Publication Date

September 1, 2010

One of the major issues facing the new 112th Congress when it convenes in January 2011 will be consideration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). The law was last reauthorized in 2001 during the Bush administration under the rubric of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Since the law’s enactment, a major flaw has been the overemphasis on reading and math at the expense of other subjects, such as history.

In fiscal 2002, due to the leadership of Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), Congress authorized the “Teaching American History” (TAH) grants program in the Department of Education. Thanks to Senator Byrd, nearly $1 billion of federal dollars have been allocated over the past decade to improve K–2 history education. A child who was in the first grade when the program started in 2001 would now be a junior in high school. So it is no exaggeration to say that Senator Byrd’s love of American history has been passed on to an entire generation of America’s school children. Among his many accomplishments, that is one of his greatest legacies. But with his recent passing the program that he nurtured for so long is now in danger.

The TAH grants program improves the quality of instruction in American history. Grant awards assist elementary and secondary schools in implementing research-based methods for improving the quality of instruction, professional development, and teacher education in American history. Funds are used for competitive grants that are allocated to local education agencies (LEAs) though funding proposals must include a partnership component with an educational nonprofit and/or history-based organization. Advocacy by my predecessor Bruce Craig was instrumental in getting the partnership requirement included in the law.

While Congress will not tackle the ESEA reauthorization until 2011, activity has already begun in earnest as numerous hearings have been held throughout 2010 in both houses. Draft bills are currently being developed in the House and Senate in anticipation of early action on the issue next year. Recently, the National Coalition for History (NCH), AHA and nine other NCH members joined forces with organizations representing other K–12 academic disciplines in issuing a statement to Congress and the Administration calling for the continued robust funding of core academic subjects including history. This includes maintenance of discrete budget lines—such as TAH for history—for each discipline.

Consensus RecommendationsIn the case of the Teaching American History grants program, the Obama administration’s fiscal 2011 budget message to Congress called into question the degree to which the program has reached districts and teachers most in need of federally funded professional development and also stressed the need for better evaluation of the program’s effectiveness. One of the issues that has plagued the TAH program since its inception has been the inability to rigorously assess and evaluate whether teachers, and ultimately students, are benefitting from the program.

On March 15, 2010, the White House released “A Blueprint for Reform,” which details the administration’s plans for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Like NCLB, the reform proposal continues to prioritize reading and math over other subjects.

President Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget request to Congress for the Department of Education proposed consolidating 38 existing K–12 education programs into 11 new programs. Under the administration’s budget request, grants for history education would now be part of a new program called “Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education.” Teaching American History Grants would be consolidated into this new program and would no longer exist as a free-standing budget line item.

The administration proposed $265 million in funding in fiscal 2011 for the new initiative. Although the fiscal 2011 budget request includes a $38.9 million increase in funding to support teaching and learning in arts, history, civics, foreign languages, geography, and economics, the administration proposes to combine eight subject-specific grant programs into a single competitive grant program.

Unfortunately, under the proposed competitive grant program the various subjects would be pitted against each other for scarce resources. Such an approach could threaten the ability of schools and districts to provide each student with a well-rounded education, a result that seems to be the exact opposite of the administration’s intent.

In years past, the late Senator Byrd always ensured that the program received a stable level of funding, usually around $119 million per fiscal year. In the fiscal 2011 Labor, HHS, and Education funding bill (S. 3686) passed in July by the Senate Appropriations Committee, the last one in which Senator Byrd was able to exert his influence, the TAH received level funding of $119 million. The administration had requested zero funding for the program in fiscal 2011, and it will no longer be a separate budget line item. Given the budget deficit problem, it is expected funding levels for all federal discretionary programs will face major cuts when the administration’s proposed fiscal 2012 budget is released early next year.

In June 2010, a meeting was convened by the ASCD (formerly the Association for the Study of Curriculum and Development), an education membership organization focused largely on K–12 issues. The meeting included representatives from several organizations whose communities would be affected by the Obama administration’s Blueprint for Reform for the reauthorization of the ESEA.

On July 29, the National Coalition for History and 20 major history and education organizations, representing a wide array of subject areas, released consensus recommendations for how the federal government can better support core subjects beyond the No Child Left Behind Act’s singular focus on student performance in reading and math (for the text of the recommendations, see box at left).

Stating that the AHA “heartily supported this opportunity to collaborate on advocacy efforts sustaining the Teaching American History grants,” Arnita Jones, the executive director of the AHA, added, “For many years now these grants have not only provided important professional development for history teachers, they have also served as a vehicle for increased cooperation between history departments and schools of education where most future history teachers received their training.”

The various organizations agreed that discrete funding streams, such as TAH, should be created for each of the disciplines to ensure that each retains federal support individually and that all receive a minimum level of resources reflecting collective support for a well-rounded education. Equally important, they decided, grant competitions should occur within disciplines, not between them.

The organizations endorsing the Well-Rounded Education statement represent hundreds of thousands of educators in the disciplines of history, languages, arts, government and other subjects. The National Coalition for History endorsed the recommendation in addition to ten individual member organizations in the Coalition. These include the American Association for State and Local History, American Historical Association, Association for Documentary Editing, Civil War Preservation Trust, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, History Channel, National Council for the Social Studies, National Council on Public History, Organization of American Historians and the Society for Military History. Several other NCH membership organizations have endorsements pending before their leadership and are expected to sign on in the near future.

Over the coming months, the National Coalition for History will be carrying the message to lawmakers and the administration to preserve the Teaching American History grants program

is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He expresses his gratitude to the National Security Archive and the Associated Press, on whose reports he has heavily relied for writing this article. He can be reached at

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