February 16, 2011

Fordham Institute Reports on the State of U.S. History Standards (Except Rhode Island)

Marc Comtois

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has studied various State-level U.S. History Standards and come up with a report (PDF). For the most part, they didn't like what they found with a "majority of states’ standards are mediocre-to-awful." And, surprise, of all the states, Rhode Island was the only state to receive an N/A (Incomplete). Why?

As of 2010, Rhode Island has chosen not to implement statewide social studies standards....Rhode Island expressly declares its GSEs [Grade Span Expectations...for Civics & Government and Historical Perspectives/Rhode Island History] not to be general social studies or history standards, it would be inappropriate to review them as such.
Perhaps once Rhode Island implements the Common Core standard we'll have an analysis-worthy standard in place (though I think the initial emphasis is on Math and ELA). Until then, it looks like RI shares the same core problem with History standards with most of the rest of the states across the country. According to Fordham, this is the "submersion of history in the vacuous, synthetic, and anti-historical 'field' of social studies." They quote Dianne Ravitch.
What is social studies? Or, what are social studies? Is it history with attention to current events? Is it a merger of history, geography, civics, economics, sociology, and all other social sciences? … When social studies was first introduced in the early years of the 20th century, history was recognized as the central study of social studies. By the 1930s, it was considered primus inter pares, the first among equals. In the latter decades of the 20th century, many social studies professionals disparaged history with open disdain, suggesting that the study of the past was a useless exercise in obsolescence that attracted antiquarians and hopeless conservatives. (In the late 1980s, a president of the National Council for the Social Studies referred derisively to history as “pastology.”)
They also criticize "overly broad content outlines" ("isolated fragments of decontextualized history") and the practice of chopping up historical periods across grade levels, which leads to different levels of historical inquiry based on grade level. They also find that there is too much ideological pollution finding its way into History curricula.

In 2003, at the time of the last Fordham review, many state U.S. history standards were plagued by overtly left-wing political tendentiousness and ideological indoctrination. There has been some retreat from such open bias since then. Nonetheless, more recent standards provide abundant evidence that political correctness remains alive in American classrooms. Lists of specific examples are routinely little more than diversity-driven checklists of historically marginalized groups. North Dakota, in one typical case, offers this slanted, chronologically muddled, and historically nonsensical selection of famous Americans in the early grades: “George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Susan B. Anthony, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, César Chávez, [and] Sacagawea.” Likewise, in multiple states, the World War II home front is reduced to the experiences of women, African Americans, and interned Japanese Americans — students would hardly guess that all Americans participated in and were personally affected by the war effort. Political bias is, indeed, less strident in many cases than it was in 2003. Yet bias by selective emphasis is still bias....

Also widespread in state history standards is politically correct “presentism” — encouraging students to judge the past by present-day moral and political standards, rather than to comprehend past actions, decisions, and motives in the context of their times. Several states, for example, prod students to fault the revolutionary generation for denying full equality to women and blacks — without explaining that in the context of the late eighteenth century, the idea of government based even on the votes of white, property owning males was itself radical and untested.

But it's not just the Left:
Even as the left pushes stories of American perfidy, the right counters with triumphal accounts of American
perfection. Conservative bias is as much a form of political correctness as its liberal counterpart: Both seek to use history education to promote an ideological and political agenda. Both are, at best, historically misleading and potentially damaging to our shared values as a nation. Leftist criticism of education gained strength because the old, traditional narrative was overly celebratory and exclusionist. The left went much too far in the other direction: In an effort to include those previously excluded, they all too often excluded those previously included. Yet a return to the old distortions is hardly the answer for twenty-first century America.

Most of today’s state standards either strive for political balance or tilt leftward. Yet there are occasional counter-examples:...The conservative majority on the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) has openly sought to use the state curriculum to promote its political priorities, molding the telling of the past to justify its current views and aims.

Further, they note that the counterpoised ideologies rely upon each other to maintain a "cycle of self-perpetuation":
The ultimate irony is that educational ideologues on both left and right feed off each other in an endless cycle of self-righteous distortion. The right believes that political correctness undermines pride in America’s
heritage; hoping to reclaim and restore the “real America,” it seeks to revive a narrow and outmoded historical perspective. The left-wing educational establishment, in turn, continues to present itself as a heroic minority, battling against the traditional “triumphalist” curriculum that they insist still dominates schools — despite the fact that its own views have long since become entrenched educational orthodoxy.

The majority of the Texas SBOE, regrettably, has not sought to redress such left-leaning distortion and ideology by promoting objectivity. They do not, in fact, inherently object to the concept of education as a tool for indoctrination. Rather, they wish to substitute the right ideology (in both senses of the word) for that of the left. Such efforts, laden with contempt for historical scholarship and analysis, are not only harmful in themselves — they play straight into the left-wing victim narrative, strengthening its grip in other states and threatening the progress that has been made in breaking its hold. A reinvigorated left will then further goad the right, leading to a vicious cycle of accusations and politics at the expense of education. The chief casualties are historical comprehension, and the good of the students themselves — which is always the case when education becomes an ideological weapon.

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I'm confused. To which part of the NECAP test prep does this relate?

Posted by: Russ at February 17, 2011 10:50 AM

The part associated with the fact that you can't learn history if you can't read.

Posted by: Andrew at February 17, 2011 6:35 PM

NECAPs teach kids to read? That's fantastic! I'd love to read the study linking improved reading to standardized testing, Andrew. Can you post that link?

For my part, I suggest reading anything by Alfie Kohn...

For instance...

So what does that mean? The inescapable implication, as Meier points out, is that the phrase “high standards” by definition refers to standards that everyone won’t be able to meet. If everyone could meet them, that would be taken as prima facie proof that the standards were too low – and they would then be ratcheted upward – until failures were created. Despite its sugar-coated public-relations rhetoric, the whole standards-and-accountability movement is not about helping all children to become better learners. It is not committed to leaving no child behind. Just the opposite: it is an elaborate sorting device, separating wheat from chaff. And don’t ask what happens to the chaff.

It’s one thing to justify this heartless enterprise in the name of capital-letter abstractions, like Excellence or Higher Expectations. That leaves one with a bad taste. But when the process of flunking vast numbers of children, or forcing them to drop out, or turning whole schools into giant test-prep factories is rationalized as being in the best interest of poor and minority students – the ones who actually suffer most from high-stakes testing -- then one staggers backward at the sickening paradox, the sheer Orwellian audacity of the Standardistos.

Posted by: Russ at February 18, 2011 9:22 AM

Typically dishonest (or stupid?) of Russ to demand that Andrew prove his own non sequitur. The statement "NECAPS teach kids to read..." sprang from Russ's imagination, not anything that Andrew wrote.

And here we have another typical tactic of the Left: Accuse someone of saying something he didn't say, then argue against the accusation as though it were true.

Like Bella's hyperbole, this is a recurring theme.

Posted by: BobN at February 18, 2011 9:50 AM


Pick your favorite definitive account of American history, Charles Beard, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, whoever. Do you think you anyone who can understand their writings is unable to do respectably on an eleventh grade NECAP?

Posted by: Andrew at February 18, 2011 10:43 AM

Surprise! Ask a legitimate question of the Standardistas and out come the brownshirts to shut down the debate.

Perhaps I'm missing something. Is the point of standardized testing "not about helping all children to become better learners" or at least as per the post above about helping all children to become better readers?

Again, I would be interested to see why anyone would think these tests benefit students in that way, as everything I've read, including volumes of information from the process improvement movement, suggests that standardized testing has exactly the opposite effect.

Posted by: Russ at February 18, 2011 10:58 AM

"Surprise! Ask a legitimate question of the Standardistas and out come the brownshirts to shut down the debate."

Like a reflex, Russ just did it again! A baseless accusation, just so he can work in his "brownshirt" motif.

Notice that nobody told him to shut up or tried to shut down the debate. In fact, Andrew just asked Russ a question, which Russ conveniently did not answer.

My answer to Andrew's question is that anyone who believes the crap from those Marxist fraudsters certainly fails the "critical thinking" test, whether standardized or not.

Posted by: BobN at February 18, 2011 11:03 AM
Pick your favorite definitive account of American history, Charles Beard, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, whoever. Do you think you anyone who can understand their writings is unable to do respectably on an eleventh grade NECAP?

So we agree that these tests are as Kohn suggests really "an elaborate sorting device, separating wheat from chaff?" Me, I'm surprised parents in communities like mine on Providence's south side aren't in front of Gist's office with torches and pitchforks.

Posted by: Russ at February 18, 2011 11:04 AM

Bob, see "red herring."

fwiw, I hadn't read Andrew's comment although it did occur a few minutes before I replied to your red baiting troll. Let me know if you have anything germane to say about standardized testing or process improvement, and I'll be happy to reply.

Posted by: Russ at February 18, 2011 11:22 AM


I don't see much agreement here. Even if you believe that testing is bad for purely ideological reasons, it doesn't change the fact that students who want to access the subject matter in a field like history have to have the ability to pass a basic reading test.

Posted by: Andrew at February 18, 2011 12:16 PM

It wasn't my issue, Russ. My interest in this thread is merely to expose the dishonesty of your debating tactics.

Posted by: BobN at February 18, 2011 12:16 PM
...it doesn't change the fact that students who want to access the subject matter in a field like history have to be able to pass a basic reading test.

No, they have to be able to read, not the same thing at all especially if passing the test becomes the goal itself. I'm the parent of a dyslexic child. Consider which type of educational environment is better for her: one that spends time teaching her techniques for struggling through standardized tests or one that teaches her techniques for improving her reading and comprehension? I know the choice I made.

I'd add that your comments that my objections are ideological is incorrect. I have a professional objection based on my understanding of the relevent research and of best practices in the area of process improvement(somethig I know more than a little about in my professional field). Here's Kohn again...


Unfortunately, the people who know the most about the subject tend to work in the field of education, which means their protests can be dismissed. Educational theorists and researchers are just "educationists" with axes to grind, hopelessly out of touch with real classrooms. And the people who spend their days in real classrooms, teaching our children -- well, they're just afraid of being held accountable, aren't they? (Actually, proponents of corporate-style school reform find it tricky to attack teachers, per se, so they train their fire instead on the unions that represent them.) Once the people who do the educating have been excluded from a conversation about how to fix education, we end up hearing mostly from politicians, corporate executives, and journalists.

This type of reform consists of several interlocking parts, powered by a determination to "test kids until they beg for mercy," as the late Ted Sizer once put it. Test scores are accepted on faith as a proxy for quality, which means we can evaluate teachers on the basis of how much value they've added -- "value" meaning nothing more than higher scores. That, in turn, paves the way for manipulation by rewards and punishments...

Process improvement guru, W. Edwards Deming was interviewed by a group of educators who asked him what to measure to improve student performance. So what was his response? (read up on his background first)

Dr. Deiming: Don't measure. for heaven's sake, I've been trying to say, "DON'T MEASURE." Whatever you can measure is inconsequential.

What's important according to Deming is to "restore and nurture the yearning for learning that the child is born with." Read "Out of Crisis." Read "The New Economics For Industry, Government & Education." Then tell me what's ideological about my objections.

Posted by: Russ at February 18, 2011 12:53 PM

Ah, just found Kohn's take on this very issue:

Question 3: Do standardized tests assess what matters most about teaching and learning? If not, then no value-added approach based on those tests makes any sense. As I've argued elsewhere -- and of course I'm hardly alone in doing so -- test results primarily tell us two things: the socioeconomic status of the students being tested and the amount of time devoted to preparing students for a particular test.

Regarding individual students, at least three studies have found a statistically significant positive relationship between high scores on standardized tests and a relatively shallow approach to learning. Regarding individual teachers, let's just say that some of the best the field has to offer do not necessarily raise their kids' test scores (because they're too busy helping the kids to become enthusiastic and proficient thinkers, which is not what the tests measure), while some teachers who are very successful at raising test scores are not much good at anything else. Finally, regarding whole schools, if test scores rise enough, and for long enough, to suggest a trend rather than a fluke, the rational response from a local parent would be, "Uh-oh. What was sacrificed from our children's education in order to make that happen?"

It won't do to fall back on the tired slogan that test scores may not be perfect, but they're good enough. The more you examine the construction of these exams, the more likely you are to conclude that they do not add any useful information to what can be learned from other, more authentic forms of assessment. In fact, they actively detract from our understanding about learning (and teaching) because their results are so misleading.

I realize no amount of my posting information about this stuff is going to change some folks' minds, but I hope maybe a few people will care enough about their kids to start asking the right questions.

Posted by: Russ at February 18, 2011 1:27 PM

Reread your first several excerpts from Alfie Kohn. He's not interested in whether tests are valid or not, as his arguments apply to all forms of testing, not just "standardized" testing, equally well. He is offering ideological objections to the idea of testing, because of the uses that information learned from testing might be put to. Best not to have the information, if bad people might use it to do bad things.

But none of this means that it is common for people to be able to read and digest a work of history, without also being able to pass an eleventh grade NECAP.

Posted by: Andrew at February 18, 2011 3:26 PM
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