A+ Advice for Parents

Q: At a gathering over the holidays, I was amazed at how little history my Generation Z family members knew. One cousin, a college freshman, was clueless about the Cold War; another, a high school senior, was fuzzy about the Civil Rights movement. At age 43, I'm no old fogey complaining about "the younger generation," but I do wonder what my own kids are learning in school. Doesn't the Common Core teach history?

A: Don't blame the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). They were only adopted in most states within the last couple of years, so the curriculum you're referring to would not have had been based on the CCSS.

In 2009, when the National Governors Association (NGA), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and a group of national business leaders decided to create a set of skills and knowledge that students graduating high school should have in order to be college- and career-ready, they put their focus solely on standards for mathematics and English language arts (ELA).

Selected readings in the ELA standards support history. For example, most high school students read Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech to the Second Virginia Convention; George Washington's Farewell Address; Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" State of the Union Address; and Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter From Birmingham Jail.

While there are no national standards for history, most states have their own. Many high schools use Advanced Placement curricula as a starting point for what should be covered in U.S. history, U.S. government and world history.

Common Core standards for science, the arts and world languages are being crafted by organizations independent of CCSSO and NGA. (To read the standards in math and ELA, go to commoncore.org.)

But you do raise a good question: What should all Americans know? Or, as Lisa Hansel of the Core Knowledge Blog puts it, "What should all of our children have the opportunity to learn?"

In 1987, University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch launched a national debate with his best-seller, "Cultural Literacy" (Vintage), with its 5,000 facts and cultural references. Parents and educators embraced his subsequent series, spelling out what children should learn at each grade level.

Hirsch's critics argued that one professor shouldn't decide what all kids should learn to have a common vocabulary and shared frame of reference in an increasingly diverse country.

To that end, Eric Liu has launched "What Every American Should Know," a project of the educational nonprofit Aspen Institute's Citizenship and American Identity Program.

"Hirsch's list was attacked, celebrated and much discussed," Liu writes on the project's website. "Today, amidst giant demographic and social shifts, the United States needs such common knowledge more than ever. But a 21st-century sense of cultural literacy has to be radically more diverse and inclusive. And it needs to come not from one person, but from all of us."

Inspired by Hirsch's work, Liu turned to crowdsourcing for the project, giving all Americans an opportunity to help cultivate, according to Hansel, "a shared body of knowledge that honors our diversity while forming a common bond."

What do you think Americans should know to be civically and culturally literate? Enter your top 10 at whateveryamericanshouldknow.org.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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