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Study Says State Legislature Should Require Education Board to Reinstate Passage of U.S. History Test as Graduation Requirement

National tests find knowledge of U.S. history education flagging across the country; teachers believe it’s in jeopardy in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Legislature should require the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to reinstate passage of the U.S. history MCAS exam as a high school graduation requirement, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute. In addition, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education should provide teachers in grades 6-10 with examples of specific texts that could be assigned to prepare students to read a seminal historical text such as Federalist #10 in grade 11 or 12.

The Rise and Fall of the Study of American History in Massachusetts

In “The Rise and Fall of the Study of American History in Massachusetts,” authors Anders Lewis and Sandra Stotsky find that history teachers in Massachusetts believe that the study of U.S. history is in great jeopardy in the Commonwealth and across the country.

“In the most recent national testing, American students demonstrated low proficiency in U.S. history,” said Jamie Gass, director of Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform. “Even here in the Cradle of Liberty we have virtually no way to measure whether our schoolchildren are learning the basics of the Founding Documents, the Civil War, two World Wars, and the Civil Rights Movement. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, this should be ‘a fire bell in the night’ about our students’ ability to understand and perpetuate our democratic ideals.”

Among the reasons the authors cite for students’ lack of historical knowledge are electronics and other distractions that weren’t available to previous generations, a focus on pedagogy rather than academic content in schools of education, and the growing dominance of more generalized social studies like sociology, anthropology, and psychology, over traditional history.

After years of U.S. history being de-emphasized in the nation’s public schools, Massachusetts’ 1993 education reform law required standards that “shall provide for instruction in at least the major principles of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and The Federalist Papers.” The law also included history among the core subjects for which it mandated state assessments.

In 1997, a state history and social science curriculum framework was approved. In 2002, it was revised and improved to provide clear grade-by-grade Pre-K-12 standards. A year later, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute hailed the Massachusetts history standards as among the nation’s best; respected education historian Diane Ravitch declared those standards, together with California’s history framework, the finest in the country.

The tests were scheduled to become a graduation requirement for the class of 2012. Pilot tests were developed and the tests were scheduled to become operational in 2009. But in February of that year, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to suspend administering the tests for two years.

The board blamed a lack of financial resources for the decision and pledged to reinstitute the test “as expeditiously as possible.” Since 2009, neither state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester nor the board has taken any steps to reinstate the tests.

In a 2012 Pioneer Institute survey, a majority of teachers, state legislators and parents all supported reinstating the U.S. history test.

The preface to “The Rise and Fall of the Study of American History in Massachusetts” was written by Willard Sterne Randall. He is the author of 13 books, including biographies of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Ethan Allen. Mr. Sterne Randall is also a frequent guest on CSPAN’s “Booknotes.”

Anders Lewis is a history teacher and art and history department head at the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough. He holds a Ph.D. in American history and assisted co-author Sandra Stotsky in developing Massachusetts history and social science curriculum frameworks.

Sandra Stotsky is professor of education reform emerita at the University of Arkansas, where she held the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality. She is a former member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. As a Massachusetts state official in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dr. Stotsky oversaw development of the Commonwealth’s nationally recognized state standards in English language arts, mathematics, science, and U.S. history.

Teaching U.S. history in public schools will be the subject of a Pioneer Institute event and book signing on Monday, January 28 at 8:00 a.m. at the Omni Parker House hotel in Boston. Keynote addresses will be 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. Drs. Dodson and Rakove will be signing their latest books at the event.

In addition to Anders Lewis, Will Fitzhugh, founder of The Concord Review, will serve on a panel to be moderated by Robert Pondiscio, director of communications for the Core Knowledge Foundation. This Pioneer Institute event is co-sponsored by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, the Core Knowledge Foundation, the Massachusetts chapter of We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution, and The Concord Review.

The Massachusetts chapter of We the People will host its annual statewide contest, which tests students’ knowledge of U.S. history, the Founding Documents, and civics, on Saturday, January 26, from 8 to 1 p.m. at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, 79 John F. Kennedy Street in Cambridge. Pioneer’s Jamie Gass is among the judges.

This week, a state commission on U.S. History and civics chaired by state Senator Richard Moore is due to issue its report on plans for U.S. history and civics instruction in Massachusetts public schools.

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 broad support among 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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