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Laboratories of Democracy: How States Get Excellent K–12 U.S. History Standards

January 9, 2017
By Anders Lewis & Bill Donovan

Study Highlights Best Practices For Establishing and Updating K-12 History Standards

From the accompanying press release:

 

In [this study] authors Anders Lewis and William Donovan recommend that states use an academically rigorous and open approach to update standards that provides members of the public and teachers in particular with multiple opportunities to express their views throughout the drafting and review phases.

The study includes a preface entitled “Horace Mann and the Origins of American Public Schools” by Daniel Walker Howe, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.

In the report, Lewis and Donovan advise, “State educational leaders should adopt an objective, non-partisan stance towards topics of contemporary historical debate. It is not the place of states or even of history teachers themselves to push their views about contested historical topics on students.”

The co-authors also urge that standards be academically detailed and specific.  Students and teachers shouldn’t have to guess what might be on state tests that are based on the standards.

Other recommendations include focusing standards on academic content and resisting educational fads like the so-called “21st century skills” that concentrate more on soft, unmeasurable themes like cultural competence, global awareness, and social-emotional learning.  In the absence of requiring a civics course, incorporating civics-based content into the history standards is the best way to promote the learning of material essential to understanding government and citizenship.

The study highlights efforts to update well-respected history standards in six states: Alabama, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, and South Carolina.  California’s recent experience offers a cautionary tale for Massachusetts.  There, the update completed in 2016 has yielded standards that have been less well received than their predecessors and have drawn accusations that they are a product of partisanship and ideological bias.

High-quality history standards and a test had been developed and were ready to be implemented in Massachusetts when the Patrick administration and Commissioner Mitchell Chester jettisoned the requirement in 2009, citing the $2.4 million cost of administering the test.

Given that the Bay State’s nation-leading U.S. history standards have never been fully implemented or connected with a state test, the commonwealth’s history standards review committee should make minimal changes to the academic substance of the standards and move quickly to implement and test these standards as a high school graduation requirement.