In Pursuit of a "Civic Core"

A Report on State Standards

Alexis de Tocqueville gave us a tall order a century and a half ago. He opened Democracy in America with his plea to American and French leaders alike: "First among the duties that are at this time imposed on those who direct our affairs is to educate democracy." He saw, as we now and then grasp, that democracy is a delicate political invention ever exposed to sickness and death from numberless toxins generated by the lower impulses of our human nature. As educators, our job is to draw off the particular toxin of political illiteracy that invites demagoguery, fanaticism, and impulsive leaders with well-meant, simple-minded answers.

But how to make good on this tall order? The task is so great and school time necessarily so limited. With the advent of the academic standards movement, it has been the job of standards writers in our 50 states to attempt good answers to this vital question. How are the states doing in this effort?

Last year, the Albert Shanker Institute launched a study of state standards for secondary history/social studies to evaluate their worth for educating democratic citizens. This article offers a brief look at some of the key findings. Do these standards adequately convey and articulate the most important ideas that our students must know if we are to transmit our democratic inheritance to them? The report's findings were mixed, as the chart demonstrates (see "Civic Core: State Standards at a Glance" chart here). But two major failings of the standards were clear. Not one of the 48 states (Iowa and Rhode Island allow local choice), nor the District of Columbia or Defense Department school system, wrote a document that had both a clear focus on civic/political education and was teachable in the limited time schools have to teach. Thus, the essential finding of this study: State standards have yet to articulate what can reasonably be called a "civic core." To be civic, the core must include a focus on government, political history, and the aspects of economics and geography that have shaped political choice and institutions, with significant human consequences. To deserve the word "core," it must leave ample room in each school year for other aspects of history and social studies.*

This solution is familiar in other countries, where national standards set limited cores of common study and leave substantial time for local community, school, and teacher choice. To apply this to the American scene could finally end the exhausting quarrels over "perfect" standards that mention every thing, every one, and every cause—but in the end, discredit the very idea of common standards in many states because they are so unteachable and certainly not testable in a fair and useful way.

The third requirement for a true civic core is, of course, that it be "core"—that is, required for all students, regardless of background, school track, or likely future employment. A body of common learning for all? Yes, most surely for preparing citizens. Education for work or for private, personal cultivation may take many forms, shaped by the plans and preferences of students, their families, and their communities. The objection that common learning is wrong and oppressive in a diverse society does not hold. Quite the contrary. The more diverse the society, the more all of its citizens need a common body of knowledge giving them the power to debate each other as equals on their society's ends and means, regardless of their class, race, religion, work, or personal and family culture. A common political heritage frees us to differ from one another, and at the same time impels us to accept differences and live together in peace and liberty, with equal civil rights. History tells us that diversity is never safe, and rarely survives, except in a stable democratic society. A common civic core of learning is the first step to that society.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville cites three things citizens must learn. First, how politics works, by taking part in local and wider civic affairs, from jury duty to national elections. Second, how political ideas and choice worked in the past, by reading history. Third, the virtues citizens need, by reflecting on religion, ethics, and biography.

All this runs deeper than conventional civics training in school and community service outside. True, we need to know how government is supposed to work and how to help the needy in our communities. But we need much more: the sensible judgment gained from seeing what happened to real people in the past, what they tried to do about it, and what happened next. And, as Tocqueville insisted, the moral stamina to take responsible action in tough times when it would be safer to look the other way. What then should be in the civic core, how do state standards stack up to this tall order, and what are the obstacles in the way of doing an even better job?

I. What Should Be in a Civic Core?

Political education, of course, requires mastery of the fundamentals of civics—the principles and workings of federal, state, and local government, of the law and court systems, the rights and duties of citizens, and how the United States Constitution and its resulting institutions and practices are like and unlike those of other societies. But to sustain the principles, institutions, and practices of democracy, citizens need to understand why and how they came into being, the conditions that allowed them to be established, as well as the ideas and forces that have been supportive or destructive of them over time. What, then, should citizens know of United States and world history?

A Civic Core for the Secondary Grades: Vital Topics
Essential topics fall into two categories: those revealing dangers to democracy, and those teaching its foundations and sources of support. Neither can be taught in general, but should draw upon well-selected, true stories of men and women caught up in the suspense-filled, unending drama of democracy's adventure. To engage students, the core should highlight the episodes that capture unforgettably the conditions, impulses, and actions that have proven toxic to democracy (or to any society seeking a measure of decency). Among them are plutocracy and poverty, with their ensuing class fears and hatreds; slavery of any degree; exploitation, corruption, or the evasion of public service and taxes by the privileged; inflation or depression, both ruinous to the middle classes; ethnic, racial, and religious fanaticism; militarism and the appetite for empire; secret government; the malign effects of both victory and defeat in war; waste of resources; mass escapism in hard times; prominent evidence of cultural or moral decay; ill-prepared and impulsive leaders; imbalance of power groups within society; a subdued press; rigged elections; demagoguery and the political illiteracy it feeds upon.

Among such topics would be the self-imposed ruin and disappearance of Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic; the corruption and decline of the Roman Empire; Cromwell's dictatorship in 17th-century England; the failure of French liberal regimes in the 1790s and 1848; the United States' civil war in the 1860s; the crushing of Russia's reformist provisional government by the Bolsheviks in 1917; the Weimar Republic's collapse under Nazi assault in 1933, opening the way to World War II and the Holocaust; the failure of semi-paralyzed Western democracies to build collective security to halt aggression in the 1930s. These and other episodes are stories Americans need. Each has its own mix of toxins. But students should also see that, except for 1917 Russia, all happened in societies advanced for their time, not so hobbled as are new nations now struggling for democracy. Of them, England, France, and the United States had high literacy rates, ample resources, political and administrative experience, and relative security from outside enemies. Yet the average delay between the onset of revolution and final settlement was nearly 90 years: in England, 1603 to 1689; in France, 1789 to 1875; and in the U.S., 1775 to 1865, after a civil war that caused more death and havoc than all the European 19th-century revolutions combined.

On the other hand, and constantly interspersed, must be the ideas, people, conditions, and actions that nourished democracy and won its survival. First among them are the teachings of the major world religions and ethical systems: human dignity and equality; free will and the responsibility of the individual; fair dealing; charity; fortitude; the obligation to ameliorate earthly life now and for posterity. Then they must learn the origins and evolution of political democracy; the political ideas and innovations of Athenian democracy and Roman republicanism; the feudal balance of armed power among king, nobles, and clergy necessary to contracts such as the Magna Carta and to parliaments limiting royal power; the forces of geography, economics, personality, and tradition behind Parliament's victory in England's 17th-century revolution.

From the 18th century, there is the rarely cited mixture of religious principles and Enlightenment reason that animated American and French revolutionary leaders; the personalities and favorable conditions that helped the American colonies win their war for independence and allowed the new federal government to establish itself on the basis of the Constitution. In the 19th century, there are the early achievements of several British and European reform movements in adapting Enlightenment ideas to the surging economic and social changes of the Industrial Revolution; the emergence in several Western societies of the three countervailing powers of business, labor, and representative government; the advances in science, technology, medicine and surgery, sanitation, housing and diet, and free public education that stirred optimism in the Western world before 1914. In the 20th century, there are the resources and leadership that helped Western democracies to overcome the corrosive effects of the Great Depression and to beat back totalitarian assaults. Overall the civic core needs to make clear that democracy's birth, growth, and survival have demanded great patience, vision, courage, sacrifice, brainwork, and some luck. These initial topics are further fleshed out in the full Shanker Institute report.

II. What Is in the State Standards?

A. Identifying Strong Standards

Having put forward the main ideas and content that should be included in a civic core—and having considered key problems—we turn to the technical questions: How is all this best translated into standards? And how are the states faring in this important work?

What are the "standards" or "essentials" and what are not? In civics, economics, geography, and history, they are best conceived as specific topics. They are the ideas, forces or conditions, persons or places, stories, institutions, or turning-points that are significant to—and explanations of—larger, continuing themes. They are not textbook chapter headings, abstract concepts, or wholesome attitudes to be memorized. Nor do they fall to small detail. An "essential" may ask students to grasp the causes of World War II, with an eye to Axis aggression, to its leaders, to the political, geographical, economic, and ideological forces bringing them to power, together with Western passivity and the memories and conditions behind it. On one hand, they do not ask students to "analyze the character of 20th-century conflict." On the other, they do not ask them to recall every episode or player—though teachers may use such detail to open an essential topic with lively stories. Writers of standards (and tests—and they probably should be the same people) must ask themselves the question teachers, students, and parents will ask: "So what?" When a standard cannot be explained to the young, to teachers, or to an educated public, it is either too vague or too mired in detail.

B. State Standards Compared

For this report, we reviewed official state standards and framework documents listing the middle- and high-school topics and skills to be studied in social studies, civics, economics, geography, and history. All documents were evaluated according to five criteria.

These pages briefly sum up the criteria used for judgment and indicate how the states fared. Under each criterion, states are grouped at three levels: Largely Met, Partially Met, and Not Met.

Criterion #1, Content for a Civic Core, Specified Clearly: Do they contain the most important topics in specific terms, not merely implied by general headings, from civics, economics, geography, and U.S. and world history to create a common core of learning about democracy for the political education of citizens?

Group One. Largely Met: Thirteen standards documents carry all or nearly all critical topics, mostly in clear English and presented as essentials needing to be touched upon, not merely as examples or suggestions. Among these, Arizona is typical of many states. Its civics and U.S. history items are fuller and more specific, and thus more helpful to teachers in designing their courses, than those for world history. The same imbalance is true of most states, including others of the 12 "largely met" states and states having insufficient, or almost no, specific topics.

Group Two. Partially Met: Thirteen have a fair number of ostensibly required topics, but not enough to build adequate civic cores. Some, including Colorado, leave many important topics to lists of optional examples or activities. Others, including Nevada and South Dakota, have numerous civics and U.S. history topics, but are nearly empty of world history items. A good many, including Delaware and New Hampshire, have general headings much like textbook tables of contents or chapter titles, most of them too broad—especially in world history—and lacking chosen particulars to help teachers open their study.

Group Three. Not Met: The remaining documents contain none or nearly none of the needed topics. Many, but not all, of these build upon the 1994 standards of the National Council for the Social Studies. Common in them are sweeping topics or "benchmarks" that would require numberless topics and weeks to study. In Wyoming, for example, one of only four benchmarks for 11th-grade history (called "Time, Continuity, and Change") asks students to "explain how history, governments, cultures, and economics have contributed to the interpretation of the past and present, and assist in planning for the future." Minnesota asks students to know "the significance of key people, events, places, concepts, and themes in the historical development of one or more world cultures by: a survey of world history including early civilizations, classical traditions, major empires, institutions; expansions of trade and encounter; intensified hemispheric interactions; the first global age; the age of revolutions; and the 20th century; or a comprehensive, in-depth focus on a single culture, nation, movement, or time period."

Criterion #2, Teachability: Can the required or suggested topics be taught, in effective ways, within the fewer than 180 days that typically are available for classroom instruction each year?

Not Met: To date, none of the sets of standards reviewed satisfies this criterion. In no detailed document are the topics listed for history, economics, and geography teachable in any but hurried, superficial ways in the school time available. In nonspecific documents, as already noted, the many unnamed topics needed to explore their broad questions would also overflow the teaching hours at hand. As in the case of the national civics standards, civics topics are a partial exception. In state documents, they tend to be less pretentious and the least vague. And it helps that many of their salient points can be taught in the context of U.S. and world history, provided these courses are segmented by era across the grades to allow for sufficient instructional time. One-year surveys will necessarily desiccate all of the four central subjects.

World history is a serious problem. Even when dividing it across grades, states try to squeeze too much into one year of high school. The Alabama standards, which come closest to satisfying all criteria, begin at c. 1500, as do the documents from Arizona, Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and others. Five-century sweeps do not allow close teaching of core civics topics in world and Western history, and they make almost certain that the high school course will not come close to present times. Starting with 18th-century Enlightenment ideas and the American and French Revolutions is difficult enough, as Mississippi and California are finding. Worst, of course, are states that claim to cover all of world history since human origins in only one year.

Criterion #3, Scope and Sequence: Do the standards mandate or suggest an order and scope for courses across the middle- and high-school grades by which to convey a civic core?

Group One. Largely Met: Fourteen standards set a specific grade-by-grade sequence; seven others do so for middle school (usually grades five through eight), but not for high school. Of these states, most test achievement at the end of various grade clusters, though there is a trend toward end-of-course tests, particularly at the high school level where scores may wholly or partly determine students' eligibility for graduation.

Group Two. Partially Met: Nineteen states vaguely suggest a sequence or arrange their topics into grade clusters, such as kindergarten to fourth grade, grades five through eight, and grades nine through twelve.

Group Three. Not Met: Ten states set no clear sequence for teaching the content of standards. Many of these states, however, do indicate that early U.S. history (usually to 1877) and early world history (the end date varies) belong in middle school, with later eras to be taught in high school.

Criterion #4, Courses Required: Are the courses carrying the essential content for a civic core required of all students, not just those on a college track, ensuring an equal opportunity to learn?

Unclear: Whether or not their standards include essential content, states are hard to pin down on what is or is not a requirement. Very few plainly say that their schools are required to teach, and all students required to study, the specific content listed. More candor is needed here. Most states avoid the "requirement" word, but already do, or plan to do, statewide testing, while still claiming to honor local control of what is taught. The evasive documents do not help; testing is the only, but far from dependable, guide to what is required. States vary, and often change, policies on testing students in vocational schools, charter schools, or private schools. They vary and waver on whether their tests determine promotion or graduation. Some with respectable standards then leave certain courses optional, or untested, even at the high school level, such as world history in Indiana, Massachusetts, and Texas. On the critical matter of requirements—at the heart of equal opportunity to learn—the picture is almost too fuzzy to apply the terms Largely Met, Partially Met, and Not Met. And many states do not yet test high school social studies.

Criterion #5, Context and Connections: Are the facts, ideas, and significant questions from civics, economics, geography, and history explicitly linked, when appropriate, so that students can grasp the many forces affecting political debates and decisions, thus making clear the complexity of human life and politics?

Group One. Largely Met: Only eight state documents consistently connect the four main subjects.

Group Two. Partially Met: Nine other states make explicit connections part of the time. Links are usually between civics and history on major political topics: Athens's democracy; Rome's Republic and Empire; the English, American, and French Revolutions; the Civil War and Reconstruction; the New Deal; 20th-century totalitarianism.

Group Three. Not Met: The rest scatter content into strands or "themes" (under which one might expect, but rarely finds, intersubject connections). The strands often repeat each other's topics in different words. Many states waste the sixth and seventh grades by dividing them into all geography and all history, or into Eastern and Western hemisphere "cultures" courses. In both cases, the historical narrative is weak—often forcing a yearlong world history course in high school to be overloaded with topics that could be treated in middle school with two years of integrated history and geography courses divided into two eras.

Problems of overload and disconnect are worsened by state documents that pile needless additional strands onto the basic four. Some cut religion and ethics, racial and ethnic groups, immigration, even rural and urban affairs, away from the four strands' basic disciplines, creating separate bundles called "culture" or "culture and diversity" or "individuals and institutions," as though these could be studied apart from the rest of human life and change. Isolation dilutes all subjects. Interactions among the many spheres of life are critical to student engagement. It makes little sense, for example, for a "global connections" strand to be cut apart from history, geography, economics, and politics. Or for Hawaii's "cultural anthropology" strand, with topics and language appropriate for a university major's courses, to be imposed on middle- or high-school students who have little prior knowledge of geography, economics, or social, political, cultural, and intellectual history—not to speak of arts and letters.

III. Recurrent Issues in State Standards

The Place of World History
Our review shows clearly that the greatest weakness of state standards is in world history. Civics and U.S. history fare better. Both have long been required, and taught by most social studies teachers; they are familiar to teachers and administrators from their own years in school. Newspapers and television often allude to American history and politics. Civics courses stress well-known documents, the workings of government, and public issues. U.S. history is the story of half a continent over only 500 years, and all states give it at least two years of study, some three.

World history, including Western civilization, is different. It was not much required until recently. Before 1990, probably no more than one-third of middle- and high-school students studied it. Two-thirds of social studies teachers had not taught it, and most had taken little of it in college. Like the rest of us, teachers and school officials hear few allusions to it in daily life. Media coverage of world events tends to be spasmodic, hopping from crisis to crisis with little background or context. And world history ranges over millennia and all the continents. Many standards writers—commonly not teachers or scholars of world history—are unequipped to be selective and lose themselves in numberless topics.

Another difficulty for world history is that understanding democracy's struggles requires that political history take center stage. That is, political history taught with economic, social, and intellectual history, as good teachers have always done, but focused on the drama of political choice and its consequences. Unhappily, for 30 years the social studies and historical fields have played down political history on a notion wholly contrary to democracy; namely, that it is only about the elites, not the people. U.S. history standards also suffer from this confusion, but the damage is worse in world history, where limited time demands rigorous selection of topics. Political ideas and actions—and their effects—are hard to find amid countless items and abstract concepts in most world history standards.

Writers of world history standards also play down Western civilization in documents already weak on politics. It is an old habit. The College Board's 1985 booklet for teachers of college-bound students, titled Academic Preparation in the Social Studies, urged that ancient and Western civilization be left to electives "since only some of the topics treated in them bear the test of worldwide import." Among the topics thus dismissed as lacking import were: Judaism; Greco-Roman history and political ideas; Christianity; feudalism; Islam; Renaissance Humanism; the Enlightenment; the English, American, and French Revolutions; liberalism; capitalism old and new; industrialism; democracy; socialism; imperialism; communism; fascism; Nazism; two world wars; and modern science and technology. For the education of young citizens, there are rather few topics of greater import.

The Balance Between Western and Non-Western Studies
Setting the right balance between Western and non-Western studies in the education of American citizens requires more than wearisome assaults on "rootless multi-culturism" or "elitist Eurocentrism." At stake here is only a part of learning, a core to prepare students for political democracy, some of which non-Western students study in their own countries. Advocates for "global studies," asking equal time for all world civilizations, forget that the story of democratic institutions—and of their most virulent enemies—until recently has been a largely Western story, and not always pretty or elitist. Advocates for western study alone forget that a great many non-Westerners have treasured and fought for human dignity, freedom, and justice since ancient times. Failing to tell the two stories misprepares Americans of all backgrounds. But how to combine them in the time schools have? Few standards writers, national or state, ask how much of each story needs to be told, can be told, and at what cost to other stories.

To begin with, not much of any story can be told in states holding to one-year surveys of the world's past. But even three years is not enough to teach everything. The case for relative stress on Western history is that America's democratic ideas and practices are rooted in the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Anglo-European past. The significance of Western civilization to Americans of any origin is not that it is "ours" and we "see ourselves" in it. In fact, the peasant ancestors of European-Americans were no closer to high Western thought, culture, or politics than their African, Asian, and pre-Columbian counterparts. Nor can Western civilization be honestly taught as treasure alone, a saga of progress, superior in all ways to the legacies of other civilizations. It has given birth to some of the very best and worst in politics, economics, culture, class, and race relations. It is the legacy we live with every day, genes of the mind inherited just as the body inherits immunity or vulnerability to certain diseases. The West has never had a single "canon," but rather a ceaseless warfare of ideas and ambitions across ethnic, religious, linguistic, social, and cultural divides and limitless economic and political appetites. We study it to know who we are and what to expect from each other, given such a conflicted heritage.

But it is not all we need to know. Global educators rightly warn us to study other peoples. Good standards pay attention to each major civilization. The question for teachers is how much attention. What should Americans of any origin know of "others" abroad and arriving? What should Chinese-Americans, African-Americans, and Franco-Americans know, in common, beyond American society and each other's experiences of it? None needs the detail of ancient Chinese dynasties, or African kingdoms, or Merovingians and Carolingians. But they should know the main ideas and experiences of each other's ancestors. They should have an idea of the beauty each people created, as well as the oppression they suffered or imposed on others, and their lasting traditions and memories—in short, what we should want other peoples to know of us.

Alongside a civic core, state standards should include a deeper immersion in one or more of history's great civilizations, and note—as we must do for the Western past—what in them could promote or obstruct democracy. For example, a focus on India would include the following premodern topics: the beliefs and spiritual and moral teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism; the spread of Buddhism to Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Japan; successive waves of nomadic and Muslim invasion, turmoil, and recovery; and art and architecture.

In the early modern era, the significant turning-points and cultural works of these civilizations should not be pushed aside by the "rise of the West," Europe's explorations, conquests, and colonizing. The same is true of the 19th century's era of "new imperialism" fired by European nationalism and the Industrial Revolution. In both eras, the arts, ideas, and literature of non-Europeans stirred Western artists and scholars to new directions. In turn, the varied patterns of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern adaptation and resistance to Western ideas and power help to raise the political sophistication of American students. Most important, they need acute awareness of today's conditions and anxieties in each other's ancestral lands. Three years of secondary world history and geography can teach much of this. It will not end debate on a "right" balance, but it will make room for livable compromise.

*  *  *

The fact is: All world history cannot be told. For our time, the first lesson to be learned from it is the never-ending struggle of people inside each society to limit greed and aggression, to apply morality and law, to keep peace and render justice. Students can see both the glory and the agony in this struggle and how often it has been lost. And since human evil is real, good intent has never been enough. Against the twin follies of wishful thinking and cynicism, history proves that tragedy is real and that civilization has a high price, but that it, too, is real and has triumphed from time to time. As they select "essentials," standards writers should focus on stories that students cannot help but see are true to life and worth remembering.

IV. Where Does the Civic Core Now Stand?

The most recent campaign for a common core of challenging studies for all American citizens-to-be had its start in the 1980s from disparate initiatives such as the Nation at Risk report in 1984, the AFT's Education for Democracy: A Statement of Principles (now revised and reprinted in this issue of American Educator), California's History-Social Science Framework in 1987, and the Charlottesville summit of governors in 1989. In spite of the problems described in the preceding pages, the country has made progress in the intervening years toward democratizing its public schools and wrestling with standards for citizen education. The same process took 25 years in Western Europe after World War II. Now, based on common academic standards, but varying local methods, several European and Asian nations graduate a higher percentage of high school students than we do, from more demanding academic programs. We have been at work for some 15 years. We, too, should hope to succeed in another ten.

But to do so we must admit that history and social studies teachers, and their allies—university scholars who know schools and are ready to work with school teachers as equals—still confront many obstacles.

One is that veteran teachers and scholars—entrusted in other countries to decide upon the core curriculum and the tests to go with them—are still denied that role in most U.S. states. Two, as a consequence, most state standards for history/civics/social studies are not teachable and flawed or premature testing threatens to discredit the move toward common standards. Three, too many states have failed to decide the question of what common learning is required for opportunity and equity, trying to preserve a look of local control, which logically should apply mainly to methods. Four, universities often fail to provide prospective teachers with adequate preparation, both in regard to a strong foundation in the liberal arts and to imparting a deep knowledge of content and effective teaching methods of their specialties. Five, states fail to provide intensive in-service professional development, so that teachers may teach with the confidence and joy that draws student respect and effort.

To overcome these obstacles, those in charge of American schools and universities could learn much by looking at how advanced democracies abroad dealt with similar problems and the time and resources that were required. To date, they have not pursued this avenue. We may expect added progress when they do and when they are able to convince state policymakers of the needed changes yet to be made.

Paul Gagnon is senior research associate at Boston University's Center for School Improvement and emeritus professor of history at the University of Massachusetts. This article is adapted with permission from Educating Democracy: State Standards to Ensure a Civic Core, a report published this spring by the Albert Shanker Institute. To read more of the report, go to To order, write or e-mail the Institute at: Albert Shanker Institute, 555 New Jersey Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001 or Visit the Web site at

*To help states refine their standards, the report includes two appendices, on that sets forth the essential topics for citizen education and another that explains how these topics can be taught in only a portion of the school time given to social studies. (back to article)

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American Educator, Fall 2003