American students score worse in U.S. history than any other tested subject area, according to results by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). These days, many high schools have exchanged instruction about the American Revolution for global studies. This means that in classrooms across America, teaching about our nation’s founding starts—and ends—in the lower grades. And like any other subject we learn, without constant reinforcement, knowledge of American history fades over time.
Improving education and strengthening citizenship are primary missions of Sagamore Institute. With these two causes in mind, we’ve partnered with former U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett on a venture called Team HOPE (History Opens Eyes) which promotes a new history education model in American schools. This initiative is raising awareness about the essential nature of civic education while taking corrective steps to increase historical literacy among America’s students.
As a longtime educator, Dr. Bennett understands that traditional encyclopedia-style history texts are boring and suffer from what some have called the “mentioning syndrome”—the who, what, where, and when – that is devoid of context. In some cases, the content is so minimal that the history of World War II is covered in a few pages.
Dr. Bennett has responded to this crisis in U.S. history education through his landmark two-volume series America: The Last Best Hope which breaks convention to “recapture the glory” and the “conviction about American greatness and purpose.” Widely renowned as one of America’s best storytellers, Dr. Bennett’s textbooks are written as an engaging and interesting narrative, focusing on stories about historical figures rather than an analytical study.
Dr. Bennett tapped Sagamore Institute Senior Fellow Dr. Rex Bolinger to serve as executive director of Team HOPE. A former Indiana “Principal of the Year,” Dr. Bolinger led a team of his fellow Milken Educator Award recipients in the Team HOPE initiative, which creates and promotes curricular materials tied to Dr. Bennett’s narrative. Team HOPE’s signature product is the Roadmap to America, a package of lesson plans, enrichment classroom activities, student guides, and a compilation of trusted links inviting students to engage in more in-depth study of American history.
The key student component of the Roadmap is a dynamic website including interactive maps and thematic audio podcasts from Dr. Bennett himself, which provide background information and offer captivating stories to complement the content in the textbooks. Study aids, including key terms, topics, events, and biographies of historical figures, assist students in organizing, learning, and retaining the material in preparation for state and national standardized tests.
In the fall of 2008, the Indiana State Board of Education called for a “deeper review” to find textbooks that “bring history and other social studies to life.” The following year, the State Board announced that The Last Best Hope was the only history textbook that enhanced student interest in history. Approximately 20 Indiana schools and districts have adopted the text and curriculum.
As globalization marches on, American students must be prepared to compete in a worldwide, twenty-first century knowledge economy. Equally as important, they must also be equipped to represent the America Idea to the world. To be effective ambassadors for democracy, they must have much more than what professional historian and author David McCullough describes as a vague memory of American history. They must have a meaningful understanding of our nation’s vital foundational tenets.
Thanks to Dr. Bennett’s artful prose and Team HOPE’s expert educational materials, America’s educators are better prepared to teach the next generation to become good citizens. This not only helps ensure our own nation’s survival, but it also continues to shine a beacon for our global neighbors who lack the most basic freedoms. Restoring excellence in U.S. history education and promoting an informed citizenry are twin engines furthering a twenty-first-century democracy agenda.
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