Don’t Know Much About History

Linda Salvucci, the chairwoman-elect of the National Council for History Education, weighs in on the recent report from the National Assessment of Educational Programs showing that students are less than proficient in their knowledge of American history.

In this interview with CNN, Salvucci zeroes in on some of the major problems with history education in America.  Here is a taste:


Is there a better way to teach history and what is preventing that from happening in schools today?

Absolutely.  Rather than requiring students to memorize endless lists of facts that are mandated in many state standards and reflected in conventional textbooks, we should organize significant content around principles of historical thinking. 

NCHE’s website  contains a short document entitled “History’s Habits of the Mind,” that identifies the skills acquired by studying history.  History is a way of thinking and can be effectively and engagingly taught by organizing content around questions and themes that allow students to function as practicing historians. 

K-12 students are more than capable of moving beyond the simple collection of evidence to the analysis, contextualization and interpretation of sources, followed by the articulation of arguments about the past.  They can learn how to think, not what to think, which is important in a democracy.   

Are you and Council members concerned about the number of young people who may or may not wake up one morning and think: That’s it! I want to grow up and be a history teacher!

What concerns NCHE is the “narrowing of the curriculum” due to the high-stakes testing in reading and math mandated by No Child Left Behind. 

History is being crowded out of the daily schedule in many states across the nation; in Indiana, for example, elementary students receive twelve minutes per week of instruction in history.  Twelve minutes per week!  Not much can flow through the pipeline under such circumstances.  And, of course, there is the larger issue of how society regards and compensates all teachers, not just history educators

Teachers and schools probably take the brunt of the blame when history test scores are low. What could parents do better?

There are so many dedicated history teachers out there, but they need support in the form of professional development.  That’s why it is so distressing to see Congress slash and try to eliminate funding for programs such as the Teaching American History grants, as well as to have Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reduce history to second-tier status (along with the humanities, the arts, geography, civics, economics, financial literary, environmental studies) in his plans to “consolidate” funding to foster a “well-rounded education.” 

Sure, parents can read history to their children and take them to visit historic sites, but they really ought to be mobilizing to demand that public officials get serious about adequately funding history education in the schools.  History must not be allowed to become some optional or occasional add-on to the “real” curriculum.  We need a STEM-like (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiative for history.