Boots & Sabers

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0922, 06 Jul 21

Wisconsin Fails in Teaching History and Civics

This report focuses on state standards. Wisconsin leaves most standards to the local level, but the results are clear. Wisconsin’s students, like most American students, are utterly ignorant about basic civics. I’d encourage local folks to look into the requirements and curriculum at your local school district.

In a new report, the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute graded states on their standards for teaching civics and United States history — and gave Wisconsin Fs in both.


According to the report, Wisconsin’s biggest flaws are that it does not specifically require U.S. history or civics courses in high school, instead saying students need three credits of social studies that include state and local government; and that it focuses on broad themes that need to be covered rather than mandating specific content — for example, that students must learn about the Civil War, or study the First Amendment.


“There’s a tendency to shy away from spelling out exactly what kids need to know, and what they should be covering. It’s just easier to stick to generalities,” said David Griffith, a senior research and policy analyst at the Fordham Institute and a former civics teacher.


The report focuses on state-level standards, but individual districts often have more specific graduation requirements.




Flynn, like other teachers in Wisconsin, talked to his students about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in different ways depending on how it tied into the material they were learning.



In its analysis of Wisconsin civics standards, the Fordham Institute says most standards are too broad and vague to be useful, that breadth and vagueness means most “essential” content is never mentioned, and there’s no attempt to assign content to specific grade levels or classes. Wisconsin history standards, according to the institute, also don’t assign specific content to specific grade levels, don’t have a discernable scope or sequence, and don’t make the priorities clear for what teachers should focus on.


Griffith said the analysis of state-level standards grew out of mounting concern that Americans are in a bad place, politically and civically, and that one way to address the problem is to make sure students develop the necessary skills and knowledge to better engage with political issues, so that five or 10 years down the road, those former students have the tools to discuss history and current events in context.


“It’s so obvious that we’re in a bad place,” Griffith said “It’s so obvious that the level of polarization and disunion that we’re seeing is not healthy, that really there’s a growing movement to do something about it.”


0922, 06 July 2021


  1. jonnyv

    This makes me chuckle. Whenever the debate on teaching history comes up everyone has a different perspective on what history we should teach.
    Yes. Teach how Columbus “discovered” the US. No. Don’t teach how he massacred thousands of Native Americans.
    Yes. Teach about the Civil War. No. Don’t teach how that racism has rolled down into current policy decisions.

    Anytime a liberal or conservative institute recommends what should be taught inside of a school room, I am weary. The broad standards are best and let parents and local districts decide if their child is getting the appropriate education. One only needs to look at Texas (constantly) to see what happens when you legislate what should be taught to see the adverse affects of specified curriculums when it comes to history.

  2. Owen

    I largely agree. I do think that most of these decisions should be made at the local level. I would be even more supportive of that if we had full School Choice where poor parents could opt out of their local government district if they were teaching crap.

    Generally, though, I think age-appropriate history and civics should be taught. History infinitely complex because it is the ongoing story of billions of humans and they are infinitely complex. So what do you teach a 14-year-old about the Civil War? Root causes (slavery), people, key events, etc. Columbus? Fair to teach that he was the first European to “discover” America (excepting the Vikings). Key dates, causes, technology that made it possible, etc. It is also sensible to teach the ramification of that – widespread genocide through superior technology and disease.

    For civics, teach the structure of government, key documents, significant legislation, political parties, relationships between federal, state, local, etc. That’s a lot to consume for a teenage as it is without delving into controversial topics. But it gives them a foundation of knowledge before they get into those more controversial subjects as adults.

    Personally, I just think we don’t teach enough. There is a finite amount of time every year and so little of it is devoted to civics and history. There is a tremendous amount of content we can teach without needing to jump into opinion and controversy. Without that base of knowledge, opinions are not informed. We need to reestablish the requirement that people actually know something before they form an opinion about it.

  3. jonnyv

    Civics is more a straight forward concept. Teach the mechanics of how the gov’t works at a local, state, and federal level. In 9th grade we literally had a class called “government” where that was taught.

    But history is ever changing (as crazy as that sounds). I honestly don’t know how much of history even needs to be taught in K-12. Memorizing years and dates seems so obsolete these days (I hated 30 years ago too). And even the most basic concept of history is littered with perspective. The Civil war is taught differently depending on where you are… even the basic concept of WHY it was fought. States rights vs moral opposition to slavery. It is a very tough subject to teach, even the basics.

    I still have an internal debate on how much history we need to teach. We spent many classes talking about the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and WW2. But we breezed over WW1 (if I recall). And we never touched on other American wars. How much of the Gulf War is taught now? My son is going into 7th grade and he has probably never heard about it.

  4. Owen

    Indeed, history is infinite and choices must be made as to which topics to teach. But I disagree that learning dates and names is obsolete. Actually knowing stuff matters and informs opinions. For example, in the 1400s, the Aztec Empire was formed, the Ottoman Empire entered its classical age with the seizing of Constantinople, and Henry V defeated the the French at Agincourt. If you don’t know the dates, how are you to understand world developments in context of their era? If you don’t know who Napoleon or Charlemagne are (not sure why I picked French history here), how do you understand the fundamental changes in France (Gaul) that they imposed? If you don’t know that France invaded Mexico during the American Civil War, then how can you start to understand the relationship between the Confederacy, the U.S, and the European powers? If you don’t know actual facts, then understanding context, motivations, historic currents, and the impact on the modern era is impossible.

    I think that If anything, we have strayed too far from teaching names and dates and replaced it with generalities and opinions. It’s easier to talk about slavery being evil (it is) than it is to know what happened on November 19th, 1863 – halfway through the Civil War

  5. Merlin

    History’s value is in its evolutionary nature. Looking back shows the good, bad, and ugly of where we’ve been. It provides context for the present and hopefully a bit of enlightenment of a way forward. Without varied perspectives of major events you risk absorbing propaganda more than true history. People who shun the study of history quite literally don’t know what the don’t know and are extremely vulnerable to propagandists. And not even good propagandists are needed to sway the ignorant.

    Same goes for civics, but I’m convinced much of our current ignorance of these subjects is by design. Discouraging legitimate study of history and civics makes it much easier for revisionists to muddy the past, redefine the present, and steer the ignorant along a preferred political path.

  6. Le Roi du Nord

    Poor parents, or any other parent, here in WI can “opt out” of the local public school. It is called open enrollment. Been around for some time.

    Source: my local school board member.

  7. Mark Hoefert

    Open Enrollment works like crap for poor parents. First of all, the incoming school district has to have space available. The popular ones will be capped. Secondly, the parents must have the financial resources and a work schedule that enables getting the kids to school, because there is no transportation provided when you leave your district.

    In our county, Slinger School district draws from all the adjacent districts. In the year ended 2020 they had 532 incoming/102 out. Net gain of 430 on an enrollment of 3368. Their Econ Disadvantage ratio is 14%. The “feeder” (or “loser”) districts are West Bend (30% ED), Kewaskum (21%), Hartford Joint (35%), and Hartford High School (21%). There is nothing unique about Slinger’s economy – but the school district is attracting the wealthier students from other districts. Of course, not all students transfer into one district. There is trading back in forth between all the districts, but Slinger is the only one that gains. West Bend is down 298, Kewaskum High down 158, Hartford Joint down 355.

    I was told years ago by school administrators that Open Enrollment is a “white privilege” thing – at least in our area. And was referred to WI DPI data sources – Report Cards show racial makeup & economic status of the student body. Aid Transfers/Adjustments shows the incoming/outgoing enrollments.

  8. Mark Hoefert

    Kewaskum is down 64, and it is Hartford High School that is down 158. Hartford is not a consolidated school district.

  9. Le Roi du Nord

    Here in our district you can also choose to go to a catholic grade school, ride the same bus, and have approximately 75% of the state aid follow the student to the private school. Ditto the other private religious school. It seems to work well here

  10. Mark Hoefert

    This is Open Enrollment:

    What is Open Enrollment?
    The inter-district public school open enrollment program allows parents to apply for their children to attend public school in a school district other than the one in which they reside.

    Who can apply?
    Any Wisconsin resident in 4K to grade 12 may apply to attend a nonresident school district under the open enrollment program. However, a child may transfer to a nonresident school district for early childhood education or 4K only if the child’s resident school district offers the same type of program and only if the child is eligible for that program in the resident school district.


  11. dad29

    History’s value is in its evolutionary nature.

    *Cough* History, known well, shows that there is NO “evolution” towards the Good in the world as a whole.

    It is true that the US and the West in general have a higher standard of living than did almost all the world in 1800, or 300 AD, or 700 BC. That’s nice, but air conditioning has not stopped murder, theft, (etc.)

  12. Tuerqas

    I emphatically agree with Owen’s second comment and I think that is where the heart of the problem lies. Carefully choosing what facts to teach and what concepts to emphasize (and what guises to teach them through) can and is molding the minds of young people. Teaching the Civil war during black history month and the age of exploration during Hispanic month leaves a pretty deep scar through the psyches of the more sensitive young white people (as well as the righteous predisposition towards handouts and ‘reparations’ in the minds of minorities). Teaching the idea of religion during your units on WWII and the crusades won’t help belief in anything either. There are very few positive contexts for white children in the liberal teaching world of today. That is on purpose and supports the liberal tenets of society. They want a beaten and cowed society that they can mold and push into new heights of power for themselves.

  13. Mar

    Tuerqas, it depends on what school district to you’re in. Most school districts still teach the basics. It seems like it’s the elite schools and inner cities that are teaching the crap. Rural districts, not so much.

  14. Tuerqas

    Mar, I wouldn’t agree with anything close to ‘most’, but I am obviously excluding private schools in the first place, the major problems in public schools is always the base topic, this post included. If you want me to clarify that anywhere the unions aren’t 80% or more liberal Democrats, sure, so noted. I just think you would be hard pressed to find even 20% of public school districts throughout the nation where conservatives have a deciding voice. And only a very small percentage of that minority actually have an objective view, as I would bet the overwhelming majority of ‘conservatives’ able to cast more than a token vote in what the schools teach are emphasizing their religious views over teaching objective history, civics, or critical thinking.
    When 3 out of 9 months are dedicated to black history, hispanic history, and LGBTQ struggles, it is hard to believe that ‘the basics’ (as you or I were to define it based on our school days) are being taught.

  15. Mar

    You would be surprised at how many educators there in the schools, but they are not usually the loud boisterous like the liberals are.
    From my experiences, the liberals are generally in the arts and English while conservatives mostly are in the shop, PE and special education. In history, it’s mixed along with math. It also depends if you are male or female.
    I think the urban, inner city schools are run by liberals along with many suburban districts. But when you get into the rural areas of the country, conservative to moderates dominate.

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