NAEP-mania! 2023: US History and Civics Edition

Way back in the late 1970s, I changed my schedule—either in grade 10 or 11—and found myself in two class periods without my friends; I had been trafficking among the top-ranked students in my class (I graduated number 8 out of about 150 students), but the schedule change put me in a so-called “regular” history class.

The class was taught by a football and track coach. He had a very simple and even elegant instructional strategy.

In the center of the classroom stood an overhead projector. Beside it, daily, he had a designated stack of overheads.

After the first couple classes, he assigned the slowest note taker (or better named, note copier) to sit beside the stack of notes to rotate as that student completed copying.

After one day of this tedium, I rushed to guidance and returned to my original schedule along side my friends.

Something that is rarely discussed in the many public discussions of US education is that history, social studies, civics, and government courses in public schools are disproportionately taught by coaches.

Most coaches are coincidentally teachers—and a few teachers are coincidentally coaches. A significant number of US public school students get begrudging instruction in history, social studies, civics, and government—and that instruction is superficially facts, easy to test (or at least easy to put on tests that are easy to score).

So while Republicans have been dismantling history curriculum and banning books, US students produced our latest NAEP education crisis: Eighth-Graders’ History, Civics Test Scores Hit Record Low, cries the WSJ.

Yet, here is an interesting tidbit (especially for those of us mired in the manufactured reading crisis over the past five years or so):

This relatively flat data line for NAEP history scores should remind you of reading NAEP data:

Despite evidence to the contrary, once again, mainstream media, the public, and political leaders have only two ways to react to anything about US public education—crisis or miracle.

We might anticipate that the drop in US history and civics NAEP scores (despite the obvious connection to Covid, as noted above in NAEP reading) will prompt “science of history” and “science of civics” movements.

But, honestly, those will not materialize because politically the US does not care about history or civics—at least not about the quality of teaching and learning in history or civics.

Politically, we only care about anything that allows a public outrage and melodramatic media response to further prove that students suck, teachers suck, and schools, well, suck.

Similar to the false stories around reading, however, the actual problems with history and civics teaching and learning in the US have little to do with a very bad test (that, we should note, is what NAEP is, a very bad test).

History, social studies, civics, and government courses have for decades been part of an open secret—a set of content eagerly sacrificed to the scholastic sports Gods.

And more recently, history, social studies, civics, and government are the political tool of the Republican Party who wants schooling to indoctrinate children in the fairy tales that maintain the status quo of inequitable power, freedom, and humanity that is the good ol’ U.S. of A.

The real purpose of NAEP is to give periodic space to the only way journalists know how to respond to education:

Ironically, that journalists and the public are so easily fooled by this nonsense is the strongest indictment of the failures of US public education.

We all should know better. We all should do better.

But we won’t.

That, by the way, is one predictable lesson of history.