Earlier this month, Illinois became the first state in the country to require classes in Asian-American history at the K-12 level. This is an important and long overdue milestone. It’s a bit ironic in context, however.
A report we from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute just released back in June assesses the K-12 citizenship and US history standards of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. These standards are the roadmaps schools and districts use when choosing more detailed curricula, so getting them right is important. However, our cross-party team of seasoned educators and subject matter experts has given “exemplary” ratings to only five jurisdictions. A wretched 20 states were considered “inadequate”.
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Unfortunately, Illinois also belongs to the latter group, and therein lies the irony. As our reviewers note, Centennial State civic standards “occupy only two pages and contain only four proper names,” while US historical standards are “almost non-existent.” For example, one sadly representative fifth grade standard asks students to “explain likely causes and effects of events and developments in US history” – which covers pretty much everything.
In other words, it’s great that Illinois now requires Asian American history, but it would be even better if it also requires Black History, Latino and Native American History, and the rest of US history, which is essential knowledge for everyone is a student.
As we recommend in our report, state education officials must start over to create the academic guidelines that students and teachers in Illinois deserve. While at it, they should also reconsider their expectations for older children, specifically requiring high school students to take at least a year of US history and a semester of civics, as most states do. Otherwise, both teachers and students may find that there isn’t enough space to do justice to Asian-American history – or the history of another group.
While it’s not as sexy a topic as critical racial theory (or whatever we’re arguing about), the lack of basic knowledge expectations in citizenship and US history is one of the main reasons for the ragged state of citizenship and history education in the US in many places, the self is an important part of our nation’s larger citizenship crisis. Only half of American adults can name the three branches of government, and only 60% know when the US declared independence.
If this is the adult example, what are the chances that young Illinoisans, for example, understand the concept of equal protection since neither Brown v. Board of Education should the 14th Amendment be mentioned in the current social study standards of the state? And how meaningful can a conversation about race be in the US if students haven’t been introduced to such basic content?
Symbolic gestures are nice, but they do not replace sensible politics and concrete guidance, both of which are difficult to come by in the field of social studies. Since our constitutional democracy appears to be failing because of the ignorance of the citizens, there is no good reason to hesitate.
Illinois, it’s time to try again. Your students are counting on you.
Michael J. Petrilli, President
David Griffith, Senior Research and Policy Associate
Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Honor for the property tax reform
David Orr is correct in his recent commentary on Karen Yarbrough’s preeminent position in real estate tax reform. It was and is part of the problem. Whoever pulls the strings at this puppet show is probably none other than Cook County CEO Toni Preckwinkle. The commissioners must examine which elected offices could be merged and which offices should be dropped.
They need to start looking out for the taxpayers paying their salaries and stop cramming their patronage armies. Start cutting at the top.
Gerald Bernson, Tinley Park