New Indiana standards mark a shift away from content

For many years, Indiana has been a leader in providing rigorous, content-rich K–12 expectations. But lately, the state seems to be taking worrying and entirely unnecessary steps backward. First, under pressure from Common Core opponents, the Board of Education released updated ELA and math standards that are widely considered a step down from both the CCSS and the Indiana standards they replaced.

And now, the state has adopted history standards that are a far cry from the clear, content-rich U.S. history expectations that earned the Hoosier state a top-tier score in Fordham’s most recent analysis of state U.S. history standards (which I coauthored). While these two standards revisions were not purposefully linked, they demonstrate a worrying pattern: a move away of the kind of specific content standards that earned Indiana a reputation for having standards among the best in the nation.

Last fall, Andrea Neal, a middle-school history teacher and a member of Indiana’s Board of Education, contacted me with concerns about the new drafts then emerging from the state’s Department of Education. Given my role in the 2011 review, she asked the head of the DoE to seek my input. But, she tells me, she was informed the department “would not welcome” such a review. The Education Roundtable, an appointed body that advises the Board of Education on standards, also rejected her suggestion. This month, with the revisions complete and a vote approaching, Neal commissioned my review on her own.

My analysis, unfortunately, fully confirmed her concerns. While the overall structure of the 2007 standards largely remains, crucial historical specifics have been systematically excised. In higher grades, the “example” lists provided with many of 2007’s individual standards have been removed; examples have also been cut from the standards themselves—though the cuts are erratic, with some details left or even added, while many others of equal or greater importance are AWOL. In lieu of specifics, the state will now provide “resource guides.” So far, these are largely incomplete (though the Board of Education was asked to approve the new standards regardless). The single example now available, a nearly finished draft of the eighth-grade resource guide, merely offers links to outside history websites tied to each standard—resources which the new standards stress are wholly optional. (My full report is available online.)

The DoE and Roundtable insist that teachers did not want to be constrained by lists when they could and should make their own choices, thus making the new documents “more friendly” to teachers. But history is not a field of broad abstractions—like, say, sociology—where many equally valid case studies might be invoked to illustrate a given overarching thesis. History rests on core factual knowledge of key issues, events, and people—and the purpose of state standards is to articulate the content that students need to learn in order to do the analysis and “historical thinking” we all want to see. In short: you can’t analyze what you don’t know!

Teachers, of course, have enormous leeway in developing exercises and selecting materials. But informed students—and educated citizens—must share common, core historical knowledge if they are to comprehend their own past, and effective standards must lay out the most essential specifics.

The resource guides, as presently conceived, are not useless. To some extent, they do point out important specifics through their lists of links, yet those lists are inevitably dependent on the quality and availability of websites—and the new standards emphasize that even these uneven examples are entirely optional. What’s more, some key factual content previously present in the 2007 standards (the Monroe Doctrine, for example) now goes entirely unmentioned.

The Roundtable’s executive director, responding to the revisions’ critics, has pointed to Fordham’s 2011 review of Indiana’s U.S. history standards, insisting that the removal of specific examples does not undermine the quality Fordham praised. But as the main author of 2011’s Indiana review, I must beg to differ with that interpretation of my own assessment. It was those very specifics that earned the state its A– grade, a point the 2011 review made fully explicit. The new “resource guides,” as envisioned, simply cannot replace the material now being cut from the standards. Optional links to Internet resources do not and cannot spell out core, common expectations. Were the new standards to be ranked by Fordham as they now stand, they would not receive the high grade the state earned in the past.

On March 12, the State Board voted 10–1 to accept the changes. The sole “no” came from Andrea Neal, who commissioned my report.

With the deed now done, the focus must shift to the still-incomplete resource guides. As I argue in my full report, improved resource documents could not only salvage the revisions but also make them a strength. South Carolina has shifted nearly all specifics from its standards into accompanying “support documents”—outstanding expository texts that explain key historical facts and issues, laying out what students must know while adding supplemental material for further classroom flexibility. The standards have become merely the organizing outline for the support documents, and the result is, by far, the best set of state guidelines in the nation. Feedback suggests that these richly substantive resources have also proved highly popular with South Carolina teachers.

Indiana need not be as ambitious as South Carolina to improve on its 2007 standards. If the resource documents included even a paragraph under each standard, explaining its key issues and invoking key facts, the result could immediately surpass the old lists of examples. Sound, substantive explanation is superior to any mere list – if the state makes clear that any such explanatory resources are integrally tied to the standards, not mere “options.” Links to optional web resources (and, ideally, a short bibliography as well) would be a commendable addition to such guidance but cannot substitute for it.

Strong, well-integrated resource guides with solid substantive content can yet save the Indiana standards from a needlessly self-inflicted wound—but only if sufficient will and resources are committed to the task. Content and rigor should not become optional extras.

Jeremy Stern holds a PhD in history from Princeton University. He is an independent scholar who has consulted for several educational groups, including the Fordham Institute, to help promote strong history instruction in schools.

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