The case for more details in Ohio’s history standards

Hearken back to junior high and high school for a moment.  What
“historical documents” were you taught in social studies and American history
classes?  The U.S. Constitution? Your state’s constitution?  What
about the Declaration of Independence or the Federalist Papers?  The
Northwest Ordinance (especially if you grew up in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois,
Michigan, Wisconsin, or Minnesota)?

My entire K-12 education was in Ohio public schools.  When it came to
history, I didn’t take any electives or special courses beyond whatever was
required for me to earn a diploma.  Yet, I was taught all of these
important historical texts, multiple times, from seventh grade through
twelfth.  So I was surprised to see a bill
moving through the Ohio legislature that would require schools to teach what I
thought were standard fare for Ohio’s students. In fact, at first blush it
seemed implausible to me that many schools weren’t already doing so.

My husband, also an Ohio public school alum (from a quote-unquote better
district than I attended), had a different reaction when I told him about the
legislation. He guessed at least two-thirds of students learn virtually nothing
about the Federalist Papers in high school. And he said he wasn’t taught
anything about the Ohio Constitution in K-12.  Huh, maybe there ought to
be a law.

This issue isn’t a new one for Fordham.  The bill’s sponsor in the Ohio
House, Rep. John Adams, cited Fordham’s February 2011 The
State of State U.S. History Standards 2011
as evidence of the
need for a change to state law. That report gave Ohio’s history standards a D
and specifically dinged Ohio for not calling for enough specific content,
including important historical texts and documents.

I respect and value the ability of individual schools and teachers to make
expert judgment about what information they present to their students and
when.  And I certainly don’t want the state to be micro-managing what
happens in the Buckeye State’s 3,400+ public schools.  But this is exactly
the sort of area in which the state should meddle.

An editorial
in today’s Columbus Dispatch (which also cites the Fordham report)
sums up nicely why Ohio’s history standards should be amended to clearly call
for instruction of these texts:

A clear understanding of the Constitution and other documents is vital if
children are to grow into effective citizens and uphold the values that
distinguished the American experiment: limits on government power, to prevent
it from crushing individual liberties; and a reverence for civil rights that
protect individuals from a majority with which they might not agree.

Those are concepts that any American should embrace.

Moreover, study of historical documents, rather than summaries, offers a
more-rigorous challenge to students and allows them to consider the ideas
without any ideological filter.

(PS – Thank you Mr. Reinhart and Mr. Kight, and the rest of my K-12 history
teachers for sharing these texts with me all those years ago, when, apparently,
you didn’t have to!)

Emmy L. Partin
Emmy L. Partin is a Director of Ohio Policy & Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute