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What We Aren't Learning From History

On the heels of an "F" in history education for Connecticut from the Fordham Institute, State Historian Walter Woodward says parents and educators must convince the state Department of Education to put out better standards.

“Professor Johnston often said that if you didn’t know history, you didn’t know anything.  You were a leaf that didn’t know it was part of a tree,” bestselling author Michael Crichton wrote in his 1999 fictional narrative Timeline.

 Now, the spotlight is on Connecticut’s public policy or lack thereof – depending on whose perspective it is – in putting in place an acceptable standard in history education in schools.

In a case of history repeating itself, Connecticut has once again received an "F" in history education from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit publishes an annual report on the state of history education.

Connecticut scored 1/10 overall, including 0/3 for clarity and specificity and 1/7 in content and rigor.

“Connecticut’s history standards barely outline curricular scope. A thin sequence is defined—vaguely identified eras are assigned to individual grades—but even that is merely a “suggestion,” the report said.

Students, teachers, and parents are given virtually no guidance as to what students should actually learn—they are only told what conceptual skills they should master, to be applied to whatever content their teachers select.

Detail is fragmentary at best, and far more often absent entirely,” the report concludes.

To be fair, a lot of other states have received an F grade too.

But that hasn’t stopped Walter W. Woodward, Connecticut State Historian, from reprimanding the Connecticut Department of Education.

“The significant issue is that Connecticut has been trying to revise its curriculum standards for several years. Standards in history education have suffered from inattention and many educators across the state because that the study of history and other social sciences is of secondary importance,” Woodward, an associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut, told Patch.

Woodward listed the failings of state education officials in a recent blog post.

  • “Yet even those who object to the Fordham Institute’s grading rubric, cannot help but be disappointed by the State Department of Education’s chronic inattention to, and lack of regard for the importance of history in Connecticut students’ education.
  • [The Department has failed] to adopt or revise the proposed Social Studies Curriculum Standards for Connecticut presented in November of 2009, after a lengthy development process. 
  • Failure to staff the department with a full time Social Studies dedicated coordinator, relying instead on “Social Studies Consultants” or other staff members. 

Thomas Murphy, a state education department spokesman, responded by pointing out that states which don’t teach the content advocated by Fordham Institute usually are the ones to get an "F" grade each year.

Further, Murphy said the department has always allowed people to decide what they want their children to learn.

“Our content is set by local communities at the discretion of individual town boards,” he said.

In 1754, local citizens voted in favor of creating school districts. Today, each of Connecticut’s 1,271 public schools has the discretion to create its own content, though it receives broad-based guidelines from the state education department.

Woodward said he partially agrees with Murphy. “Yes, ultimately individual schools have the discretion to decide what they will teach. Yet guidelines from the state’s Department of Education are very important in determining how they frame their curriculum,” Woodward said.

As of now, there is little consistency.

Elieen Sweeney of the Manchester Historical Society said students’ knowledge of history depended on who was teaching them.

“The society conducts third-grade school tours annually to coincide with the local history curriculum.  It seems that students’ knowledge varies due to the home, individual teachers and schools,” she said.

Every year, fourth grade students in Suffield take a field trip to the local King House Museum. “I’m very pleased with these children. But in general there’s very little emphasis on history and that’s disappointing,” said Lestor Smith, curator at King House.

A retired engineer, Lestor also volunteers with the Boy Scouts. “From what I see from these children and hear from their parents, history is not emphasized as much in middle and high school,” he said.

Aarti Nathan, of Ellington, is the mother of a 3-year-old daughter and a son, age 8, who is in second grade in the local public school system. Nathan said she believes schools should introduce history as a subject to first graders in a simplified manner. Currently, history is formally introduced only at the fourth grade level.

So Nathan said she’s begun educating her children on her own. “I take my children to the public library and several museums often. I also buy them well-illustrated and age-appropriate history books to read," she said. "In addition, we often cuddle up with a blanket and a bowl of popcorn to watch the History Channel on television!”

Under the current system of history education, students who actually end up learning have parents who have the time and resources to educate their children on what they don’t learn at school. Alternately, students have dedicated teachers who go above and beyond in designing a curriculum that the particular educator thinks is best.

Woodward – as well as the Fordham Institute – believes the state Department of Education must put out clear, more homogenous history education guidelines so that all kids who attend public schools get the same head start and equal opportunity to learn about the past.

Maria Giannuzzi March 15, 2011 at 12:33 AM
Unfortunately, history cannot be learned from textbooks. If you want to learn what happened and, more importantly, why it happened you need to consult multiple sources. There is a wealth of information available now online and in our libraries that can be useful to teachers in developing a curriculum: newspapers, film documentaries, photographic collections, diaries and memoirs. The Library of Congress, National Archives, Connecticut State Library, state and local historical societies and museums are excellent resources. The images taken by photographers working for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s tell us more about the Great Depression and its effect on the human spirit than any textbook could hope to achieve.
Malvi Lennon March 15, 2011 at 01:22 AM
A picture is worth a thousand words. However, photographs can be manipulated so issues are perceived a certain way, particularly since we make judgments based on our field of reference. Kids should be encouraged to consult multiple sources of information but there is such a thing as teaching kids the basics of American history. Reading the constitution, the bill of rights, the declaration of independence, memoirs written by all of our presidents, the federalist papers, letters from Thomas Jefferson, speeches given on the floor of congress all that is basic and factual. Recently a group of us produced a program for black history month called Black Patriots. The show took place at Sage Park Middle School. Several Windsor students took part in the production. After the show the kids were asked for their thoughts – consistently the message was how happy they were to have taken part in the event because they learned things about black’s heroes and the role they played in securing their own freedom and shaping our government. Sadly, every child said how this information has never been taught at school.
Maria Giannuzzi March 15, 2011 at 01:58 PM
Malvi, I agree with you. History should be taught from primary sources (such as the ones you mention). A textbook, even a good one, can only provide an overview. Archival photographs should only be one source among many. And photographs have been used in the past occasionally to deceive, but mostly to challenge myths that allow us to exploit our fellow human beings (especially children). It seems to me separating reality from myth is the real work of the historian. And our country is undeniably a better place because of the work of a few organizations and photographers in the early 20th century. Congratulations on the success of your Black Patriots program.
Malvi Lennon March 15, 2011 at 02:29 PM
I would love to be able to take the credit for the Black Patriots program but the brain, heart and soul of the program (in addition to the kids and our great Amy Tria) is BOE member Howard Jubbrey.
Maria Giannuzzi March 15, 2011 at 06:59 PM
Mr. Jubbrey, Ms. Tria and you deserve a lot of credit for adopting a creative (interactive) approach to the teaching of history.

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