Policy Documents

Shortchanging the Future: The Crisis of History and Civics in American Schools

Robert Pondiscio, Gilbert T. Sewall, Sandra Stotsky –
April 2, 2013

The collective grasp of basic history and civics among American students is alarmingly weak. Beyond dispiriting test results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and other measures, poor performance in history and civics portends a decay of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed for a lifetime of active, engaged citizenship. The reasons for this decline are many: the amount of time devoted to history in K-12 education has demonstrably shrunk over time; demands to make curriculum more inclusive have led schools and teachers to dwell on social history, race, and gender in ways that distort the nation’s historical narrative. These changes are in turn reflected in textbooks and teaching materials used in social studies classrooms. Problems with teacher training and qualification compound the problem, leaving teachers poorly equipped to arrest the decline in history and civics. Past efforts to arrest or reverse the decline, however well-intentioned, have had little discernible impact. Attempts to create national history standards have failed, and great caution must be exercised before further efforts are made to write or impose such standards. Instead, states should consider adopting highly rated sets of state standards in history and social science such as those in South Carolina, California, or Massachusetts. In addition, states should also consider using the U.S. Citizenship Test as a requirement for students to graduate from an American public high school, for admission to a public college, or for eligibility for a Pell grant and any other public funds.