Why Look at State Content Standards?

The United States stands alone among economically developed democracies in its lack of national curricular standards, let alone a common core curriculum. States take responsibility to develop standards and curricular frameworks that establish expectations for teaching and learning. In recent years, states have joined with the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers to develop and promote the adoption of Common Core State Standards in English language arts and math. These standards have now been adopted in 43 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In adopting the Common Core Standards, governors and state education officers underscored the important role that well-defined standards play in setting high expectations. Speaking about the new standards in English and math, Steve Paine, West Virginia State Superintendent of Schools, noted that the standards “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents have a roadmap for what they need to do to help them.”

Such support and consensus is not likely to happen for history, however. While 18 states and more than a dozen professional organizations are currently involved in a process to develop some common approaches to social studies, those efforts have yet to bear fruit.17 Development and adoption of any common state standards for social studies promises to be challenging and complicated by the inevitable politic debates. After the battles of the mid- 1990s to achieve national standards, few believe that a rigorous set of national history standards is anywhere on the horizon.

Because there is no national set of core standards, the only way to measure the nature of our common expectations about student knowledge of the civil rights movement is to look at state standards and frameworks. These documents have substantial practical and symbolic value.

As a practical matter, these state standards may be reflected in testing and accountability mechanisms as well as in instructional materials, teacher training, and professional development and textbooks (particularly in larger markets like Texas and California, whose decisions traditionally shape textbooks sold in smaller markets all over the country).18

Symbolically, a state’s standards and curricular frameworks make a strong statement about the shared common knowledge considered essential for residents of that state. Just as teachers set expectations for their students, states set expectations for their education system—their largest expenditure as well as their best investment in future prosperity.

But as much as state standards tell us, they leave many important questions unanswered. Even if we agree with the proposition that state content standards dictate what teachers teach (a hypothesis with limited empirical support), the present analysis leaves us to guess at how the civil rights movement is taught. Some states give glimmers of guidance, particularly in their supporting documents; their model lesson plans suggest tactics such as reading primary source documents, engaging in role-play or interviewing community members. We would be remiss, however, to take these recommendations as anything other than well-meant advice.

Realistically, when we examine state standards we learn only what states expect students to learn. Standards are not necessarily followed. We simply do not know what students are learning about the civil rights movement. If education were a machine that dispensed comprehension as expectations mandate, we would not see near-daily reports of the “education in crisis” variety. Even if we were to see detailed state standards covering the civil rights movement (and the Fordham report shows that even those states with otherwise detailed standards tend to shortchange those for events after World War II), these frameworks are not meaningful without testing and accountability—all too often lacking in history assessment, in particular.

Despite these limitations, this report examines state content standards and curriculum frameworks because those documents represent the expectations that states set for their students. If there is any single finding that has held true in educational research over the last 100 years, it is that high expectations are necessary for high achievement. When states say that an essential event like the civil rights movement is not essential content, or must only be studied in a superficial manner, why would we expect students—or teachers—to draw different conclusions?

17 Catherine Gewertz, “Social Studies Fresh Frontier for Standards,” Education Week, May 25, 2011.
18 Trends toward greater use of standards-based high school exit exams and end-of-course exams are increasing the practical importance of state standards in classrooms across the country. Center on Education Policy, State High School Tests: Exit Exams and Other Assessments (Washington, D.C.: Center on Education Policy, 2010). http://www.cep-dc.org/index. cfm?DocumentTopicID=7.