A New Blueprint for History Education
Tuyen Tran and Beth Slutsky, May 2012
History education is being sidelined throughout the country, especially at the K–12 level. The recurrent standards controversy over what part of our national history should be taught and when (as in the cases of Texas and North Carolina) should not overshadow a larger cause for concern. Over the past few years, counties, districts, and schools have begun to implement plans to reduce or eliminate history courses in the lower grades. When districts decide to drop history from their curriculum, administrators assert that they must do so because their students read and write far below grade level. To address and remedy this lack of proficiency, districts direct teachers to focus exclusively on English-Language Arts instruction, a focus that will almost surely intensify with the near national adoption of the Common Core State Standards.
Improving student literacy certainly merits attention. However, dropping history instruction from the curriculum will not ensure that reading comprehension and writing ability improve. Indeed, history must be part of the curriculum if the goal is to improve student literacy: research as well as educators' empirical experience suggest that studying history improves a student's ability to read analytically, think critically, and write effectively. Moreover, the discipline of history prepares students to take part in a pluralistic democracy by requiring them to consider multiple perspectives, analyze and interpret information, and draw conclusions from evidence.1
Given that history education provides students with these abilities, why has it been marginalized and how can that marginalization be remedied? Much of the current dynamic stems from state and national government efforts to standardize curriculum. In 1987, our own state educational agency, the California Department of Education (CDE), released the California State Framework for History-Social Science (since revised), outlining the content to be taught at each grade level in California's public schools. In 1998, the CDE published History-Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools, providing in even greater detail the specific material to be taught. While not without its critics, the history and social science content standards marked the first statewide attempt to improve equity and access to historical content and analytical skills for all of California's children. Continuing the trend of standardizing curriculum and assessment, the federal 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation tied student performance to federal funding. The Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) system established through NCLB, as well as a state accountability system (the Academic Performance Index) determine school performance and annual improvement in California schools. Many other states evaluate schools through similar federal/state accountability systems. In general, these scores focus on two NCLB measures: reading and mathematics. Schools with student test scores that do not meet goals established under these systems risk losing funds and autonomy. To improve school ranking, schools therefore focus heavily on these two disciplines, with the result that administrators often eliminate history from the curriculum entirely, or reduce it to as little as 30 minutes per week.2 While the United States Department of Education is currently reviewing state applications to the NCLB law, few view these waivers as a serious challenge to our discipline's marginalization.
In many states, such as Michigan and California (two states with rigorous standards already in place), this means that children who have graduated from high school would have learned very little about pre-20th century United States or about world history. Normally, the history of colonial America, the Revolutionary War, the expansion and industrialization of the 19th century, and the Civil War would have been taught in elementary and middle schools. With the elimination or compression of these topics, students will not have learned much about their own nation's early history by the time they graduate from the middle school. In essence, those who have removed history instruction from elementary and middle school classrooms will have ensured that students will only learn about events in the 20th century. Taking away history instruction costs students more than their past. It hinders the development of critical thinking, and the analytical abilities to evaluate evidence, understand historical perspectives, and other discipline-specific skills that enable students to become proficient in their state's standards. These are precisely the high-level skills adults need to make informed decisions about such matters as ballot propositions, candidates, grassroots campaigns, or employment opportunities.
To address these developments plaguing K–12 education, the California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP) has spearheaded statewide initiatives for collective action. Two standouts include a series of conferences entitled the History Summit and the History Blueprint, the CHSSP's innovative model for high-quality history instruction. As one of nine projects comprising the California Subject Matter Project, authorized by the state and administered by the University of California Office of the President, the CHSSP is fulfilling building on its role as a K–16 collaborative. For the History Summit, the CHSSP convened a wide-ranging group of scholars, educators, administrators, governing officials, and professional development representatives to develop new strategies for confronting the marginalization of history education. In 2008–09, with support and funding from the History Channel, the University of California, Davis, and private individuals, the CHSSP coordinated three summits attended by approximately 100 professionals from across the state who actively participated in forums aimed at facilitating discussion, building common ground, highlighting current pedagogical research, showcasing effective instruction, and making recommendations for increased and improved history-social science instruction.
Beginning in spring 2008, three History Summits took place at universities and colleges across the state over the course of a year: "What High-Quality History Education Can Provide for California's Students," "The Promises of History Education for Student Learning," and "Merging Historical Content, Instruction, and Research." The first showcased exemplary instructional practices of model teachers. Program speakers highlighted the benefits to teachers and scholars of developing relationships between teaching and research.3 The second History Summit placed a spotlight on the academic skills intrinsic to the discipline. Keynote presentations by Bob Bain and Mary Schleppegrell, professors in the School of Education at the University of Michigan, addressed the pedagogical challenge of teaching students to think historically. These nationally recognized scholars have conducted groundbreaking research into how instructors teach history as well as how students learn history. The final summit demonstrated the integration of research within pedagogy. California Assembly Member Tom Torlakson (currently California's superintendent of public instruction) and State Senator Gloria Romero (currently director of Democrats for Education Reform in California) presented at History Summit III. Both lawmakers offered their support to high-quality history instruction and impressed upon the audience their commitment to improving California's educational system. Summit III participants accomplished a significant milestone in drafting a joint message statement appealing for public support.
The history summits demonstrated the value of collaboration between educational professionals and focused on the importance of advocacy. They also highlighted the need for concrete data that conclusively document the detrimental impact of depriving students of history education nationwide. Collecting broader data to present to state and national policymakers would strengthen what classroom teachers know firsthand. History Summit participants also concurred that aside from quantifiable data, schools have the fundamental responsibility of preparing students for informed citizenship. Indeed, the final summit message called for the enforcement of existing education codes requiring history-social science; insurance of a minimum amount of time in each school day for all students to receive standards-aligned history instruction; and expansion of access to existing funds for teacher training to support their development.
In light of the dismantling of the Teaching American History program, one of the key funding mechanisms for professional development in history, it is even more pressing that professionals continue to develop and pursue innovative programs that remedy the marginalization of history education. With the History Summit's recommendations in mind and in response to the new Common Core State Standards, the CHSSP launched History Blueprint in 2009 to improve the quality of history instruction and inform public policy across the nation. Its goals are to increase student achievement and engagement in history-social science, improve academic literacy and critical thinking, and provide formative and summative data on student content knowledge, critical thinking, reading, and writing. To meet these goals, the Blueprint project contains four components.
First is the development of curriculum that reflects current scholarship, is inquiry-based, and includes multimedia resources. The second component is discipline-specific support for English learners and native speakers with low literacy. And the third consists of innovative formative and summative assessments designed to measure content knowledge, disciplinary understanding, academic literacy, and critical thinking. The final component is professional development to deepen teacher content knowledge and disciplinary understanding, and familiarize them with the new assessments, resources, and Common Core strategies.
As a first effort in 2011, the History Blueprint leadership team, a group of historians and history teachers, completed an eight-lesson unit on the Civil War that has been vetted by more than 100 teachers statewide. Through support from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, the History Channel, and private donors, the pilot unit is ready for field testing this spring. It combines digital video, primary sources, historical investigations, formative and assessment tools, and strategies for academic literacy and historical thinking. It is freely available at the historyblueprint.org website, along with instructional support for teachers to implement the unit with confidence. The long-term vision of the History Blueprint is to design comprehensive curriculum, assessment, and professional development programs that are proven to increase student achievement in history for grades 4–12. In addition, the History Blueprint will continue to develop a fully functional website with specific resources and guidance for parents, teachers, administrators, and students. When funding is secured, the CHSSP intends to produce research that is both publishable and relevant for the K–12 context. During a protracted economic downtown, when competing priorities weigh heavy on administrators and legislators alike, research demonstrating the efficacy of history programs—and history education by extension—is imperative.
Tuyen Tran received her PhD in American history from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2007. She is currently the assistant director of the California History-Social Science Project.
Beth Slutsky received her PhD in American history from the University of California, Davis, in 2008. She currently works as a program coordinator for the California History-Social Science Project and as a lecturer at University of California, Davis.
3. History Summit I presenters include: Edward Berenson, professor of History and French Studies at New York University and founding Executive Director of the CHSSP Statewide Office from 1990-1993; Amanda Podany, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona history professor and formerly the Executive Director of the CHSSP from 1993-1997; Lisa Hutton, assistant professor in the College of Education at the California State University, Dominguez Hills and co-director of the History Project at CSU Long Beach and Dominguez Hills; Peter Hamilton; Sara Jordan; Rebecca Valbuena; Jennifer Brouhard; John Garrett; and Dave Neumann.