Sam Wineburg’s Scathing Critique of the Teaching American History Grants

WineburgIn Episode 3 (February 2016) of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, Stanford education professor Sam Wineburg told us that the Teaching American History grant program was “conceived in sin.”  Listen here.

At the time, Wineburg was working on his book Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone).  The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast listeners got an early test of the book, released yesterday by the University of Chicago Press.  My producer tells me that Wineburg will back on the podcast to talk about it in the Fall.

Wineburg is promoting the book in a piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Obituary for a Billion-Dollar Boondoggle.”  It continues Wineburg’s scathing critique of this federal grant program.  Here is a taste:

Catholics enumerate seven cardinal sins, including TAH’s greatest: the sin of gluttony. The program consumed much and left little. While stacks of reports were sent to Washington that boasted of stupendous successes (thus committing another mortal sin: pride), almost all failed the sniff test when examined by independent evaluators.

If timidity were a mortal sin, the Department of Education would certainly have to serve penance. Rather than earmarking funds to develop assessments that could be used for cross-project comparisons, the department treated each project on its own, wasting untold resources in fruitless attempts to reinvent the wheel. Worse still, department officials ignored advice given to them back in 2002 at a meeting that included the executive directors of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Council for the Social Studies. This gathering (and another, held two months later) called on the Department of Education to abandon bubble tests in favor of assessments that examine “student understanding of historical thinking and important, in-depth, contextualized subject matter rather than discrete historical ‘facts.’” While leaders of individual projects may have heeded this advice, it never influenced the program as a whole. When evaluators in 2011 submitted their recommendations at the end of their report, the department was, yet again, urged to create tools that “could contribute both to stronger local evaluations and to potential comparisons between projects.” This suggestion came too late for TAH.

By 2015, with TAH a distant memory, Stacia Kuceyeski, a historian with the Ohio History Connection, a statewide organization, wistfully recalled a time when her organization partnered in 22 TAH grants, and money flowed like water over Brandywine Falls. “Many of us at history museums and departments of history,” she blogged, “were like Scrooge McDuck, sliding around giant piles of sweet [federal] money that was especially designated for American history. How Amazing!” But with the party over, she and fellow historians were left with a “massive hangover, the likes of which can’t be helped with three Advil and a bunch of Gatorade.”

The history profession sure got plastered on TAH dollars. The billion-dollar bash lasted for a decade. But with sobriety comes a reckoning — in the words of the Twelve Steps, “a searching and fearless moral inventory.” We’re still waiting.

Read the entire piece here.

Full disclosure:  I defended the TAH grants here.