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In 2021 the Fordham Institute released the state of state standards for civics and U.S. history. The report evaluated “the K–12 civics and U.S. History standards adopted by the fifty states and the District of Columbia based on the quality, completeness, and rigor of their content and the clarity of its presentation. Reviews were conducted by a bipartisan team of veteran educators and subject-matter experts with deep knowledge of civics and U.S. History.”

Iowa received a “D” in civics standards and an “F” in U.S. History standards.  According to the report, “Iowa’s current civics and U.S. History standards are inadequate. Vagueness and overbreadth lead to a dearth of specific content in both disciplines, and there is no discernible coverage of U.S. History at the K–8 level. A complete revision of the standards is recommended.”

How did we get here?

Social Studies was removed from the ACT test in 1989.  According to Prepscholar.com, “Social Studies was replaced with Reading. The Social Studies section had tested specific information about US History, whereas the new Reading section only tested pure reading ability and comprehension.”

Thirty years later, in 2019, Forbes.com ran an article titled “Math And Science Can’t Take Priority Over History And Civics.”

The author argued, “The number of hours in the school day is finite, and we need to consider what we’re giving up if we prioritize some subjects over others. There’s no way of knowing exactly what information any given student will need to draw on in the future, but it’s possible to predict the general kind of knowledge most Americans will need to participate successfully in society and lead fulfilling lives. And the question is whether an emphasis on STEM will provide that.”

The article goes on, “But while many are pushing for a greater focus on STEM, alarm is spreading over what some have characterized as a crisis in civics education. Scores on national tests in that subject, along with history and geography, are alarmingly low, with only about a quarter of students scoring at the proficient level. Teachers in low-performing high schools have told me their students are often unclear on the differences between a city and a state, or a country and a continent. They may think London is the capital of Paris or be unable to find the United States on a map of the world. Even college students can be stumped by questions like what country we won our independence from, or who won the Civil War. One survey found that more than a third of adults were unable to name any of the rights protected by the First Amendment and only a quarter could identify the three branches of government.”

Education data suggests that the lack of specific standards and a deemphasis on civics and history is having an alarmingly negative effect on students.

According to a December 2023 Economist/YouGov poll, 20% of 18-29 year-olds believe the Holocaust is a myth. 23% believe the Holocaust has been exaggerated.

The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, found only 22% of eighth graders scored at or above the NAEP Proficient level in civics.

Just 13% of eighth-grade students scored at or above the NAEP Proficient level in U.S. history.

In U.S. history, 40% of eighth graders performed below NAEP Basic, meaning they likely cannot identify simple historical concepts in primary or secondary sources.

In 2022, the average civics score at eighth grade decreased by 2 points compared to 2018. The average score in 2022 was not significantly different from 1998, the first year the assessment was given.

The Institute for Citizens & Scholars conducted a study in October 2018 and found only 13% of those surveyed knew that the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788.

More than half of respondents (60%) didn’t know which countries (Germany, Italy, Japan) the United States fought in World War II. 57% of those surveyed did not know how many Justices actually serve on the nation’s highest court.

A September 2023 national survey of 18-24 year-olds conducted by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars found that 21% did not know what rights the First Amendment guarantees.

Their research reveals a strong correlation between increased civic knowledge and engagement in American democracy:

  • 66% of those who score high on civic knowledge intend to vote in the next general election versus only 44% of those who score low on civic knowledge.
  • 51% of those who score high on civic knowledge state that their vote matters versus only 47% of those who score low on civic knowledge.
  • 80% of those who score high on civic knowledge plan to engage in at least one civic activity in 2024 versus only 64% of those who score low on civic knowledge.
  • 62% of those who score high on civic knowledge reject violence that suppresses opposition versus only 49% of those who score low on civic knowledge.

In 2019 the American Council of Trustees and Alumni commissioned a survey of Gen Z. Fewer than half of the college graduates surveyed could identify John Roberts as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. 15% selected Brett Kavanaugh.

These findings follow a 2015 survey of college graduates by the same organization that showed nearly 10% of college grads think Judith Sheindlin—commonly known as Judge Judy—is on the Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, the Education Committee approved HSB HF 2330 which directly and specifically addresses Iowa vague and overly broad civics and history standards. The bill institutes specific U.S. civics and history content standards. The specifics are widely recognized and accepted as vital to any civics and history coursework. For example, historical figures such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass are included along with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation. The basic principles and historical context of the United States’ form of government are emphasized. Concepts such as distribution of power among the three branches of government, the system of federalism and the rule of law are stressed. Key Supreme Court cases such as Marbury v. Madison, Dred Scott v. Sandford and Brown v. Board of Education are highlighted. Important Americans such as Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, Jim Thorpe, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Neil Armstrong are covered. In addition to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, primary source documents such as the Mayflower Compact, Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and the Gettysburg Address are included.

HF 2330 will be eligible for debate in the Iowa House next week.

Author: Taylor Collins


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