“Compromise” on Action Civics Doesn’t Work

David Acevedo

CounterCurrent: Week of 8/1

The fight for traditional education and against the propagandistic drivel that threatens to supplant it takes place on many fronts. It takes place on school boards, where board members make crucial decisions regarding the direction their schools take. It takes place in PTA meetings, where dedicated parents advocate for the best interest of their children. And it takes place in the home, where those same parents attempt to supplement their children’s education with more reliable material.

But ultimately, schools will teach what their state standards make them teach. As important as school boards, PTA meetings, and other educational battlegrounds are, public and charter schools must follow state standards in order to grant their students diplomas. Even some homeschool students are required to be taught via these standards, and while private schools are exempt, they are required to adopt standards “aligned with” state standards, and are often even more radical in practice than the state standards would mandate.

All this to say, one of the keys to changing the way our children are taught is to influence state standards. In order to do that, though, we need brave souls to actually read and analyze the tomes of standards that state governments publish (yikes!). The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is one organization that does this grueling, yet crucial work, and for much of its history, it has been a reliable guide for navigating the good, the bad, and the ugly of state education standards.

Take the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), for example. Earlier this year, the National Association of Scholars published Climbing Down, a report that critiques the NGSS, the nation’s most popular science curriculum, and which relies heavily on the Fordham Institute’s research and comparative analysis of science standards. Fordham’s groundwork allowed us to build on their work and offer alternatives to the NGSS.

When it comes to civics and history education, though, the Fordham Institute has dropped the ball in a serious way. In June, the Institute published a national report titled The State of State Standards for Civics and U.S. History in 2021, a comprehensive report that examines and grades the civics and U.S. history standards for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This is an important project, and in theory it would be a valuable resource for students, parents, and educators alike. But in practice, it’s largely a trap, because it explicitly and repeatedly endorses the dangerous, misguided pedagogy known as “Action Civics.” For more on the dangers of Action Civics, click here. Action Civics, in nearly all its real-world applications, replaces traditional, content-based civics education with progressive activist training, and is therefore no civics education at all.

The Fordham Institute doesn’t get it all wrong. It includes valuable affirmations of the need for traditional civics education. But its strong embrace of Action Civics is alarming enough that we felt it necessary to critique The State of State Standards in detail. This week’s featured article is just that: a long-form critique of Fordham’s review written by our very own director of research David Randall, who also heads up the Civics Alliance. While Randall does give credit where credit is due, he doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the Fordham Institute’s strong support for Action Civics:

Yet State Standards blends advocacy for traditional content with counterproductive advocacy for Action Civics. We believe that the Fordham Institute has erred in seeking to compromise with the proponents of a radical pedagogy, which cannot ultimately be reconciled with the traditional pedagogy that the Fordham Institute has historically forwarded. …

The Fordham Institute’s conflation of Action Civics and traditional civics means that Americans cannot use State Standards as a reliable tool to evaluate the 50 states’ standards in Civics and History. The Fordham Institute’s conflation is the opposite of impartial, because it subordinates State Standards to advocacy for the radical pedagogy of Action Civics.

Randall recommends that the Fordham Institute immediately reverses course on Action Civics and provides greater transparency as to its evaluative methods. The NAS used to rely on the Fordham Institute for its insightful analysis of education standards—we hope we can do so once again, but its recent work on civics and history standards is a major blemish on the organization’s reputation.

Until next week.

P.S. For more regular updates on American civics education, consider joining the Civics Alliance. We have a biweekly newsletter and are constantly uploading new information and new resources for Civics Alliance subscribers to use. It’s an invaluable tool to be on the cutting edge of this complex issue.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by Jenna Day on Unsplash.

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