by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
“North Carolina’s new civics and U.S. History standards are inadequate. Nebulous verbiage and an aversion to specifics make them functionally contentless in many places, and organization is poor throughout. A complete revision is recommended before implementation.”
That was the assessment of a group of researchers who evaluated state civics and U.S. history standards for a study published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in June. In The State of State Standards for Civics and U.S. History in 2021, historian Jeremy Stern led a team of experienced educators that scored state social studies standards on a ten-point scale based on content and rigor (maximum of 7 points) and organization and clarity (maximum of 3 points). North Carolina was one of twenty states rated “inadequate” in both subjects.
Stern and his colleagues awarded North Carolina’s new civics and government standards a D− after the standards could earn just three out of a possible 10 points. Content and rigor picked up two points, while organization and clarity earned one point. The overall assessment of North Carolina’s standards was that they “are too broad, vague, or poorly worded to provide useful guidance to educators, and the manner in which they are organized is unhelpful.” Ten states had lower grades for their civics standards. North Carolina had the lowest grade in the Southeast.
North Carolina’s new U.S. history standards fared worse — with an F — earning only two out of 10 points. Content and rigor received a single point, and organization and clarity also received one point. The assessment from Stern and his colleagues was devastating. “North Carolina’s U.S. History standards provide inadequate guidance for school districts and teachers, due to a near total absence of specific content.” North Carolina was among 16 states that received an F for its U.S. history standards.
Alabama, California, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and Tennessee received top marks for their social studies standards. North Carolina’s low grades were an aberration for the Southeast, a region that performed remarkably well in the ranking. Georgia, Virginia, Florida, South Carolina, and Mississippi each received B’s for civics and U.S. history standards, with Louisiana not far behind. North Carolina’s social studies standards were an island of disappointment in a sea of excellence.
How did North Carolina adopt the worst civics and U.S. history standards in the Southeast?
The current review and revision of academic standards for the state’s K-12 social studies courses began in April 2019 under the supervision of former Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson. North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) curriculum developers published the first draft in December 2019. After an additional round of public input and revision, they presented the third and final draft standards to the State Board of Education for a vote at its June 2020 meeting.
Rather than approving the standards, a handful of board members railroaded the adoption process, asking DPI staff to infuse the standards with language that reflected their left-wing ideology. The board obliged and voted to give DPI staff additional time to revise the standards. They did so with input from newly elected State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, who unquestionably inherited a mess from her predecessor. State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis and Gov. Roy Cooper’s appointees to the board constitute a majority, and they enthusiastically supported the changes when the final vote occurred in February 2021. Plans are underway to begin implementing state social studies standards in the fall, although some members of the North Carolina General Assembly seek to delay implementation until 2022.
Stern and his team offer several sensible recommendations for improving North Carolina’s social studies standards. Overall, they recommend providing explicit guidance and improving the organization. For the civics and government standards specifically, they advise state education officials to increase high school content, align the fifth-grade civics content with the focus on U.S. history, use fourth- and eighth-grade courses to “explore the principle of equal protection,” and generally describe what students should know at each grade level. They recommend organizing the U.S. history standards into commonly used historical periods and specifying the essential historical content within those periods.
Unfortunately, I suspect that state education officials will refuse to pause the implementation process unless forced to do so by lawmakers. If compelled to delay implementation by a year, the State Board of Education and DPI staff should embrace the Fordham Institute recommendations and rethink a standards revision process that arguably produced some of the worst social studies standards in the nation.