colonies accepted until the eve of independence).
- After passing references to the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation, major debates of the Constitutional Convention are mentioned, but the only example given is â€œthe federalist papers [sic]â€ which were written after the convention to promote ratification.
- The state lists â€œConstitution ratification compromisesâ€ as the â€œ3/5 Compromise, Great Compromise, [and the] Bill of Rightsâ€â€”yet only the last of these emerged from the ratification debates; the first two compromises were reached at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Our review ofState Standards