Study urges states to adopt high-quality state U.S history standards, passage of U.S. Citizenship Test as public college admissions requirement
BOSTON – Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian and Princeton University Professor Emeritus James M. McPherson will deliver the keynote address at “The Legacy of Lincoln: U.S. History in American Schooling,” a Pioneer Institute forum marking the 150th anniversary of both the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, to be held Tuesday, April 2nd at 8:00 am at the Omni Parker House hotel in downtown Boston.
The event will also mark the release of a White Paper, Shortchanging the Future:The Crisis of History and Civics in American Schools, on why history and civics are failing in American K-12 schools. It explains what can be done to reverse this trend. The paper features a foreword from another Pulitzer Prize winner, University of Pennsylvania Professor Walter A. McDougall. In his Foreword, Professor McDougall writes that “History… gives children the mental trellis they need to situate themselves in time and space and organize all other knowledge they acquire in the humanities and sciences. To deny students history is to alienate them from their community, nation, culture and species.”
In the paper, co-authors Robert Pondiscio, Gilbert T. Sewall, and Sandra Stotsky address the decades-long decline in U.S. history and civics in K-12 education. They recommend that states could adopt high-quality state U.S. history standards, such as those in South Carolina, California, and Massachusetts; and that passage of the U.S. Citizenship Test be required for admission to public colleges and eligibility for Pell grants or other public higher education aid.
Student scores in U.S. history and civics have seen decades of decline. In the most recent national testing, 35 percent of American eighth graders tested scored proficient in math and 34 percent were proficient in both reading and science, but only 18 percent were proficient in U.S. history.
The authors find several causes for the decline. First, history has been squeezed out of the K-12 public school curriculum. Teachers and administrators are routinely measured based on student performance in English, math, and science, but there is no such accountability for history.
As U.S. history has become a lower priority, fewer than half of secondary school history students nationwide are taught by teachers with a major or minor in history.
As a result of its marginalization, U.S. history study has more often been relegated to the earlier grades, when students oftentimes lack the necessary depth of understanding of the topic.
Educators have also increasingly repudiated a focus on Western Civilization in favor of world history. U.S. history as a force to inculcate students in American ideals has given way to a focus on race, class, gender, and other characteristics that advance group identity politics. The theory was that this approach would improve self-esteem and result in better student performance, but that hasn’t proven to be true.
In recent decades, several public and private efforts have been launched in an attempt to stem the tide. They include We the People, a program formerly funded by the U.S. Department of Education designed to encourage and enhance the teaching, study and understanding of America’s Founding Documents, U.S. history, and civics, as well as independent textbook review efforts.
Robert Pondiscio is executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a New York City-based non-profit civic education organization. Gilbert T. Sewall is a former history instructor at Phillips Academy, education editor at Newsweek, and director of the American Textbook Council. Sandra Stotsky is Professor Emerita of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a nationally recognized author and expert on K-12 academic standards.
The April 2 event will feature introductory remarks by Will Fitzhugh, founder of The Concord Review, which publishes non-fiction essays by high school students from around the world. Christiane Henrich, a junior at Stanford University majoring in Biomechanical Engineering, who as a Massachusetts high school student, won The Concord Review‘s Emerson Prize for her 5,000-word essay, “Civil War Medicine,” will speak on her experience reading, researching, and writing about history.
The event will include a panel moderated by Wall Street Journal Assistant Editorial Features Editor David Feith, who also edited the book Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education. Sandra Stotsky and Robert Pondiscio will be joined on the panel by Meira Levinson, Associate Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Charles White, Associate Professor, the School of Education at Boston University.
The event is co-sponsored by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School, CitizenshipFirst, We the People, and The Concord Review.
Following the event, Professor McPherson will be available to sign his books, including the Pulitzer-winning Battle Cry of Freedom.
In January, Pioneer hosted an event “The Founders and Slavery: Teaching U.S. History in Schools.” The keynote addresses were delivered by Dr. Howard Dodson, who directs Howard University’s Moorland-Springarn Research Center and Library System, and Dr. Jack Rakove, the William Robertson Coe professor of history and American studies and professor of political science at Stanford University. Professor Rakove won the Pulitzer Prize in History for his book Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. At the forum, Pioneer released a white paper, The Rise and Fall of the Study of American History in Massachusetts authored by Anders Lewis and Sandra Stotsky.
Pioneer Institute has actively promoted rigorous, content-based academic standards that include U.S. history and civics instruction. In May 2012, Pioneer hosted an event featuring presidential historians Willard Sterne Randall and Jeff Shesol, on “The Power of the U.S. Supreme Court: A Civics Lesson,” at which national pollster David Paleologos presented public opinion survey results demonstrating deep and wide support among Massachusetts social studies teachers, legislators, and citizens for restoring the passage of an MCAS U.S. history test as a high school graduation requirement.
In 2010, Pioneer held an event on the importance of a U.S. history-rich core knowledge curriculum that featured University of Virginia Professor Emeritus E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and Andrew J. Rotherham, former Clinton administration aide and co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education. (Transcript: The Sacred Fire of Liberty).
Pioneer also co-sponsored a conference in May 2008, “History and Civic Education: The Learning of Liberty for Civic Life,” with the Projects in Civic Engagement at Boston University’s School of Education. The event, featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning and Brown University historian Gordon S. Wood, focused on preparing students with a working knowledge of U.S. History for active citizenship.
Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.
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I’m sympathetic when I hear individuals lament cancel culture, radicalized student bodies, and anti-free speech climates in our institutions of higher learning. In many ways, it’s right to do so. But in our defense, I might suggest that our lack of aptitude is the result of increasingly substandard history and civics education.
Intern Jude Iredell emphasizes the importance of history education for informed citizenship, citing Pioneer’s survey on Massachusetts residents’ historical knowledge. He encourages supporting organizations and initiatives promoting civic engagement and history literacy.
According to both the NAEP U.S. history and civics test results and a national survey emulating a U.S. citizenship test, students and citizens in America are largely lacking the mastery of the subjects. At a time when history and civics education is highly politicized, we must improve their education to ensure future generations of capable citizens.