Bill to Reform Teaching of American History and Civics Introduced in the Senate

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), along with co-sponsors Senators Kennedy (D-MA) and Byrd (D-WV), recently introduced a bill (S. 659) called the “Improving the Teaching and Learning of American History and Civics Act of 2009.”

The bill would do the following.

  • Authorize 100 summer academies for outstanding students and teachers of U.S. History and align those academies with locations in the national park system
  • Double authorization (from $100m to $200m) for funding “Teaching American History” programs in local school districts, which today involve 20,000 students as a part of No Child Left Behind
  • Require states to develop and implement standards for student assessments in U.S. History, although there would be no federal accountability requirement as there is for reading and mathematics
  • Allow states to compare history and civics test scores of 8th- and 12th-grade students by establishing a 10-state pilot program that would expand the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)

The bill has been referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that Senator Kennedy chairs. Senator Byrd is the originator of the Teaching American History grants program and is a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. In addition, Senator Alexander is a former-Secretary of Education and the Ranking Republican on the Children and Families that has jurisdiction over the Department of Education. So the key players are in a position to move this bill quickly.

13 Responses to “Bill to Reform Teaching of American History and Civics Introduced in the Senate”

  1. Frank Pitz Says:

    Uh, okay, just who gets to design the curriculum and study/reading materials for this new reformation; in particular the history component?

    If the Teaching American History is designed on all the past models (as when I was in school many, many, years ago), it won’t be worth a hill of beans.

  2. Arthur Green Says:

    This is all well and good but the time has come to put some similar programs for the teaching of “world history.” Students need to have a better knowledge of the interdependent world they will live in.

  3. C T Rezner Says:

    This sounds Orwellian to me. It is bad enough that our Heritage in schools gets short changed because modern historians waste time on insignficant sidelights like women’s and black history blowing them out of proportion rather than staying with the main stream military, political, and economic events which earlier generations, who had an understanding of our hertiage were taught. With a President who is trying to come up with new meanings for words in an attemp to hide what he is doing and be politically correct we would be well on our way to a managed American History of political correctness.

  4. Christine Smith Says:

    As a US History teacher in a high school, these programs are essential to increasing my knowledge of US History and creating engaging and relevant lessons for my students. Going where the history is reinvergerates me and encourages me to produce the type of history that will also pull in my students. I have participated in the American History Grants for the past two years and have visited Montana to study Vermont’s connection to the West. I was able to not only visit and interact with members of the Crow tribe that related to my Native American unit and my elective course, I was also able to immerse myself in the history of Virgina City and the Vermont connection to the gold rush. Last summer I spent time in Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown. While I can’t speak for the various academies that will be created in this new bill, those who developed the curriclum for my two trips in the history grants are acedemic historians who pay close attention to not only the historical accuracy of these trips, but its connection to our current Vermont standards. Mr. Pitz I can assure you that they are professionals in ever sense of the word and the strict regulations in which they have to follow leave little room for waste. My hope is that those in Congress will contiue to create these opportunities for teachers so that we can continue to be better educators and historians. Mr. Green, with success of this program, perhaps Congress will see the benfits to extending these academies and opportunities to world history teachers.

  5. Larry Frohman Says:

    While we would all like to see history or social studies receive the funding necessary to support a more intensive and sophisticated continuing education for teachers comparable to that available to teachers in math and the sciences, I’m disturbed to see that the Senate is thinking of renewing this program, which needs to be reformed root and branch or, failing that, simply abandoned. While the extension of standards and assessments to US history and civics is simply an employment bill for educrats (the National Center for History in the Schools developed challenging standards for US and world history more than a decade ago), I’d like to focus here on the vision underlying the TAH program.

    The program is designed to promote something that it calls “traditional US history” (http://www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/pg32.html). While this is designed in part to rescue the discipline of history from what the original authors of the bill consider to be the failings of social studies as a discipline, this notion of traditionalism is also used to promote both a politically conservative conception of heritage history that overlooks most of the key developments in the historical discipline since the 1960s and an intellectually retrograde notion of history as the knowledge of objective “truths.” The TAH program is of a piece with a 2006 Florida Education Omnibus Bill, signed by Gov. Jeb Bush, which–according to Jonathan Zimmerman’s HNN blog–states that “The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth… American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed” (http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/26426.html).

    It would be wonderful if I could get the funding to help a group of history/social studies teachers develop a more sophisticated understanding of what historians do by guiding them through a month of summer research in, say, the archives of the New York Historical Society. Both the teachers and their students would certainly benefit from this. But the TAH program in its current form seeks to legislate a limited and–in its limitations–problematic approach to the history of the United States. Moreover, as Arthur Green rightly suggests in the preceding post, the very traditional narrative of American exceptionalism that inspired the program is further reinforced by the explicit exclusion from the program of the history of the rest of the world–not because the teaching of world history is superior to that of American history, but rather because promoting the study of other societies would potentially unsettle the political and cultural assumptions that underlie the very idea of “traditional American history.”

    For all of the obvious reasons, now is the time to rethink the kind of history that we want our children to be learning, and renewing the TAH program in its existing form will simply perpetuate a program and a vision of history that was never intellectually defensible and that is becoming less so with every passing day.

  6. Joseph Cassady Says:

    It will be interesting to see how they evaluate and choose outstanding U.S. History teachers who I would hope would be a part of the creation of that curriculum, and not just attendees at the academies. While I support the weight of the fed behind this plan–which is more than welcome, I am skeptical of the quality of a finished product that may be handed to us without a fair amount of practicality to go along with political idealism. Establishing standards for Social Studies has always been problematic, as interpretations are often varied regionally and lend themselves to subjectivity. Because of this, attempts at standards up until now have been vague and horribly generalized. The selection of individuals to formalize the criteria by which to judge nationally what is expected of U.S. History and Civics education will be the most important part of this plan.

  7. Katie O'Keefe Says:

    I have taken part in one TAH grant and found it to be invaluable, particularly as a teacher in the early stages of my career. While the bill is written to encourage the teaching of “traditional American history,” I found the seminars in our two summers at Northwestern to go beyond pre-1960′s historiography.

    The first summer, we read Timothy Breen’s “Myne Own Ground,” a social history of an African-American community in Virginia before the institutionalization of African slavery as a labor system in North America. I was then in a group that studied social movements in the antebellum period- my small group eventually created a “DBQ” style assignment on whether the Oneida Community in New York was liberating or oppressive for women.

    The following summer we worked with Dylan Penningroth on the Jim Crow South and the Great Migration- a noteworthy reading I use to inform my teaching of the Great Migration in Chicago was by Higginbothom (not sure on the spelling) and dealt with black clubwomen and their efforts to teach “respectability” to new arrivals from the South. My group then had the privilege of working with Nancy MacLean on social movements of the 1960′s. We learned about the “Long Civil Rights Movement” of Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, the gay liberation movement and the “Lavender Scare” (from Lane Fenrich- who I realize did not write the book but was apt at explaining the thesis), and how the labor movement, despite being gutted by McCarthyism, contributed to various liberation movements that occurred at this time.

    During the final summer we traveled to the Lincoln Museum in Springfield with Kate Masur and read an article on self emancipation by Ira Berlin that I currently have students read for a debate on “Who Freed the Slaves.” Half of the class reads Berlin and the other half reads MacPherson. Our session with the representatives of the museum, who have a somewhat nuanced view of Lincoln but still present him as the “Great Emancipator,” was interesting if a bit uncomfortable at times.

    I also teach a “Slave Agency versus Oppression” DBQ developed by two of my colleagues in the same TAH program, using documents including slave music recorded by Alan Lomax as well as various versions of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” I would not have thought to use gospel, Parliament, and Dr. Dre versions of “Swing Low” if I had not attended an OAH conference with funding from the TAH grant. Had I not gone to the OAH conference, I also may not have joined the AHA and gone to a later AHA conference, where I attended sessions on Latin America to help with an elective I teach.

    So in answer to your criticism, Mr. Frohman, I believe these grants can be used creatively and usefully to deepen a high school teacher’s understanding of modern historiography. You can even get around the provincial nature of the grant to some degree by teaching about the US role in the world, though I, too, would love to be able to attend a summer institute on world, and particularly Latin American, history. I saw nothing of Jeb Bush’s approach to history as objective truth in my seminars, and I do not teach my classes with the Florida mandate or approach in mind.

    I agree that using the standards developed by the National Center for History in the Schools would be more productive than paying “educrats” from outside the history field to develop national standards. I would put the savings into more TAH grants and add grants for the study of non-US history.ld put the savings into more TAH grants and add grants for the study of non-US history.

  8. Kimberly S. Lenahan Says:

    Currently, students do not have an understanding of their past. The emphasis on standardized math & science and even reading curriculums has resulted in emphasizing wrote learning rather then analytical processing, judgement and the awareness that our form of government is participatory. An active and informed citizenry is critical to its survival. It appears necessary that some sort of Federal standards be put into place in order to force local school districts to include this in their budgets and requirements.

  9. Prof. Michael Efthimiades Says:

    I think if one is trying to establish standards for teaching American history one needs to place such history in a global context and begin incorporating globalization into the curriculum. I feel that one should provide historical facts only in an objective manner. One then can go on and state the major interpretations by providing both sides (e.g. positivists and historicists, tradtionalist vs revisionist,). I also feel that those creating the curriculum should be a mixed group consisting of college/university professors and high school teachers with only a minimal input from administrators. I think one needs to also get the American Historical Association involved in this important matter. I also believe that time has come to create a nationwide exam to measure students knowledge of history. Too many times have I read articles of individuals who do not know basic historical facts.Such an exam will help identify students weaknesses and allow one to better identify areas where improvement is needed. I believe minimum national standards will help provide a unified education The remainder of the curriculum can allow individual states and local governments to include regional and local history within the curriculum.

  10. Katie O'Keefe Says:

    I have taken part in one TAH grant and found it to be invaluable, particularly as a teacher in the early stages of my career. While the bill is written to encourage the teaching of “traditional American history,” I found the seminars in our two summers at Northwestern to go beyond pre-1960′s historiography.

    The first summer, we read Timothy Breen’s “Myne Own Ground,” a social history of an African-American community in Virginia before the institutionalization of African slavery as a labor system in North America. I was then in a group that studied social movements in the antebellum period- my small group eventually created a “DBQ” style assignment on whether the Oneida Community in New York was liberating or oppressive for women.

    The following summer we worked with Dylan Penningroth on the Jim Crow South and the Great Migration- a noteworthy reading I use to inform my teaching of the Great Migration in Chicago was by Higginbotham and dealt with black clubwomen and their efforts to teach “respectability” to new arrivals from the South. My group then had the privilege of working with Nancy MacLean on social movements of the 1960′s. We learned about the “Long Civil Rights Movement” of Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, the gay liberation movement and the “Lavender Scare” (from Lane Fenrich- who I realize did not write the book but was apt at explaining the thesis), and how the labor movement, despite being gutted by McCarthyism, contributed to various liberation movements that occurred during the 60’s and 70’s.

    During the final summer we traveled to the Lincoln Museum in Springfield with Kate Masur and read an article on self emancipation by Ira Berlin that I currently have students read for a debate on “Who Freed the Slaves.” Half of the class reads Berlin and the other half reads MacPherson. Our session with the representatives of the museum, who have a somewhat nuanced view of Lincoln but still present him as the “Great Emancipator,” was interesting if a bit uncomfortable at times.

    I also teach a “Slave Agency versus Oppression” DBQ developed by two of my colleagues in the same TAH program, using documents including slave music recorded by Alan Lomax as well as various versions of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” I would not have thought to use gospel, Parliament, and Dr. Dre versions of “Swing Low” if I had not attended an OAH conference with funding from the TAH grant. Had I not gone to the OAH conference, I also may not have joined the AHA and gone to a later AHA conference, where I attended sessions on Latin America to help with an elective I teach.

    So in answer to your criticism, Mr. Frohman, I believe these grants can be used creatively and usefully to deepen a high school teacher’s understanding of modern historiography. You can even get around the provincial nature of the grant to some degree by teaching about the US role in the world, though I, too, would love to be able to attend a summer institute on world, and particularly Latin American, history. I saw nothing of Jeb Bush’s approach to history as objective truth in my seminars, and I do not teach my classes with the Florida mandate or approach in mind.

    I agree that using the standards developed by the National Center for History in the Schools would be more productive than paying “educrats” from outside the history field to develop national standards. I would put the savings into more TAH grants and add grants for the study of non-US history.

  11. kevin gerard Says:

    I have been teaching US History for 25 years and during the last five years I have attended outstanding NEH Landmarks professional development conferences in places like Hyde Park, Pearl Harbor and Philadelphia. The funding is from this source. Keep striving to improve these efforts. I applaud the three Senators.

  12. Kiana McKaine Says:

    I know that US History needs to have its place in schools, but with the ever increasing globaization, what students truly need more of is World History and Politics. At my high school we studied US History for 9 of the 12 years I was there and only 2 years of World History. I’m not saying that they should cut back on US Hist, but seeing as for most of those 9 years we just kept starting over with Colonial America and rarely got past the Civil War until my Sophmore year, I think what we really need is to rewrite the curriculum so that history can be taught more efficiently so that more material can be covered. That would also allow for more time to be spent on World History, which is often of more interest to those students who study history by choice rather that because it is required. Also, forcing students to spend so much time on US History isn’t going to make them any more willing to learn it and will only lead to students becoming sick of the material and disinterested. For example, I’m a History Minor rather than a Major because to get a major I would have to take 6 hours of US History, which I am sick of; after discussing it with other minors on campus, I have found that at least 80% of the History minors here also chose to only seek a minor because they don’t wish to study US History.

  13. Marilyn Felix Says:

    Its all in the book “Education:The Emperor”s New Clothes” by Carlson and Felix. The book is easy to read and avoids political correctness. It says it as it is!!