America’s stu­dents know less about U.S. his­tory than any other aca­d­emic sub­ject, according to newly released test results from the National Assess­ment of Edu­ca­tional Progress. We asked Shaunna Har­rington, a former high school his­tory teacher in the Boston Public Schools who now serves as a full-​​time pro­fessor of edu­ca­tion in the Col­lege of Pro­fes­sional Studies, to ana­lyze and offer solu­tions to boost the slumping scores.

The nation­wide assess­ment found 20 per­cent of fourth graders per­formed at or above the pro­fi­cient level on the 2010 U.S. his­tory test com­pared to only 12 per­cent of high school seniors. What can edu­ca­tors do to improve these scores?

I work with stu­dents who are training to become ele­men­tary school teachers. I tell them that there’s no reason why stu­dents can’t learn how to read, write and con­duct research by studying his­tory. We don’t want teachers to say, “We don’t have time to teach both lan­guage arts and his­tory.” Instead, we want them to say, “How can we inte­grate these two subjects?”

Should changes in how his­tory is taught come through public policy or through teacher training?

Both. Teachers often feel com­pelled to follow policy guide­lines. But that affects what they are able to accom­plish in the class­room. I often hear teachers say, “I love his­tory and social studies, but I don’t have time to teach those sub­jects because of stan­dard­ized testing.”

To be sure, teachers and teaching can­di­dates need to develop strate­gies to inte­grate dif­ferent sub­jects. Devel­oping a great cur­riculum and strict stan­dards will go a long way toward simul­ta­ne­ously teaching mul­tiple disciplines.

How is a sub­ject like his­tory dif­ferent from more heavily tested sub­jects, such as math and English? 

We’re still working under the assump­tion that his­tory is only about mem­o­rizing facts. But a growing body of research on how kids learn his­tory sug­gests that it’s actu­ally more cog­ni­tively chal­lenging than other sub­jects. His­tory needs to be taught in a more student-​​friendly way. To do that, I think teachers need to focus on teaching his­tor­ical facts in a con­cep­tual way that allows stu­dents to grasp the big ideas. Stu­dents improve their ability to mem­o­rize and retrieve facts when they have learned them in con­tex­tu­ally mean­ingful ways.