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The exceptional strength of America’s civil society is no accident. It is arguably the greatest source of American exceptionalism, and its own source lies in the nation’s founding. Which means that every generation of Americans needs to know and appreciate the story of our nation's birth and the fundamental principles of our way of life.

How disturbing, then, that our government schools are “creating a generation of students who don’t understand or value our own nation’s history.” That’s the conclusion of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in its latest analysis of the U.S. history standards for all 50 states plus the District of Columbia:

The average grade—this is for the states’ expectations, mind you, not the kids’ achievement—was a D.

Eighteen states earned an F. Ten more earned Ds. Only one (South Carolina) earned an A, five states and D.C. earned an A-, and three more received B or B+.

Again, Fordham stresses that this is not a grade on actual student learning, but only on what government schools say it would be nice if the students learned:

Great standards alone don’t produce superior results. Several states with exemplary history standards still aren’t serious about course requirements, assessments, and accountability. They may have slipshod curricula (if any), mediocre textbooks, and ill-prepared teachers. Top-notch expectations don’t get the education job done. But they’re a mighty important place to start.

If you want to know how bad student learning is, you have to look at the “Nation’s Report Card,” the testing done every few years by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 2006, the last year for which scores are available,

Not even half of twelfth graders made it to NAEP’s basic level in U.S. history—and barely 13 percent were proficient.

In other words, 87 percent of students made it through 13 years of school without gaining proper knowledge of our history.

NAEP will publish the 2010 U.S. history scores soon, but know that the 2006 scores showed only modest improvement from the previous testing. Meanwhile, Fordham last analyzed state history standards in 2003. Since then, 45 states have changed their standards, with 14 showing at least marginal improvement – six states climbed all the way from F to D. Sadly, nine states managed to make their scores worse, including my home state of Pennsylvania, which removed what little historical content their earlier standards included.

None of this, as they say, is rocket science. The sole straight-A state in this year’s study scored only a C in 2003, showing that strong improvement is possible. Indeed, D.C. – not traditionally a hotbed of learning – raised itself from an F to an A-, mainly by making use of the best states’ standards.

This sad study is an argument for serious school reforms, because most parents will be attracted to schools that don’t breed ignorance of U.S. history, but parents need more choices in schooling than they have now. It’s also an argument for having the nation’s universities improve their own shameful performance in this area, a topic I’ve discussed before.

Kudos to the funders who made the study possible: The Louis Calder Foundation, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

If anyone still remembers Thomas Jefferson, why don’t we let him have the last word:

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

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