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In state academic standards, world history gets lost in translation

A new report released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute finds that at a time of rapid globalization, most states don’t even try to provide young Americans with a solid grounding in world history.

Renowned historian and foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead, the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, conducted this first ever review of states’ academic standards for K-12 world history—the blueprints that outline what students are expected to know in a given subject. Fully two-thirds of states earn a “D” or an “F,” while only eight (California, Massachusetts, Virginia, Indiana, Georgia, New York, Minnesota, and South Carolina) earn an “A.” Complete state grades, in rank order, can be found in Table 1.

“At a time when the United States faces threats and competitors around the globe, and when our children’s future is more entangled than ever with world developments, our schools ought not treat world history so casually,” said Institute president Chester E. Finn, Jr. “Nations that once were little more than curiosities to most Americans have transformed themselves into places of vital interest and concern. No one can be considered adequately prepared for life in the 21st century unless they understand the history and culture of the world’s major civilizations. The National Geographic Society recently reported that students don’t think learning about the world is all that important. Sadly, state officials don’t seem to think so, either. It’s as if Americans were wearing blinders—and happy about it.”

Mead finds that only a handful of states require students to pass a world history test to graduate or get promoted to the next grade. Given educators’ preoccupation with subjects tested under the No Child Left Behind Act, this only increases the chances that world history will be “narrowed” out of the curriculum.

“A working knowledge of world history is socially, politically, economically, and culturally indispensable for young Americans,” said Mead. “The failure of public schools to teach world history amounts to denying equal opportunity to our most vulnerable populations. Millions of low-income and minority students are being denied basic cultural and economic rights.”

Several problems were ubiquitous in the standards of poorly performing states:

¨ Little or no historical content;

¨ Alternatively, so much content that teachers couldn’t possibly begin to cover it all;

¨ An excessive focus on modern European history and neglect of significant non-Western cultures in Latin America and Asia;

¨ Alternatively, an extreme multiculturalism that treats all nations and cultures as equally significant;

¨ Standards that are buried in the murky non-subject of “social studies.”

¨ Standards that provide students with no logical timeline, relying instead on trendy “themes” without regard to the story of history.

Bolivar Who?

Mead notes that states get their lowest marks for their coverage of Latin America. (See Tables 2 and 3 attached.) Only 9 states directly reference Simon Bolivar, perhaps the most well-known figure in Latin American history. And only 6 states make mention of famed explorer Hernando Cortez.

“At a time when we’re in the middle of a great national debate about how to assimilate the massive influx of immigrants from Latin America, it’s unconscionable that the states would consider a student well-educated without knowing much of anything about the history of this region,” said Mead. “Today’s students will be critical players in working out terms of accommodation and assimilation between Latin-American culture and Anglo-American culture. They desperately need a firm grounding in the history of our hemisphere.”

One Bright Spot: World History Exams

Mead also reviewed three major world history exams: the Advanced Placement (AP), the SAT II, and the New York Regents exam. In 2005, more than 64,000 students took the AP World History exam, and a stunning 220,000-plus took the New York Regents Exam in World History. (Some 15,000 took the SAT II World History test in 2004.) While the AP exam is the best, all three tests earned an “A” rating.

“National exams in world history can and should put pressure on the states to get their heads out of the sand and produce sound world history standards,” said Finn. “The number of young people taking these exams is soaring, and they deserve the chance to do well on them. States could go far toward improving their world-history standards if they modeled them on the syllabi of exams like these.”


States can take several actions to improve their world history standards, including:

¨ Follow the lead of high-scoring states, using the A-rated standards as a model;

¨ Emphasize the importance of world history by requiring students to pass a test in the subject to graduate, and/or hold schools accountable for their pupils’ performance in the subject; and

¨ Build the state’s high-school world history program around the excellent Advanced Placement syllabus in this subject.

Complete state and exam reviews, as well as the full text of the report, can be found at http://www.edexcellence.net. For more information about the report or its findings, please contact Jennifer Leischer, Communications Manager, at 202-223-5452 or via email at jleischer@edexcellence.net.

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  • Read entire article at Press Release -- Thomas B. Fordham Institute