The End of History in America's Classrooms

Earlier this year, Massachusetts and New York, blaming budget troubles, pulled the plug on their state tests in U.S. history. Given the strident union rhetoric against "high-stakes" testing-- America's Federation of Teachers' Randi Weingarten has accused reformers of turning schools into "Test Prep, Inc."--one would have expected social studies teachers in the two states to be elated. Instead, they were outraged.

On Huffington Post, Alan Singer, an education professor at Hofstra University, voiced the general mood with the headline, "New York cancels history." The Long Island Council for the Social Studies, which represents over 1,100 teachers and administrators in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, drafted an open letter all but accusing the state Board of Regents of undermining democracy.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies is now polling its members on the suspension of state history tests, after losing its fight to move forward with testing. One retired teacher professed shock at the group's test-positive stance: "Here are teachers actually begging the state to shackle them so that they too can say to their students: 'You need to know this if you want to pass MCAS.'"

He shouldn't be so surprised. These teachers are not out of the mainstream--they're the majority. More than nine out of ten teachers want social studies to become part of their state's set of standards and testing, according to a new survey, "High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do."

With teacher layoffs now a reality in many resource-strapped states, social studies teachers are well aware that if their subject comes to be seen as dispensable, they may be too.

But while teachers might want testing, they don't necessarily love it. In fact, as Ann Duffett and Steve Farkas (the researchers behind the survey) note, almost half say that their subject has been deemphasized as a result of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Another half believes their school district treats civics as an "important but not essential" subject, and 70 percent claim it's a lower priority because of pressure to show progress in math and reading.

Of course, NCLB is not uniquely responsible for the decline of civics. The law's impact has been felt much more in elementary and middle schools than in high schools, and even then, much of the curriculum narrowing predates NCLB. Still, NCLB reflects what we prioritize when it comes to education and, right now, knowledge of America's history, political institutions, and ideals is conspicuously absent. Nor is it surprising that states and school districts would downplay these subjects in favor of those for which they're held publicly accountable and compared with one another: reading, math, and science. Thus, in the state-led Common Core initiative, civics gets nary a mention, while history has been entirely subsumed under English and language arts standards.

These are disturbing trends, and teachers are right to protest them. True, there is a healthy dose of self-interest about their complaints. With teacher layoffs now a reality in many resource-strapped states, social studies teachers are well aware that if their subject comes to be seen as dispensable, they may be too. "I was once among those who disagreed with state testing as a sole measure of accountability," wrote one such teacher in the Worcester Telegram. "However, the reality is simple: If it is not tested, it will not be emphasized and perhaps not even taught."

If testing helps restore civics in the minds of principals and legislators, it also focuses the minds and efforts of educators. As one Massachusetts teacher told Education Week, "You realize that without high stakes, we probably wouldn't have pushed the students as hard, because we didn't need to."

Teachers could use that focus. Opponents like to argue that standardized testing produces narrow outcomes, but the current civics curriculum--to judge from the Farkas-Duffett survey--lacks definition. Given the chance to pick their teaching priorities, nearly half of the teachers think it's important students "internalize core values like tolerance and equality." Less than 40 percent chose "understand[ing] the key principles of American government" as their top priority.

Moreover, only 63 percent of the surveyed teachers (the majority of whom teach U.S. history) think it's "absolutely essential" to teach students to be knowledgeable about America's past. Given this historical apathy, it's a small miracle that only 40 percent say their students haven't carefully studied the nation's keystone documents--the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

With less emphasis on core texts like the Constitution and the principles of American government, teachers, not surprisingly, report less confidence in what their students know. Only 24 percent of teachers indicate that their students can identify the protections in the Bill of Rights when they graduate high school, 15 percent think that their students understand federalism and the separation of powers, and 11 percent believe their pupils know the basic precepts of the free market.

America's public schools were once thought to provide the cornerstone for an informed citizenry--a citizenry made up multiple races and ethnic origins. What made "e pluribus unum" a fact was a common understanding of what rights and responsibilities we had as citizens and the role the government played in providing sound and effective self-rule. We are playing fast and loose with our future if we continue to downplay or simply ignore the role civic education plays in making citizens of us all.

Cheryl Miller is the program manager of the AEI Program on American Citizenship.

Photo Credit: paul goyette/Flickr/Creative Commons

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