Blog > Teaching American History Grant Evaluation: Glenn Beck, the Center for American Progress and “No Evidence”? -Part III
Teaching American History Grant Evaluation: Glenn Beck, the Center for American Progress and “No Evidence”? -Part III
In earlier posts we discussed:

1) How Glenn Beck and the Center for American Progress have sparred over the Teaching American History program.

2) How a Fox News analyst’s remarks criticizing the Teaching American History program were misleading at best.

Given that the Teaching American History (TAH) program at ED may about to be cut, the issue of evidence for TAH success is particularly timely.  As we’ve pointed out in the past, while there may be a number of reasons to expand, reshape, or eliminate TAH, the claim that there is no evidence that TAH works is simply false.  Each grant includes an evaluation plan.  Evaluation is a required part of every TAH grant, and we’ve written and implemented a lot of them.  Under the program requirements set by the Government Performance and Reporting Act (GPRA), each Teaching American History grant must report:

The average percentage change in the scores (on a pre-post assessment of American history) of participants who complete at least 75 percent of the professional development hours offered by the project. The test or measure will be aligned with the TAH project and at least 50 percent of its questions will come from a validated test of American history.

Besides such serious testing on honest-to-goodness U.S. history content knowledge, we often conduct focus groups, pre-post lesson plan and student assignment and work analysis as well as surveys about changes in classroom practices that we administer to students and teachers alike.

You might have a problem with these requirements and practices.  You might have a problem with the aggregated results.  But it is false to say there is no evidence that TAH grants work.  Teachers are routinely tested in American history content before and after they participate in their grant’s events, often by independent evaluation firms such as ours, and we often see scores rise on multiple annual pre-post tests.  In how many other ED funded programs are the program participants administered pre-post content knowledge tests?  At a time when American history is often not an educational priority, teachers themselves routinely report to us how much they’ve learned and how much they love this program because it focuses on content over methodology.  Obviously, some programs tend to be much better than others.  There is a lot to learn from here.

A more reasonable charge that has been leveled concerning the evaluation of the TAH program is that there is scant evidence that teaching U.S. history teachers traditional American history increases student knowledge of American history. Sam Wineburg made such arguments, among other more pertinent observations, in a speech at the 2009 OAH conference (and many others responded like this).  These complaints ultimately fall short.

It would be great if we lived in a world where we only funded programs that have been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to increase student test scores.  Obviously, this is a matter of some debate.  It would be odd if the Teaching American History program was held to a standard that the rest of ED doesn’t have to meet.  Unfortunately, the fact is that the relationship between professional development programs for K-12 teachers and student achievement is a difficult measurement problem that is expensive to solve.  People of good will have argued over how to prove that various programs for teachers improve student test scores for years and will continue to do so in the future.  According to a 2007 Institute of Education Sciences/Department of Education study, only nine studies out of over 1300 were able to pass rigorous What Works Clearinghouse standards in order to measure the relationship between professional development programs and student achievement.

Does this lack of statistical evidence mean that all teacher professional development is a waste of time?  Should we institute a nationwide moratorium on all funding of professional development programs for teachers?

Senator Robert Byrd, Senator Edward Kennedy and Senator Lamar Alexander all supported the Teaching American History program based on a common sense assumption: teachers can’t teach what they don’t know. A knowledge of traditional American history is a necessary but not sufficient condition for student achievement. The program is supposed to teach:

…the significant issues, episodes, and turning points in the history of the United States; how the words and deeds of individual Americans have determined the course of our Nation; and how the principles of freedom and democracy articulated in the founding documents of this Nation have shaped America’s struggles and achievements and its social, political, and legal institutions and relations.

If a teacher is ignorant of these things, we can be sure they won’t be able to teach what they don’t know.  Possessing such knowledge does not mean that they can teach well, but without it they can’t teach at all.

It may be that Congress deems there is good reason to cut the Teaching American History grant program.  The claim that there is no evidence the program works should not be one of these reasons.  We believe that changes could certainly be made to the program to ensure much needed research and evaluation of historical learning takes place in such a way as to impact the teaching of American history nationwide for the better.  We could offer advice as to the best practices we’ve seen that enable some TAH programs to fulfill the program’s goals better than others and how the program might be restructured in order to better achieve those goals.

Political reality being what it is, however, it seems that TAH might disappear without anyone fully considering these issues.  Given that both political parties recognize the need for history teachers to know American history better than they do at present, it would be worthwhile for everyone concerned if instead of simply nixing the program we had an adult discussion of what sort of structural changes at the state and federal level could help better achieve its goals.  What evidence do we have that this program is not working and what evidence do we have that it is working?  What works and what doesn’t? Given the importance of history education to our goals as a nation, shouldn’t we talk about these issues and learn needed lessons from our experience with one of the most unique programs in the history of American history and civic education before we get rid of it?

Here’s a portion of George Washington’s First Annual Message to Congress:

Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness. In one in which the measures of Government receive their impression so immediately from the sense of the Community as in ours it is proportionably essential. To the security of a free Constitution it contributes in various ways: By convincing those who are intrusted with the public administration, that every valuable end of Government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people: and by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of Society; to discriminate the spirit of Liberty from that of licentiousness— cherishing the first, avoiding the last, and uniting a speedy, but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the Laws.

Whether this desirable object will be the best promoted by affording aids to seminaries of learning already established, by the institution of a national University, or by any other expedients, will be well worthy of a place in the deliberations of the Legislature.

The Teaching American History program is one of the few attempts at “other expedients” to fulfill Washington’s mandate ever undertaken at the federal level. We ought to be looking to learn from our experience with the Teaching American History program.
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