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CEPEDA: Don't know much about our history

The nation’s history report card is in, and the poor grades it contains may say more about needed changes in teacher recruitment and classroom assignment policy than they do about how students are performing.

No one will be shocked to learn that American students aren’t history superstars. Still, the numbers are grim. Of the 12th-grade students the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress in U.S. history tested, only 45 percent performed at or above the “basic” level. This means they possess only a partial mastery of the knowledge and skills in history that are considered fundamental for proficient grade-level work.

Worse than that, though these scores are two points higher than they were back in 1994, they’re actually a few points lower than in 2006, the last time the test was administered.

To put it into context, even though the seven different NAEP subject-matter assessments aren’t really designed to be compared to each other, history nevertheless has the smallest proportion of students considered competent in the field.

There’s no magic bullet for quickly and easily boosting students’ knowledge in history. But one good way to start would be by increasing the quality of history teachers.

In her prepared statement, the educational historian Diane Ravitch, who sat on the presentation panel, clearly articulated the steps to changing this sad state of affairs: “We should make sure that there is time for it in the school day, (and) that those who teach it have a strong history education.”

Bingo.

At the beginning of June, the National Center for Education Statistics released its report, “Education and Certification Qualifications of Departmentalized Public High School-Level Teachers of Core Subjects,” which broke down the types of teachers in classrooms based on the federal 2007-08 Schools and Staffing Survey.

Out of a sample of 300,000 history classes surveyed that school year, only 34 percent were taught by teachers who were certified to teach history. And only 28 percent were taught by teachers certified in history and who had earned a college degree in the subject.

In contrast, where 62 percent of high school math classes were taught by teachers with both a certificate and a college major in that subject, 64 percent of 12th-graders performed at or above “basic” level on the 2009 math NAEP. High school science classes were taught by teachers with certifications and majors in science 71 percent of the time, and 60 percent of 12th-graders performed at or above “basic” level on the 2009 science NAEP.

It only makes sense that the level of knowledge mastery and passion for a subject might be greater in a teacher who majored in history than in a teacher who, for example, has a certification and major in economics but is eligible to teach history, too.

“I’m very familiar with teacher certification patterns, and it’s disheartening to me that there’s such a low percentage of certified teachers presenting some of the most important and engaging content,” said Steven L. Paine a member of the National Assessment Governing Board and former West Virginia superintendent of schools. “But it makes sense. After all, we saw significant improvements in grades four and eight, but elementary and middle school teachers typically get a very strong preparatory background in social studies and history.”

Paine pointed to the constant challenge of recruiting excellent subject-matter experts into the teaching profession — and to the reality that schools have to just make do with what they’ve got.

“If we’re seeing shortages of well-trained history teachers in high school, (that’s a problem because) it’s the very highly qualified teachers who know, instructionally, how to teach to actively engage high school students in the content areas,” Paine told me. “They’re the ones who know how to harness the rich and abundant resources available online and in multimedia formats to not only teach historical events but to challenge students to apply those lessons to the world in which they’re going to live and hopefully make a difference.”

Students may not be getting a great history education today, but a few policy changes could have a big impact on tomorrow. Perhaps this should be history’s teachable moment.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.