George Washington would not be happy

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“How unpardonable it would be for us,” the eminent historian
David McCullough declared at Hillsdale College in 2005, “with all that we have
been given, all the advantages we have, all the continuing opportunities we
have to enhance and increase our love of learning—to turn out blockheads or to
raise blockheads.”

Unpardonable or not, we have mounting evidence that American
education is doing just that—creating a generation of students who don’t
understand or value our own nation’s history.

On the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress
(NAEP), for example, not even half of twelfth graders made it to NAEP’s basic
level in U.S.
history—and barely 13 percent were proficient. What does that really mean?
Here’s an example: When asked to “identify a significant factor that led to
United States involvement in the Korean War” and “explain why this factor was
significant,” only one high school senior in seven was able to supply a
satisfactory answer, such as America’s efforts to curb the spread of communism
after World War II.

scores in 2006 were up a bit from earlier rounds, the overall results were
still appalling. (NAEP tested U.S.
history again in 2010; these scores will be made public in a few months.)

causes this alarming vacuum of basic historical knowledge? There are multiple
explanations, of course, but the most significant is that few states and school
systems take U.S.
history seriously. So why should their teachers and students?

What is to be done? In this field, nobody is coming to rescue individual states from folly, slackness, or neglect.   

Fordham has a long history of reviewing
state-level academic standards in core subjects. Eight years ago, we examined
those standards for U.S.
history and found that the average grade—this is for the states’ expectations,
mind you, not the kids’ achievement—was a D. This year, helped by a pair of
top-notch historians, we did it again, in an
analysis released yesterday

the news is no better. While forty-five states have revised their history
standards since 2003, few have improved them. In fact, a majority of states’
standards are still mediocre-to-awful, and the average grade across all states
remains a D. Today, a majority of states—twenty-eight in all—earn Ds or Fs. Eighteen

Only South Carolina has
standards in this subject that deserve a straight A. Our analysts—Drs. Sheldon
Stern and Jeremy Stern—commended the Palmetto State for having brought focus,
rigor, and ample solid content to this essential element of a comprehensive

other states—Alabama, California,
Indiana, Massachusetts,
New York, and the District of Columbia—earn A-minuses, and
three more receive grades in the B range. Bravo for them. But this also means
that just ten jurisdictions out of fifty-one get honors marks for grounding
their standards in real history and avoiding the temptations, pitfalls, and
neglect that prevail across most of the land.

NAEP framework—which we also evaluated, as states, districts, teacher prep
programs, and textbook writers look to it for guidance—earns an A-minus,
indicating that the content that informs and undergirds its U.S. history
assessment is superior to what most states are using. But of course that helps
explain why student performance on the U.S. history NAEP is so weak.

What is to be done? In this field, nobody is coming to
rescue individual states from folly, slackness, or neglect. This is different
from reading and math, where states now have the option—which all but a handful
have declared they will use—of substituting the Common Core for their own
standards. It’s also different from science, where “common” standards are
beginning to be constructed and will likely be available for states’ consideration
by year’s end. The reality is that U.S. history standards are entirely
up to each state to set for itself.

But that doesn’t mean those with weak standards must start
from scratch. Instead, they could look to the states with A-range grades—or to
the NAEP framework—and revise their own standards using those as a model.
That’s what the District of Columbia
did. In 2003, its U.S. history standards were abysmal. A few years ago,
however, D.C. officials looked to the best state standards as models, adapted
them, and then adopted them. Now the District’s teachers are guided by some of
the strongest U.S.
history standards to be found anywhere. The twenty-eight states whose standards
earned Ds or Fs would do well to do something similar.

Let us emphasize that great standards alone don’t produce
superior results. Several states with exemplary history standards still aren’t
serious about course requirements, assessments, and accountability. They may
have slipshod curricula (if any), mediocre textbooks, and ill-prepared
teachers. Top-notch expectations don’t get the education job done. But they’re
a mighty important place to start.

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