Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Can We Fix Civics and History Education

So, let's take a moment to freak out over the NAEP history and civics scores.

They dipped in a manner reminiscent of the math and reading scores, and some folks are going to provide reruns of previous cries of alarm. "Students' understanding of history and civics is worsening," hollers the Washington Post (and they'll go on to do the standard failure to explain what "proficient" means for NAEP). 

There are several possible reasons. The pandemic resulted in far less time being spent on training students to take multiple choice tests, and that's crucial. Just because you Know Stuff, that doesn't mean you can automatically apply that knowledge to the very specific activity of taking a multiple choice standardized test. 

And because states all put emphasis on the standardized reading and math Big Standardized Tests, that's where much of the "catch up" energy went. 

Responses to the scores have not been particularly useful. Education Secretary Cardona released a short statement that dovetailed with his team's talking points, saying essentially, "Look at that! This is no time to banning books and cutting education budgets." Cardona's words were cherry picked and used as a talking point for folks like the head of reformster group 50CAN who accused him of saying that red state book bans were responsible for the drop in scores. Others correctly pointed out that once again, the lowest scoring students were the ones who had the biggest score drop. Others used the occasion to bemoan the sad state of K-12 civics and history education. Can't we do better?

We can. We should. I don't know if we can in the current atmosphere. And suggesting that history and civics education can cure what's ailing our country right now is absurd, 

To begin with, history and civics education is hard, for many reasons.

One is simply the matter of reaching students. For most of my career, I asked students to reflect on their own education and classes and talk about what was and wasn't working for them. The hands down winner of the "Why do we even have to take this class" award was history. When Lauren Boebert says she never learned the three branches of government, I believe her--but I don't assume that's because nobody tried to teach her.

Students hate history class because the typical high school history class is stripped of every appealing part of history. History is stories. History is a conversation, not a declaration. Likewise civics is a constantly ongoing debate about what our government is supposed to do and how it's supposed to do it. But if you are committed to keeping all of those discussion out of the classroom, then you're left with nothing but dates and locations and verifiable events and that is A) barely the point and B) supremely boring. But we insist on cutting away all the complicated, controversial parts, like butchers who throw away the meat and keep the gristle.

There are ways to do it right, and most all of them involve bringing all of the various points of view into the classroom. The basic model is not complicated. "Some people view this like X, but other folks view this like W. Research, explain, and discuss." And that model has to be regularly updated and amended, because there is virtually no piece of history on which we have had absolutely the last word. The beauty of this model is that it fosters not only content knowledge but also critical thinking, building arguments from evidence, and just a generally nuanced view of the world (I deeply believe that reality has a bias toward nuance). 

But that's not where we are right now. Where we are right now is promoting the idea that proper history and civics education is designed to turn every child into a patriot. We have folks scrambling around to erase even the mention of certain types of citizens; yes, Oklahoma's governor wants to defund PBS in part because Clifford the Big Red Dog and Work It Out Wombats (a less-known by superior show) showed lesbian characters (not doing anything sexual- just showed them).

Real, serious study of history and civics requires a variety of viewpoints. That doesn't mean the viewpoints must be required for adoption but they have to be available for discussion. The discussion has to have guardrails--it's not okay to declare "All wombats are evil and don't deserve to live" when there are wombats sitting in the classroom. And my experience says that it can be tough to work through the barriers of a student whose position is "This is right because I say so and that's all the evidence I need." 

History and civics is hard to teach if you come at it with a belief in One Correct Answer, which is currently the stance of way too much of our public discourse. We're in a place where, for some people, it's not even acceptable to encourage empathy for all fellow human beings. But if you want to teach that there's only One Right View of history and only One Correct Answer for all civic questions, you're teaching something that is neither history nor civics.

This is why the Everyone To Their Own Silo approach is not an answer. A model of choice in which everyone sorts themselves out according to their One Right Answer does not make this pluralistic scrambled salad of a nation work better. 

How do we navigate all this? I don't know. I don't know how you get people to stop feeling so fragile that even exposure to an idea they don't like is more than they can bear and especially more than they think their children can bear. I don't know how you get people to develop a better plan for dealing with those with whom they disagree than to somehow just make all those Wrong People shut up and go away. 

Americans are not very good at history. Never have been. If you get to be a certain age, you can marvel at how many people spring up with arguments and viewpoints and policies that are not, in fact, bold and new, but just the same old time-worn trappings of an earlier age, while at the same time holding fast to the notion that certain historical ephemera (like, say, fashion signifiers of gender) have somehow existed since the dawn of time. 

I don't know how you help people set down their fear and anger long enough to catch hold of the desire understand. The public spaces are filled with so many very loud people who have no real interest in understanding--just label it as "my team" or "their team," mark all opponents as evil or stupid, and treat every new event and piece of information as something to be fashioned into a cudgel for Our Team. As they say, I don't know how to explain that you should care about other people. I don't know how to get someone to be curious.

It may seem like my wailing and moaning has now expanded far past the point, but I don't think so. To imagine as some do that by strengthening history and civics curriculum we can cool the fever in our society are simply imagining that we can change the color of the ocean with a thimble full of food coloring. Schools exist downhill from the rest of the culture, and right now our culture is too full of contempt and derision for those who disagree with us. The most effective teacher of citizenship is what adults model.

We can do better. We should do better. We won't agree on exactly what the process should be, and how we manage that disagreement will be the first lesson we teach students about history and civics. If the lesson we try to teach is "Everyone who is Wrong must be silenced and stamped out," well, that's going to leave a mark. If we move on to lessons like "You're a child and you can't handle the truth," that will stick, too. 

We can do better. We should do better. Step one is to give up the dream of a world in which everyone is Right (aka thinks the same way we do). And yes, I do recognize that my belief in the need for pluralism could be framed as my own One Right Way--except that my way leaves room for all the other ways. It's complicated. People are complicated. History is complicated. But we can still do better.


  1. Heard an interesting interview about this today on "All Things Considered" with Jonathan Collins, a professor of political science, public policy and education at Brown University. His take, based on the interviews conducted with the NAEP, was that the real problem was that fewer of the students taking the test had even had formal civics education and less history education than in the past. He compared it to asking a New Yorker who only rides the train to take a driving test. It was a refreshing change to hear someone involved in ed policy actually point out the taking time away from actually educating students about a subject was a bad thing.

  2. Dear Panicked Citizen/Parent (or Clueless Journalist),
    Please take the time to look at the sample NAEP test items on their website. The link below will take you to the NAEP Questions Tool. Just copy and paste it into your search bar and take a gander at the 17 U.S. History test items and 20 Civics items. And remind yourself that these students have zero motivation to take the NAEP tests seriously, especially given the jaded nature of 8th graders who are completing a six-year stretch in which they have taken a combined 14 federally mandated, state tests (6 ELA, 6 math, 2 science), which involves over 30 days of actual test taking. To top it off, the average student has no idea how they scored an any one of the state tests. Don't believe me, just ask one. And to verify the ridiculous, know that the folks at NAEP still think it's a good idea to test high school seniors in their last semester.

    Now, please give this a Google: