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School History Standards' Battle Moves to Congress

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The real solution for strengthening history in public schools wasn't in Texas at their textbook commission. It's sitting in front of Congress with President Obama's overhauled version of the No Child Left Behind Act. The Administration wants all states to develop a common educational standard, but the primary focus is still language arts, math and science with no mention of history or social studies.

While Texas provided insight into a national problem, it was little more than a sideshow in a battle that's waged for years in public schools. History has never been more popular than it is today with cable television and the internet, but is still the most mistreated subject in school curriculums.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress testing in U.S. history is now underway at participating school systems and, if next year's release of those results is as dismal as 2006 or their March release of reading test scores, you can expect more battles over public schools' handling of the subjects.

History and social studies were already in a downward spiral before NCLB got out of the gate. Past NAEP results clearly chart the subjects breaking down in public schools before NCLB became law. The Texas commission only illustrates how this nation's great story has denigrated into shouting matches as both sides of the political aisles fight to demonize and lionize their respective viewpoints. The founding fathers, the great men and women, veterans and the social movements that made America exceptional on the world stage are now a matter of perspective. This decay happened slowly over the years compounded by the modern mindset of placing the entire responsibility of teaching children on the school system.

The No Child Left Behind Act was devoid of real history standards when it was originally put forward in 2001. Educators and U.S. History organizations have lobbied since its passage to get them raised or installed in the act and wanted any overhaul of NCLB presented to Congress to include improvements in the subject. Whether you like the law or not, it's not going anywhere and changes must be made to improve it.

NCLB caused a division among historians when it sat on the drawing boards in the nation's capitol. There was the argument that history knowledge couldn't be properly measured in standardized multiple choice tests like language arts and mathematics. Most educators were initially shocked the subjects weren't given equal status with those core subjects. It was feared the exclusion of U.S. history and social studies from the national standard would lead to the subjects' demise as core academic requirements of American education.

They were correct. U.S. history has started disappearing in classrooms as schools "teach to the test." Some states have outright eliminated history requirements and others have tried to "fold the subjects" into reading class curriculums.

Instead of proportional funding, resources and training being funneled into U.S. history and social studies, it has been diverted away from the subjects and into those measured by NCLB standardized tests. This has left U.S. history teachers without any support and fighting for relevance in the American education system. President Obama's overhaul of NCLB includes the new goal of making students "college ready," but it doesn't make them "citizen capable" if the overhaul continues the original policy of ignoring these subjects.

The public reaction to good history teachers fighting in the trenches has been less than exemplary. One teacher made headlines when he was suspended from his job for bringing a replica Civil War rifle to his class as a teaching tool because some parents thought he should be held to the same zero tolerance policy as the students. Another had her job threatened because she showed a benign excerpted segment from Mel Gibson's R-rated film "The Patriot" and a living historian - volunteering his time to lecture on American Indian life - was banned from a classroom because he had a Cherokee blow-gun in his lesson kit.

When a child enters a classroom, the teacher should have all learning tools of that academic subject available to them and a history class is no different. But those classrooms have largely become sterile dwellings in most public schools. Prints of seminal moments or famous people in American history don't adorn the walls, neither do copies of the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, and archaeological items that show history to be a living, breathing subject are noticeably absent.
Reading, science and math are important, but NCLB standards must include history and social studies standards. If it isn't improved, knowledgeable citizens who can pull a voting lever and know what they're doing are going to become extinct.