News: Quick Takes

Truitt: New analysis shows weaknesses in state’s social studies standards

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt. (CJ photo by Maya Reagan)
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt. (CJ photo by Maya Reagan)

A new report from the Fordham Institute argues that North Carolina’s controversial social studies standards flunk the test on history and civics, ranking worst in the Southeast. 

In an interview with Carolina Journal, N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt emphasized the Fordham report shows the structural weaknesses of the new standards and should throw up a cautionary flag for education policymakers.

“Our standards are so overbroad, so vague, and so absent of chronology as a historical concept that they are all but useless to educators,” Truitt told CJ.

Truitt said Fordham’s report does not wade into the politics behind the standards — it solely focuses on more structural factors, such as quality and usability.

“I felt like the standards were not well written,” Truitt said. “I felt like they were not grounded in the discipline of history. They lack specificity. They are scattered organizationally. And those things combine to form a set of standards that are challenging for teachers to understand and devoid of historical context.”

The Fordham Institute ranked N.C.’s U.S. history standards an “F” and civics a “D-minus.”

“North Carolina’s new civics and U.S. History standards are inadequate,” writes Fordham researchers. “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.”

The report lists numerous examples. For instance, the authors argue that objectives for second grade are “vague and, in some cases, too sophisticated for the age range,” such as suggesting that students “summarize the role of government in protecting freedom and equality of individuals in America.”

The process of rewriting the social studies standards began in 2019 under then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson. They were presented to the State Board of Education three times before Truitt took office in January 2021.

The Democrat-run board gave final approval to the revised social studies standards in February for implementation for the 2021-22 school year. Republicans — including Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the first black man to hold that office in North Carolina — have called the new standards “politically charged” and “divisive.”

GOP board members were able to tone down some of the more controversial language in the standards, such as switching “systemic racism” to “racism” and “gender identity” to “identity.”

Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, said Truitt “unquestionably inherited a mess from her predecessor,” Mark Johnson.

“Unfortunately, I suspect that state education officials will refuse to pause the implementation process unless forced to do so by lawmakers,” said Stoops, referring to a plan by the General Assembly to delay implementation of the new social studies standards. “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.”

“The way forward will depend primarily on the state board — if it determines that there is enough merit in this report to decide to revisit these standards,” said Truitt.