Theodore Rabb: History Is Being Left Behind as Schools Rush to Comply with the No Child Left Behind Act

Roundup: Talking About History

Theodore K. Rabb, a professor of history at Princeton University, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (June 4, 2004):

...Appalled by what has happened to historical literacy, three years ago Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia persuaded his colleagues in Congress to support a program, Teaching American History, to enable school districts around the country to enhance teachers' knowledge and skills, refresh curricula, and in general improve history instruction. That was certainly a promising move, but it is now being undermined by another Washington initiative: the No Child Left Behind Act....

Here, I would argue, is the most insidious effect of the law: not its financial, pedagogic, or constitutional shortcomings, but its devastation of subjects other than reading and math in the first eight grades.

That outcome is clear and widespread. Because so much money is at stake, school districts are shifting primary- and secondary-school class hours to reading and math, the only subjects tested by the law. The Council for Basic Education, a nonprofit group founded in the 1950s to shore up democracy through quality public education, has documented the change, as has testimony from states as diverse as Indiana, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, and Tennessee. In response to a survey I conducted in New Jersey, one superintendent reported: "We have double periods of mathematics and language arts each day in grades 3-6, and sometimes only three periods a week of social studies and science." "When extra practice time is needed for test-taking strategies," another superintendent notes, "it is taken from social studies or science classes." A gathering of superintendents in January told me that 90-minute social-studies classes are regularly cut in half or even by two-thirds, while reading and math gobble up the time.

The consequences a few years hence are predictable: a further (possibly precipitous) drop in students' familiarity with their heritage. Denuded of history in the first eight grades, how can they possibly redress the balance in high school, when new subjects and activities clamor for attention, and one-year classes are forced to scamper through the entirety of state, U.S., or world history?

It might be assumed that, once alerted to the problem, our government would rush to find remedies. After all, Congress has given Senator Byrd's Teaching American History an annual budget of $100-million; the White House has put its full weight behind We the People, an initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and designed to improve the understanding of American history; and Bruce Cole, NEH chairman, has proclaimed that "citizens kept ignorant of their history are robbed of the riches of their heritage." Why, then, do they allow the No Child Left Behind law to cripple their commitments and initiatives?

For that is what they do. In one discussion of the issue that I know about, federal powers-that-be recommended that historians rely on "sensible" superintendents -- an act of trust that our assessment-fixated society contradicts at every turn. Similarly, Raymond J. Simon, assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, has suggested that, if "focused and organized," districts should be able to solve the problems with No Child Left Behind. Secretary Paige himself dismisses the concern. Nobody is being told to drop other subjects, he says, and he will not be deflected from his cause: "A child that can't read is not going to learn history or civics." How, he does not say.

What is so sad is that a solution is available. In other advanced countries, like the Netherlands, testing in the early grades covers all subjects, including history.

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