Illinois’ Asian American history requirement is only a first step

Illinois should also require Black history, Latino history, and Native American history, and the rest of U.S. history and civis, all of which is essential knowledge for every student.

SHARE Illinois’ Asian American history requirement is only a first step
State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz and state Sen. Ram Villivalam watch Gov. J.B. Pritzker sign legislation that will require public school students to learn about Asian American history,

State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz and state Sen. Ram Villivalam watch Gov. J.B. Pritzker sign legislation that will require public school students to learn about Asian American history,

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Earlier this month, Illinois became the first state in the country to require the teaching of Asian American history at the K–12 level. This is an important and long overdue milestone. Yet in context, it’s somewhat ironic.

A report that we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute just released in June evaluates the K–12 civics and U.S. history standards of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. These standards are the roadmaps that schools and districts use to guide the selection of more detailed curricula, so it’s important to get them right. Yet our bipartisan team of veteran educators and subject matter experts awarded just five jurisdictions “exemplary” ratings. A woeful 20 states were deemed “inadequate.”

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Sadly, the latter group includes Illinois, and therein lies the irony. As our reviewers note, the Centennial State’s civics standards “take only two pages to describe and contain only four proper nouns,” while its U.S. history standards are “almost nonexistent.” For example, one unfortunately representative fifth grade standard asks students to “explain probable causes and effects of events and developments in U.S. History” — which pretty much covers it.

Put another way, it’s great that Illinois now requires Asian American history, but it would be even better if it also required Black history, Latino history, and Native American history, and the rest of U.S. history, all of which is essential knowledge for every student.

As we recommend in our report, to have any hope of creating the academic guidelines Illinois students and teachers deserve, the state’s education leaders need to start afresh. And while they’re at it, they should also rethink their expectations for older kids and specifically require that high school students take at least one year of U.S. history and one semester of civics, as most states do. Otherwise, both teachers and students may find that there isn’t enough room to do justice to Asian American history — or for that matter, the history of any other group.

Although it’s not as sexy a subject as critical race theory (or whatever it is we’re fighting about), the dearth of basic knowledge expectations in civics and U.S. history in many places is one of the biggest reasons for the tattered state of civics and U.S. history education, which is itself an important part of our nation’s larger citizenship crisis. To wit, only half of American adults can name the three branches of government, and just 60% know when the U.S. declared its independence.

If that’s the example set by adults, what are the odds that young Illinoisans understand, say, the concept of equal protection given that neither Brown v. Board of Education nor the 14th Amendment is mentioned in the state’s current social studies standards? And how meaningful can any conversation about race in the U.S. be if students haven’t been exposed to such basic content?

Symbolic gestures are nice, but they are no substitute for sensible policies and concrete guidance, both of which are hard to come by where social studies is concerned. Nor, with our constitutional democracy seemingly foundering on the shoals of civic ignorance, is there any good reason to delay.

Illinois, it’s time to try again. Your students are counting on you.

Michael J. Petrilli, President
David Griffith, Senior Research and Policy Associate
Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Grandstanding on property tax reform

David Orr, in his recent op-ed, is right on about Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough’s grandstanding on property tax reform. She was and is part of the problem. As far as who is pulling the strings on this puppet show, it is probably none other than Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Commissioners need to look and see what elected offices could be combined and what offices need to go away.

They need to start looking out for the taxpayers who pay their salary and stop stuffing their patronage armies. Start cutting at the top.

Gerald Bernson, Tinley Park

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