State history standards can give educators a roadmap through the uncomfortable facts of U.S. history. In the current debate over critical race theory, they can also offer political cover.



Now new insight into the fight over critical race theory and K-12 schools. Some families, mostly white, accuse schools of teaching children to be ashamed of their race in their country. Educators argue they're simply teaching the facts of U.S. history and say they're victims in a culture war drummed up by conservative activists. Into this fight arrives a new survey of states' history standards. And it says a lot about what kids are actually learning. NPR's Cory Turner explains.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Standards are a roadmap of a state's values, leading teachers to the historical figures and events that students should know. For this new survey, reviewers rated the U.S. history and civics standards for all 50 states and Washington, D.C., giving them letter grades, A through F, for things like depth and clarity. At the top, earning A's, were Alabama, California, D.C., Massachusetts and Tennessee. At the bottom, 10 states failed, including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and 10 more scored no better than deeds.

JOSE GREGORY: Unfortunately, what I found is that they tended to be broad and vague, not specific enough.

TURNER: Jose Gregory has taught high school U.S. history for nearly 20 years and was one of the reviewers for the report, which comes from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Though Fordham is a conservative-leaning think tank. A handful of experts all told me the result is nonpartisan and worth taking seriously.

HASAN KWAME JEFFRIES: I'm really worried. I'm really worried.

TURNER: Hasan Kwame Jeffries teaches history at Ohio State.

JEFFRIES: If you don't teach about race and racism in American history, past and present, I don't know what the hell you're teaching. It's not the truth.

TURNER: Jeffries says the fight over critical race theory is essentially about how schools teach about race and racism, and that is deeply informed by what states do and do not include in their U.S. history and civic standards. Since Fordham's last survey in 2011, reviewer Jose Gregory says states' handling of slavery and Jim Crow, as well as early Native American history, has improved, though many state standards are still vague or disjointed.

GREGORY: I cannot teach students about the emancipation without talking about slavery itself, right? I cannot talk about civil rights and the movement for equality without discussing Jim Crow.

TURNER: Stefanie Wager is past president of the National Council for the Social Studies, and she lives in Iowa, where the history standards got an F. The governor also recently signed an order there saying students should not be made to feel discomfort or guilt on account of their race. As a result, Wager says, history teachers there feel vulnerable.

STEFANIE WAGER: They're just very scared. They don't know, you know, does this mean I can't, like, teach my unit on the Civil War, and we talk about slavery as one of the causes? Like, what does this mean?

TURNER: The same is true, she says, when Iowa teachers tackle the Constitution. How should they handle something like the Three-fifths Compromise, which allowed states to count three-fifths of enslaved people, thereby increasing slave-holding states' political power?

WAGER: I mean, how could you talk about that in any other way than to say (laughter) this is - this was all about sort of white power, maintaining systems of power?

TURNER: Iowa standards don't mention the Three-fifths Compromise, which could make it easier for anxious teachers to avoid it. On the other hand, Oklahoma, which got high marks for its standards, specifically says fifth graders should examine the Three-fifths Compromise and understand how it helped to maintain slavery. As it happens, Oklahoma also passed a law which, like Iowa's, says students should not be made to feel discomfort based on race. The difference, though, is standards. Unlike Iowa's, Oklahoma's standards offer a clear roadmap for teachers to follow the uncomfortable facts of our history. And that new law in Oklahoma - it includes one caveat. It does not stop teachers from following those standards.

Cory Turner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.