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We Need a STEM-Like Initative for History

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What can be done to address the troubling deficiencies identified in the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s 2010 history “report card”?  The short answer is that history must be restored to a central role in the K-12 curriculum, with dedicated support for history education included in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  The many “unintended consequences” of No Child Left Behind include the “narrowing of the curriculum” and decline in minutes per week in history instruction, particularly in elementary grades.  Across the United States, history has been crowded out of students’ schedules to prepare for high-stakes testing in reading and math.  We need a STEM-like (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) initiative for history, to rescue current and future generations of American from historical ignorance.  We, as a people and a nation, have to pay attention not merely to standards and textbooks but also to teacher preparation and professional development.  Revenue-strapped school districts cannot be expected to go it mostly alone in guaranteeing that all students have access to a quality education in U.S. history; the federal government must take the lead in turning around shortcomings in student performance.

Congress, in a budget-slashing frame of mind, has reduced funding for the Teaching American History grants program from $119 to $46 million for FY2011; moreover, for FY2012 Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) proposed total elimination of the only federally-supported program for professional development in history.  The irony, as Diane Ravitch remarked during the NAEP roll-out, is that such funding amounts to “crumbs.”  Yet the truly disappointing part of this story is that the administration’s blueprint for educational reform also does away with TAH grants, proposing to consolidate all funding for history into one large undifferentiated pot supposed to foster a “well-rounded” education.  All history projects will be expected “to compete” against other humanities, the arts, geography, civics, economics, financial literacy, and environmental studies.  Secretary Duncan aims to encourage local flexibility and innovation, but it is difficult to see how more than handfuls of students can receive high-quality history instruction in anything other than a hit-or-miss manner.  History will be reduced to an optional, occasional add-on.  Will we, as a people and a nation, really be better off without a shared understanding our past?

Students cannot successfully learn U.S. history without engaged and well-trained teachers.  Yet many who teach history neither major nor minor in the subject in college.  The majority earn degrees in education and/or certification in composite social studies, taking a smattering of mostly introductory courses in history, political science, economics, geography and psychology.  Others receive alternative certification/training that gives short shrift to content.  This is why professional development for history educators is pivotal.  Pre-service instruction should be centered in history rather than education departments, while in-service teachers need opportunities for professional development that not only deepen historical knowledge (content), but also emphasize historical thinking (process).  The June 2011 issue of Historically Speaking features a forum on “Historical Thinking at the K-12 Level” that presents cutting-edge scholarship in the field as well as best practices in the classroom.   

Other factors contribute to the “perfect storm” that jeopardizes history education.  AHA President Anthony Grafton recently noted that the number of history majors began to decline in the 1970s, coincident with many universities dropping history as a distribution requirement.  No wonder there exists a general disregard for the value of historical studies, which has negatively impacted our public discourse, as shouted opinions and unsubstantiated assertions drown out well-crafted arguments and informed debate, the latter the hallmarks of a beautiful historical mind.  All historians must advocate for full recognition of the central role of history education in making American students college-, career- and citizenship-ready.  Learning the past is one key to advancing President Obama’s goal of “winning the future.”