Teaching American History Grants: A Call for Action

Recently, a number of AHA members and others have expressed concern and dismay over the future of the Teaching American History (TAH) grants, a program begun virtually single-handedly by Senator Robert C. Byrd in 2003. True, he was the program’s devoted supporter who brooked no opposition in growing the program from an initial $50 million appropriation to the present approximately $120 million as a line item in the Department of Education’s budget. Now that the senator is gone there are those, in the Obama Administration and elsewhere, who say that history must take second or third place to reading and mathematics, that in the midst of a the most severe recession in several generations the U.S. cannot afford the program, and, some even argue there is no evidence that the TAH program has made much of a difference, or that it has improved history teaching.

Historians, history teachers, and others who support the TAH program need to take a deep breath, step back, and think about what has been achieved thus far with the program. My hope is that supporters will roll up their collective sleeves to continue the work of maintaining and improving the program.

The initial TAH appropriation was simple—$50 million for professional development for teaching history (not social studies). The senator insisted that the money go to local education authorities (LEAS) so as to avoid high university indirect cost grant processing fees. Those of us involved in the early stages of fleshing out the details of the program can remember early on fretting about how it would be possible for LEAS alone to provide high quality professional development. Our task was to convince the senator and education department program managers that it was imperative to mandate the involvement of professional historians in the evolving programmatic guidelines in order to bring the best possible professional development to history teachers.

To that end, I was fortunate to live in Senator Byrd’s home state and as a consequence, I knew several members of Senator Byrd’s personal and committee staff, several of whom were long-time personal friends. Once the appropriation was earmarked, I arranged a meeting with staff of the House Committee on Education with representatives of the major history professional organizations. We also met with Department of Education officials who, it turned out, were congenial to writing regulations for the program that mandated cooperation with departments of history in higher education institutions, historical societies, and other history-related organizations. A year or so later the requirement was mandated when the senator agreed to insert report language to that effect in the Senate appropriation bill.

Historians stepped up to the plate at a critical time and since then have played a major role in engaging teachers with historical research and writing. I believe that important bridges have been built between university historians and the schools that will have a lasting impact on history teaching.

In the early days of the program we were also concerned about how best to develop ways in which teachers and faculty of the TAH programs could share their experience and expertise with others. The AHA was able to patch together just enough money to convene a national conference of TAH program participants and faculty and all involved were amply rewarded by the excitement and enthusiasm of those who attended. The AHA also brought together a team of top flight history educators to develop a set of benchmarks for professional development for history teachers, a document that has been distributed far and wide and which still is regularly accessed on our web site. The AHA and many other groups also began opening their annual meetings to the TAH program and provided unprecedented access for material on history teaching in their publications.

In order to have the wide-reaching reform that supporters of the TAH hoped would happen, we soon realized that national programs were needed but the original appropriations offered no possibility for funding them. The senator was adamant that grant monies not be drawn away from the LEAs where he thought the federal funds could do the most good in instilling an appreciation of American history to students.

It took several years of quiet lobbying and a lot of work of the part of several history organizations, particularly the Organization of American Historians, to persuade legislators to allow a small percentage of the annual appropriations to support such efforts. Finally, the senator relented and agreed to have a small portion of the funds be siphoned off away from the LEAs to support a handful of important national initiatives. As a result, we now have the National History Education Clearinghouse at George Mason University, which further spreads the impact of the individual programs and serves as an unprecedented resource for history teachers. The Clearinghouse also supports research on assessment and evaluation strategies that can help history teachers develop the tools they need to insure that the dollars spent on the TAH program provide maximum benefit to teachers and their students.

One of my disappointments during my tenure at the National Coalition for History was that we could not convince Senator Byrd to expand the program beyond the narrow confines of American history; I’d like to see the program expanded to embrace all fields of history, including comparative and global history. In this era of globalization, students need to understand where their nation’s history fits into the broader story of humankind.

So where do we go now? First, we need to become better acquainted with the advocacy process. The critical issue before us is not next year’s appropriations—those seem relatively settled now—but the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, an effort in which there are many, many interested parties, ranging from those supporters of increasing testing in the schools to others focused on a particular disciplines or issues.

I am particularly pleased that since 1977 the AHA has worked in concert with the National Coalition for History (formerly the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History), a membership organization of 60+ history organizations which advocates on behalf of a wide range of issues important to historians. Advancing the TAH program has been and is one of these issues tackled by Lee White, the current Coalition executive director. Lee has been hard at work meeting with congressional staff and gathering and disseminating information to Coalition members. More recently, both the AHA and the Coalition have joined a consortium of discipline-based organizations beyond history whose fields are likely to be impacted by the Obama Administration’s proposals to have existing programs compete against one another.

Whatever the structure that ultimately is adopted, it is important to understand that keeping the TAH program intact will be hard work. Legislators and the Obama administration need to hear from those who have benefited from one or more of the hundreds of TAH training programs. We need to make our voices heard and communicate to legislators just how the TAH program has been valuable and how it has made history a more vital part of communities, and, most importantly, student’s appreciation and love of history. Lee White tells me that no one expects reauthorization to happen this fall. So there is time to get our message out, but those efforts need to be coordinated in order to make it clear to decision-makers that there is a large and cohesive community that wants this program to continue.

History advocacy is not always easy but one thing I have learned is that if you want to bring a smile to the face of the tired Hill staffer sitting across the table as you explain history’s needs and issues, you can just mention Teaching American History grants. TAH is a program many in Washington like. Senator Byrd knew this. Historians need to know it too. Please act.

Bruce Craig was executive director of the National Coalition for History when the TAH was created. He now teaches American history at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada.

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  1. Larry Cebula

    Hallelujah, it is good to see our professional organizations beginning to take some action on this!

    To date, the Department of Ed has committed almost a billion dollars to history education via the TAH program. A billion dollars! But for the last year the writing has been on the wall that the Obama administration was not inclined to support the program, and historians have done little to nothing.

    Folks, time to contact your congress persons. I am gong to make a post on my own blog with some suggestions on how to proceed.

    Reply