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From The Coalition Column of the March 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

History, Civics, and Making the Engaged Citizen

Lee White, March 2012

At the AHA's 126th annual meeting in January 2012, Sandra Day O'Connor (retired associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), received the AHA's Roosevelt-Wilson Award which is given to honor a public figure or other civil servant who has made extraordinary contributions to the study, teaching, and public understanding of history. In a variety of roles over a long career, O'Connor has championed the cause of a historically aware citizenry as fundamental to the functioning of American democracy.

Since her retirement in 2006 O'Connor has tirelessly promoted public understanding and teaching of history through civics (and civics through history), especially at the secondary school level. O'Connor took on the unexpected role of digital innovator: she inspired the creation and maintenance of iCivics.org, a sophisticated web site for children to learn about U.S. government and history through online games.

O'Connor is one of the co-chairs of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (CMS), a valuable ally of the history education proponents in their continuing quest for support of professional development for precollegiate teachers. The American Historical Association and National History Day are among the more than 70 members of CMS.

CMS promotes effective civic learning, including K–12 and higher education history teaching. As the Campaign states in its "Guardian of Democracy" report, "To grasp facts and concepts so essential in becoming an informed and engaged citizen, requires systemic history education throughout a student's academic career. History Education is essential to Civic Learning." (Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools Report 2011 is available at www.civicmissionofschools.org.)

The National Coalition for History (NCH) and CMS work closely together on policy advocacy for history and civic learning. For example, last year the Campaign joined NCH in our advocacy efforts to preserve Teaching American History (TAH) grants as an independent program at the U.S. Department of Education.

In many ways, the challenges facing civics advocates are similar to those facing the historical community. Last year the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports for both U.S. History and Civics were released within a few weeks of each other. The NAEP history and civics assessments were designed to measure how well 4th, 8th and 12th graders are learning basic knowledge of U.S. History and the essential skills needed to be good citizens. The full reports can be found at www.natitionsreportcard.gov.

While both reports showed scattered improvement at different grade levels and across gender and racial lines, overall the results were disappointing, showing students lacking "basic" knowledge of both history and civics. And the scores of those considered "proficient" were even worse.

For example two-thirds of students scored below "proficient" on the most recent national civics assessment. Less than half of 8th graders surveyed knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights; only 1-in-10 had age appropriate knowledge of the system of checks and balance among our branches of government. Only 20 percent of 4th graders, 17 percent of 8th graders and 12 percent of 12th graders performed at or above the "proficient" level on the 2010 U.S History assessment.

Following the release of the U.S. History 2010 NAEP report, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that the history scores showed "that student performance is still too low," and added, "These results tell us that, as a country, we are failing to provide children with a high-quality, well-rounded education. A well-rounded curriculum is critical to preparing students for success in school and life. That's why we're putting a greater emphasis on courses like history, art, drama and music in our efforts to fix No Child Left Behind."

Ironically, despite the glaring need for investment in K–12 and civics education that the NAEP assessments showed, funding for U.S. Department of Education programs devoted to these subjects was eliminated in the fiscal 2012 budget enacted late last year. In addition, legislation has passed the House Education and the Workforce Committee that would abolish the Teaching American History grants program altogether.

On Oct. 20, 2011, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) completed its markup of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The bill includes an amendment, offered by Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.), that would create a "well-rounded" education fund. School districts could use the money to fund programs in history, civics education, social studies and eight other subject areas. However, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chair of the HELP committee, has not said when or if his bill will come to the floor since it lacks Republican support.

It is looking like partisan gridlock will make it impossible for Congress to pass an ESEA reauthorization bill this year. On February 9, 2012, Representative John Kline (R-Minn.), chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee introduced two ESEA reauthorization bills. However, the Ranking Member on the committee, Representative George Miller (D-Calif.) has indicated he will not support either one.

So any possibility of improving history and civics education at the federal level will likely fall prey to election-year politics.

Even beyond test scores, there is ample evidence that U.S. citizens are becoming increasingly disengaged from the political process. The percentage of Americans voting in presidential elections has remained remarkably constant since 1972, with an average voter turnout of 53 percent of eligible voters going to the polls. However, from 1952 to 1968, the average voter turnout in presidential election years was 62 percent.

The fact that only slightly more than half of eligible voters choose to participate in presidential elections should be a national embarrassment. One could argue any number of factors have led to the sharp decline in voter turnout beginning in 1972. Did public cynicism after Watergate trigger the nearly 10 percent decline in voter turnout? But for a large number of eligible voters under the age of say 40, Watergate is only something they read about in a school history book, and if we go by the NAEP scores, it may not even have any meaning at all.

A more significant contributor to voter apathy is the marginalization of the teaching of history and civics in K–12 school curriculums over the years. People who have no sense of their own history and heritage and do not know how their government works, lack the basic knowledge needed to become engaged citizens. And we are all poorer for that as a nation. NCH and its constituent organizations will continue to work with our allies in the civics community, such as CMS, to advocate for a greater emphasis on the teaching of history and civics in our nation's schools.

Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at lwhite@historycoalition.org.