Don't Know Much ’bout History

Monday, October 30, 2006

For young Americans in 2006, world history must no longer be seen as an elective subject. Everyone needs to be conversant with the history, culture, and geography of the flattening world they inhabit.

This wasn’t always so. Two decades ago, Americans would nod vaguely in agreement if someone remarked that China was a “sleeping giant,” that Iran was a cauldron of radical Islam, or that Mexico was in economic turmoil. Few knew, or cared to know, much beyond these stereotypes and oversimplifications. It just didn’t seem all that important.

No more. Nations that were little more than curiosities to most Americans have transformed themselves into places of vital interest and concern to us. The influx of Latinos and Asians, who have radically altered our demographics, is just one example.

Report Card

Will future high-school graduates be any more knowledgeable than their parents about the world they inhabit? Not if state academic standards for K–12 world history are an indicator, according to “The State of State World History Standards” released in June by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Only eight states received A grades and four more earned Bs. A whopping 33 received Ds and Fs.

The eminent historian Walter Russell Mead, the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, conducted the study. It is arguably the most difficult state-standards review that Fordham has undertaken. (We have been grading state standards since 1997.) Crafting good standards is always hard, but creating them for world history is complicated by the fact that it’s not possible to provide students with a course of study in world history—even one spanning several years of school—that covers everything. “Decisions,” Mead writes in his introduction, “must be made.”

Nations that were once little more than curiosities to most Americans have transformed themselves into places of vital interest and concern to us.

Regrettably, most states made poor decisions.

The greatest single explanation for their poor showing on Mead’s grading scale is the lack of solid historical content in their standards. Sometimes this results from states’ obeisance to a social-studies mind-set that eschews knowledge (often dismissed as “rote learning” or “mere facts”). Alaska, for example, asks its students to understand “the forces of change and continuity that shape human history.” How are they supposed to do this? By examining the “major developments in societies, as well as changing patterns related to class, ethnicity, race, and gender.” One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Other states’ standards are so nebulous as to yield little real guidance for teachers, students, textbook writers, test makers, and so on. Michigan, for one, asks students to “identify major decisions in the history of Africa, Asia, Canada, Europe, and Latin America, analyze contemporary factors contributing to the decisions and consider alternate courses of action.” Which decisions? Analyzed how? What, exactly, is expected? Teachers looking to such vague standards for clear advice about what to put in their lessons would come away in despair.

In the twenty-first century, all Americans need to be conversant with the history, culture, and geography of the flattening world they inhabit.

Among Mead’s more surprising findings is that, among the 11 content areas he examined, states fared worst in their treatment of Latin America. With 10 points possible for a state’s treatment of Mexico and the Western Hemisphere, the average was a meager 4.2. States with large Hispanic populations (Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, and Texas) ranged from 2 to 5 points. Young people in all states need to be aware of Latin American history; it’s especially troubling that those states most affected by Latino immigration haven’t stepped up to this plate.

Despite plenty of low marks, this study had some bright spots. Eight states—California, Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, South Carolina, and Virginia—get the world history package close to perfect. States seeking to improve their standards would do well to follow those models.

Some good news can also be found in states’ treatment of geography, an essential part of world history. Most do this adequately, perhaps because they have drawn upon the very good standards developed by the National Geographic Society.

Assessment and Accountability

Yet a cloud hovers over even states with the best standards. How can we be sure schools are teaching the material? Even in those that require students to take courses labeled world history, few have any statewide test in this subject or build it into their accountability systems, such as making promotion or graduation contingent on passing such a test. As the educators’ adage goes, what gets tested gets taught.

So Mead also looked at highly visible exams in this field. The Advanced Placement world history exam and the SAT II test in world history are popular with college-bound students (64,000 took the AP exam in 2005, up from 21,000 in 2002). The same is true with the New York Regents test in world history (more than 220,000 test-takers in 2005).

All three exams earned high marks, but the AP looks to be best of show. What sets it apart is the course description that accompanies the exam. It’s a terrific guide for those struggling with what decisions to make about the world history curriculum.

How to ratchet up the quality of world history being taught and learned in U.S. schools? The first step, obviously, is for states to get their standards right. Many could make notable improvements by revising their current documents, perhaps using sound standards from highly rated states to help guide their work.

Those states with standards too weak to salvage could simply substitute those of a state that’s gotten world history right. Or they could model their standards on the New York Regents Exam, the SAT II test, or, ideally, the AP exam and accompanying syllabus.

For evidence that states can turn things around, look to Minnesota. When Sheldon Stern reviewed that state’s U.S. history standards in 2003, the Land of 10,000 Lakes received an F. But that same year, Cheri Yecke, now chancellor of K–12 education in Florida but then Minnesota’s education commissioner, undertook a thorough overhaul of that state’s social studies standards (including U.S. and world history). The result is the A-rated standards that Minnesota enjoys in Mead’s report.

Once their standards are solid, states need to incorporate world history into their assessment and accountability systems. At the very least, they should ask students to pass a suitably demanding test in this subject in order to earn a diploma. Standards, however, remain the starting place. If they aren’t right, the rest is an educational house of cards, destined to fall. And there’s too much at stake for our nation to base its future on so wobbly a structure.