By the time students get to Matthew Finck's 11th-grade U.S. history class, the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln are vague memories, historical facts they haven't heard about since eighth grade.
Beyond a very simplistic view of the causes, "they have no knowledge of the Civil War," Finck said.
The Catonsville High School teacher does a basic review before he begins teaching his course, which covers the period from 1877 to today. But many of those students will never take another course in U.S. history because most colleges don't require them. So their first and last brush with the American Revolution could be in fifth grade.
In advance of Presidents Day weekend, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published a report that gives Maryland a grade of C for its American history standards and says a generation of students is growing up essentially illiterate about the history of the country.
Maryland's grade was slightly ahead of the national average of D, but the report still found the standards, which form the basis for the curriculum across all school districts, "disjointed and fragmentary" and particularly lacking in the fifth and eighth grades.
In Maryland, American history is broken up into different periods. Students are given a dose of it in fifth and eighth grades and then one year in high school, usually in 10th or 11th grade.
Fifth-graders learn about the Colonial period through the American Revolution; eighth-graders cover the post-Revolutionary period through 1877 or Reconstruction; high school students take a course that covers 1877 through the post-Cold War era. Only high school students who take Advanced Placement U.S. history cover all time periods.
The Fordham report concludes that kind of emphasis on the later period of American history in high school means that many students don't receive a thorough grounding in the early periods of the country's history.
"I do agree splitting history up is detrimental to the kids and they don't have the continuity" they should, Finck said.
Four years ago, a Maryland task force made up of history teachers and professors spent two years reviewing social studies teaching and came up with conclusions similar to the Fordham report's, said Geraldine Hastings, chair of the social studies department at Catonsville, who served on the committee. But those recommendations apparently were never implemented.
Mary Cary, the state's assistant superintendent for instruction, said the state is participating in discussions on the national level about what should be taught in social studies. "We are in the mode of rewriting and revision of our curriculum from kindergarten to 12th grade. Social studies is No. 3," she said. "Next year we will begin to look at that program very critically."
She said she has begun internal discussions in the state Department of Education about the recommendations from the social studies task force.
Social studies teachers have expressed concern in recent weeks that their subject is getting short shrift because students do not have to be tested on it until they take American government in high school. Even that exam may be done away with after this year to save money, a proposal that received mixed reactions. Some teachers see it as cause for celebration because it frees them to be more creative, but others think it diminishes the importance of history.
Teachers also say that when students need extra help on reading and math in elementary and middle school, social studies is one of the subjects that is expendable.
"I think in middle school because of the high-stakes testing, people are definitely looking at language arts and math" more, said Laura Pinto, social studies department chair at Bates Middle School in Anne Arundel County. She said that teachers try to address some of the gaps in their students' knowledge and that Anne Arundel does allot a few days for teachers to review previous history classes.
Fordham did give a few grades of A: South Carolina and the District of Columbia were singled out for having exemplary standards.
Jeremy A. Stern, one of the two authors of the Fordham report, said there was no pattern in how well states did on the review. Neighboring states sometimes had very different approaches. Massachusetts, he said, had very good standards, but it was the only northeastern state that did. D.C. and South Carolina have very different political leanings, but both had good standards that were free of political bias.
When Fordham did a history report in 2003, the authors found left-wing bias, but they said that has been replaced by a similar type of right-wing bias.
Both authors complained that generally too much emphasis has been placed on themes in teaching history rather than giving students a clear chronological time line. History is often taught in "broader conceptual themes," the report said.
But Hastings said a thematic approach is warranted in some cases, such as teaching students about immigration, adding that she is not in favor of having students simply memorize facts. But Hastings and other social studies teachers agree with the Fordham study's conclusion that too little time and emphasis has been placed on the teaching of history in general.
"You can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been," said Hastings. "In a country like the United States that derives much of its strength from the diversity of its people, the study of U.S. history provides a unifying thread that binds a multicultural population together."