Reforming History Education in the United States
Arnita A. Jones, October 2003
Writing in this column more than two years ago, I urged readers of Perspectives to become acquainted with a new federal program: the Teaching American History (TAH) grants program. This $50 million initiative was written into the 2001 appropriations bill by Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who was then chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and who has for long championed the discipline of history in the United States Senate. The program was designed to support professional development seminars for precollegiate teachers of history through collaboration between local education agencies and colleges, universities, and historical societies. It was my hope that history departments around the country would take advantage of what seemed then to be a unique opportunity and develop a number of good projects that could inspire others to assume greater responsibility for training the nation's history teachers.
Many exemplary projects did come out of that initial round of funding. As it turned out, this was only the beginning of what now has the potential of becoming a massive effort at reforming history education in the United States. The budget for the Teaching American History program at the Department of Education grew to $100 million in 2002, supporting 114 collaboratives with grants of up to $1,000,000. The Awards for the 2003 competition—also funded at $100 million—were announced in September. Supported by both the Congress and the White House, this program now appears to be becoming a regular part of the Department of Education's responsibilities. If all goes well, funding for this program may even increase to $120 million in 2004.
History has also been—along with civics—the focus of two White House conferences in the last two years. These conferences were linked to a legislative agenda that seeks to complement and expand the TAH program through increased funding for the "We the People" program at the National Endowment for the Humanities that would cut across all divisions at the agency. Although this initiative now seems to be competing with the "American History and Civics Education" bill introduced earlier this year by Senator Lamar Alexander (see the National Coalition for History Washington Update of September 4, 2003, for details) it seems also clear that as much as $25 million in additional funding will be earmarked next year at NEH for history and history-related programming.
In a further demonstration, perhaps, of the growing interest among lawmakers in history and history education, yet another bill was introduced this summer, this time focused on the role of history in higher education. Called the "Higher Education for Freedom Act," and introduced by Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the legislation calls for $140,000 million to be spent on training future school teachers as well as graduate students and postsecondary faculty in traditional American history and western civilization. Funds could be spent on design of courses, academic centers, and research as well as graduate and post-graduate fellowships.
In a year marked by enormous and rapidly increasing federal deficits, it seems unlikely that the entire amount of $285 million needed to fund all of the proposed initiatives described above will materialize, but it could. And it is likely that at least a significant proportion of it will. If it does, will historians be ready to step to the plate and work hard to ensure that the money is well spent and that this opportunity is not squandered? For its part, the American Historical Association has undertaken several initiatives aimed at strengthening federally supported initiatives over the past two years. In June 2003 we sponsored, along with a several other historical associations, a conference with the theme, "Innovations in Collaboration," which brought together more than 300 historians, teachers and others to share ideas and experiences in becoming involved in collaborative efforts (see page 9 for a fuller account of this conference). We were also one of several organizations involved in developing a set of "Benchmarks for Professional Development in Teaching of History as a Discipline," a tool that we hope will aid federal administrators and others responsible for evaluating the many program now being supported. A third joint effort, scheduled for publication later this year, is a state-by-state survey of certification requirements, standards for teachers and students, and assessment tests.
Depending heavily on the National Coalition for History, the AHA will continue to monitor and report on federal legislation and policymaking relating to history. We know that during the next decade the number of students in elementary and secondary schools will increase dramatically, just as a generation of teachers reaches retirement. With substantial federal support providing unprecedented resources, it is incumbent upon historians in higher education to focus a major share of their energies on the training of a new generation of teachers. Their colleagues in historical societies, who have in recent decades acquired substantial experience in providing programs for the schools, should do so as well.
—Arnita Jones is the executive director of the AHA.