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From The Coalition Column of the September 2005 Perspectives

A Continuing Congressional Concern: "U.S. History--Our Worst Subject"

Bruce Craig, September 2005

One of the hallmarks of the current Congress and of the Republican administration is a continuing concern over American history, and more specifically, primary and secondary students' ignorance of it. This has generated several congressionally sanctioned programs that seek to combat students' perceived lack of knowledge: the "Teaching American History" initiative of the Education Department and the "We the People" program of the National Endowment for the Humanities are the two best known. While Congress has spent a considerable amount of money on these two programs over the last couple of years, and teachers have lauded what they have learned through participating in seminars and workshops, what seems to be lacking is meaningful evaluation of the programs' effectiveness. Are students actually benefiting from these programs designed to improve teacher effectiveness? Exactly which teaching methods are effectively reaching students and which ones are not? These are some of the questions to which clear answers cannot yet be provided.

On June 30, 2005, the Senate Subcommittee on Education and Early Childhood Development of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions conducted a hearing on yet another American history bill, "The American History Achievement Act" (S. 860). Introduced by senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), this legislation seeks to authorize a 10-state pilot study to provide a state-by-state comparison of U.S. history and civics test data for 8th and 12th grades administered through the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).

Panelists who testified included historian David McCullough; Charles Smith, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board; Stephanie Norby, director of the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies; and James Parisi, field representative of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals.

In his thoughtful remarks, McCullough told the senators that one of the central problems in the teaching of history is that teachers who possess degrees in education rarely possess the needed subject matter expertise to teach specific subjects such as history. He stated that history majors make the best history teachers because they are able to communicate a love of history to students. He then called on colleges and universities to place renewed emphasis on the importance of a liberal arts education.

McCullough also stated that, with some notable exceptions, history texts are often written in a style far too boring to interest students; he called for a renewed effort to emphasize the "literature of history." McCullough then returned to a familiar theme that he often raises in his appearances before congressional committees—that it is important for teachers to focus on narrative history and "tell a story" in order to reach students.

Responding to McCullough's criticism that the "No Child Left Behind" initiative—with its emphasis on math and English testing—was having a detrimental impact on the teaching of history, Senator Kennedy declared that when the "No Child Left Behind" legislation comes up for reauthorization, history will be added as a core element in the initiative's teaching mission. McCullough also called on the committee to explore ways that school teachers can benefit from the superb educational opportunities that exist at the historic sites and places administered by the National Park Service. The national historical parks, stated McCullough, needed to be better tapped "as educational resources especially as locations for summer institutes and workshops."

In his prepared remarks, Charles E. Smith reviewed the widely known NAEP assessment results relating to history testing at the 4th, 8th, and 12th grade levels. In what perhaps was the most important news item to emerge out of the hearing, Smith announced that during the May 19–21, 2005, meeting of the board of governors, a new history testing schedule was adopted. He said that beginning in 2006, the NAEP U.S. history exam would be conducted every four years—in 2006, 2010, and 2014. Smith also stated that as embodied in the legislation under consideration by the committee, the objective of conducting history assessments in at least 10 geographically diverse states was "a reasonable goal" provided "a sufficient and timely appropriation" was forthcoming. For the written testimony of the witnesses, please visit http://help.senate.gov/calendars/all.html and click on the link for the hearing on June 30, 2005 (with the title "U.S. History: Our Worst Subject?").

While congressional appropriation committees appear to be supportive of funding American history-related programs (see related story below), their focus continues to be on American history and only on what is characterized as "traditional" American history (that is, political and diplomatic history that focuses on key individuals and events). Continuing efforts over the last five years by the National Coalition for History (NCH) and other professional history organizations including the American Historical Association to include ancient, world, or comparative history (or even "social" history in the definition of "traditional" American history) have not resonated well with members or their staff. Nevertheless, our advocacy efforts will continue.

Congress Acts on Fiscal 2006 History-Related Budget Items

While fiscal 2006 is shaping up to be a very tough year for most domestic spending programs, history and archives programs appear to be doing relatively well, all things considered. At this writing, both houses of Congress have acted on the budget proposals for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), with the full Senate poised to act on the Department of Education (ED) budget which includes the funding level for the "Teaching American History" initiative.

For the NEH the budget figure is settled. Both houses of Congress have approved $143.1 million (see H. Rept. 109–188), a modest $5 million increase over last year's appropriation. In the Senate, supporters of the NEH were able to beat back a proposed amendment by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) designed to cut funding for both the NEH and the arts endowment (NEA) by $5 million each. The senator proposed transferring these funds to the Bureau of Land Management to help fight wildfires. Thanks in part to more than 700 communications to senators from NEH/NEA supporters, Coburn withdrew his amendment and the Senate approved a figure that was the same as the House's recommendation.

For the National Park Service, the House- and Senate-approved figure is $2.3 billion, about $66 million below the fiscal 2005 enacted level but still $50 million above the administration's request. This includes $73.25 million for the Historic Preservation Fund, of which $40.25 million is for grants to the states and tribes; $30 million for the "Save America's Treasures" program; and $5 million for the new "Preserve America" initiative.

The Department of Education budget line that includes funding for the "Teaching American History" (TAH) initiative has also been acted on by the House and Senate. While the House set aside only $50 million for the initiative, the Senate approved over $120 million.

As many readers may be aware, for some years now, the National Coalition for History has advocated setting aside a portion of the total TAH grant package for "national activities." This year, after meetings with staff of Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va) and follow-up letters, our message finally is being acted upon. Report language in the Senate appropriations bill sets aside "up to 3 percent of funds appropriated for this program for national activities."
The Senate Appropriations Committee also approved the subcommittee's recommendation of an overall funding level of $290,129,000 for the Institute of Museum and Library Services. This is $40 million above the allocation provided by the House of Representatives. However, according to the American Library Association, "this increase is likely to be used to fund Congressionally-directed projects."

For the NHPRC the news is not as good. On July 19 the Senate T-THUD appropriations subcommittee issued its recommendations for NARA, including the funding level for the NHPRC. The numbers are not as good as many in the history and archives community had hoped to see. The subcommittee set aside $5 million for the grants program (this compares to $5.5 million set aside by the House for the NHPRC), and the Senate did not allocate any funding for administration (the House had set aside $2 million for this purpose).

As the House did, the Senate began with the president's figure of zero funding for the NHPRC, so a move from zero funds to $5 million is no small matter. Nevertheless, should the Senate funding level hold when House and Senate managers conference the bill later this fall, this funding level would potentially be especially damaging to ongoing documentary editions projects.

The recent action by the House Appropriations Committee on the fiscal 2006 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill is also of interest to historians. For the Library of Congress there is a total of $543 million—a $2 million decrease from fiscal 2005.

While the funding level recommendations have now been set by both the House and Senate for most history-related programs, several matters will still need to be resolved when managers meet in conference to address the outstanding differences between House and Senate versions of the various pending bills. Except for the Interior bill which has been conferenced, meetings between House and Senate managers have yet to be scheduled though they will undoubtedly take place in the fall.

— Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at rbcraig@historycoalition.org.