National History Day: Promoting History Education Every Day

Mark Robinson, September 2000

At a time when Congress is lamenting that America has a national "history education crisis," one program has shown that it can have a dramatic impact on history education. National History Day (NHD) is a yearlong nonprofit program in which children in grades 6–12 research and create historical projects related to a broad annual theme, culminating in an annual contest. The program inspires students to study local history, then challenges them to expand their thinking and apply knowledge of local events to the national, even worldwide scene. But more than being simply a student competition, National History Day is a campaign to change the way history is taught and learned in our nation's classrooms.

During this past year the NHD program encompassed more than 700,000 students and 40,000 teachers. The 2000 NHD competition theme, Turning Points in History: People, Ideas, Events, led many students to new discoveries about their own communities and the world. At the final stage of the competition, held in June, 2,145 students participated. A select group of students exhibited their projects at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the National Archives, the White House History Center, and other venues. All the students who participated in the NHD program were winners, however, because they gained valuable insights and skills that will be beneficial throughout their lives.

This continued growth also showed in other areas of the NHD program. Many times, the focus of learning is concentrated on student and not teacher development, but NHD is working to reform history education by developing the skills of both teachers and students. In July teachers from across the country came to participate in NHD's Summer Teacher Institute on the American Presidency and the Meaning of Freedom and Democracy. Judging from the participants' tremendously positive response, the institute confirmed both the need for, as well as National History Day's ability to provide, assistance and training to teachers. "I learned a tremendous amount," said Iowa teacher David Johns. "Every session was informational, interesting, and will result in substantial improvements in not only my classroom but my school."

National History Day has had significant impact in history and social studies classrooms across the country. But there is still much to be done, as many teachers are unable to take advantage of the program because of the poor teacher training they received in college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 81 percent of social studies teachers did not major or minor in history in college. This lack of training means that too many teachers do not adequately understand the process of historical inquiry, nor do they have a solid knowledge our country's past and its meaning.

To counter this problem, NHD provides professional development programs and curriculum materials to help re-train teachers to achieve and surpass education standards. "The textbook provides the factual information, in chronological order and that's it," said Cathy Gorn, NHD executive director. "History teachers have to use other kinds of information.to provide students with more in-depth understanding."

Teachers participating in the NHD program are trained to stop relying on history textbooks and to send their students to libraries, museums, and archives to research history just as scholars do. The NHD program combines both historical content and the process of historical inquiry. This way, both teachers and students learn valuable research, critical thinking, and presentation skills, as well as a solid understanding of the history of their country and the world.

"The National History Day program is the best education program to reform history education," said Blaine Adams, social studies coordinator for Calvert City Public Schools. "National History Day not only helps teachers meet state education standards, but it is a real school and community program."

Today, across the nation more than half a million students are embarking on a historical adventure to examine frontiers in history. Students have begun to research for the National History Day 2001 competition theme, Frontiers in History: People, Places, Ideas. "After 12 years of participating with eighth-grade students in National History Day," said teacher Barbara Allen of Denver, Colorado, "I still say it's the greatest thing I can do with kids."