Buckeye State letting students down on U.S. history

If your child
thinks Presidents’ Day is little more than an excuse for a long weekend during
blizzard-and-sledding season, you just might want to tell the new members of
the Ohio State Board of Education to do something about the state’s history
standards. Those who approved the current standards last June bungled the

According to a new study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Buckeye State has
failed to delineate clear expectations for what its students in primary and
secondary schools should learn about their country’s history, its founders, and
its most influential leaders. In fact, this review by two top-flight U.S.
historians finds that Ohio’s current standards cover enormous swaths of history
in a few brief strokes, only rarely mentioning specific events or people.

It’s as if they think children can learn history from
thirty thousand feet, because these standards rarely touch the ground. In fifth
grade, for example, the standards declare that “European exploration and
colonization had lasting effects which can be used to understand the Western
Hemisphere today,” but provide no clarification or detail. What exactly is that
5th grade teacher—mostly likely not a history specialist
herself—supposed to teach her students? What exactly are they supposed to

 It's as if they think children can learn history from thirty thousand feet, because these standards rarely touch the ground.  

It’s no better in eighth grade, where just two skimpy
standards address the Civil War and Reconstruction, and one of them is the
absurdly cosmic statement that “the Reconstruction period resulted in changes
to the U.S. Constitution, an affirmation of federal authority and lingering
social and political differences.” Again, where is the useful guidance here for
teachers? Textbook authors? Parents? Curriculum directors?

As for high school, those standards are equally devoid of
content. In fact, just four standards cover all “domestic developments”
from 1919 to 1941, the most specific
of which declares only that “the Great Depression was caused, in part, by the
federal government’s monetary policies, stock market speculation, and
increasing consumer debt. The role of the federal government expanded as a
result of the Great Depression.” The other three standards are preposterously
vague and, like most other U.S. history standards in the Buckeye State, fail to
name even a single key individual from our nation’s past.

Such neglect of actual history content earns Ohio’s
standards a D from the Fordham reviewers.

To its credit,
Ohio does assess student knowledge of social studies at both the elementary and
high school level—giving some indication that state leaders value this critical
subject. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to imagine how an assessment aligned to
the broad and vapid standards that the state has set for U.S. history will help
ensure that young residents of the Buckeye State learn the essential content
they need to become literate American citizens.

Of course, Ohio isn’t alone.
Our evaluation found that 28 states’ standards for U.S. history deserve D or F
grades. The average mark across all 50 states is a
shameful D. As a nation, we are simply not demanding that our students learn
what they must know about our nation’s past.

Still, there are
a few bright spots. The fact that seven states earned grades in the A
range—South Carolina now boasts the best standards in the nation and received a
straight A—proves that this can be done well.

If Ohio’s new education
leaders are serious about ensuring that their state’s children become literate
American citizens, they must get serious about setting clear, rigorous
standards for U.S. history. To that end, they would be well advised to consign
the current version to the social-studies dustbin and instead consider adapting
(and perhaps modifying) the content from states with top-notch standards in
this field.

Their nation’s history is
every young American’s birthright. Don’t you think it’s time we stop keeping it
from them?

Read the full report, The State of State U.S. History Standards

Kathleen Porter-Magee
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.