Blog > Teaching American History Grant Evaluation: Glenn Beck, the Center for American Progress and “No Evidence”? -Part II
Teaching American History Grant Evaluation: Glenn Beck, the Center for American Progress and “No Evidence”? -Part II
In the last post we noted a number of recent statements concerning the threatened Teaching American History (TAH) ED grant program, including the fact that, as Media Matters notes, earlier this month Fox News analyst William LaJeunesse strongly criticized the program:
Or how about the Teaching American History program.  Here is $120 million to help teachers teach history in “exciting and engaging ways.” There is no evidence it works.
Now there may be a number of reasons to expand, reshape, or eliminate TAH.  Certainly, any debate that gets us thinking about teaching American history and the worth of a taxpayer funded program is worth having.  But let’s get our facts straight.

First, the program was started and then supported by Senators Byrd, Kennedy, and Alexander among other members of Congress from both parties for the express purpose of teaching “traditional American history,” not pedagogical practices.  The official purpose of the program is easily found on the program’s website:
The program is designed to raise student achievement by improving teachers’ knowledge and understanding of and appreciation for traditional U.S. history. … By helping teachers to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of U.S. history as a separate subject matter within the core curriculum, these programs will improve instruction and raise student achievement.
Traditional American history is defined as “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.”  So LaJeunesse’s suggestion that the program is not about content but “engaging and exciting” pedagogy is false, although certainly one would hope that participating teachers do find ways to make history more engaging and exciting for their students. In fact, many of the teachers we’ve talked to say that the program has helped them make history more engaging and exciting though strengthening their knowledge of American history.

Second, as part of a very competitive award process every Teaching American History grant proposal includes an evaluation plan.  Evaluation is a required part of every TAH grant, and we’ve written and implemented a lot of TAH evaluation plans.  Over the years the importance of the score on the evaluation section of the grant proposal has grown.  This past year there was a two tiered scoring process in which grants with high scoring overall plans were then selected based on the coherence and rigor of their evaluation plan.  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, lesson plan and student assignment and work analysis, and surveys about changes in classroom practices that we administer to students and teachers alike.  Student testing is also often a part of a good evaluation plan, although this is a complicated issue (more on this in a future post).

You might have a problem with these requirements.  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 before and after they participate in their grant’s events, often by independent evaluation firms such as ours, and we do see scores rise.  In 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 precisely because it focuses on content as well as methodology.

I’m not talking about whether or not TAH should remain as is.  I’m not saying that across the board all TAH grants are perfect.  Our claim is that it is false to say there is no evidence for the success of the teaching American history program. Define evidence. Define success.  If success is U.S. history teachers learning more about traditional American history and the evidence is their increased scores on U.S. history tests, there is indeed evidence the program is successful.

If you held up the rest of ED and other federal departments and programs to the same standards some propose for TAH (definitive proof that the program is succeeding and fulfilling its ultimate, highest of goals–in this case, to raise student achievement), one wonders what you would be left with.  Should we base programs and policy on the evidence for what works and what doesn’t?  Absolutely.  TAH should be up for debate along with every other program in these days of budgetary belt tightening.  Should we strengthen our standards and ensure we have solid evidence for the success of policies and programs?  Of course.  But, again, let’s get our facts straight and let’s be as fair and balanced as we can about it.

In the next post, having pointed out the glaring errors of LaJeunesse’s statements, we’ll discuss some of the more serious objections to Teaching American History evaluation.

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