A Snapshot of the Public’s Views on History

A Snapshot of the Public’s Views on History

Pete Burkholder and Dana Schaffer

Reprinted by permission from the American Historical Association

The teaching of history has become a political football in recent years, resulting in efforts by those on both ends of the political spectrum to regulate what appears in classrooms across the country. Lost in this legislation, grandstanding, and punditry is how the American public understands the past, a measurement that was last taken systematically by historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen in their 1998 landmark study, The Presence of the Past. For that reason, the AHA and Fairleigh Dickinson University, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, sought to take America’s historical pulse anew and assess the impact of the cultural changes over the intervening two decades.

In the fall of 2020, we conducted a national survey of 1,816 people using online probability panels. With approximately 40 questions, sometimes our poll results surprised us, but other times they confirmed what we had suspected. The following represents a sampling of what we learned, with the full data set available on the AHA website. 

First, our respondents had consistent views on what history is—and those views often ran counter to those of practicing historians. Whereas the latter group usually sees the field as one offering explanations about the past, two-thirds of our survey takers considered history to be little more than an assemblage of names, dates, and events. Little wonder, then, that disputes in the public sphere tend to focus on the “what” of history — particularly what parts of history are taught or not in schools — as opposed to how materials can be interpreted to offer better explanations of the past and present. And even though 62 percent of respondents agreed that what we know about the past should change over time, the primary driver for those changes was believed to be new facts coming to light. In sum, poll results show that, in the minds of our nation’s population, raw facts cast a very long shadow over the field of history and any dynamism therein.

We also learned that the places the public turned to most often for information about the past were not necessarily the sources it deemed most trustworthy. The top three go-to sources for historical knowledge were all in video format, thus being a microcosm of Americans’ general predilection for consuming information from screens. More traditional sources, such as museums, nonfiction books, and college courses, filled out the middle to lower ranks of this hierarchy. (Note that respondents were asked to report on their experiences reaching back to January 2019, so these results are not simply artifacts of the pandemic.) Perhaps this helps explain why 90 percent of survey takers felt that one can learn history anywhere, not just in school, and why 73 percent reported that it is easier to learn about the past when it is presented as entertainment.

But while the most frequently consulted sources of the past were those within easy reach, views were mixed on their reliability to convey accurate information. Whereas fictional films and television were the second-most-popular sources of history, they ranked near the bottom in terms of trustworthiness. Although museums were of only middling popularity, they took the top spot for historical dependability (similar to the results in Rosenzweig and Thelen’s original study). College history professors garnered a respectable fourth position as reliable informants, even though the nonfiction works they produce, let alone the courses they teach, were infrequently consulted by respondents. Similar inversions occurred for TV news, newspapers and newsmagazines, non-Wikipedia web search results, and DNA tests. Social media, the perennial bête noire of truth aficionados, turned out to be a neither popular nor trusted source of historical information.

Some much-welcome news is that the public sees clear value in the study of history, even relative to other fields. Rather than asking whether respondents thought learning history was important—a costless choice—we asked instead how essential history education is, relative to other fields such as engineering and business. The results were encouraging: 84 percent felt history was just as valuable as the professional programs. Moreover, those results held nearly constant across age groups, genders, education levels, races and ethnicities, political-party affiliations, and regions of the country. Much has been written in Perspectives on History about the dismal history-enrollment picture at colleges and universities. Although we acknowledge that work and even see it manifested in our teaching experiences, our survey results suggest this is not for want of society’s value of understanding the past.

To better understand this apparent appreciation for learning history, despite the decline in college enrollments, we gathered a tremendous amount of data on the public’s experiences with learning history at both the high school and college levels. Society’s predominantly facts-centric understanding of history is perhaps partially explained by our educational findings. At the high school level, over three-fourths of respondents reported that history courses were more about names, dates, and other facts than about asking questions about the past. Despite that, 68 percent said that their high school experiences made them want to learn more history. Even for college courses, 44 percent of respondents indicated a continued emphasis on factual material over inquiry, but this was a turnoff to fewer than one-fifth of them. Not all data were so sanguine. One particularly sobering finding was that 8 percent of respondents had no interest in learning about the past.

Whether respondents’ classroom experiences emphasized history as facts turns out to be an important leading indicator in people’s interest in the past. Some of our more interesting cross-tabulations correlated respondents’ conceptions of history with their interest in learning about foreign peoples and places. Only 17 percent of those who viewed history as facts showed great interest in such matters, while double that number of history-as-explanation respondents did. Those trends held steady, though to somewhat lesser degrees, for curiosity about the histories of people perceived as different and about events from over 500 years ago. If wider interests and greater empathy are desired outcomes of history education, then educators might need to rethink the content-mastery versus inquiry environments they foster.

Yet historical inquiry of any quality cannot proceed without content. We therefore provided a list of topics and asked which ones were perceived as being over- or underserved by historians. Such traditional subjects as men, politics, and government were most likely to be seen as receiving too much attention, but they were joined in that sentiment by LGBTQ history. Interestingly, LGBTQ history also ranked third in needing more attention, and it had the fewest respondents indicating historians’ interest devoted to it was about right. This topic’s perception as both over- and underserved suggests that LGBTQ history remains a polarizing area of inquiry in the public’s collective mind. Respondents also said the histories of women and racial or ethnic minorities were most in need of greater consideration.

Furthermore, over three-fourths of respondents, regardless of age group, education level, gender, geographic location, or political affiliation, said it was acceptable to make learners uncomfortable by teaching the harm some people have done to others. The clear call for more investigation of racial and ethnic subgroups, as well as the acceptance of teaching uncomfortable histories, undercuts putative justifications for recent legislative efforts to limit instruction on these topics.

We understand that public perceptions might not be supported by other objective measures, but we argue that those in the historical discipline benefit from the knowledge of such public attitudes. Moreover, findings from our survey hint that approaching polarizing topics as a form of inquiry as opposed to a body of facts is more likely to resonate with learners.

Surveys like ours have their limitations. They are snapshots in time, they cannot easily answer logical follow-up questions, and they might sometimes elicit responses that are more aspirational than reflective of reality. This is why we hope AHA members will both explore and build on our data, contextualizing results for topics of special interest, convening focus groups to put flesh on our findings, and starting conversations about better education and engagement with the public. Let the joy of inquiry begin.

Students Taking Action Together: Strategies that Blend SEL with Civil Discourse for Democratic Change to Meet the NJSLS Social Studies Practices

Students Taking Action Together: Strategies that Blend SEL with Civil Discourse for Democratic Change to Meet the NJSLS Social Studies Practices

Laura Bond and Lauren Fullmer

The racial reckoning of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, renewed focus on climate change and the Capitol insurrection have collectively revealed to youth that systematic change is needed to reduce structural inequities (Fullmer & Bond, 2021). With students back to in-person schooling, the eagerness for expression, social connection, and understanding how constructive social change is possible has never been greater than during the 2021-2022 school year.

Social Studies teachers stand in this rich moment in time, to teach civil discourse and citizenship in alignment with the new 2020 NJSLS Social Studies Standards. Students Taking Action Together (STAT), a project from Rutgers University’s Social-Emotional Character Development Lab, has developed five research-based strategies to equip teachers in grades five through twelve with the tools to integrate social-emotional competencies and academic standards with active practices to be explicitly taught and practiced in the classroom to foster citizenship skills.  In this article, we illustrate how the five strategies embed SEL competencies required to meet the challenges of civic engagement and democratic change and then examine how each strategy delivers upon the NJSLS Social Studies practices so students are equipped to lead change in their schools and communities.

The Five STAT Strategies

STAT is a set of five SEL research-based strategies –  Norms, Yes-No-Maybe, Respectful Debate, Audience Focused Communication (AFC), and PLAN, a social problem-solving framework – that scaffold the integration of active civics-based social studies practices for grades five through twelve using existing curricular content.  The strategies explicitly promote social-emotional competencies, academic skills, dispositions, and actions required for an informed and engaged citizenry (Fullmer et al., 2022).  In ready-made lesson plans, organized around the themes of race, class, and gender, students explore constructs of power, oppression, human rights, injustice, and inequality. The lessons showcase the use of a STAT strategy related to a historic event and/or relevant civic issues being addressed in national and local debates. 

Each strategy builds upon the foundational SEL skills developed by the previous strategy and therefore, the strategies are meant to be taught in the sequence in which they are presented.  By doing so, students have ample opportunity to practice explicit SEL competency skills and the academic standards to engage in civic dialogue and debate for democratic action.

Figure 1: The Five STAT Strategies

NormsEngages students in developing ethical standards that lay the groundwork for a relationship-centered classroom community.
  Yes-No-MaybeOffers students opportunities for peer opinion sharing, in which they reflect on their views on an  issue to take a stand and actively listen to the diverse perspectives of their classmates.
  Respectful DebateEncourages students to practice the skill of perspective taking by analyzing all sides of an issue, in order to gain an appreciation for diverse viewpoints and a level of comfort in modifying their original thinking.
    Audience-Focused Communication (AFC)Allows students opportunities to tailor their language and style of presentation to a specific audience with the goal of understanding the perspective and context of their audience and communication, toward optimally conveying their good ideas about changing a policy or practice for the greater good of their classroom, school, and society.
               P.L.A.N.Involves students in collaborative problem solving with action planning to make a change in policies and practices that maintain privilege and power and limit whose voices have input in key decisions.

The Norms Strategy

To engage the civil discourse skills of peer opinion sharing, perspective taking, social problem solving, norms nurture a safe, relationship-centered and open learning environment (Elias & Nayman, 2019). Unlike classroom rules, which are generally teacher constructed to establish an efficient and open environment, norms are co-created by students and the teacher.  Through a discussion facilitated by the teacher, students decide upon desirable and undesirable classroom learning commitments and behaviors. Ultimately, students develop a list of affirmatively stated norms and discuss the rationale behind each norm and its impact on their well-being. Students also collectively determine ways to handle “norm-breaking” as a shared commitment to collective responsibility.

Engaging in the Norms strategy allows students to practice the SEL skills of self-awareness, self-management, relationship-building, and social awareness to form a safe and interdependent learning environment.  Students practice how to recognize their feelings about working together within the classroom community, how to keep their impulsive behaviors in check, develop knowledge of the sensitivities and needs of their peers, and to communicate in a positive and constructive way with classmates and adults. Acting as a living class constitution, norms allow for students to rehearse the civic skills of respectful listening, peer opinion sharing, empathic debate, information gathering to shape arguments, and collaborative problem-solving required in the next four strategies. In this fashion, students build the competencies, both social-emotional and academic, to take informed action. 

The Yes-No-Maybe Strategy

The Yes-No-Maybe strategy facilitates peer opinion sharing, which is the basis for genuine civic dialogue.  This simple entry-level strategy allows students to express and share their opinions on historic or current issues, given their initial impressions and then after reading a source on the issue. This strategy supports students’ social-emotional skills of self-management, in which students have to withhold judgment, refrain from reacting, and the social awareness skills through perspective-taking and respectful listening.

Students reflect on several neutral statements related to a historic or current event inspired by a teacher-selected source. They take a stance on each statement by moving to a space in the classroom marked “yes”, “no” or “maybe” that reflects their opinion. They practice respectful listening by discussing their opinions in those small informal gatherings within those spaces, and sharing them out with the full group. Next, students read a background source directly related to the issue to inform their thinking.  They are then given a second opportunity to change and/or share their opinions by moving to the appropriate location in the room on the same neutral statements provided the additional information from the source or from listening to their peers. Students reflect on if their opinions changed in the second round and if so, what inspired the shift in their opinion. The instructor facilitates these conversations, but does not seek to arrive at a consensus or other conclusion.

The Respectful Debate Strategy

Engaging in civic debate for understanding, rather than debate to win, is embodied in Respectful Debate (Civility and Society – A SmartBrief, 2019).  With the skills of perspective-taking and respectful listening in place, this strategy introduces students to the more complex skill of establishing and defending an informed position on a topic while empathically listening to opposing views. Respectful Debates provide rich opportunities for students to practice their self-awareness and emotional regulation skills (Elias & Schwab, 2006). Students engage their social awareness by realizing the impact of their emotions on themselves and others, build confidence as they recognize their limitations and potential as they speak, and collaborate in teams. They self-regulate their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors as they dialogue with peers in preparation, present their argument and summarize the opposing side’s argument.

Students can be provided with or gather evidence for their assigned position on the debate statement or question. Students are assigned the stance of “pro” or “con” and work in small groups. Unlike traditional classroom debates, students are charged with arguing on both sides of the issue and intentionally reflecting on and accurately understanding the position of their opposition, allowing them to more objectively analyze the issue and broaden their perspectives. This poses a challenge when students strongly disagree with one side of the issue and find themselves dealing with strong emotions that they must regulate. This challenge presents opportunities for teachers to teach emotional regulation techniques, such as deep breathing, positive self-talk, and waiting before speaking.

Audience-Focused Communication (AFC)

Civic discourse is realized with Audience-Focused Communication (AFC), which is a stand-alone strategy to be implemented without the need to be taught in the sequenced order of the previous three strategies.  It’s a deliberate and strategic focus on speaking and related skills that can be harnessed to present on academic topics, such as pivotal decisions or historic debates, as well as school-based issues, such as the inclusiveness of student government, bullying, and freedom of expression.  With AFC, students are given a rich opportunity to find their stance and voice and to use media effectively in order to impact an audience to mobilize consensus-making or to excite change. AFC can also be used as a natural extension of PLAN (what we refer to as PLAN Integrative), in that it provides students with detailed guidance with regard to how to best present the solutions and action plans that they developed.  Fundamental to AFC is asking students to put themselves in the shoes of the listener/receiver, and not assume that they always are speaking to people just like themselves.  This is true for sharing work in a class, making an announcement over the loudspeaker, preparing a presentation for an assembly, or developing and delivering a petition to the Student Council.

The essence of AFC is that students exercise their social awareness and relationship skills working collaboratively to identify their audience, determine the format of their presentation, and take into consideration their audience’s background and prior knowledge to effectively craft their message and communicate it to influence the audience. Self-awareness and self-regulation skills are key to this strategy, which demands students self-assess and continually evaluate how to best present the information and craft their argument to have the maximum impact on the audience.

PLAN: A Problem-Solving Framework

The fifth and final strategy, PLAN, builds on the skills students practice in the preceding strategies and shifts the focus to social problem solving and action planning to prepare students to take civic action. PLAN stands for Problem definition, Listing options, Action plan, and Notice success and lessons learned for next time. With PLAN, students work in small groups to collaboratively examine and evaluate a historic or a current problem that has no obvious solution or perhaps revisit a past situation to better understand how different analyses or decisions might have led to different actions and outcomes.  

Then, they consider the options to address the problem and weigh the pros and cons of each. Students work together to develop a SMART goal and related action plan to solve the problem. They also engage in perspective-taking to consider the impact of their action plan on the various stakeholders involved and look to implement when feasible (hence, the title, Students Taking Action Together). The process culminates with a reflection, in which students notice successes with their plan and possible revisions to their thinking to be more successful the next time around.   In the spirit of John Dewey, as students apply PLAN to classroom and school-related problems, it will accelerate their ability to apply their skills to historic and civic issues.

How the STAT Strategies Align to the NJSLS Practices

The new Social Studies practices engender opportunities for students to practice civic discourse, dialogue, debate and action in the classroom.  The STAT strategies guide Social Studies teachers to strike a balance between content acquisition and active practices that maximizes students’ ability to rehearse and transfer the skills they learn (Fullmer et al., 2022).  STAT strategies are designed to accompany and supplement lesson content.  They provide guidance on how teachers can integrate the active practices for civil discourse and action into existing curricula.  In the crosswalk figure below, we’ll show how STAT coaches teachers to achieve this integration in meaningful and effective ways.

Figure 2: A Crosswalk of STAT’s Integration of the NJSLS Social Studies Practices

Developing Questions & Planning Inquiry

Each lesson features an organizing question to foster thinking & support planning.  Students are given a debate question and assigned an initial side (they will ultimately take both sides) for which they must plan an approach to gather information and present it.Students formulate inquiries to understand the context within which they will be presenting.The first step in the PLAN process involved identifying the problem/ questions that will be the focus of inquiry.
Gathering & Evaluating Sources    Students read a central article/source and share their opinions before and after reading the article.Students must review sources to prepare their positions for the debate.Students must gather information from relevant and appropriate sources to determine presentation context and constraints.PLAN works from the existing curriculum or school situations/contexts, so students must gather this information at the outset and value the information in proportion to the reliability of its sources.
Seeking Diverse PerspectivesStudents express their opinions. Articles/sources offer multiple views on the issues.Students must examine both points of view and argue both sides of the debate.Students are encouraged to consider a range of presentation modalities and to gather perspectives from individuals with experience at presenting to the intended audience(s).The second part of the PLAN process involves brainstorming a wide range of possible solutions to the problem.  Prior to that, the problem is defined from the perspective of each of the groups involved.
Developing Claims and Using Evidence  Students respond to claims before and after reading the article/sources.To be successful, students must bring forward credible sources of evidence to support their positions.Students working in groups to finalize their presentation context and message must put forward their approaches using credible evidence.Students will be expected to justify their claims based on evidence in textual and other sources.
Presenting Arguments and ExplanationsStudents read & draw on the source’s key arguments, supporting evidence to inform and express their opinions. Students must refine, present, and defend their arguments within the constraints of the debate.Students must justify their particular positions regarding how the presentation should be made to be appropriate to the audience and context.The third step in the PLAN process involves presenting solutions and detailed plans, including anticipation of obstacles.  
Engaging in Civil Discourse and Critiquing ConclusionsStudents exhibit curious compassion towards those with divergent views and seek to understand them through inquiry, rather than judge them.Students learn emotional regulation techniques to remain calm when involved in controversial discussions with their peers.When students work collaboratively to plan a presentation, the process of civil discourse – when deciding upon the content that will be presented and the method of delivery – is more important than the product (i.e. choosing the “right” content or format).The fourth step of PLAN involves critiquing the conclusions reached by those who dealt with the issue in history and the conclusions the students reached when implementing their action plan.
Taking Informed Action Students gain the confidence and competence of developing informed opinions and expressing their opinions in social settings required to take. Students consider the views of all relevant stakeholders by engaging in perspective-taking to ensure that their plan of action is inclusive.Students will take action based on their plans and will gather feedback/debrief to inform their future action in similar situations.The final step in PLAN involves reflecting on actions taken and identifying how things would be done differently in future situations; when applied to history, this includes projecting different outcomes if past decisions were different, including implications for the present and future.

Developing Questions & Planning Inquiry

Civic discourse often starts with asking questions of leaders and elected officials.  The first Social Studies practice of Developing Questions & Planning Inquiry is explicitly integrated into STAT lessons.  Each lesson features a core question to assist the teacher in organizing the lesson content and student thinking.  Relevant issues are integrated into the lesson anchor question to promote student engagement.  Students then use the question to dig deeper into exploring the issue. 

For example, in a Yes-No-Maybe lesson, the statement, “The coronavirus has not fueled anti-Asian racism?” is presented to students to frame the development of neutral statements, shaping students’ thinking and questioning as they engage in dialogue with their peers.  At the end of the lesson, students revisit the question and respond to the essential question.  In this vein, students learn how the power of relevant questions can drive collective discussion and learning around the issue.  The Yes-No-Maybe strategy demonstrates to students that civic discourse starts with asking questions.  The table below indicates exactly how students engage the skill of planning for inquiry and developing questions across the STAT strategies, once Norms have been established.  The practice necessary to spark civic discourse is scaffolded and spirals up through the strategies to PLAN.

Gathering & Evaluating Sources

The second practice, Gathering & Evaluating Sources, facilitates students’ inquiry by having them gather credible sources, given the framing statement or essential question to enhance their background knowledge and to consider all perspectives on the issue.  With the STAT lessons, students are exposed to a wide range of primary and secondary sources, including podcasts, political cartoons, and newspaper articles and are equipped with the critical literacy skills needed for civic life, as well as to promote informed citizenship.  Through repeated practice, students learn that words are a form of power and that no source is entirely neutral in nature. 

In the Respectful Debate strategy, after the students are presented with a controversial statement that frames the debate, they are tasked with critically evaluating background sources on the topic to identify evidence in support of their position.  For example, in a Respectful Debate lesson on racial equality, framed around the statement “In order to achieve racial equality, Blacks should separate from Whites”, students are provided with a blog post from the New York City Urban Debate League and an audio recording of the 1961 debate between Malcolm X and James Baldwin.  Through the processes of deliberation, peer discussion, and reflection, students analyze the information from all angles and form new understandings by synthesizing it with their prior knowledge.

Seeking Diverse Perspectives

When building the muscle of evaluating background sources, students develop an understanding of their perspective on an issue, as well as an appreciation for the perspectives of others.  Seeking Diverse Perspectives is a practice that allows students to see and connect with the authentic and genuine emotional reactions and thoughts of their peers.  This allows them to develop empathy for individuals and groups of people of different backgrounds and experiences.  The Yes-No-Maybe strategy teaches students to exercise compassionate curiosity over biased assumptions to better understand the other’s perspectives.  Through respectful and empathic listening and peer opinion sharing, students become more open-minded and accepting of the notion that beliefs and opinions can change over time.

During a Yes-No-Maybe lesson on foot binding in China, students are invited to reflect on their views related to the statements: “Women, not men, perpetuate a society’s concept of what is beautiful” and “Expressions of beauty are typically crafted by the elite”.  Students then engage in peer opinion sharing and a review of background sources to consider how what people think is beautiful has changed over the years and differs around the world.  Through these experiences, students widen their perspectives and reevaluate their views about the meaning of beauty.

Developing Claims and Using Evidence

The fourth practice, Developing Claims and Using Evidence, equips students with the skills to engage in constructive and meaningful dialogue about important issues.  Students consider an issue from all perspectives and take account of any biases they may have to formulate their own viewpoint on the issue and develop a logical argument supported with the best possible evidence.  While all of the STAT strategies task students with exercising the skill of eliciting evidence from their analysis of background sources and engaging dialogue with peers (Fullmer et al., 2022), Respectful Debate really hones in on this practice.  Provided with background sources on a controversial issue, students not only identify the most compelling evidence to support their “pro” or “con” argument, but also, reflect on any gaps in the reasoning and evidence presented by their opponent.

For example, in a Respectful Debate lesson, students must identify evidence and construct arguments to support the “pro” and “con” sides of “Is it possible for sports to be inclusive of the LGBTQIA+ community?”.  Provided with a video, timeline, and two articles, students identify the authors’ respective claims and compare it to their own and pull out the best pieces of evidence to not only support their claim, but to challenge that of their opponents.  By actively listening to both sides of the argument, students develop a collective understanding, as well as historical empathy for members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Presenting Arguments and Explanations

While students are frequently asked to Present Arguments and Explanations in front of an audience, whether sharing the results of a science lab, describing why an invented algorithm works in math, or justifying the theme of a novel, they are rarely provided with the skills to do so with competence and confidence.  Yet, being able to tailor their presentations to a specific audience and regulate their tone of voice, eye contact, and nonverbal communication accordingly are essential elements of the fifth practice.  The Audience-Focused Communication (AFC) strategy equips students with the presentation literacy skills necessary to determine the appropriate format of a presentation (e.g., slideshow, song, video, speech) and the prior knowledge and views of their audience to most effectively present their argument in a way that makes sense and resonates with their audience.

Consider an AFC lesson at the end of a content-based unit, in which students are tasked with presenting on a topic or book that they recently learned about.  Students learn how to focus their message, given a specific audience, and consider how it will be received through perspective-taking.  Through deliberate planning and practice, students develop a step-by-step run-down of the flow of the presentation and rehearse SEL skills such as positive self-talk and deep breathing to be prepared to regulate their emotions.  With AFC, students are furnished with the presentation literacy skills to be active members in a participatory democracy.

Engaging in Civil Discourse and Critiquing Conclusions

Building off the previous two practices, the skill of Engaging in Civil Discourse and Critiquing Conclusions excites opportunities for collective listening and assessing the reasoning which is central to sensemaking. In a Yes-No-Maybe lesson students present their opinions and listen to their peers express their opinion on statements related to a topic, prior to reading a source.  After reading the source students move to a location in the room that reflects their opinion, even if it changed and discuss in small groups what argument shaped their opinions.  At the end of the lesson the class reflects on whether their thinking changed or not and discusses what reasons may have caused them to change their original opinion on the topic.  Thus, students learn the value of listening and reading diverse views on the topic and can refine their original thinking on the topic. 

Respectful Debate lessons ask students to summarize the opposing sides argument and question if the summary was accurate.  The process of summarizing the presented argument  provides students real practice for active listening in debate to expand their thinking on the topic. When students switch sides to argue the opposing argument it exposes them to analyze  the reasoning of a point of view they may not agree with. In this process they begin to organically critique the argument(s) by questioning their assumption and preconceptions on the topic.  At the end of the lesson students reflect about whether summarizing what the other side said and/or switching sides changed their opinion, and what about the summary was helpful.  The reflection is a potent opportunity to learn the value of listening to and standing in to argue for a contrary view can refine their own and the group’s concluding thinking as they strive towards collective understanding.

Taking Informed Action

The previous practices lay the groundwork for the final practice of Taking Informed Action, which is the very essence of democracy.  With the PLAN problem-solving framework, students examine a problem of the present or the past and consider the options to solve it by engaging in inquiry and background research.  Next, they consider the views and needs of all relevant stakeholders to develop an action plan.  In the final step, they engage in a collaborative discussion in which they reflect on the successes of their plan and identify areas for growth moving forward.  This encourages students to acknowledge that the problem-solving process is iterative in nature and requires constant revisions to be more inclusive and effective.

A PLAN exemplar lesson on Women’s Rights invites students to analyze how Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the women at the Seneca Falls Convention organized to address the issue of unequal social, civil, and religious rights.  Students then engage in perspective-taking to put themselves in the position of disenfranchised women during the mid-19th century to generate alternative solutions and action plans.  The hope is that students walk away from this lesson with a greater awareness of the social injustices in their communities and the skills to organize to take collective action.


The New Jersey Social Studies Standards are visionary.  They seek to educate students in history and civics and prepare them for active citizenship in a global and interdependent society.   Students Taking Action Together is a set of teaching strategies that are ideally matched to the NJSLS and the guiding practices articulated for attaining them.  These strategies embolden students with the necessary skills that nurtures a sense of hope and optimism that they can lead the change they wish to see in the world. 


Civility and Society: How to Boost Civil Discourse in K-12 Classrooms. (2019). Smartbrief.

Elias, M. J., & Nayman, S. (2019, October 28). Students taking action together (STAT). New Jersey Education Association.

Elias, M. J. & Schwab, Y. (2006). From compliance to responsibility: Social and emotional learning and classroom management. In C. M. Evertson & C. S. Weinsten (Eds.), Handbook of classroom management (pp. 94-115). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Fullmer, L. M., Bond, L. F., Molyneaux, C. M., Nayman, S. J., & Elias, M. J. (2022). Students Taking Action Together: 5 teaching techniques to cultivate SEL, civic engagement, and a healthy democracy. ASCD.

Fullmer, L., & Bond, L. (2021, March 29). Three strategies for helping students discuss controversial issues. Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/tips_for_resilience_in_the_face_of_horror

National Council for the Social Studies (n.d). Guide to civil discourse for students. Retrieved from www.socialstudies.org/sites/default/files/guide_to_civil_discourse_student_version.pdf 

National Council for the Social Studies. (n.d.) National curriculum standards for social studies. Retrieved from https://www.socialstudies.org/standards/national-curriculum-standards-social-studies-instruction

State of New Jersey, Department of Education (2020). New Jersey student learning standards – social studies. Retrieved from https://www.state.nj.us/education/cccs/2020/2020%20NJSLS-SS.pdf.

Diversity and Integration

Rafael Angeles
Rider University

Integration is still sought out and remains a goal of the educational system. Diversity is something that schools want because of its positive outcomes. New Jersey is one of the most diverse states but also one of the most segregated in the nation (Clark, 2018). So how is it possible that integration is not achieved? Matt Delmont’s book titled Why Busing Failed gives a general clue as to why integration hasn’t been achieved. Many may argue that busing failed, the argument has been made repeatedly, each time looking at different reasons, typically political. However, the first proponents of busing desired it because they believed it was their moral duty and that it would improve the condition of predominantly black schools. The opponents of integration through busing believe that it is not necessary and ineffective and as a result continue to uphold segregation.

            To this day opinions of busing are mixed. There are individuals who wished more would be done about the situation; some think that there is unfinished business. Then there are those that are happy that it got done away with in the 1990s beginning with the Missouri v. Jenkins case. The primary result of this case was that the court ruled that a unitary education system had been achieved, therefore the state did not need to fund programs that were typically used to achieve integration. The attitude shifted due to “a lack of rising test scores” (Missouri v. Jenkins, 2018). The test scores not increasing meant that the integrated schools had done all that they could. This court decision would act as a domino effect around the country Busing was the primary method of integration in the past. It became nationally accepted in 1971 with the Supreme Court ruling that districts do indeed have the right to bus students to different schools to achieve racial integration. Despite that the decision, years later it became acceptable to take away funding from busing and integration programs once “unitary status” had been achieved. This is where busing began to be seen as a failure. Delmont argues: “Anti bussers and politicians succeeded in stopping full scale busing” (Cornish, 2016). Others were upset that busing had been done away with because they thought it was a great cause. “Busing was a major success” (Lang, Erdman, & Handley, 2016). a quote by Arthur Griffin, a former superintendent of Charlotte schools in North Carolina. He said in a documentary that he was one of the students that experienced integration and that he was thankful for it. People like him are not rare cases. There are as many people who speak fondly of busing as there are those who opposed it. The truth is that the causes for failed busing are strongly linked to people’s opinions. There are many opinions that will continue to be studied by historians to provide different narratives as to why true integration failed. “Society in general expected school desegregation to solve too many things” (Tilove, 1992).

            Based on research from busing and integration in the 1970s, this paper focuses on how in the modern United States, specifically New Jersey, there are still examples of segregation. It is common knowledge that the United States values equality, especially in education. This means that there should be equal opportunity. After all, in America if you work hard enough you can succeed. This belief however was not always around. It became cemented into American society when with a set of court decisions in the twentieth century. The most recognizable decision is Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS. The decision most remembered for stating that schools cannot be separate but equal.

The most memorable piece of legislation when it comes to integration of the school system is Brown v. Board of Education, it was the foundation of the values of education in America and the first proponent of integration. Its importance cannot be denied when discussing reform to the schools. It laid down the foundation for what would be motivation to improve all schools (Wraga, 2006). The Supreme Court’s reasoning for ruling the way it did also established a set of beliefs about the American education system that would serve for the coming years as goals to be achieved and beliefs to live by. It would take many years before the nation would collectively start working to end segregation. After the civil rights act, and five more court cases, the government issued an ultimatum due to the delay in desegregation plans. The importance is that this could not have been possible without Brown v. Board of Education. The values were summarized by a Princeton newspaper article written in the twilight of busing, “It put forth a vision based on the highest principles and ideals this nation had to offer. These aimed to create a better America, a better society, by improving education for all children and by relieving both whites and blacks of their senses of guilt and inferiority, respectively” (Adieh, 1993).

Brown’s decision created values and from that point on the goals of reformers would be drawn to not only change the school system, but society. We first must look at the beginning of the movement towards school integration. Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka; It is an argument in the historiography that has been beaten on society over and over, but nonetheless will forever hold importance in our nation, and especially in education. This court decision was truly meaningful to society. It was just supposed to be about reform, about education, but the court’s decision on the issue led to values and implications that changed the nation. If the schools were not to be segregated then why would anything have to be segregated? William G. Wraga wrote a short excerpt titled The Heightened Significance of Brown v. Board of Education in our Time. In this he argued what most historians have been arguing for the sixty plus years since the ruling; that Brown v. Board of Education was more than just a school ruling. “By insisting that all students attend school under the same roof, the high court affirmed both the importance of the concept of equal educational opportunity and, implicitly, the unifying function of public education in a Democracy” (Wraga, 2006). This was indeed the start of an affirmation by the government of the value of equality in which education was seen in many areas of the world throughout history to carry.

            From the time between Brown v. Board of Education and the court decision of Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education there were other decisions in the fifteen year span. It wasn’t until the Alexander v. Holme’s decision that the government called for immediate action (Lang, Erdman, & Handley, 2016). There would be no more stalling.  The Supreme Court having to make decisions after Brown proved that the latter was not enough to fix the segregation problem. The cases had to be brought to court by people who were demanding their rights since the court themselves can’t create cases. The opposition to integrated schools was prevalent throughout the twentieth century.

            Busing was opposed even by presidents, Nixon was a key example. “the integration of schools, so that they will be racially balanced. This is a policy that requires busing, and it is this policy that Mr. Nixon and the Republican platform oppose when they oppose busing” (Bickel, 1972, p. 21).  The Republican party gained a lot of support because of their open disapproval of busing. This meant that there was a large number of individuals out there that was not for having black and white students go to school together. The reasons varied, but generally they believed the government was wrong for imposing integration on the people. “Forced busing is depriving 90% of the American people of their civil rights and its unconstitutional” (Ruffra, 1974, p. 122).  

            White Americans do not support busing or school reforms that involve integration to this day. The source What Americans Think about Their Schools is a compilation of research that was put together through surveys. The survey would ask different Americans of various backgrounds questions on what they thought about the school system and the schools their children attended. What was found was that Americans generally wanted change in education. Americans both care about their schools and want them to improve. Though adults give the nation’s public schools only mediocre grades—a plurality confer a “C”—they are willing to invest more money in public education and they are reasonably confident that doing so will improve student learning” (Howell, 2017). Everyone seems to want the education system to improve, and are willing to pay to make those changes.

            There is a reform that is being proposed to improve the education of low income students. Since typically low income students come from schools that are typically minorities, the schools that are generally attended by a majority of white students have higher incomes, thus better opportunities, and as a result better education.  An example of this is Hopewell Valley Central High School which is ninety percent white as opposed to Trenton Central High school which was majority black with a very small white population. The reform calls for, “proposals to enable parents, especially low-income parents, to exercise greater choice over their children’s education through school vouchers, tax credits, charter schools, or home schooling” (New Jersey Department of Education, 2017). These reforms are trying to be introduced with the goal of creating equal opportunities for all students despite their background. Reforms like this have the values of Brown v. Board of Education in mind.

            It seems that a lot of Americans, especially white Americans, still don’t want reforms that include the government intermingling the races. This attitude is the same as it was when busing first began in the 1990s. One argument against busing that many would probably still agree with today, from a Kentucky organization in the 1970s to oppose busing:  “It is true, some districts are rich in children, but poor with poverty, but because some of our children must suffer from poverty–should we insist the rest suffer along with them?” (Ruffra, 1974, p. 122). Integration and plans that involve the education system being equitable. Are often seen as negative by White Americans, because they feel that their children’s level of education should not be reduced to aid the education of others. This has not changed, and is evident that it has not changed when going back to look at the research data on what parents think about education reform. “A plurality of the general public supports choice initiatives. African Americans and Hispanics express more support for school choice than do white Americans”. The fact that the African American and Hispanic population are more willing to reform the system means that they are not content with it. A majority of white Americans however want to keep things the same. This means that they think their educational system should not be tampered with as they are satisfied. “Few education reforms inspire as much debate as do proposals to provide low-income families with vouchers that would allow them to send their children to private schools” (Howell, 2017). This is yet another example of a group of privileged individuals wanting to keep others out.

            Since the early days where the government proposed desegregation there had been individuals that were against the idea. When there was no more legally mandated segregation but instead segregation by the people, the idea of integration was introduced. Though integration became enforced by law, many found ways to oppose it. “Forced busing has created an economic segregation…Parents who could afford to have enrolled their c0hildren in private schools to avoid crosstown busing, thereby segregating the underprivileged from the more affluent” (Ruffra, 1972, p. 122). This then becomes an issue that is beyond the power of the government. Private schools are not illegal, but they’re existence harms the cause of integration. That is one reason why New Jersey is still very segregated. Most of the schools in America are as well, but there is one example of reintroduced busing in Boston that might spark a movement to busing a second chance. “But while integration is still a process, METCO has made a big difference in education. The most recent research of the program shows that nearly 90 percent of METCO’s black and Latino students graduate from high school on time, and they score higher on state achievement tests than their peers in Boston Public Schools” (Cornish, 2016).   The METCO program acts much in the same way that busing did. It takes students away from schools in their neighborhood and sends them to majority white schools in a different area. The program cites success in improving the education of minority students and thus fulfilling the values of educational equality of Brown v. Board of Education. We are still nowhere near an equal educational state but perhaps we can give integration a second chance and change that.


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