History seeks a fair shake in classroom


Comeback: While reading and math have been in the limelight in recent years, the social studies have been limping along. A federally funded summer workshop on teaching history intends to change that.

July 14, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IF WE'RE to believe the test results, the anecdotes and the testimony of frustrated teachers, what American students know about history is abysmal.

In recent national testing, only 29 percent of high school seniors could connect the Tonkin Gulf Resolution with the Vietnam War. Forty-one percent knew what the Monroe Doctrine was about. A teen in a New York high school American studies class said her state's attorney general was the "one that says on the cigarette pack that you shouldn't smoke because it gives you cancer."

Her teacher responded, incorrectly, "That's right, but what else does he do?"

The teller of that anecdote is educational historian Diane Ravitch, author of Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, who despairs at the way history is taught in many American schools. Ravitch writes that in a century of progressive reforms in education, history was blended into an amorphous lump known as social studies, just as reading faded into language arts. And both lost the rigor with which they were taught at the turn of the 20th century.

"Absent history," she says, "we are surrounded by stupidity."

Against this bleak backdrop, I had a chance to mingle with a group of 40 history and social studies teachers from Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties who are spending two weeks studying their discipline on the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and at such venues as the Maryland State Archives and B&O Railroad Museum.

Supported by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, these elementary and secondary school teachers are the first of 135 from Central Maryland public schools who are studying American history with UMBC professors, working with master teachers and instructional technology specialists and - perhaps most importantly - preparing lesson plans that will be posted on Thinkport, a Maryland Public Television Web site expected to open next spring.

"History teachers tend to work in isolation and without the attention and resources they need to do their jobs properly," said Dan Ritschel, director of the UMBC Center for History Education and associate professor of history.

That sentiment was seconded enthusiastically by several of the workshop participants, most of whom come from the three counties' lowest-performing schools. And while reading and math have been much in the limelight in recent years, social studies has been limping along with similar racial and economic achievement gaps in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

For example, while 59 percent of Baltimore County's white fifth-graders and 64 percent of its white eighth-graders performed at a satisfactory level in social studies MSPAP testing in spring 2000, the comparable figures for African-American kids were 32 percent and 39 percent.

The teachers hope the test that replaces the dearly departed MSPAP will give a fairer shake to social studies.

Barbara Yingling, a master teacher in Baltimore County, said elementary social studies teachers are the "poor cousins" of education. They are generalists who have to teach American history and other social studies among what must seem a myriad of curriculum requirements. And in recent years, the social studies have been so interwoven with reading, writing and even mathematics that the three R's have all but drowned them out.

"Process becomes more important than content," said Jodie Spears, a fifth-grade teacher at Jacksonville Elementary in Baltimore County, echoing almost to the word the criticism of Ravitch.

Even many secondary teachers lack content knowledge in history. A recent survey found 89 of 300 Baltimore County social studies teachers have college degrees in history, and 18 have a master's in the subject.

So the excitement was palpable as the teachers sat in seminars with UMBC professors: John Jeffries discussing the Depression and World War II with high school teachers, Kriste Lindenmeyer covering women in the 19th and early 20th centuries with middle-school teachers and Terry Bouton discussing the Revolutionary War with elementary teachers, many of whom had never studied history in depth.

Fifth-graders in Baltimore County must study the Revolution. These teachers can't wait.

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