New Bill to Boost History Education, Reignite Culture Wars

Senators Robert Byrd, Edward Kennedy and Lamar Alexander have introduced a bill titled "Restoring American History and Civics to Classroom Prominence." Alexander (pictured here) described the bill in his floor speech, saying it "will help to put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place, in our classrooms, so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American. The legislation which we have introduced would expand summer academies for outstanding teachers, authorize new teacher programs, require States to set standards for the teaching and learning of U.S. history, and create new opportunities to compare the tests that students take on U.S. history."

Alexander's office also issued a press release which boiled the legislation down to bullet points, stating that the legislation would:

• Authorize 100 summer academies for outstanding students and teachers of U.S. History and align those academies with locations in the national park system, such as the John Adams House or Independence Hall
• Double authorization for funding “Teaching American History” programs in local school districts, which today involve 20,000 students as a part of No Child Left Behind
• Require states to develop and implement standards for student assessments in U.S. History, although there would be no federal accountability requirement as there is for reading and mathematics
• Allow states to compare history and civics test scores of 8th- and 12th-grade students by establishing a 10-state pilot program that would expand the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)

The most exciting parts of the bill are the first two items. One hundred summer academies is a lot! Tying them to the National Park Service is an interesting idea, and a tribute the NPS lobbyists, who deserve a big raise. Summer academies or institutes have been among the most successful parts of many, many Teaching American History projects, and the model is also used by the NEH and Gilder-Lehrman Institute. If one goes to the NPS History pages, and begins exploring the many historic National Monuments, historic trails, and National Heritage Areas (and when were those created, anyway? I had not heard of them) you can see the many possibilities for these institutes. I am already thinking of the NPS historic sites in my region, and the possibilities of summer institutes.

The second item, doubling the funding for the TAH program, is wonderful news. The Teaching American History program is designed to improve the teaching of American history in the schools by bringing together teachers, historians, and enough resources (by which I mean funding) for them to do some interesting collaborations. I have been deeply involved in the TAH program from the beginning, writing grant proposals, teaching the teachers, and most recently as an evaluator and consultant.

I really dislike the third item. I can see the goal here, making states develop history standards will help to ensure that history is taught and valued in the public schools. But who writes the standards? I see these standards becoming a political football and reigniting the culture wars of the 80s and 90s on the state level. Remember the disastrous reception to the 1994 National History Standards? This was a top-down attempt by an idealistic but politically naive history profession to impose a new set of historically sound standards on the nation's schools. Denounced (unfairly, but predictably) by Rush Limbaugh and Lynne Cheney as being politically correct, they were condemned by the U.S. Senate, 99 to 1. Lets pick that scab, shall we?

The last item, using NAEP to roll out a pilot project for standardized testing in history, also runs the risk of politicization. The great dilemma here is that in the era of NCLB high-stakes testing, that which is not tested does not get taught. And that which does get tested is "taught to the test"--stifling the teacher creativity that is one of the great strengths of our system.

Overall this bill is great news. Thank you, Senators!

Historians: Let's get out in front of this. Go to the NPS site and see what historic site matches your specialty and pick up the phone. But then make contact with your university School of Education (I know, I know) and find out how to get involved in the drafting of those state standards. This kind of bureaucratic work is time consuming and unrewarding. But not nearly so time consuming and unrewarding as teaching your survey classes in ten years if you do nothing and your class is full of young people who were taught all sorts of incorrect historical mischief in the public schools!