NCLB Zaps Historical Literacy
Anyone who has taught history to college students for more than 40 years, as I have, has watched a steady decline in the background they bring to the subject. Increasingly, their studies have been geared to contemporary issues like global interactions rather than a sustained immersion in the rich variety of the past.
Why has this happened? To a large degree, it is a byproduct of schools' new commitments -- classes in character education, conflict resolution, or international holidays; the move from Western Civilization to global studies, which concentrate on the recent past -- accelerated by students' growing attention to sports, community service, and other nonacademic interests. The results, as shown by the Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, tests are dismal.
Appalled by what has happened to historical literacy, three years ago Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia persuaded his colleagues in Congress to support a program, Teaching American History, to enable school districts around the country to enhance teachers' knowledge and skills, refresh curricula, and in general improve history instruction. That was certainly a promising move, but it is now being undermined by another Washington initiative: the No Child Left Behind Act.
Signed in 2002, the act has not had a rousing welcome. While many educators and politicians agree that determining the effectiveness of teaching is a good idea, this particular approach has raised a firestorm. Recently, chief school officers from 14 states, various state legislatures, and superintendents by the bushel have been loud in their dismay, and the news media have followed suit.
The chief focus, however, has been financial. The act requires states to set standards for teachers' qualifications and for students' proficiency in reading and mathematics; to test progress in those areas; and to allocate funds according to the results. Critics ask whether school districts receive enough money to make the law work. If not, are the promised funds so essential that impoverished states dare not opt out of the system? More generally, should a controversial educational reform be imposed with federal cash, rewarding those who meet its criteria for success and punishing "failures"?
Given current political debates, it is no surprise that the main attack has been on the inadequacy of the funds. Avoiding the charge that they oppose improvements in the quality of instruction or learning, critics have emphasized that the resources are insufficient to meet the law's standards in teacher preparation and test performance.
Less visible, but equally sharp, have been doubts about the evidence used to justify the law. Did the program administered by Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige when he was superintendent of the Houston Independent School District -- a program that served as a model for the law -- achieve the results it claimed, or was the evidence "improved"? Can one trust the research underpinning No Child Left Behind's emphasis on "Reading First" and the way classroom instruction improves reading? In neither case are the answers reassuring.
More basic worries focus on the constitutional implications of federal educational guidelines, as well as on the intellectual failings of assessments that force teachers to "teach to the test." That last anxiety brings us back to the issue that deserves far more attention: the curriculum.
By multiplying the distractions that already cause schools and students to play down the transmittal of information -- once considered the heart of education and a prerequisite for intelligent thought and values -- No Child Left Behind is draining academic substance out of the classroom. Increasingly, Americans are being taught skills, not content; they are being trained, not educated.
Here, I would argue, is the most insidious effect of the law: not its financial, pedagogic, or constitutional shortcomings, but its devastation of subjects other than reading and math in the first eight grades.
That outcome is clear and widespread. Because so much money is at stake, school districts are shifting primary- and secondary-school class hours to reading and math, the only subjects tested by the law. The Council for Basic Education, a nonprofit group founded in the 1950s to shore up democracy through quality public education, has documented the change, as has testimony from states as diverse as Indiana, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, and Tennessee. In response to a survey I conducted in New Jersey, one superintendent reported: "We have double periods of mathematics and language arts each day in grades 3-6, and sometimes only three periods a week of social studies and science." "When extra practice time is needed for test-taking strategies," another superintendent notes, "it is taken from social studies or science classes." A gathering of superintendents in January told me that 90-minute social-studies classes are regularly cut in half or even by two-thirds, while reading and math gobble up the time.
The consequences a few years hence are predictable: a further (possibly precipitous) drop in students' familiarity with their heritage. Denuded of history in the first eight grades, how can they possibly redress the balance in high school, when new subjects and activities clamor for attention, and one-year classes are forced to scamper through the entirety of state, U.S., or world history?
It might be assumed that, once alerted to the problem, our government would rush to find remedies. After all, Congress has given Senator Byrd's Teaching American History an annual budget of $100-million; the White House has put its full weight behind We the People, an initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and designed to improve the understanding of American history; and Bruce Cole, NEH chairman, has proclaimed that "citizens kept ignorant of their history are robbed of the riches of their heritage." Why, then, do they allow the No Child Left Behind law to cripple their commitments and initiatives?
For that is what they do. In one discussion of the issue that I know about, federal powers-that-be recommended that historians rely on "sensible" superintendents -- an act of trust that our assessment-fixated society contradicts at every turn. Similarly, Raymond J. Simon, assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, has suggested that, if "focused and organized," districts should be able to solve the problems with No Child Left Behind. Secretary Paige himself dismisses the concern. Nobody is being told to drop other subjects, he says, and he will not be deflected from his cause: "A child that can't read is not going to learn history or civics." How, he does not say.
What is so sad is that a solution is available. In other advanced countries, like the Netherlands, testing in the early grades covers all subjects, including history. And Washington does plan to rescue science, which will be tested as of 2007, doubtless with classroom hours regained. History, however, remains politically too hot to handle.
Anyone who considers substance, not method, the foundation of education must be dismayed at the situation. But the attack on the National History Standards in the mid-1990s left an unassailable residue. The effort to create standards for U.S. and world history became an episode in America's culture wars, mired in acrimony over the scope, emphases, and interpretations of the history to be taught in the schools. Since politics entered the picture, and the project was eventually condemned by a 99-1 vote in the U.S. Senate, no government body dares go near history assessments again.
In some ways that may be a blessing, because today's tests can be mindless and futile. If, however, the alternative is that history is scarcely taught, then the assault on the standards has borne bitter fruit, and the leaders of that assault bear a heavy responsibility.
The moral is clear: Unless those who believe in the importance of history are prepared to do more than wring their hands or put politics first, the coming generation will be blighted by the No Child Left Behind law. Children will, perhaps, have learned to read and count, but certainly not to think, let alone understand how they have been shaped by their past.
Theodore K. Rabb is a professor of history at Princeton University.
Theodore K. Rabb
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