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What Do Alabama And California Have In Common? Top-Notch U.S. History Standards

Flipping through textbooks with holes in them.

Updated July 15, 2021 at 7:55 AM ET

A new review of states' learning standards brings fresh insight — and facts — to the heated debate over critical race theory (CRT) and America's K-12 schools.

Critical race theory is an academic approach that looks at how race and racism has shaped U.S. institutions — and the discourse around it has been hard to miss. Some families, mostly white, accuse K-12 schools of teaching children to be ashamed of their race and their country. Many educators and school leaders insist they're simply teaching U.S. history, and that they are victims in a culture war drummed up by conservative activists.

Into this fight arrives a 377-page review of states' U.S. history and civics standards that eschews politics for a deep-dive into what states say kids should actually be learning.

Learning standards act as a kind of lighthouse for schools, guiding curriculum, the creation of textbooks and, ultimately, teaching itself. They might not be a thrilling read, but they do provide vital context for this roiling CRT debate — because they are the clearest view we have of a state's values. Where else but Texas would standards require that first-graders understand the contributions of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and ... Sam Houston, a leader of the Texas Revolution?

Better yet, while many educators and activists have argued that students everywhere should learn about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Oklahoma requires it in its fifth grade history standards. Yes, the language still uses "riot" to describe the slaughter of as many as 300 Black Tulsans, but a follow-up standard demands that classrooms examine "the role labels play in understanding historic events, for example 'riot' versus 'massacre.' " If the former suggests Oklahoma's continued reluctance to speak honestly of its painful past, the latter shines a hot light on that reluctance and invites students to pick it apart.

For this new survey, reviewers rated the U.S. history and civics standards for all 50 states and Washington, D.C., giving them letter grades — A through F — for things like depth and clarity.

At the top, earning As, were Alabama, California, D.C., Massachusetts and Tennessee. At the bottom, 10 states earned Fs, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Alaska. In the case of Alaska, the reviewers quipped, "The Lower Forty-Eight states sometimes seem to forget that Alaska exists — and judging from its social studies standards, the state seems determined to return the favor."

Ouch.

Ten more states scored no better than Ds.

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"Unfortunately, what I found is that [the low-rated standards] tended to be broad and vague, not specific enough," says José Gregory, who has taught high school U.S. history for nearly 20 years and was one of the reviewers for the report, which comes from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Though Fordham is a conservative-leaning think tank, a handful of experts told NPR the survey is nonpartisan and worth taking seriously.

"I'm really worried," says Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at the Ohio State University. "If you don't teach about race and racism in American history, past and present, I don't know what the hell you're teaching. It's not the truth."

Jeffries says the fight over critical race theory is, essentially, about how schools teach about race and racism. And that is deeply informed by what states do — and do not — include in their U.S. history and civics standards.

In Texas, students learn about the Civil War before they learn about slavery

Since its last survey, in 2011, Fordham says states' handling of race and racism — for example, slavery and Jim Crow — has improved, though many states' standards are still vague or disjointed.

Texas, for example, wants fifth-graders to "explain the central role of the expansion of slavery in causing sectionalism, disagreement over states' rights, and the Civil War." But students aren't expected to learn about slavery itself — including "the development of the plantation system, the transatlantic slave trade, and the spread of slavery" — until three years later, in eighth grade.

"I cannot teach students about the emancipation without talking about slavery itself," says reviewer José Gregory, who currently teaches AP U.S. History in Georgia. "I cannot talk about civil rights and the movement for equality without discussing Jim Crow."

I cannot teach students about the emancipation without talking about slavery itself.

The Fordham report highlights one Southern state with a more streamlined approach. In Tennessee, third-graders must "identify the economic, political, and religious reasons for founding the Thirteen Colonies and the role of indentured servitude and slavery in their settlement."

The following year, in fourth grade, Tennessee asks students to "contrast how the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence clashed with treatment of different groups including: women, slaves, and American Indians."

Strong state standards can help teachers navigate anti-CRT laws

The depth and clarity of history and civics standards matter now more than ever as some state legislatures have moved to pass anti-CRT laws that purport to limit what teachers can say about race and racism in the classroom. For example, in June, Iowa's governor signed a new law prohibiting teachers from doing anything that might make students "feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of that individual's race or sex."

Stefanie Wager, past president of the National Council for the Social Studies, lives in Iowa and says she's heard from history teachers there who say they feel vulnerable.

"They're just very scared. They don't know, you know, 'Does this mean I can't, like, teach my unit on the Civil War and we talk about slavery as one of the causes? Like, what does this mean?' "

The same is true, Wager says, when Iowa teachers tackle the U.S. Constitution. How should they handle something like the Three-Fifths Compromise, which allowed states to count three-fifths of enslaved people in their population tallies — thereby increasing slaveholding states' political power.

"How could you talk about that in any other way than to say this was all about White power, maintaining systems of power," Wager asks.

In some states, educators can turn to their state's standards for help and, to a certain extent, political cover. But Fordham gave Iowa's U.S. history standards an F for their lack of depth; the standards don't mention the Three-Fifths Compromise, which could make it easier for anxious teachers to avoid it.

On the other hand, Oklahoma — which got a B+ for both its history and civics standards — specifically says fifth-graders should study the Three-Fifths Compromise "and its maintenance of the institution of slavery."

As it happens, Oklahoma also recently passed an anti-CRT law which, like Iowa's, says students should not be made to feel discomfort based on race. But unlike Iowa, Oklahoma's standards offer educators a roadmap through the uncomfortable facts of our history. And that new Oklahoma law? It says, explicitly, that it does not stop teachers from following those standards.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.