This year, Illinois joins 44 states and the District of Columbia in the beginning stages of implementing the Common Core State Standards.
Because the new standards focus exclusively on English and math, Illinois educators and policymakers will need to take proactive steps to ensure the teaching of U.S. history and civics will not continue to deteriorate.
On the whole, students’ grasp of history in the United States is woeful. On recent National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, American students demonstrated strikingly low levels of understanding their nation’s founders, founding principles and basic facts.
De-emphasis on instruction time for history, questionable teacher preparation and licensure practices, and murky content standards for history and civics only deepen the concerns of advocates for history education.
As Ball State University professor and noted historian Sarah Drake Brown has pointed out, while Common Core does not include particular standards for history, the new standards do represent an opportunity to reinvigorate history instruction through taking deliberate steps to reverse persistent underachievement in this critical content area.
In their 2011 study of U.S. History standards in American public schools, Fordham Institute scholars Jeremy and Sheldon Stern gave Illinois a grade of D, calling the state’s history standards vague and lacking in rigor. They point out no specific content is outlined for any grade level and that the Illinois standards drown out history content in favor of broader social science concepts. A re-examination and realignment of the role of history within Illinois’ social science standards is overdue.
Improving content standards for students alone, however, will not be enough. Without adequately trained teachers delivering history instruction, students will continue to underperform in this area.
Although Illinois offers teacher preparation programs with history majors and does require some specific coursework in and formal study of history for licensure, serious problems persist. In 2006, the Illinois State Board of Education lowered the cut score on the history/social sciences licensure exam as a strategy to address shortages of certified teachers. This lowered standard was expected by the state to raise the passage rate from 56 to 80 percent and reduce teacher shortages, but watering down the requirement contributed to legitimate criticism that the test was passable without correctly answering a single meaningful question on U.S. history.
As states implement the new Common Core standards, debates on its merits will continue, and time will tell whether the new standards are a success. Time has already told, however, where we stand in the important work of educating students to be informed citizens with a grasp of the founders and founding principles of the country.
There exist a wealth of resources available to help teachers and others ensure their students receive quality instruction in U.S. history and civics. Organizations like the Gilder Lerhman Institute of American History, Ashland University’s TeachingAmericanHistory.org and the Bill of Rights Institute offer a variety of free online resources for teachers and students. They also run professional development workshops across the country several times a year, aimed at bolstering and refreshing teachers’ content expertise and the teaching strategies required to teach history and civics in a manner consistent with the Common Core standards.
Educators and policymakers in Illinois and other states implementing Common Core will have to be proactive to take opportunities to review, revise and reinvigorate their approach to teaching United States history and civics. Specifically:
• State-level education policymakers must continue to develop and improve content standards for teaching history, especially when history is grouped within social studies or social science curricula.
• History teacher preparation and licensing practices should be strengthened to emphasize content knowledge in and the formal study of history.
• Opportunities to continue to assess students’ knowledge of history, especially at the state level where different policies and approaches can be comparatively evaluated, will be critical, especially in light of the current, budget-driven freeze on future administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress for American History.
Dave Inman is adjunct fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Va., and author of the institute’s “Teaching American History with the Common Core State Standards.”
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