History classes might be taking a back seat in Minnesota

  • Article by: NORMAN DRAPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 4, 2011 - 8:08 PM

Math, sciences and reading get most effort, but local teachers say there are bright spots.

Do Minnesota students know their U.S. history?

Despite a recent report showing a limited grasp of U.S. history by the nation's students, Minnesota educators generally give fair marks to the students here. Young people often have a pretty good sense of dates, places, names and basic trends, the educators say.

But the teachers say that improvement is needed, and worry that the emphasis on math, reading and the sciences may detract from learning about history, which they say is crucial to becoming solid citizens with a sense of national identity.

"I think you're really trying to address one of the fundamentals of the human experience: Who are we, what have we done, and where are we going?" said Tim Hoogland, director of education outreach programs for the Minnesota Historical Society.

Still, Minnesota teachers aren't doing the kind of hand-wringing that followed last month's release of U.S. history test results by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Some educators around the nation said they were alarmed by the results of the 2010 test, which showed only 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders, and 12 percent of 12th-graders were proficient or better in the subject. Results were not broken out state-by-state in the NAEP report, so Minnesotans' standing wasn't immediately available.

In interviews with the Star Tribune, Minnesota college and high school history teachers reported no shocking gaps in students' history literacy, such as not knowing who Thomas Jefferson was, or thinking that World War II pitted the North against the South.

"I find the students who ... have graduated from American high schools have a basic understanding of the broad periods and watershed events of American history," said Lisa Norling, an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota.

One barometer of student interest-- participation in the National History Day program -- has soared. The number of Minnesotans in the program, which requires students to design an in-depth history project, has risen from 125 to 30,000 during its 23 years, said Hoogland.

"Per capita, we have more History Day participants than any other state," he said.

More depth, please

But command of the subject varies.

Students "tend to know the basic concepts, like who the first president was," said Aaron Hunter, who teaches history at Champlin Park High School. "When I get into more depth, that's when they drop off. Like when was George Washington president? A lot of times they just don't have the depth."

Norling said her U students "generally lack concrete knowledge of and understanding of the economic, social, cultural and religious history, all of which ... are fundamental to a meaningful understanding of the military and political histories of the U.S. and North America."

An understanding of U.S. history is crucial, she said, to truly grasp the ideals that propel the American experience.

Matt Loayza, associate professor of history at Minnesota State University, Mankato, said most of his students can identify Richard Nixon as the only president to resign from office, and that he left in disgrace. Some can connect that loosely with Watergate. But why exactly Nixon had to resign would be a problem for them.

Another issue is that some educators see social studies getting shorter shrift among learning priorities in Minnesota. For example, while there are state tests in math, reading, science and writing, there isn't one in U.S. history.

Policymakers and officials tend to focus these days on STEM courses -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- as the ones students need to compete in today's high-tech global marketplace.

"Science and math are treated more like the sacred cows," said Todd Andrix, an Owatonna High School social studies teacher. "They're the last ones cut." Andrix said his own department has been cut from 11 teachers to seven full-time and one part-time teacher.

In Minnesota, teachers said concern about students' understanding of U.S. history is part of our educational heritage.

"You can go back to World War I and find educators bemoaning the lack of knowledge about U.S. history," Loayza said.

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547

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