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Getting Students to Like History Is Not Impossible

The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics recently released the U.S. History National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), painfully pointing out that America is raising young people that, to an alarming degree, are historically illiterate. The report's findings (nearly unchanged from its last report in 1994), are neither new nor surprising, but they do reinforce what various reports over the last quarter century have lamented as the problem of students' lack of historical understanding and the devalued nature of history in our nation's schools.

Indeed, there is a crisis in learning in American schools. Too many students lack a basic understanding of American and world history and the skills to explore the past. That so many students are deficient in their knowledge of history testifies to the inadequacies of our nation's teacher preparation. According to a 1991 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, more than half of all social studies teachers did not major or minor in history. While new standards have placed pressure on some teachers to change their classroom practices and engage their students in analyzing multiple perspectives and primary sources and in developing research skills–these are skills that teachers themselves often lack. And standardized testing too often results in “teaching to the test” instead of allowing students to develop both the content knowledge and the critical thinking and research skills required for meaningful historical understanding.

Despite this stark evidence, history education gets little attention from reformers and policy makers. The Bush Administration and Congress have made education a top priority, but their focus is reading, math and science. Some school districts are decreasing history coursework to focus on math and reading proficiencies. Alabama, Michigan, and New Jersey have all delayed state social studies tests until revised academic standards that focus on math and reading skills are completed. As a result, while no child may be left behind in math, history remains even farther behind.

How can we ensure that students leave school historically literate? We must revise the way in which history is taught and thus learned in America's classrooms, so that teachers engage their students in a meaningful study of the past through the use of primary sources in classroom teaching. In fact, the NAEP report validates such teaching by pointing out that students"whose teachers reported using primary sources on a weekly basis had higher average scores...” But teachers’ lack of training in content and methods means that, to achieve this revision, we must reach our not only to students but to those who teach them.

National History Day (NHD) offers a model for solving this crisis. NHD is a highly regarded history education program which affects more than 700,000 students and 40,000 teachers each year. NHD provides training in using primary material for teachers through summer institutes, seminars and local workshops. These teachers then guide their students in choosing historical topics and conducting extensive research using primary and secondary sources, analyzing their material, and presenting conclusions in papers, exhibits, performances and documentaries. In the process, students hone important research, critical thinking, and presentation skills as well as learn historical content, and teachers enhance classroom practices to make history relevant and meaningful for their students. That is why effective educators like Chauncey Veatch, 2002 National Teacher of the Year, incorporate the program into their curriculum.

Although National History Day reaches thousands of young people and their teachers each year, there is still much to be done. Reform also must come from schools of education that are producing new teachers. College students training to become history teachers should be required to major in the subject matter so that they have a solid knowledge of historical content and methods.

Improving historical literacy and history teaching also will require much larger financial commitments from private and public resources. While the Teaching American History Grants program funded by Congress is a promising beginning, it is limited in scope, and funding for history teaching still lags far behind support for math and science.

Congress, policy makers, charitable foundations and corporations would be wise to invest in history education reform, lest our students charge us with educational felony – because by neglecting to provide quality instruction, we are robbing students of their past.