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What Students Don't Know About History: The Latest Findings

For most people, the popular culture is far more influential via movies, television, the Internet, radio, and other forms of mass media than what is taught in school. Thus, we see, for example, the latest Harris poll, which asks the public to identify the "best presidents in history." The top ten, rank ordered by adding the votes for first best and second best, are: Lincoln, Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy, Washington, Clinton, Jefferson, Truman, Theodore Roosevelt, and George W. Bush. Not surprisingly, this is not the list or the order that historians choose when answering the same question. It seems safe to say that some of the names appear near the top because of celebrity or familiarity rather than any generally recognized attributes of "greatness" as a President.

Admittedly, concern about whether Americans know much about history, geography, economics, civics, the sciences, mathematics, or the arts is a hardy perennial. In 1987, I co-authored a book with Chester E. Finn, Jr. titled What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? It was a report on the first national assessment of history and literature, which was administered to a national sample of high school seniors in 1986 by a federal agency (the National Assessment of Educational Progress); almost all of the test-takers had recently finished or were completing a one-year course in U.S. history. The results were unimpressive, to say the least, and the book got a lot of attention. Its purpose was to persuade state and local officials to increase instructional time for these subjects, as well as to lend support to other advocates of these subjects.

In the intervening years, there has been quite a lot of support for history education. One thinks of the National Council for History Education, National History Day, the Gilder-Lehrman Institute, the K-12 history frameworks adopted by California and Massachusetts, various programs sponsored by AHA and OAH, and a host of other valuable initiatives led by historians and their allies.

Today, however, the time available for history--like other subjects--is being squeezed by legislative efforts to boost reading and math skills in grades 3-8, as well as the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects in middle schools and high schools.

To counter these trends, a new organization called Common Core was launched on February 26 at a press conference in Washington, D.C., to advocate on behalf of the subjects that are neglected by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation and by pending STEM legislation. These subjects include history, literature, the sciences, the arts, geography, civics, even recess (although recess is not a subject, it is a necessary break in the school day that seems to be shrinking or disappearing in some districts). I serve as co-chair of CC with Toni Cortese, executive vice-president of the American Federation of Teachers.

To call attention to the problems that concern us, as well as to the existence of CC, we commissioned an abbreviated reprise of questions asked in the 1986 NAEP assessment of history and literature. The 2008 survey, however, was conducted by telephone, not in the classroom. The results from 1986 and 2007 are not strictly comparable, for all sorts of methodological reasons that are detailed in the brief report by Frederick Hess (Still at Risk: What Students Don't Know, Even Now).

Yet, compare them I did, and it appears to me that the telephone sample of 2007 were somewhat better informed than their parents' generation of 1986. In 1986, only 32% knew that the American Civil War occurred in the half-century between 1850-1900 (this was NOT a trick question!); now, 43% do. In 1986, 64% could identify the main holding of the Brown v. Board of Education decision; now, 71% can. On most questions of a factual nature, the proportion who answered correctly was either higher or the same, seldom lower. So perhaps the pressure to improve history education over the past 20 years was making some headway.

The reason that so many terrific educators (Pascal Forgione, the superientendent of schools in Austin; Joy Hakim, author; Richard Kessler, executive director of the Center for Arts Education in New York City; Barbara Byrd-Bennett, former superintendent of the Cleveland schools; Juan Rangel, head of the United Neighborhood Organizations in Chicago; Lorraine Griffiths, exemplary North Carolina teacher; and Harvey Klehr of Emory University) agreed to join the board of CC was because they are concerned about strengthening the subjects that have been ignored by federal legislation and that are at risk of being diminished.

NCLB is not uniquely responsible for causing loss of knowledge of history. The 1986 survey demonstrates that the problems of "I don't know" existed long before NCLB.

However, it is increasingly clear that the law's relentless focus on raising scores in the basic skills of reading and math has the effect of reducing time for all other studies. The board of CC is not opposed to testing. We view it as a necessary but not sufficient part of education.

I cannot now speak for the board, as the organization is just getting underway and board members have yet to articulate their areas of agreement and disagreement. So, let me say for myself, that I would prefer to see development and implementation of more thoughtful kinds of testing than those that are now in general use; in particular, I would hope for new tests that call on students to describe, analyze, explain, and demonstrate what they know and can do, not just asking them to pick a bubble.

I am also concerned that NCLB's intense emphasis on testing and basic skills inevitably narrows the curriculum. Defenders of the law say that this has not happened, but it is inevitable that it will and has. There are only so many hours and minutes in the school day, and when the time devoted to basic skills and to testing and test preparation expands, other subjects must necessarily contract or disappear. When only test scores of reading and math "count" towards the rating of the school and the bonuses of teachers and principals, then that is where a disproportionate amount of school time will be devoted.

Again, speaking personally and not for the board, I worry that school reform is now dominated by the language of management and productivity. This may be appropriate in the business world, but it is not appropriate in education. The tests that we have are not accurate enough to carry the rewards, sanctions and importance that is now attached to them by the federal government and the states.

So, yes, I worry about the future of history education. I also worry about the future of literature, the arts, and all the other subjects that are left out by today's policymakers. Is the answer to test them all? I would say not. With so many tests, there would be no time for instruction or reading or projects or discussion or activities.

American education is in serious trouble today. The people in the drivers' seats mistakenly think they are running a business, with a bottom line. They have forgotten—or maybe they don't know—that our schools are responsible for educating future citizens who will need and hopefully use far more than basic skills.

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