Closer Readings Commentary

Civic Education and the Classroom

Despite all the attention the Common Core English Language Standards have been getting in the media, some of the most interesting and salutary parts of the standards have been neglected. While the national conversation has focused on the use and abuse of “informational texts” in English Language Arts classrooms, the rationale for the “Literacy in History/Social Studies” standards have been largely ignored.

In the rationale for the Core, the authors stress that one of the attributes of a literate person in the 21st century should be the ability to: “reflexively demonstrate cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic.”

On Veterans Day, the Manhattan Institute and the Gilder Lehrman Institute cosponsored a panel entitled “Civic Education and the Common Core.” The organizers argued that over the past decade, the teaching of U.S. History and Government have been neglected, as manifest in the low National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) scores for history and a raft of surveys of historical knowledge among high school and college graduates.

Lesley Herrmann, Executive Director of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, prefaced her remarks by talking about the mission of the organization, which is to promote the study and love of American history thorough lectures, exhibitions, teacher seminars, prizes, and fellowships. A few years ago, NEH funded Gilder Lehrman’s affiliate school program to make it free to all K–12 schools, with teacher registration.

Lesley spoke about a new professional development program at GLI that trains educators to deliver rigorous instruction for the development of reading, writing, and analytical skills, which are emphasized by the Common Core through the use of historical texts and primary source documents. It is called the Teaching Literacy through History Initiative.

Lesley also gave three reasons why GLI is aligning all of its work to these standards. Firstly, the entire core teaches transferrable skills. Once students learn how to read one text, they will have gained skills to grapple with other complex texts. She emphasized that these skills are also not simply the purview just the gifted and talented; those in APUSH; or those benefitting from certain private school curricula. Any student can learn to read complex, challenging texts and make inferences from those new skills, as evidenced by the experience of Tim Bailey, a longtime teacher and the director of the GLI’s CCSS program. One day, a low-income student in Tim’s 8th grade history class who had grappled with primary sources all year, came up to him and asked: Can I use this technique on my science homework?

The second reason, Lesley offered for GLI’s support for CCSS is its interdisciplinary quality. Although the Core was created for English and math classes, GLI is dedicated to bringing history into Common Core. As an example, she noted the important role a novel (in this instance, The Red Badge of Courage) can play in a Social Studies or American History classroom. How about, she suggested, teaching the novel alongside letters from soldiers on the battlefield? Why not ask students to compare fiction and reality? GLI also encourages English teachers to work in tandem with history teachers and art teachers with history teachers in the analysis of Winslow Homer’s Civil War Sharpshooter, as well as Civil War songs and photographs.

Finally, Leslie noted that CCSS makes possible unfiltered experience of historical sources. When students read the Gettysburg Address, or the Adams–Jefferson letters, they learn to analyze and evaluate the actual words of writers, which help to eliminate the bias of teachers and textbooks.

Tim Bailey, the director of the GLI’s CCSS program mentioned above was also on hand to give a firsthand account of his experiences teaching primary sources to his 8th grade students in Salt Lake City.

Tim has taught at Title 1 schools for most of his career and has a very good sense of where “at risk” students begin. He argued that while close reading of 18th-century documents is a huge challenge, it is the most worthwhile challenge humanities’ teachers face in our time. He noted that his students need the kind of analytical skills CCSS advocates. By learning to unlock texts for themselves with these techniques he teaches them—and plenty of hard work—the program helps underprivileged students develop the academic self-confidence and habits of self-discipline that college requires.

The final speaker, Stephanie Stanford, formerly of the Gates Foundation and now working for the College Board, reached back to the founding of the nation to remind the audience that education was a profound concern of the founders of our republican experiment in self-government.

She quoted three statements by Thomas Jefferson that could serve as principles for educational reform:

  • “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
  • “The object of primary education [is] … to understand [the citizen’s] duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either.”
  • “The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training”

Stephanie argued that these principles underlie and justify the vast amounts of economic resources that the local, state, and federal governments spend on education, as well as the way Americans think about education’s importance.

She also re-emphasized Tim Bailey’s theme of equity by noting that attracting more Black and Latino students into Advanced Placement courses has been a critical goal of the College Board for some time. Recent studies show that the scores of minority have greatly improved, and that successful completion of AP courses is an important determinant of college and career success.