As the culture wars heat up across our nation and the 2022 election looms, one truth is abundantly clear – our civics and history education is not even close to where it needs to be. Yes, we see and hear a lot of dishonesty from people with big platforms but there is also a lot of ignorance on display. Too many people don’t know what they’re talking about.
There is reason to be especially concerned here in Little Rhody. According to a recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Rhode Island earns a D for its state standards in civics education and an F for its history standards (Disclaimer: I occasionally write for the Fordham Institute but had no involvement or knowledge of this study until it arrived in my inbox.)
Rhode Island, along with 19 other states, finds itself at the very bottom of the grading scale with a grade of “inadequate.” Five jurisdictions (Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia) are rated “exemplary” in both subjects. Ten states are rated “good” in both subjects, 15 states are rated “mediocre” in at least one subject.
Almost no one is hanging around the ball fields, the beach or the local coffee shop talking about our state standards in K12 education so it’s hard for most of us to interpret what these lousy ratings mean let alone think about potential remedies. But this stuff does matter, especially as the media ecosystem – particularly at the national level – increasingly exists to entertain and stoke outrage rather than to inform.
The basic gist is that a bipartisan team of veteran educators and subject matter experts of civics and U.S. history conducted reviews of the K–12 civics and U.S. History standards adopted by the 50 states and the District of Columbia based on the quality, completeness, and rigor of their content and the clarity of its presentation.
From the report:
“Rhode Island’s civics and U.S. history standards are inadequate. Bad organization and vague and repetitive indicators lead to a dearth of specific civics content, and there is no U.S. history whatsoever. A complete revision is recommended before implementation.”
It goes on to say that our standards are too broad, vague and poorly worded and that essential content is missing. Perhaps the least surprising and most important observation they make is that “in general, expectations are too low.” This has been a chronic problem with education in this state and the report asserts that it is a glaring deficiency at the high school level where our definition of “extended learning” barely rises to the level of basic proficiency.
One recommendation jumped out at me as a former educator, parent and writer:
“Put more emphasis on writing, argumentation, problem analysis, and the connections between core content and current events.”
Students need to be able to defend their claims in writing with substantive, evidence-based arguments. Between cable news, social media, school and sound bite commentary they overhear, kids (like so many adults) parrot opinions that, when asked, they can rarely defend with accurate information or specific examples. Slogans have been substituted for substance and that will only be exacerbated if our students do not possess the knowledge and skills to be discerning consumers of information who are willing and able to seek out a diverse set of viewpoints and draw their own conclusions.
Rhode Island found time to name a state appetizer – surely we can find time to address our failure to teach history and civics adequately.
Sanzi is the director of outreach at Parents Defending Education and a former educator and school committee member. She writes at Sanzi.substack.com.