Recent history often mystery to students; New state exam may push teachers to make time for modern events

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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“Whip Inflation Now.”

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Reaganomics. Spiro Agnew. Nicaragua, Libya and Grenada.

If you’re above a certain age, memories from the ’70s and ’80s just came rushing back.

If you’re a recent high school graduate, you might be drawing a blank, and it’s no wonder.

About this time each year, history teachers realize with a sigh that they’ve taught their classes too slowly. Instead of bringing students all the way to the present, history classes leave kids, oh, somewhere around the Eisenhower administration.

“I’ve been doing this 29 years, and I’ve never made it to the end,” said Tony Fracchia, a U.S. history teacher at Newman Smith High School in Carrollton. “In a regular U.S. history class, if we get up to World War II and some of the Cold War, we consider that a success.”

But this may be the last year that U.S. history teachers in Texas stop short of the present day. The introduction of the state’s new standardized history test next year will probably force more teachers to quicken their pace.

“That test is going to push us to get through everything,” said Stephen Johnson, a U.S. history teacher in Lubbock and president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies. “We’ve not felt that pressure until now.”

Last week’s Department of Education study, which showed that more than half of American 12th-graders lack even a basic knowledge of U.S. history, was testament that the whole subject is a weak area.

Teachers will testify that knowledge of recent history suffers even more.

“When you bring up the Nixon years or anything after JFK, there’s a big blank spot there,” said Pam Eyer, social studies coordinator at Carroll High School, who said many of her teachers get to World War II and not much further.

“Reagan? Iran-Contra? They look at you with this blank stare.”

Once those students reach college, their professors take notice.

“They know a lot about certain events, like the Kennedy assassination,” said R. Hal Williams, a Southern Methodist University history professor who just finished teaching a course on U.S. history from World War II to the present. “But Harry Truman? Ike? FDR? They don’t know much about those.”

Bay of what?

David Haney, a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said he referred to the Bay of Pigs invasion in an advanced history seminar this semester.

“A number of students said they’d never studied the Bay of Pigs, that they’d never gotten to it in school,” he said. “That took me aback.”
He has also been surprised by the very basic questions he gets at times on the Cold War, such as why the United States and Soviet Union were such intense rivals.

“It reflects a lack of familiarity with the fundamentals,” he said.

Of course, teachers in all fields have to deal with falling behind schedule and failing to cover all the subjects they’d hoped to back in August. It’s just more noticeable in history classes, since they cover a strictly defined span of time. If a teacher doesn’t have time to get to a concept in physics, for example, it’s less likely that students would miss it.

The gap is most noticeable in U.S. history, since world history classes usually don’t even try to cover such a huge subject completely and chronologically. High school U.S. history classes, which are supposed to cover 1877 to the present, have an added handicap: The period they cover is always growing.

“I’ve been teaching for a long time ? I started in the ’70s,” said Marsha Gray, a U.S. history teacher at Carroll High School. “Back then, all you had to do was teach to the 1970s! Now, there’s 30-odd more years to cover, and every year there’s more.”

In Texas, the state textbook adoption process also hurts teachers who want to teach to the present. Because the state approves new history textbooks only about once a decade, the books currently in use were written in 1992 and include nothing of the last decade. A new round of textbooks will be adopted for the 2003-04 school year.

It’s into this scenario that the state’s new standardized test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), will be introduced next spring.

Ever since Texas introduced statewide testing in 1979, state officials have discovered that schools change their teaching to match what’s being tested ? or, as Barbara Caffee, social studies coordinator in Carrollton-Farmers Branch, puts it: “What gets monitored gets done.”

When teachers know a state test will cover certain subjects, they give added emphasis to those subjects. And when district officials know that test results will be used to grade their performance, they pay particular attention.

Next year will be the first time that high school social studies tests will be used to rate schools and districts. The TAKS will be given in social studies in eighth, 10th and 11th grades, and results in all three will be used to determine school accountability ratings.

For several years, students have taken a single social studies test in eighth grade as part of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. But those results haven’t been used to calculate accountability ratings.

A high school’s entire rating could hinge on how students perform on the TAKS history test. The test is expected to include questions about all periods of American history up to and including the Vietnam War. With stakes that high, school officials are unlikely to look kindly on a U.S. history teacher who’s barely to the 1930s by early May, when the test is administered.

“Administrators are paying a lot of attention to social studies now, and it stands to reason it’s because the test will elevate the subject to a new level of importance,” said Cheryl Wright, director of social studies at the Texas Education Agency.

If teachers have covered Vietnam by May 1, they should have time in the remaining weeks of school to get all the way to the present, or at least to the 1990s, educators say.

Many educators say state testing has already helped speed up high school U.S. history teachers. In 1998, the state started giving students an End-of-Course exam in U.S. history, and it covers everything up to Vietnam.

“I know teachers get farther now than they used to,” Dr. Caffee said.

But the End-of-Course test doesn’t count in the accountability system, and the pressure for students to succeed on it is less intense.

“I think teachers didn’t worry too much about getting to Vietnam because the scores didn’t count,” Mr. Fracchia said. “Teachers still jump around and skip what doesn’t interest them.”

Fun stuff at stake

There’s likely to be a downside to teachers rushing to the Vietnam finish line. History teachers usually spend extra time on historical subjects that fascinate them, and they focus on areas that get kids fired up. Some of that could be lost.
“Folks sure don’t make it to the end of the book, but they don’t make it because they’re doing some very good things,” said Jim Kracht, associate dean of education at Texas A&M and a former state social studies official. “They’re spending more time on topics they consider important.”

Ms. Gray said she may have to cut back on an oral history project that she has assigned for years. Mr. Fracchia traditionally teaches a unit tying trends in American popular music to historical events.

“The state’s pushing us into teaching more of a survey course,” he said.

But historians who study 20th-century history say it’s important that students learn about more contemporary events in order to be properly informed members of society.

“There’s a no-man’s land between journalism and history that gets ignored,” said Michael Grow, director of the Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University. “And history courses that don’t bring events up to the present aren’t helping.”