'Democracy Project' Aims To Address Civics Knowledge Gap Among N.H. Students

Jul 11, 2017

Several organizations are coming together to address what they say has been an abrupt and sharp decline in basic historical knowledge among New Hampshire students.

New Hampshire Historical Society president Bill Dunlap sounded the alarm in an op-ed earlier this month, saying this knowledge deficit could have dramatic consequences for the state.

Bill Dunlap joined NHPR's Morning Edition to talk about the issue and what the New Hampshire Historical Society hopes to do about it.

What’s changed in terms of what you’re seeing among students?

We’ve been putting on history program for New Hampshire school kids for several decades. In fact, in many years we see 70 percent of the fourth graders in New Hampshire, either visiting the society in Concord or having programs delivered to them in their classrooms around the state. We’ve seen a pretty steady baseline understanding of American history among the kids up until the last handful of years, especially the last 2-4 years when we’ve just witnessed an amazing decline in basic knowledge of American history. Things like what the American Revolution was or that it even existed, for example.

And this has been happening very quickly. Why do you think that is? What’s happening?

I want to say at the outset we’re not faulting the classroom teachers for this. They’re pulled in many different directions. But I think with the advent of demands such as Common Core and No Child Left Behind and other programs like that, which are well intentioned and are designed to improve reading proficiency and math proficiency, there’s been a crowding out of some other subjects. And we’ve actually surveyed the teachers coming to us and in many school districts around the state, social studies and history has been dramatically cut, and in fact in some schools, it’s not taught at all in the elementary years from what we’re seeing.

And you’ve actually had to change your programming because of this?

The kids didn't know what the American Revolution was. They didn't know we fought the British, they knew nothing about it.

Yes, that was actually what I call my canary in the coal mine moment. Our education director came to me a year ago and said the teachers on our staff who deliver our programming had come to her and said we have to drop one of our courses which covers New Hampshire in the Revolution because the kids didn’t know what the American Revolution was. They didn’t know we fought the British, they knew nothing about it. And the program couldn’t be delivered to them because there just wasn’t enough base information to make it meaningful. So when I heard that, I knew things were getting bad nationally or trending in a negative direction not only among students but at the adult population in terms of knowledge of civics and American history. But when I heard that, I thought this is way worse than I thought it was.

Now, you’re working with some other organizations in the state to launch the Democracy Project. Can you talk about that and what the goal is?

Sure. When we looked at this problem, and we’ve studying it for several years and talking about it, a few years ago an organization called the New Hampshire Institute for Civics Education was launched and they’ve done a very good job. Their goal is to work on this problem and they also sponsor a lecture series, things like that. New Hampshire Humanities has been looking at the problem and working on it. New Hampshire Bar Association and the New Hampshire Bar Foundation have been very active. But what we concluded was that most of this activity has been a volunteer effort. We felt that we needed to raise some financial resources in order to hire paid staff whose job it is to work on this every day and not just do it sporadically, which is often what happens with volunteers. The New Hampshire Historical Society’s Board of Trustees voted to launch a campaign to raise a little over $1 million to fund a four-year effort with staff to work on developing new curriculum resources, to provide teacher training in the summer primarily, and to do advocacy work in the local communities around the state to encourage them to do more.

Has there been any talk about revisiting the curriculum for history and civics education?

The New Hampshire Historical Society, back in the 1990s, got a large grant to create the definitive New Hampshire history curriculum. And we provided that to the schools at no charge. Part of our Democracy Project initiative is to refresh that curriculum. It’s been in place for 25 years. Some schools use it, some don’t use it, but we’ve heard it needs to be updated. And important thing is to get it into the internet so teachers can access it easily, and there will be student content available via our website.

The legislature has taken some action on this issue. Under a new law, high school students will have to take one credit of history and a half credit of civics to graduate. Is there more you think lawmakers could do?

There may be more. In fact, the New Hampshire Historical Society had a hand in helping with the language on the bill that created the half year of civics as a mandate for graduation. One of the challenges in New Hampshire is there has been a social studies standard that’s been on the books for many years that requires that to be taught at the high school level, but a challenge is nobody’s really tracking it. The Department of Education simply doesn’t have the resources to staff an effort to really capture a lot of information. For example, they had a social studies coordinator at the DOE who retired and that position has not been filled due to budget constraints, so it’s hard to look to the state. They can provide some guidance, but in terms of compliance, it’s been a spotty record over the years.