In 2020, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction will complete a review and revision of academic standards for the state’s K-12 social studies courses. DPI standards and curriculum staff have asked for feedback on the first draft of proposed revisions released in December. They anticipate a minimum of three drafts would be subject to a public review and feedback cycle before a final draft is presented to the State Board of Education for approval in April or May. 

The new standards will need to incorporate revisions to high school social studies requirements signed into law last July. When Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 924, North Carolina became the 20th state to require students to complete a full-year economics and financial literacy course to graduate from high school. The legislation will necessitate changes to the structure and sequence of social studies courses currently offered to high school students. To make room for the new economics and financial literacy course, American History I and II will become a single-year course. Naturally, this limits the scope of what can be taught. As such, it also raises the stakes for the revision of academic standards for the new course. 

Indeed, DPI recommends the new American history course forgo the entire colonial era. The standards start at the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763 and continue through the most recent presidential election. European exploration and colonization are covered at various times in elementary and middle school but would receive minimal attention in high school if the State Board of Education adopts the current proposal. 

The four-page proposed academic standards for the revised American history course doesn’t include specific course content. There are no lists of events, people, and concepts that students are expected to know. Those details will be added after the final draft of the standards are approved. Instead, the draft standards outline major themes that underlie the American history course and will be used to inform the development of curriculum, instruction, and assessments. 

The draft standards are divided into behavioral sciences, civics and government, economics, geography, and history sections, and appear to address four main themes: conflict, power, identity, and change. Overall, the standards reflect an interpretation of American history that is imbued with cynicism about the American experiment. While inaccuracies, myths, and injustices warrant acknowledgment and correction, I believe the standards in their current form represent an overcorrection. 

In the civics and government section of the standards, students are expected to understand the American political system through both internal and external conflicts, although some of the standards are more successful than others. For example, students are asked to “critique the extent to which the federal government, state governments, and community organizations effectively used power to expand freedom and equality.” Perhaps that standard should be reworded to reflect the fact federal and state governments use power to restrict freedom and equality. 

The economics section asks students to “deconstruct multiple perspectives of American capitalism in terms of the relationship between entrepreneurship, management, and labor.” It is worth asking which multiple perspectives would be included and how those perspectives would be represented. Likewise, the expectation students know the “monetary, fiscal and regulatory policies of the federal government in terms of their origins and impacts on various social classes” is unusual in that it is the only mention of “social classes” in the draft. 

In the behavioral sciences section, students would be required to “critique the idea of American exceptionalism in terms of its impact on American identity,” a standard that appears to preclude the idea the American experience is inherently special and even worthy of replication and admiration. As historian Allen Guelzo points out, “To discount American exceptionalism is to suggest that the American political order itself was only a figment of one nation’s imagination, at one time.” Guelzo argues that without American exceptionalism, the fight for power, rather than the adherence to principles and ideals, becomes the basis for the American political system. 

The behavioral sciences standards also would require students to “critique the concept of the ‘American Dream’ in terms of perspective, perception, and inclusion.” There is merit to considering different interpretations of the American Dream, so long as the concept itself is not dismissed as anachronistic or universally detrimental. Instead, it should be informed by the thoughtful opinions and critical appraisals produced by generations of Americans. 

Fortunately, the Department of Public Instruction is asking for input on draft history standards for all grades and presentation of the final draft is months away. Perhaps subsequent revisions of the American history standards will strike a balance between honesty and optimism. 

Dr. Terry Stoops is vice president of Research and director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation.