A deep dive into the nation’s history and civic education teaching gets mixed results

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A conservative think tank that promotes educational excellence released an in-depth study of the 50 states that found slavery, Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement are among the key things public school students should learn in civic education and history lessons, despite criticism from supporters of critical race theory and “anti-racist” initiatives suggesting that these issues are being overlooked.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s 400-page study on U.S. civic education and history standards comes after the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions approved the teaching of critical theory in the United States. race and accused its opponents of trying to hide parts of US history in which blacks and immigrants have been hurt.

“On the burning issues, it turned out to be pretty balanced,” said Fordham Institute president Chester Finn. “Our problems were where we found narrow standards, or the expectations were too low or they lacked context.”

The study contains a few surprises: two of the five states classified as “exemplary” were among those that belonged to the old Confederation, namely Alabama and Tennessee. Three of the 10 states that received F’s in civics and history from the United States are in the northeast: Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

“It’s not quite what you would expect. Our conclusions are not divided by politics, ”said Mr. Finn. “We found states you might not expect that had really good standards and some that had, frankly, crappy standards.”

The study is the first that the Fordham Institute looked at in civic education, which has recently become a hot topic in education circles, and the fourth in US history standards. The last one arrived in 2011.

Parents in several states have strongly opposed actions taken by school administrators and teachers to inject a critical race theory, according to which racism is ingrained in the laws and societal norms of the country.

The issue dominated local school board races and prompted state legislatures to ban the teaching of critical race theory in public and K-12 charter schools.

In the past two weeks, the country’s two teacher unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have announced plans to devote millions of dollars and political force in support of education. criticism of racial theory.

Released last week, the Fordham study eschews the language and definitions that dominated the K-12 education debate in 2021. There is no mention of “critical race theory” or of the generic term “anti-racist” pushed by the partisans.

Instead, the report tries to draw neutral ground between what it identifies as two poles: the New York Times’ work to make slavery the centerpiece of American history in “The 1619 Project” and the report of the 1776 Commission appointed by the former president. Donald Trump.

The former received a Pulitzer Prize despite a myriad of inaccuracies pointed out by eminent historians, while the Biden administration cleaned up the Commission report of 1776 as soon as it took office in January.

The schism contributed to the general disappearance of interest in history and civic education, the authors of the Fordham report said.

“Another part of the explanation – and growing rapidly – is more fundamental and disturbing: a fundamental disagreement over how to tell American history and what is most important for young people to learn,” the report.

Rather than taking a polar stance of the kind advocated by the New York Times or the Trump administration, the report urges states to take a more measured approach, which the authors say could come from more engagement. two years deep in the history of the United States and more. specific civic standards.

This would run counter to this year’s proposal by the Biden administration to have the Department of Education promote initiatives using critical race theory and the “1619 Project” when awarding grants. for history and civic education.

The administration’s proposal included a call for more “Civic Action,” an educational approach that supporters say educates students about real political processes, but critics say all too often it involves recruiting children. in partisan political disagreements.

Although some kind of participatory project for high school students is one of the many suggestions mentioned in the report to improve civic education, Mr Finn said there is a need to ensure that a wide range of policies is represented.

He noted that years ago, teachers were too quick to recruit students into campaigns against nuclear weapons and identified environmental projects as those that could prove problematic today.

“Certainly we don’t want schools to produce a lot of ‘Little Gretas’, because it’s not civics, it’s propaganda,” Finn said, referring to Greta Thunberg. , the young Swedish environmental activist.

“But I believe students should be engaged, should learn how things really work,” he said. “A good civic education would foster a tendency in students to do things, that that’s what the right people do, it’s just that ‘civic action’ can get carried away. “

A key step in the approach to history and civic education can be found in the country’s founding motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” or “among many, one,” according to Finn.

“There is a central balance at work here, one that we are constantly working on and one that we will work on forever,” he said. “You don’t want to get carried away by extremes where you have all ‘e pluribus’ or all ‘unum.'”

Overall, Mr Finn expressed cautious optimism, noting that most southern states now teach that slavery was a driving cause of civil war and that only 10 states were given an F in civic standards and American historical. At the same time, 20 states received an “inadequate” rating for their combined standards, with F’s for history being the main factor behind the drop in ratings.

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