James M. Banner: What's Wrong with the Teaching American History Grants

[James M. Banner, Jr., a historian in Washington, is a moving force behind efforts to establish a National History Center in the nation’s capital and co-director of the History News Service.]

... What most forcibly caught my attention [reviewing applications this year for the Teaching American History grants] ... was the absence of any evidence that the institutions and school systems applying for federal funds had given any thought to institutionalizing and continuing the programs set up with public monies once those monies were no longer available to them.

That this year’s TAH applications showed no evidence of thinking far enough into the future is surely an indictment of those who submitted them. But it’s also due to a large hole in the federal regulations governing the program. Provision for the continuation of these projects, some of them of great promise, after grant funds have been expended is not required for the receipt of public funds.

Complaints have been leveled at the Teaching American History program since its inception. “It’s just money thrown at a genuine problem,” has been among the most often heard complaints. Yes, much money is being offered, always in competitive application, to repair grievous defects in the preparation and intellectual nourishment of history teachers. But critics fail to see that at the very least those funds are doing no harm; in many cases, they’re doing much good. But these same critics, even if unaware, are unto something else—that the good that’s being done, at least temporarily, is likely to dissipate without a toughening of federal standards. And I see no evidence that either Congress or the Department of Education recognizes that danger.

Learning isn’t a short-term affair. To keep abreast of a field, to participate in its ongoing debates, to maintain oneself as a thinker in a discipline like history is never-ending and hard won. Learning and the will to learn must be sustained—by individual teachers and by the institutions of which they’re faculty members. Here’s where school systems so abysmally fail their teachers—and thus their students: there’s rarely a culture of learning in the schools, especially in public schools, the focus of the TAH program. Thus when the federal government comes along to provide funds to help teachers enlarge and sustain their learning, the news is greeted, as it should be, with elation.

But it reflects sloppy thinking and blindness to experience to expect a culture of learning in any particular school or school system to be built upon three years of federal funding—indeed, upon three years of anything....

What’s to be done? First, the Department of Education should, with all urgency, amend the regulations that govern the TAH program to require the provision of evidence about efforts to sustain each project beyond a grant term. The department should do so before the next competition. And if it can’t do that, TAH application materials should make clear the importance, if not the requirement, of evidence of sustainability. Second, prospective applicants for TAH funds should take it upon themselves to gain a leg up in always tough competitions for federal funds by thinking ahead as to how they’ll institutionalize the programs that they aspire to set up with federal support. What will all the institutions involved in each applying project do to sustain it? What funds will they commit? What efforts are already underway to do so? What are planned? Who will have responsibility for seeing to the project’s future? What experience in similar efforts do those people have?

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