Wisconsin Earns ‘F’ In Civics, US History Standards

Teacher Says Focus On Skills, Themes Allow For More Critical Thinking, Varied Coursework

Empty halls as students work on laptops in a nearby classroom.
Empty halls as students work on laptops in a nearby classroom in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, which is one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students are participating in remote learning in this time of the new coronavirus from a school in Denver. David Zalubowski/AP Photo

With state legislatures and school boards seeing vitriolic debates about how — and whose — history is taught in schools, and political discourse growing ever more polarized, an education policy think tank delved into the roots of where Americans learn about their history and democracy: elementary and secondary schools.

In a new report, the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute graded states on their standards for teaching civics and United States history — and gave Wisconsin Fs in both.

According to the report, Wisconsin’s biggest flaws are that it does not specifically require U.S. history or civics courses in high school, instead saying students need three credits of social studies that include state and local government; and that it focuses on broad themes that need to be covered rather than mandating specific content — for example, that students must learn about the Civil War, or study the First Amendment.

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“There’s a tendency to shy away from spelling out exactly what kids need to know, and what they should be covering. It’s just easier to stick to generalities,” said David Griffith, a senior research and policy analyst at the Fordham Institute and a former civics teacher.

The report focuses on state-level standards, but individual districts often have more specific graduation requirements.

Matt Flynn, who’s taught history and civics at Beloit Memorial High School for 14 years, said the wording of Wisconsin’s standards doesn’t mean his students aren’t getting basic historical information, or that they’re walking out of classes without knowing how to think critically and have productive, thoughtful debates about current events.

Students in general are much more engaged with what’s going on because of social media — they at least have the baseline tweet to start the conversation, and then it’s our job as teachers to then expand on that and give them a little more context,” he said. “Politics is everywhere, and history is everywhere.”

Flynn, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. History, said content-specific standards are useful for that course, because it is geared toward a test and toward college credit that requires students to be familiar with specific facts and events.

“It wouldn’t work for just history in general,” he said. “We don’t have U.S. history standards, we have history standards … all of our history courses in general have to work within the same standards, because if you started to make U.S. history standards, then European history standards, then Asian history standards, it would just be ridiculous.”

Beloit schools offer history classes that focus on Latino studies, women’s history, African American studies and the history of the Holocaust, among others.

“You have the freedom to hit the standards with the content that you feel best addresses the standard,” Flynn said.

That often includes current events.

Flynn, like other teachers in Wisconsin, talked to his students about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in different ways depending on how it tied into the material they were learning.

“I had a government class, and talked with them about the insurrection through a kind of Constitutional lens and First Amendment-type rights and where those rights end,” he said. “Then in my AP U.S. history class, I talked about it more from the historical aspect, through different stages, whether it was the War of 1812 or the American Civil War.”

Griffith said current events are like “rocket fuel” for students, and teachers should work to incorporate them into classrooms.

“Once you’ve studied how the legislative or executive branch works, actually applying that knowledge to the things you’ve seen in the news … I think it’s absolutely essential to connect the material to current issues and events,” he said.

Griffith said the goal of the report is to “nudge states to do a better job” setting standards and clarifying what facts students need to know to guard against, for example, nearly half of Americans not being able to name all three branches of government. It’s not meant to grade how teachers in the state are doing.

“Teachers in states with bad standards can do an excellent job, there’s no law against it, and conversely, there’s no guarantee that having some standards is going to lead to strong instruction,” he said.

In its analysis of Wisconsin civics standards, the Fordham Institute says most standards are too broad and vague to be useful, that breadth and vagueness means most “essential” content is never mentioned, and there’s no attempt to assign content to specific grade levels or classes. Wisconsin history standards, according to the institute, also don’t assign specific content to specific grade levels, don’t have a discernable scope or sequence, and don’t make the priorities clear for what teachers should focus on.

Griffith said the analysis of state-level standards grew out of mounting concern that Americans are in a bad place, politically and civically, and that one way to address the problem is to make sure students develop the necessary skills and knowledge to better engage with political issues, so that five or 10 years down the road, those former students have the tools to discuss history and current events in context.

“It’s so obvious that we’re in a bad place,” Griffith said “It’s so obvious that the level of polarization and disunion that we’re seeing is not healthy, that really there’s a growing movement to do something about it.”

For Flynn, it’s the flexibility built into Wisconsin’s standards that lets him pose questions and bring up topics that develop students’ critical thinking and research skills.

“A lot of the questions that I pose in my U.S. history course are open-ended, and then we look at sources so that students can come to either conclusion,” he said. “A lot of it is to make students understand that every single issue has two sides.”

Flynn said within the classroom, at least, students can engage in civil discussion and have reasonable conversations about current events and hot-button issues. He’s seen the vitriolic arguments on social media, but said that’s partially a reflection of so much isolation over the past 15 months, and partially a product of the way online discussions can metastasize in a way that’s harder to do in real life.

“On day three of my senior-level government class we’re talking about abortion, poverty, minimum wage, guns — any issues that you’re not supposed to talk about in public, and 18-year-olds can handle it,” he said. “Now, obviously, if it was, let’s go into a Reddit subgroup and talk about it, it would be a dumpster fire.”

In the Fordham Institute’s analysis, four states and Washington, D.C. earned “exemplary” grades on civics and U.S. history standards; 10 were adequate; 15 were mediocre; and 20, including Wisconsin, were rated “inadequate” in both U.S. history and civics. Of Wisconsin’s neighbors, Iowa and Illinois were similarly rated inadequate, while Michigan and Minnesota both earned good marks.