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America’s fraying democracy feels as if it is close to falling apart. What role should our education system play in bringing us back together?

A group of more than 300 historians and education experts published their answer — a “Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy.” Their ambitious effort, endorsed by six former U.S. secretaries of Education and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, is to “transform teaching of history and civics” in ways that (they hope) will diminish political polarization in this country.

An admirable goal, and one we broadly share. The problem is that the policies this group urges are almost certain to fail. Indeed, although surely not their intention, if followed, their recommendations could make our political differences even worse.

The primary flaw with the Roadmap is that it does not align with the science of how we learn.

A bedrock principle of cognitive science is that our ability to understand new ideas depends on what we already know. Whatever the subject, choices must be made about what facts students are expected to learn, and when, over the course of their schooling. For example, in math, the ability to quickly recall the multiplication tables makes it easier to think about more complex procedures. It’s for this reason that a well-sequenced curriculum is important to ensure that students develop the background knowledge they need to understand new concepts.

Related: Can patriotism and criticism coexist in social studies?

This is particularly true for learning our history. To understand America today requires examining the major events in our past that define our national character (for good or for ill). Yet, ironically, the historians who developed the Roadmap do not propose any specific historical facts that should be taught to students. They argue that their general Roadmap is meant to “inspire and inform” curriculum and standards authors, and they thus do not endorse any particular curriculum. Instead, they offer seven “themes” and a variety of “guiding questions” that leave it completely open as to what facts should be taught. They then urge all 13,000 school districts in the country — as well as states and tribal authorities — to each develop their own “Civic Learning Plans” aligned to these themes, with “key performance indicators for measuring progress.”

Requiring every school district to develop its own “Civic Learning Plan” would be both a bureaucratic nightmare and a recipe for educational disaster. Consider, for example, one “design challenge” posed in the Roadmap: How to cultivate “reflective patriotism” by “offering an account of US constitutional democracy that is simultaneously honest about the wrongs of the past without falling into cynicism, and appreciative of the founding of the United States without tipping into adulation”?

Requiring every school district to develop its own “Civic Learning Plan” would be both a bureaucratic nightmare and a recipe for educational disaster.

It’s a great question. But teachers have to answer it, and therein lies the rub.

Consider: One solution might be to adopt the 1619 Project curriculum that centers and elevates the role that Black Americans have played in perfecting American democracy. Yet already multiple red states have pending legislation to ban the use of this very curriculum. A more conservative take on this question — a more serious version of the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission, perhaps — would suffer to find support in, say, California. The Educating for American Democracy project offers no clear guidance on which path is the right one. Indeed, the local Civic Learning Plans its supporters propose would just further fragment the history our students learn. And that in time will weaken any hope of having a shared cultural understanding of what it means to be American. 

The best way to avoid this would be to teach students specific facts using a common national curriculum. But of course that idea is politically dead in the water. So what’s the alternative?

We see two reasonable, if imperfect, options.

First, strengthen history curricula at the state level, which — for better or for worse — is where the authority rests to control curriculum. We know that, with the right leadership, states can get high-quality, well-sequenced textbooks and other curriculum materials adopted in their public schools. Louisiana, for example, has done so in English and mathematics, and as a result more teachers use the common materials and understand the standards. These efforts need not be the provenance of red states or blue states — Rhode Island and Tennessee alike are working on these issues. General frameworks such as the Roadmap simply won’t cut it if the goal is quality and coherence in what students actually learn.

Related: Most Mississippians can’t pass U.S. citizenship exam. Is American history education the problem?

Second, the sorry state of American history textbooks creates an opportunity to provide new high-quality curriculum options that build knowledge sequentially from kindergarten to 12th grade. These curricula could be thematic in nature, such as the 1619 Project, but they must be sufficiently deep to support teachers’ actual instruction over a full year of teaching. Philanthropic funders could align and support the creation of these new history curricula, as could government grants, state or federal. It would be controversial, and hard choices would have to be made, but philanthropic organizations at least possess the resources to make it happen.

In the end, we agree with the supporters of the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy that “the United States stands at a crossroads of peril and possibility.” But the path they urge will lead us to the former, not the latter. We need a better map.

Benjamin Riley is the founder and executive director of Deans for Impact, a national nonprofit organization that works to improve teacher preparation.

Morgan Polikoff is an associate professor of education at the USC Rossier School of Education; his new book, “Beyond Standards,” analyzes the failures of standards-based reform in U.S. education.

This story about the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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