U.S. History of Civics part 4: The U.S. Department of Education (as we know it) is born

July 1, 2020

The following essay is part 4 in a series that discusses the history of civics education in America. 

U.S. History of Civics part 1: The Founders’ vision — ‘What species of knowledge can be equally important?’

U.S. History of Civics part 2: School reforms for COVID-19 point us to successful ed reformers in American history

U.S. History of Civics part 3: The ‘birth certificate’ of social studies

More than two centuries ago, colonists officially declared independence from an overbearing government.

These dissenters had to ask themselves, when is government too powerful? 

Today we ask similar questions. What role should government have? Is this an abuse of power? What can we do about government overreach?

In part 4 of our series, U.S. History of Civics, we examine the federal government’s growing role specifically in education. 

The 10th Amendment – which says that anything not listed for the federal government in the U.S. Constitution is left to the states – suggests frankly that it has no role.

Yet, we have a U.S. Department of Education and controversial confirmation battles over each U.S. Secretary of Education (cue Betsy DeVos). 

And just recently, a scholar from the American Enterprise Institute – a conservative think tank in D.C. – wrote a piece advocating for a national citizenship curriculum.

The story of American social studies, history and civics education from the 1960s to the 2000s is seen more clearly against the backdrop of the federal government’s rising influence in education during that time period. 

The 1960s and ’70s: Paving the way for the U.S. Department of Education

Education policy in the 1960s and ’70s largely saw two things: the growth of the federal government in education and some unsuccessful reforms in teaching social studies and social sciences – the umbrella for civic instruction.

By the 1960s, civics education had earned a bad reputation, in part for promoting blind patriotism. Then came the New Social Studies movement, which really hit its stride in the 1960s. It pushed for an interdisciplinary approach and an analysis of history to current issues to help students make sense of the complex social events in the ’50s and ’60s, such as desegregation of schools and student protests.

The movement disintegrated, but while it lasted, it was fueled in part by grants from federal government, a telltale sign that the federal government was ramping up its influence in education policy. 

While a federal Department of Education had once been created in 1867, it was downgraded to an office within the Department of Interior in 1868 after fears over federal encroachment in education. However, the federal government’s role in education would expand through statutes and funding long before the creation of a new department at the federal level.

As part of his War on Poverty, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the seminal Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, which created a massive federal footprint in education still felt today, both in spending and regulations. Its focus was on overcoming poverty, rather than improving civics or math or science. For example, Title I funding for schools with a high percentage of students in low-income households – a very common topic in education circles – was established in this law. This 1965 law has been reauthorized and changed many times since its beginnings, but its impact on pumping federal funding to states has been one of its broadest impacts. 

The 1970s also saw the rejection of yet another attempt at teaching social sciences in the classroom. “Man: A Course of Study” found its way into many American classrooms. It garnered attention for its new “spiral curriculum” approach, meaning a concept would be repeated at multiple levels within a course. However, this social science curriculum reform was ultimately rejected in the U.S. because many people believed the content taught anti-American ideas.

By the time Jimmy Carter was running for president in the mid-1970s, one of his campaign promises was to create a federal office of education to lead out. This campaign promise so energized the national education community that it earned him the support of the National Education Association (NEA) – the first time the association ever offered a presidential endorsement. When he was elected, President Carter made good on his promise. In 1979 the Carter administration oversaw the creation of the U.S. Department of Education, which officially began its work in 1980.

This rebirth of a federal Department of Education in 1980 set the stage for further influence – or encroachment, depending on how one viewed it. That influence included increasing federal funding to states, facilitating standardization, and not infrequently generating frustration at the state level.

The 1980s: ‘A Nation at Risk’ and a history studies revival

The 1980s brought an interesting paradox: a renunciation by the Reagan administration of federal influence in education, and a federal report that would prompt a series of reform movements for decades afterward. This time period also saw a renewed interest in history education.

In 1981 President Ronald Reagan took office with the promise of abolishing the Department of Education. In the end, he succeeded in reducing regulations but never got rid of the department, which still exists today. 

The Reagan administration’s education legacy really came about in 1983, during America’s Cold War with the USSR. Secretary of Education Terrell H. Bell and the U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education published a landmark report on the state of American public education, titled “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.”

The report revealed dire inadequacies in America’s public education and explicitly called for reform as a way to ensure the survival of our nation during the Cold War. Its call for reform even had a patriotic undertone and civic mission: Education needed to improve or the country’s existence was on the line. It read:

Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. … If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

Though the Reagan administration sought to reduce the federal role in education, it was his U.S. Department of Education that sounded alarm bells in American public education, opened the door for more critical reviews of education, and called for public education reform.

Likewise, the 1980s brought a critical review of history education in American schools and ultimately a revival of interest in history studies. In the late 1980s two teachers and two professors presented an idea to the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation to fund a study on the state of history knowledge and education among young Americans. At the time there was widespread national concern over history education, what students knew about their country, and how schools were teaching it. If measuring what students actually knew or felt about their country was difficult to discern, it was at least clear that there had been a gradual decline in history as a core course in schools for decades.

In 1987 The Bradley Commission on History in Schools was created, where many distinguished historians and history teachers produced a 32-page report finding that history education in the U.S. was inadequate.

One of its major recommendations was to beef up history education from one year to two in both U.S. History and World History. The report was criticized for a number of reasons, including not addressing teacher training, but its long-term effect was to generate a serious discussion about the sad state of history education in the nation. Eventually this report led to the creation of the National Council for History Education, which to this day provides professional leadership in the space of history education.

The 1990s-2000s: The push for national standards

In the 1990s and 2000s, the federal government’s role continued to expand as different administrations sought to reform America’s dismal education outcomes – often at the expense of the more explicit civic mission of public schools. 

Starting in 1990, President George H.W. Bush’s administration pushed for the creation of “national goals” for all K-12 schools – a concept that was actually mentioned in “A Nation At Risk” in 1983. This effort further legitimized the federal government’s opportunity to manage education from the federal level. 

In 1994, President Bill Clinton built on the Bush administration’s work on national goals, signing into law the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. The objective of the law was to ensure education made measurable progress by the year 2000 using outcomes-based education, a philosophy which intended to help students improve when they were held to specific outcomes or standards. Part of this effort included a push for a set of national history education standards, which were seen as controversial by many conservatives and ultimately rejected in the U.S. Senate.

Ultimately, both of these prior administrations’ emphasis on goals and outcomes laid the groundwork for No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) – a now infamous piece of a federal education legislation that passed in 2001 and was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002.

NCLB has a mixed legacy. On the one hand, it opened the door for more discussion about accountability in schools, which many see as a positive outcome. But NCLB’s use of heavy-handed means to accomplish its goals, made it a highly controversial policy among teacher groups and conservative groups alike, and it would ultimately be rejected.

In short, NCLB required states to create state standards in math and reading and then to test those subjects in grades 3-8 and once in high school. States that didn’t make “yearly adequate progress” in these areas were given punitive designations and consequences. These policy “carrots and sticks” became dreaded and resented tools among the education community. 

Importantly, this federal policy also had important detrimental effects on other subjects – including social studies. Because NCLB focused so acutely on math and reading – subjects that were easy to test – less time was given to subjects not tested, or deemed less important because they didn’t impact a school’s public success.

In 2003, the National Council for Social Studies published a letter written by several teachers expressing their concern that the heavy emphasis on reading and math under NCLB would crowd out social studies. And, at least according to several studies, this fear became reality. According to a 2006 study, 71% of the school districts surveyed said they were spending less time on subjects like social studies, music and art in order to devote more time to NCLB-tested subjects. Likewise, 36% of departments surveyed reported decreasing time for social studies between the years of 2002-07, when NCLB was in full force.   

Some scholars argue that schools had already abandoned their civic mission before NCLB in order to focus on vocational outcomes; however, there’s little doubt that NCLB accelerated this de-emphasis on social studies and civics in the long run.

In 2003, Congress funded a national push for greater emphasis in civic education, leading to the creation of the National Congressional Conference on Civic Education, which invited delegates from all 50 states to four annual convenings to discuss civic education.

The rise of federal influence in education and the trajectory of NCLB underscores two realities. One, however well-meaning a policy may be, it always has unintended consequences. And two, when the federal government gets a policy wrong, everyone loses.

The American Founders believed education was intended to help students understand their government and its limits and functions in their daily lives. This aspiration transcends partisan and ideological divides for public education, and its fulfillment should not be subject solely to the whims of those currently holding the White House and majorities in Congress. 

The role of government continues to play a role in the story of civic education in America.

U.S. History of Civics part 5: The early 2000s to the year 2020

U.S. History of Civics part 6: Utah’s story

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