Jill's Blog

Wife | Mother | Educator | Follower of Jesus

Teaching U.S. History

I recently received an email from the state of Ohio asking teachers to comment on the Ohio standards for Social Studies (particularly U.S. History).  I have been teaching U.S. History for 23 years and as I re-read the standards, I found I had many things to say.  Let me first give you a brief “history” of U.S. history requirements.

When I first came to Ohio, students were expected to complete three full credits of Social Studies in addition to all the other core coursework and electives in order to graduate from high school.  The three credits had to include 1 full credit of Global Studies (read: World History), 1 full credit of U.S. History, 1/2 credit of Government and 1/2 credit of something elective in the Social Studies area (for example:  Current Events, Economics, Psychology, or Sociology, to name a few).

Today, students still must have three full credits in Social Studies, but the most recent changes that will be effecting incoming students will require 1/2 credit of U.S. History, 1/2 credit of Modern World History, and 1/2 credit of Government.  As a Social Studies teacher, I cannot even begin to express how outraged I am at the reduction of these requirements!  I have been at a loss for words since this change was announced, but I am now finding my voice.

When I was a kid, we had to complete only two credits of Social Studies to graduate (I’m not from Ohio), but one of those credits had to be in U.S. History.  Not to give away my age completely, but, I graduated over 30 years ago and we took U.S. for the same amount of time that students have been required to take it now!  Thirty additional years of history in the same time period that we had and, by the way, we never got to the then modern era of the 1980s because we ran out of time!  How is it that students are required to take LESS U.S. History even though the length of time they are studying is increasing??  This has never made sense to me!

In Ohio high school U.S. History teachers are supposed to teach the course focusing on the time period from 1877 to present (students learn the earlier part of U.S. History in elementary school, supposedly).  This has never been very logical to me since that means that I am teaching students the time period starting at the end of Reconstruction (what’s that you might say?).  The biggest challenge is to get students to understand what happened after Reconstruction (think Civil War and the aftermath) without understanding what happened before that time period.  Ok…sure!  Because I’m not a fan of illogical time periods, I always start with a quick overview of all the early president (we know and love our presidents in my class) including major events of their presidencies and then tackle the events that led up to the Civil War, the war itself, and the time period of Reconstruction before I feel comfortable moving on.  Then, I have the remainder of the year to teach the rest of history.  This is no easy feat and I typically cannot finish (especially when you throw in snow days, special schedules and the like), but I battle on.

My goal as a history teacher is to engage students and to see to it that they appreciate (if not love) history.  I teach history as a story….a soap opera in some ways…with intrigue, suspense, crazy characters, brave men and women, and stuff I couldn’t possibly make up, but events that actually happened!  It’s fascinating and my goal is for my students to see that history is about people, people who have done great and terrible things, people who have exceeded the odds, people who have accomplished regardless of their sex, race, nationality, religion, or socioeconomic status.  People, like them, who lived and breathed and changed the world.  Clearly not everyone will leave my room loving history the way I do, but I hope I have created an appreciation for it in them.

Now, the state of Ohio is lowering requirements for students while still expecting the same standards to be met.  The move to require only 1/2 credit of U.S. History makes these standards unreachable. There is not a teacher in the state of Ohio or anywhere else in the U.S. who could do justice to all of the learning standards that have been established for Social Studies in a course that is one semester in length.  It is an impossible task and will clearly lead teachers to be forced on teaching the standards rather than creating an environment for critical thinking that is sorely needed today.  Additionally, the standards go beyond the scope and sequence of the course including questions on the U.S. History end of course testing (that all students take in April even though the school year doesn’t finish until the end of May) regarding early documents in U.S. History (like the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers and the Declaration of Independence) that are taught in elementary school and addressed as a quick review in high school.  These types of documents are addressed in Government class (1/2 credit required), but are  not included in the end of course testing for Government.  This defies logic and, again, sets students and teachers up for failure.

Requiring 1/2 a credit of U.S. History before students leave high school underscores the problems we still face in America with a population of young people who know little to nothing about the History of this great country because they have ONLY been taught what is going to be tested. This is NOT going to create the global thinkers who understand the republican form of government and will use their knowledge to become citizens who are responsible and informed.  Many of you have seen video clips from talk shows or on you tube of “man on the street interviews” where college students in particular or people in general have been asked simple questions like “who is the person in this picture” only to have them state “I don’t know” having been shown a picture of the Vice President of the United States….the current vice president!  Seriously??  You cannot name the current vice president of the United States??  What’s going on here?

We are dumbing down curriculums right and left.  We are de-emphasizing the important things, using technology instead of good teaching strategies, focusing on testing rather than learning, and worrying more about scores than learning.

As a professional teacher (dare I say master teacher) with a B.S. in Social Science and a Master’s in Educational Leadership, I am not being treated as a professional.  I love my students.  I work them hard.  I make them memorize (gasp) all the Presidents.  They recite the Gettysburg Address.  They recognize people by their faces.  They debate issues.  They are informed citizens who take their responsibilities seriously.  I do not tell them what to believe but encourage them to determine WHY they believe something.  Why then when I come to the end of the year does the state not take what I have done seriously?  Grades on the report card are not enough of an indicator of how well I’ve done my job.  The state must test my students, students they’ve never met against a set of standards that are unreachable to many. For the record, my students do well on these state tests, but they do so not because I taught them the answers but because I gave them the tools to learn and the power to inquire and think.

Many of the things I have addressed here are what is wrong in general with education.  I’m sure English teachers, Science teachers, and Math teachers would say many of the same things I am saying.  Elective teachers are just as frustrated regardless of whether their students are required to pass a test at the end of the year or not.  Education is about growing our students to be productive well-rounded citizens not about teaching illogical standards so that students can pass a test.  I understand accountability.  I get that there are poor teachers out there.  But, honestly, if you want to keep good teachers around, stop creating ridiculous tests (that cost, geez, I don’t even want to imagine how much money) and taking away valuable classroom time so that students can take these tests.  Stop reducing the amount of time courses should be taught and let us teach out KIDS.  We will follow a curriculum, but we cannot follow the time lines that are being established.

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2 Comments

  1. Jim

    Genius! 🙂

  2. Very, very well-written Jill! I like how you stand up for yourself as a professional.

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