If you were ever unsure about the importance of history and civics in our curriculum, you can turn to the undemocratic behavior of the last four years culminating in an unlawful breach of the capitol that required evacuation of Congress on January 6th. The protestors didn’t seem aware that Vice President Pence did not have the power to overturn the democratic election results of November 3rd. Furthermore, their “Fuhrer” President Trump has spent four years seeming to not understand that the President of the United States is not an elected king with authoritarian powers. The president is in fact a servant of the people. We could unpack the rise of Trump which is a disturbing path in itself, but now is yet another moment that reflects the failure of our civics education. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean the teachers, for the most part. But the policy makers push for testing which centered on math and English pushed social studies to the far back of the curriculum and in some schools, history was largely non-existent.
Let’s start with a little history. In 2002 the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act was reauthorized under the name No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind (or NCLB) was designed with the intent to make schools responsible for student outcomes which would be measured on standardized tests. The provisions included:
- Annual testing: schools were required to give annual math and reading tests to students in grades 3-8 and grades 10-12.
- Adequate yearly progress: States were required to bring all students up to “proficient” levels on the tests. Targets were set to determine if annual yearly progress (AYP) was made. Schools that didn’t meet AYP were labeled as “needing improvement.”
- Punishment: Failure to meet AYP led to several consequences such as state takeover of the school or even school closure.
The results of NCLB are likely to be felt for decades, but one key one is that the emphasis on math and reading tests de-emphasized the need for other subjects, specifically history. Research cites reduced time to teach social studies in elementary school and middle school classrooms, marginalization of social studies education, and as just some of the unintended consequences of NCLB. and a devaluing of social studies.
Social studies remains a marginalized subject. The Common Core Standards, a national set of curriculum standards which resulted from a 2010 governors’ initiative, were developed for English/Language Arts and mathematics. There are no standards for history. Although most states include state standards for what is included in social studies, the curriculum is still open to interpretation. Teachers might include the African-American perspective of US history from the New York Times Magazine 1619 Project while others might be prone to listen to the ideas of the 1776 Commission (not to be confused with the 1776 Project) who are advocating for a “patriotic education.” (Remind you of any other authoritarian leaders’ re-invention of their education). Social studies is both marginalized and open for interpretation. While four years of English and three years of Math are common for college admissions’ requirements, most universities require only 2 years of the social sciences.
History has become the throw away subject that is included only when absolutely necessary. Yet, it is clear that now more than ever students need to know where we are and how we got here. Students need to be armed with the skills to evaluate disinformation which is pervasive in all aspects of our society. Students need to understand what their civic rights are, what a government can do for them, and how to demand action from their government. Students need to know that they have the power to change the world they are part of in a lawful way. Our future is dependent on knowing our past.