History Education in US Schools: How good is it?

Information about the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) study of History education.

While much of the UCSB History Department’s News is about the various accolades we’ve received, we also discuss substantive educational issues related to history education. This News item is devoted to providing information about history textbooks and historical literacy among US-American students in the elementary and high schools.

July 15, 2011: LA Times: “New state law requires textbooks to include gays’ achievements.” California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act into law, which will require that school curricula and textbooks include information about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans. Textbooks will not change until 2015.

The National Assessement of Educational Progress (NAEP) results for History released.
This HNN (History News Network) page has a summary of the results (scroll past the links toward the bottom) and links to numerous news stories and editorials in leading newspapers over the past few days. An HNN commentary by the astute Stanford historian-educator Sam Wineburg, as well as contributions to an interesting HNN roundtable, are also linked at the top of that summary page:
History News Network Links to & Summary of the 2010 NAEP History Results

Here are 4 additional articles not linked there:


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The Texas History Textbook Controversy
The article below is part of a 2010 UCSB History Department News item about a discussion among UCSB History department faculty.

The implications of the Texas Board of Education’s proposed new standards for Texas’s–and thus many other states’–history textbooks.

While much of the UCSB History Department’s News is about the various accolades we’ve received, we also discuss some more serious issues. This item is devoted to providing information about an issue recently discussed among the faculty: the implications of the Texas Board of Education’s proposed new standards for Texas’s–and thus many other states’–history textbooks.

The full "This Modern World" cartoon above is available at the March 2010 credoaction.com archive.
(The proposed Texas suggestions include replacing the word “capitalism” with “free enterprise system.”)

Related cartoons: 3/31-4/2/10 La Cucaracha; 11/09 editorial cartoon by Ben Sargent; 7/22/09 San Francisco Sentinel.

We offer here a selection of links to a variety of the more informative pages on the web devoted to the Texas textbook controversy, so readers can make up their own minds about this issue. After the updates, the order is roughly chronological (we are historians, after all).

————–Update Items————–


————–Chronological List of News Items Analyzing the Original Decision————–

  • Fox News, March 11, 2010, by Kelly Shackelford (president and CEO of Liberty Institute): "Why the Texas Textbook Wars Matter to Every American." Shackelford argues that conservatives are just holding the line on misguided liberal suggestions, for example that “Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison were removed from World History, yet Mary Kay and Wallace Amos (of Famous Amos Cookies) were added, it appears, for more ‘diversity.’”
  • Huffington Post, March 12, 2010: "Texas Education Board Approves Conservative Curriculum Changes By Far-Right," reported the story with an AP news bulletin. That page has over 18,000 reader comments.
    The next day the Huf. Post followed up with an illustrated summary of the proposed changes: “Texas Textbook MASSACRE: ‘Ultraconservatives’ Approve Radical Changes To State Education Curriculum.”
  • Think Progress, Mar. 12, 2010, intern DJ Carella: "Texas Board of Education cuts Thomas Jefferson out of its textbooks." This short post contains links to local conservative media reports (including a montage of reports from Fox News). It garnered 314 comments by March 19.
  • New York Times, March 13, 2010: "Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change" offers a more depth than the AP report: "AUSTIN, Tex. — After three days of turbulent meetings, the Texas Board of Education on Friday approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light. …" [click the title link for the full article] The Times‘ March 21 Week in Review had a summary of the discussion, replete with hyperlinks: "In Texas Curriculum Fight, Identity Politics Leans Right"
  • Daily Beast, Mar. 14, 2010, Diane Ravitch (NYU history of education professor; former US Assistant Secretary of Education): "‘T’ is for ‘Texas Textbooks:’ The Lone Star State mandates the teaching of patriotism—and promotes ignorance in the process."
    Ravitch notes that California history standards require positive representations of all groups in society and concludes that public agencies making content decisions inevitably leads towards mediocrity.
  • Yahoo News, Mar. 15, 2010, "U.S. history textbooks could soon be flavored heavily with Texas conservatism,"
    provides a convenient list of some of most controversial changes. This article started our own internal discussion.
  • WorldNetDaily.com, Mar. 15, 2010, Chuck Norris, the martial artist and actor, offers his conservative perspective on the discussion: "Don’t mess with Texas … textbooks!." Interestingly, he quotes extensively from Thomas Jefferson, who is slated for removal from future Texas textbooks (because he originated the phrase “separation of church and state”). Norris claims (without a source) that “90 percent of America’s textbooks are based on Texas’ curriculum.” However, this is unlikely (at least for history textbooks) because only those states that, like Texas, opted out of the national standards for history education, are likely to choose textbooks made for Texas. California and other states with their own or national standards are likely to make up more than 10% of the history textbook market.
  • For more information on the National History Standards, published in 1996, see:
    Full text online at the UCLA National Center for History in the Schools, which coordinated the effort to draft these standards.
    Full text online in a different format, by the Organization of American Historians.
    Controversy Over The National History Standards,” by Joyce Appleby in the Spring 1995 issue of the OAH Magazine of History offers some background about how those standards were developed. Appleby is a professor emerita at UCLA, former president of both the OAH (1991) and the American Historical Association (1997), and herself the author of an 8th grade history textbook.
    The American Textbook Council is an independent national research organization that reviews the history and social studies textbooks used across the nation. Its website offers the best background information I could find on how states adopt textbooks, but I couldn’t find any specific figures like the one Norris gives. Their 2003 Senate committee testimony offers a brief summary of how the market works, while the 2005 California update describes the sorry state of affairs in our own state. In any case, they do indicate that the market is dominated by four–now three–major publishers.
  • Townhall.com, Mar. 17, 2010, Phyllis Schlafly, the columnist who is proposed for addition to the Texas textbooks, offers another conservative perspective: "Texas Kicks Out Liberal Bias From Textbooks,"
  • History News Network, Mar. 17, 2010, "Why is Texas Afraid of Thomas Jefferson?" picked up the story. Don’t miss the comments, in which a Tea Partier has his say, and the author of the article responds.
  • Los Angeles Times Mar. 17, 2010, op-ed by Jonathan Zimmerman (NYU history & education professor): "American history — right and left: Liberals and conservatives have differing views; why not give students both sides and let them decide?" Zimmerman agrees with the Texas school board that current guidelines have a left-leaning bias, but says the answer isn’t to “balance” them with right-leaning content, but to portray both sides and let students decide.

    LA Timeseditorial, Mar. 28, "Textbook cases: As Texas shows, school book content must not be left to interest groups. California, take note." This editorial gives examples of how California’s guidelines try to avoid saying anything negative about any group (the elderly should be portrayed as “fit and lively” as Diane Ravitch writes), and argues that textbooks are best written by historians, not politicians .
  • CNN Opinion, Mar. 22, 2010, "Texas school board whitewashes history" offers a commentary by a history textbook author whose textbook was banned in Texas in 2002.
  • On Point (NPR radio with Tom Ashbrook), Mar. 25, "The Texas Textbook Debate," did a 46 min. segment with experts, textbook authors, and listener call-ins, which is by far the most informative site about the controversy that I found, if you’re interested in listening to audio. It gives lots of airtime to the proponents of the proposed changes, and has plenty of online comments, too.
  • The Nation, Apr. 5, 2010, offered a comment by historian Eric Foner, "Twisting History in Texas" (also published Mar. 19 on NPR news)
    Here a sample of Foner’s reflection: "Most comment on the content of the new standards has focused on the mandate that high school students learn about leading conservative figures and institutions of the 1980s and ’90s, specifically Phyllis Schlafly, the Moral Majority, the Heritage Foundation, the Contract With America and the NRA. In fact, there is nothing wrong with teaching about modern conservatism, a key force in recent American history. My own textbook has a chapter called ‘The Triumph of Conservatism’ and discusses most of the individuals and groups mentioned above."
    On May 3, The Nation published four letters in response to Foner, with two focusing the the composition of the elected Texas school board.
  • Our own Prof. Hasegawa, an expert on Japanese and Soviet history, contributed the following to the internal discussion: "Knowing the textbook controversy in Japan and East Asia, and having edited a book that discusses this issue–*East Asia’s Haunted Present*–I completely agree with Luke. The decision on the textbook by the Texas education board is even worse than the Japanese case.
    When the controversial right-wing textbook in Japan was submitted to the Ministry of Education, the ministry demanded revisions before its publication to pass as a potential textbook for classroom use. There are more than 600 school boards in Japan, and it is the decision of each school board to select one from commercially available textbooks for adoption for its students. The adoption rate of this conservative textbook is less than 0.04%.
    Nonetheless, the thrust of this Japanese conservative textbook is indeed troubling. It justifies Japanese military expansion in East Asia and even the Pacific War as necessitated by international circumstances. It whitewashes the Nanjing massacre, and justifies Japan’s annexation of Korea.
    If Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment are anathema to American patriotism, then on what grounds other than racism can we criticize the Japanese for having committed atrocities in Nanjing and attacked Pearl Harbor?"
  • The Texas State Board of Education has an email for comments about revisions to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills curriculum standards: sboeteks@tea.state.tx.us.

    Credo Action Network provides a page to send an email to several major textbook publishers; you can modify the content of the letter to say what you want.

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If you have other links to suggest, contact marcuse@history.ucsb.edu.

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Post last modified: April 13, 2020