In February, the N.C. State Board of Education is expected to approve new academic standards for all public school social studies courses. The new standards represent an extreme departure from those approved in the past, and parents may begin to notice changes in their child’s social studies lessons as early as the next school year.
The current review of academic standards for the state’s K-12 social studies courses began in April 2019. Many expected the process of drafting, vetting, and revising the standards to be completed in one year. In fact, the State Board of Education was poised to approve new standards in June 2020. But the process was derailed when State Board of Education Principal Advisor Matthew Bristow-Smith, Teacher Advisor Mariah Morris, and board member James Ford opposed approval due to concerns about “inconsistencies on race and equality perspectives.”
Despite a proposal to add an introductory statement affirming the state’s commitment to diversity and equity, Bristow-Smith, Morris, and Ford called for sweeping changes. Ford echoed Bristow-Smith’s complaint that the standards did not contain “specific words and concepts,” particularly those related to the “rich and diverse history of marginalized groups and the representation of them.” Ford contended that “specificity and inclusiveness will help produce more socially conscious and empathetic future citizens to have a more perfect union.” A majority of the board relented, and its leadership instructed the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to incorporate suggestions from the three objectors.
DPI staff released revised standards the following December. In addition to being littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes, staff appeared simply to substitute references to “people” and “groups” with lists of those deemed marginalized or oppressed. Agency staff also recommended the inclusion of numerous new standards designed to focus on America’s sins. It is hard to imagine a more cynical and divisive collection of social studies standards.
Proponents of the change offered no empirical or anecdotal evidence that students lack an appreciation of marginalized groups or that teachers sought to suppress minority perspectives. But there is plenty of evidence that students lack a basic understanding of civics and U.S. history. There is a crisis in social studies in education in America, and these standards would do nothing to address it.
In April 2020, we were reminded of the appalling state of social studies education in the United States. That’s when we learned that only 15% of eighth-grade students were proficient on the 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress U.S. history test, a 3-percentage point drop from four years ago. And only around one in four students scored at or above proficient on the NAEP civics and geography tests administered in 2018. While state-level results are not available, there’s little reason to believe that North Carolina students would outperform national averages.
We should recognize the potential for divisiveness and ignorance to undermine our nation’s social and political foundations. In his 1991 book, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. worried the classification of all Americans according to ethnic and racial categories would lead to the kind of corrosive social fragmentation and separatism that makes the preservation of nationhood impossible.
“Unless a common purpose binds them together, tribal antagonisms will drive them apart. In this century darkly ahead, civilization faces a critical question: What is it that holds a nation together?”
America’s political, religious, and intellectual leaders formulated the “melting pot” ideal as a “brilliant solution for the inherent fragility, the inherent combustibility, of a multiethnic society,” Schlesinger observed. But it’s an ideal under assault in our public schools, the one place that taught generations of Americans about the things and ideas that bind them together and offer a perpetuating justification for the American experiment. Today, tribal antagonisms have led to violent confrontations in cities and towns across the nation, and there is no indication such conflicts will subside.
In the end, North Carolina’s revised social studies standards focus on what divides us, not what unites us. It typifies the kind of identity politics that many North Carolinians and Americans reject. Perhaps it’s time to adopt an aspirational vision for social studies education in our state. A 1952 bulletin published by NCDPI is a good place to start. “Social studies,” the authors write, “is the area of our school program that children re-discover the past and seek to understand and appreciate their heritage; un-ravel the present and seek to understand their world of people; and finally, live and work with others in an effort to make this a better world.”
Dr. Terry Stoops is director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation.