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JOHN HOOD COLUMN: State blows it on history

If the primary purpose of public education was to prepare young people for jobs, its entitlement to taxpayer support would be far weaker.

John Hood

I don’t say that because preparing young people for employment is unimportant. It is of great importance. Precisely because effective education and training would boost the future incomes of students, however, private money would flow into the enterprise — from parents, future employers and (in later grades) the students themselves. They’d all get direct economic returns on their investments.

Governments would subsidize the schooling of the poor, to be sure, as a kind of safety net. But that wouldn’t necessarily lead to universal provision or subsidy of public education. Its primary purpose is really about culture, not economics. It is to produce future citizens who are inclined to self-government, and capable of it.

When voting or otherwise participating in representative government, citizens should possess enough general knowledge to ask informed questions and cast informed ballots. And when engaged in direct democracy — voting on ballot referenda, for example, or attending a town meeting — an informed citizenry is even more critical. “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people,” Thomas Jefferson famously wrote. “They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

Educating young people for citizenship means imparting a broad knowledge of diverse subjects. They should be able to read and consider news and information. They should possess a working grasp of math and science. And perhaps most importantly, they should know their country’s history and understand the civic institutions in which they will participate.

Alas, when it comes to history and civics education, North Carolina seems determined to blow it. As my John Locke Foundation colleague Terry Stoops recently explained, state officials began a revision of North Carolina’s social-studies standards in 2019. Over the next year, the process devolved into a politicized mess, producing standards that are heavy on leftist nomenclature and light on specificity, rigor and balance.

A national group called the Thomas B. Fordham Institute noticed. In a newly released report evaluating history and civics standards across all 50 states, Fordham placed North Carolina near the bottom of the list, with a D- for our new civics standards and an F in history.

“North Carolina’s new civics and U.S. History standards are inadequate,” the report states. “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.”

Naturally, defenders of North Carolina’s new standards will cry foul, given the Fordham Institute’s past advocacy of standards-based reform and school choice. This is not about partisan politics or disagreements about education policy, however. Here are the five states Fordham put at the top of its list: Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Tennessee and New York. There’s no “red state vs. blue state” pattern here, just as there is no such pattern among the 10 receiving F-grades in both categories.

Although North Carolina just missed dropping into that bottom tier, it has the worst history and civics standards in the Southeast. Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Florida, South Carolina and Mississippi all got “exemplary” or “good” ratings.

How can state policymakers rectify this mistake? Stoops urges an immediate halt to the implementation of North Carolina’s new standards pending a complete rewrite. The Fordham Institute team has offered specific recommendations to improve the standards. In civics, for example, the state should lay out in detail what students should learn about such essential topics as the separation of powers, judicial review, the rule of law and the electoral process. Fordham also offered thoughtful ways of aligning the civics and history standards with each other.

North Carolina should “articulate what students should know instead of asking them to ‘exemplify,’ ‘critique,’ ‘distinguish,’ ‘differentiate,’ ‘compare,’ ‘assess’ or ‘classify’ massive bodies of unspecified content that cannot or should not be handled in those ways,” the report concludes.

In this case, where Tennessee and California lead, North Carolina should follow.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member and author.