History lessons could become thing of the past in US schools

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.

More than nine out of 10 teachers want social studies to become part of their state’s set of standards and testing, according to a new survey. But while teachers might want testing, they don’t necessarily love it. In fact, as the researchers behind the survey note, almost half say that their subject has been de-emphasized 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.

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.

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 lacks definition. Given the chance to pick priorities, nearly half of the teachers think it’s important that 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 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.

America’s public schools were once thought to provide the cornerstone for an informed citizenry. What made “e pluribus unum” a fact was a common understanding of the 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 ignore the role civic education plays in making citizens of us all.

This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.

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