Sharing Past and Present in California: The State of History Education

By McTygue, Nancy | Social Studies Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Sharing Past and Present in California: The State of History Education


McTygue, Nancy, Social Studies Review


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way."

-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1 859

Money. When everything is said and done, it comes down to money and California doesn't have any. This simple and undeniable fact defines public education today in our state and has effectively derailed most, if not all, reform efforts designed to improve student learning. Given the scale of the recession and its impact on our state budget, many schools across California are increasing class sizes, closing their doors to summer school, and in some cases, for good. Other schools have done away with électives, bus transport, nurses, counselors, support staff, and sports. Districts have eliminated instructional coaching positions, downsized curriculum departments, and laid off thousands of classroom teachers in order to tackle an increasingly large budget shortfall.

Even as state and local administrators struggle to piece together skeleton budgets to preserve the most basic educational program for California students, demand for rich high quality instruction grows. In case they didn't know it before, Californians now recognize the importance of human capital in today's global economy. Our children simply won't be able to compete without a rigorous and comprehensive educational system. Moreover, globalization and technological innovation have pushed back against the isolationist ethos - students need to know about and engage with their own communities, state, country, and the world around them.

It is in this moment that I've been asked to write about the state of history education. Context, as any good history teacher can tell you, is everything. The interesting questions that frame the discipline are all about context: Why didn't all the American colonists support the Revolution in 1776? How could we have interned our own citizens during WWII? Why have some former colonies struggled to provide liberty for their own citizens? And so I begin this "state of history education" essay cautiously - deeply aware of my own situation in this state at this time, the challenges we as a society must face in order to provide children the skills and knowledge they'll need to be participate, lead, and thrive in the future.

Pushing Back Against the Marginalization

In the early summer of 2008, my colleagues and I at the California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP) convened a group of scholars, teachers, administrators, and policymakers to participate in the first of three History Summits to advocate for increased and improved history instruction. In order to improve student literacy, school leaders have made (and continue to make) the unfortunate decision to reduce or eliminate history instruction at elementary and middle schools. The initiative was designed to push back against this marginalization by drawing attention to it and designing tools for teachers, parents, and administrators to further this goal at the local level.

Over 100 participants joined us for the three Summits, held at CSU Domínguez Hills (May 2008), UC Davis (November 2008), and San Jose (April 2009). Joined by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, State Senator Gloria Romero, and Assemblymember Tom Torlakson, Summit participants engaged in discussion to first define high quality history instruction, consider its impact on student learning, and finally, to highlight efforts to bridge the gap between research and classroom practice. In order to expand the Summit's reach, presentation materials, videos and a joint message statement have all been uploaded onto the Summit website, http://historysummit. …

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