Bringing History to Life

The director of National History Day discusses the importance and shortcomings of history education.

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On June 21, 1964, three young civil rights activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were killed by a lynch mob in Philadelphia, Miss. For more than 40 years, the murder went unprosecuted—until three high school students from Illinois, along with journalist Jerry Mitchell, started researching the case in 2005. The documentary they produced led officials to reopen the case, and now the ringmaster, Edgar Ray Killen, is behind bars.

The students' documentary was part of National History Day, a program that more than 600,000 middle and high school students participate in each year. Students spend months doing original research on a history topic they find interesting, then write a paper, film a documentary, make a website, or find some other way to present their findings. Students compete in state and regional competitions, and winners move to the national competition at the University of Maryland. This year, the national competition will take place June 12-16.

With national achievement for high school students falling on the National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam, the need for students to learn history is growing. Students who participate in National History Day perform better on history, reading, writing, math, and science exams according to a recent study. I talked to Cathy Gorn, executive director of the nonprofit program, about the importance of history education and the success of the program.

What has made History Day so successful?

This is not the secondary school version of trivial pursuit. It's not memorizing names and dates and spitting them out on a test and forgetting them forever. They're going to archives, going to museums, doing real historical research. In the process of all this, they learn history, they learn about their nation's past. They learn important skills they can apply in their careers and in college. It's a very well-rounded program in that sense.

We have empirical data that proves without a doubt that kids who participate in History Day outperform their peers who don't. Not only in history class, but also in reading, writing, math, and science as well. In the process of studying history, they learn how to think. They become better thinkers.

Are students not getting enough history education? Civics scores went up for fourth graders, but they fell for high school seniors. Where are we failing them?

I think there's a serious problem in many school districts in middle and high schools—a teaching-to-the-test mentality. The testing has been in math, reading, science. But in history there isn't a test. Some of these school districts have decreased the amount of instructional hours they devote to history.

The fact that the fourth graders improved is encouraging because they're getting an early chance to begin their studies of history and civics. In middle and high school, that's where the loss of instruction time comes. That's when the boring history comes.

Kids find their heroes in history. They find role models—ordinary people who do extraordinary things, not just basketball players. But it has to be an engaged study of the past. The other problem is schools are using the boring textbooks, doing multiple choice tests. It has no meaning for students, they just move on and forget it.

The achievement gap between white students and Hispanic students narrowed on the NAEP civics exam. Hispanic scores are up across the board. Not by much, but they are improving. Is that encouraging?

The increase in Hispanic scores mirrors what National History Day found in our research—that black and Hispanic students [who participated in NHD] outscored their peers two to one. I hope we're seeing that increase in part because teachers are engaging students. [National History Day] is not just for gifted and talented students; this is a program that does extremely well with kids in the lower quartile. That's because it's engaging, it's fun. Once they created these projects, they enter a competition, kind of like a science fair.

What's the importance of students studying primary source documents as opposed to just reading it out of a textbook?

When you do original research, you have an opportunity to form your own opinion on a topic. You're looking at original material. They do have to read secondary material so that they can have context.

Have you talked to any teachers about how they're discussing the killing of Osama bin Laden with students? What should teachers be saying to their students? What's the importance of recent history in history class?

I haven't had the chance to talk to any teachers since [last] Sunday. But I can tell you that what I hope they're doing is helping young people put this in perspective. I hope they're helping students understand the history of terror and understand why 9/11 happened in the first place.

You have to understand the history of the Middle East and the history of the United States' role there, so you can draw some meaning and understanding. Using the word understanding doesn't mean condoning; it just means you need to understand why it may have happened.

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