Op-Ed: Pennsylvania doesn’t expect students to know basic American history
Since the start of 2021, many states, including Pennsylvania, have moved to limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. Yet the heated debate over these sensitive topics obscures a bigger problem that should concern those on both sides — states’ shockingly low-expectations when it comes to what students are expected to know about their country and its history.
That’s a key takeaway from a new report we recently released, which evaluates the K–12 civics and U.S. history standards adopted by the 50 states and District of Columbia. These standards are road maps that schools and districts use to guide selection of more detailed curricula, so it’s important to get them right. Yet our bipartisan team of veteran educators and civics and history experts awarded just five jurisdictions “exemplary” ratings — and a woeful 20 states were deemed “inadequate.”
Sadly, the latter group includes Pennsylvania, which is particularly shameful considering it’s the birthplace of the U.S. Constitution.
What makes the Keystone State’s standards so bad? According to our reviewers, its civics content “is exceedingly broad, vague, and repetitive — and the U.S. history standards don’t contain any actual U.S. history.” For example, one truly weak standard asks third-grade students to “identify conflict and cooperation among social groups and organizations in United States history” — without mentioning any specific groups, organizations, or conflicts.
As we recommend in our report, to have any hope of creating the guidelines that Pennsylvania students and teachers deserve, the state’s education leaders need to start afresh. And while they’re at it, they should also rethink their expectations for older kids and specifically require that high school students take at least one year of U.S. history and one semester of civics — as the overwhelming majority of states already do.
Although it’s not the sort of thing that lends itself to juicy headlines, the dearth of basic knowledge expectations in many places has contributed to the tattered state of civics and U.S. history education, which is an important part of our nation’s larger citizenship crisis. Case in point: only half of American adults can name all three branches of government, and just 60% know when the U.S. declared independence.
If that’s the example set by adults, what are the odds that young Pennsylvanians understand, say, the concept of equal protection given that neither the Dred Scott decision nor the Fourteenth Amendment is mentioned in the state’s current U.S. history standards? And regardless of your views on the current debate, how meaningful can any conversation about race be if students haven’t been exposed to such basic content.
It’s time to quit arguing over things like critical race theory and focus on what we can all agree on: Americans need to know their history, traditions, and democratic institutions.
Pennsylvania, your students are counting on you.
Michael J. Petrilli and David Griffith are president and senior research and policy associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education policy think tank.