The need for civics and US history teacher certificate programs

The 2020 election and the events of January 6, 2021 have convinced many of the need for better civics and U.S. history teaching in K–12.  Bolstering this feeling is how poorly students perform in multiple tests and studies when it comes to U.S. history and government.  Unfortunately, teachers are inadequately prepared to educate pupils in these subjects.  Rigorous, coherent, and carefully structured certificate programs can provide the training teachers need to successfully instruct the next generation of American citizens.

In a 2019 RAND study, 80% of teachers did not think they were "very well prepared" to teach a course on the United States government.  The same study also showed that "between a third and just over half of both elementary (K–5) teachers and secondary (grades 6–12) teachers who taught social studies reported they had not received any training on civic education."  These numbers are troubling and indicate the need for professional development programs to address this lack of preparedness. 

Teachers are not the only ones struggling when it comes to civics and history.  Students are failing to learn American history and its founding principles, including the latter's roots in the Constitution.  The 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed that, when it comes to civics, 36% of students tested did not test at a basic attainment level.  Eight years later, the 2018 assessment showed that only 24% of students performed at or exceeded a proficient level.  Worse, there was no significant improvement compared to 2014 or 1998. 

The situation is worse when it comes to U.S. history.  The 2018 scores decreased from 2014, from a meager 18% of students performing at or above NAEP proficient down to 15%.  The grim reality of student performance when it comes to history requires action.

Lest you think the general ignorance of citizens exaggerated, just read the results of a 2014 survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center.  Of those surveyed, 35% could not name a single branch of government, 16% knew two branches of government, and only 36% knew all three branches of government.  Matters improved in 2019, when 39% could name all three branches of government, and reached 51% in 2020.  However, the fact remains that, after one of the most contentious elections in memory, a little under half of America could not name all three branches of government. 

This problem is not new, there have been multiple reports on it, and there are many current proposals to fix it.  However, creating new programs and spending obscene sums of money are ineffective without objective assessment standards, rigorous curricula, and teachers prepared to instruct using primary documents.  There are other potential problems lurking in reforming and improving civics education, but we will stick with unprepared teachers. 

To be effective, a program in civics or U.S. history must have strict parameters.  One of higher education's greatest failings is how distribution or breadth requirements — that is, classes outside a major that are ostensibly intended to create a more broadly educated graduate — can be fulfilled with fluff.  To prevent this, students who wish to become teachers should be required to complete a specific set of courses.

For example, an 18-credit civics minor could require U.S. Constitution 101, The Federalist Papers, Constitutional Law 101 (focused on the Bill of Rights), Constitutional Law 201 (focused on the rest of the Amendments), Modern American Regime (surveying changes in the structure and size of the federal government), and a class on the political philosophy of the American Founding.  A rigorous history minor intended to prepare U.S. history and government teachers would cover Colonial History 1607–1776, American Revolution 1775–1783, the Early Republic and Antebellum 1788–1860, Civil War and Reconstruction 1861–1877, American History 1877–1945, and American History 1945–2001. 

American teachers are unprepared to teach American government and U.S. history courses.  Universities can help solve this problem by creating minors in American government and U.S. history that are specifically designed for educators.  To prevent this from becoming just another well intentioned effort, these should be required courses rather than just suggestions for distribution (or breadth) requirements. 

Zachary is a graduate of Hillsdale College. He enjoys Cicero, cigars, and country music. 

Image: Classroom by NeONBRAND on Unsplash.