What Teaching American History Can Teach Us
A version of this essay was published in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, Thursday, July 7, 2011
We’ve gotten sadly used to reports about Americans’ woeful lack of knowledge about their own history. Still, the recent announcement from federal education officials that U.S. students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject and that, overall, only 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders, and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress is dismaying if not surprising.
Ironically, one of the casualties of the protracted debate over this year’s federal budget was a popular (at least among educators) and well conceived federal program the primary objective of which is to boost student achievement in U.S. history. The Teaching American History (TAH) grants program provides funding to local school districts for innovative teacher training and curriculum development projects in U.S. history.
Since the program was established in 2001, approximately 1,000 Teaching American History grants totaling roughly $1 million each have been awarded to urban and rural school districts all across the nation for highly collaborative, multi-year efforts to strengthen history teaching and improve student learning. Several local districts have received multiple grants, including districts in Boston (6), Worcester (4), Springfield (4) and Fall River (3).
A modest program to begin with, funding for TAH grants was cut 61% in the current year budget – down to a meager $46 million. As a result, the U.S. Department of Education has announced that no new projects will be funded.
Under the guise of eliminating federal education programs that are “wasteful, ineffective and duplicative,” the House Republican leadership had targeted the program for complete elimination, and that may yet happen when the federal budget debate soon begins anew.
Teaching American History grants comprise the only federal program that funds K-12 history education, so the program clearly is not duplicative. The question remains whether it is “wasteful and ineffective” and with the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in hand, the appropriators have a rare opportunity to measure the impact of a federal grant program before deciding its fate.
Test results from districts that have received TAH grants should be compared with results from districts that have not.
TAH projects have many worthwhile benefits. They rekindle teachers’ enthusiasm for and engagement with their subject matter. They foster experimentation and the development of more up to date, tech-savvy teaching methods. They foster cooperative relationships among local school districts and other institutions both public and private – colleges and universities, libraries and museums, national parks and historic sites, state archives, state humanities councils – that have expertise in history and an interest in public education. But if they do not fulfill their primary objective and make a measurable difference in student achievement, then the TAH grant program ought to be abandoned.
But if, as seems more likely, comparative analysis shows that students in districts that have been awarded TAH grants, especially those that have received multiple grants, do significantly better on the national history test than those from other districts, then funding for the Teaching American History grant program ought not only to be reinstated, it ought to be increased substantially and the teaching and learning models that have emerged from the program ought to be applied in other subject areas where student achievement fails to meet reasonable expectations.
Unfortunately, that includes virtually all other subject areas.