The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently issued a report that grades every state based on the quality of the social studies standards teachers are supposed to use to guide instruction in K-12 schools. Sadly, Kentucky’s social studies standards earned a “C,” with significant revisions strongly recommended.
Fordham rated each state’s standards in two areas: civics and history, identifying strengths and weaknesses in both domains. For both areas, Kentucky earned a C.
In terms of civics, reviewers found that many of Kentucky’s civics standards were too vaguely written to provide useful guidance to teachers, especially at the high school level, and that the coverage of critical topics like the Bill of Rights, the electoral process, and federalism were “inexplicably cursory.” In other words, it was astounding to the reviewers how little Kentucky’s standards expected students to learn about these crucial topics.
Kentucky’s history standards suffered in many of the same ways. Fordham found that content coverage in the history standards was “erratic” because the standards place an excessive focus on skills without giving students adequate, factual background knowledge about history. The history standards were also criticized for their overly thematic organization, which undermines students’ sense of a clear historical sequence of the past.
Fordham’s reviewers recommended that Kentucky’s standards be significantly revised to offer much more specific guidance to teachers, especially at the high school level. Fordham suggests Kentucky’s standards should provide more detail about the powers, organization, and functions of the three branches of government, the Bill of Rights, elections, and federalism. Historical content should be organized chronologically, and students deserve a full introduction to U.S. history at the elementary level.
These findings from the Fordham report line up exactly with my own concerns about Kentucky’s social studies standards. I’ve written previously about how Kentucky’s standards are unhelpfully vague and light on content, and how this opens the door for all manner of problems, and not just to students not knowing enough about our nation’s history.
This is a topic that is especially personal to me, both because I started my career as a middle school social studies teacher and because I served on the Kentucky Board of Education from 2016-2019 and chaired the board’s Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Committee that was responsible for reviewing and approving the standards. I provided extensive feedback on these standards and helped shepherd them through the approval process. In fact, the Kentucky Council for the Social Studies recognized me in 2019 with an award for my efforts to get these social studies standards approved.
So why do I now feel like the Fordham Institute may have been too generous in giving these standards a grade of “C?”