Don't know much about history

What’s important about that bearded guy with the stovepipe hat? What advantage did American colonists have over British troops during the Revolutionary War? What country allied with North Korea during the Korean War? American students don’t know much about U.S. history, concludes the Nation’s Report Card 2010. History is the weakest of all subjects tested.

Eighth graders made some progress from 2006 to 2010, while scores were flat at the fourth an 12th-grade level. However, only 17 percent of students score at or above the proficient level.

Since 1994, scores have risen at all three levels. Black and Hispanic fourth and eighth graders have made significant gains since 1994. That’s the good news.

Not so good: Only a third of fourth graders can identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence.

Two percent of 12th graders can name the social problem — school segregation — that Brown vs. the Board of Education was supposed to correct, even after reading: “We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

While some questions are multiple choice, others require students to write a short response. Frequently, they are asked to interpret maps, pictures, posters, graphs, original documents and quotations, such as explaining the historical context of a slave letter, using a map to explain the purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition or analyzing a graph of the declining number of farms.

Questions about minorities and women are common: Identify a role of women during the American Revolution. Explain how World War II affected African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights. Study an 1849 picture of a Sioux encampment and identify three ways the Sioux used natural resources.

I had to think about this eighth-grade question:

For centuries, a young man who wanted to learn a craft was apprenticed to a master craftsman who taught him the necessary skills. Why did the apprenticeship system begin to decline in the first half of the 1800’s?

A. The apprenticeship system was considered unsuitable for the increased number of women working outside the home.

B. The growth of the factory system led to a decreased need for skilled labor.

C. Many young men chose to become farmers instead of craftsmen.

D. Craftsmen began to use unskilled immigrant labor in their shops.

(The answer is B.)

You can test yourself at all three grade levels.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Given that many school systems are de-emphasizing social studies and citizenship education because of NCLB’s primary emphases on reading, math, and science, and given the ways that many schools teach social studies (primary focus on factual recall and not on bigger issues of significance; a lack of topical connection to issues that students care about), these results should not surprise anyone. Add these results to all of the other past studies of the same.

    That 8th grade example in your post? Why on earth would a student today care a whit about that question or answer? He or she won’t without some serious help with meaning-making…

    When will we start trying to tweak the core of how we think about learning and teaching instead of simply trying to do a bit better what we’ve always done? (which isn’t working so well now, as you and others have noted)

  2. I think that what we teach and what we test is also sometimes wrong. Many of my students (I teach high school English) can tell me all about the causes of World War I, mentioning the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and all that, yet can’t tell me the first thing about the U.S. involvement in places like Afghanistan, Iran or Iraq. We tell them that we study history so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, but what is more important, for our population to know what happened 100 years ago, or what happened 40 years ago? Isn’t it more important for us to know who the Taliban are, how the came to power, and who provided the weapons they are using against us than it is to know about nations that don’t even exist anymore.

    And I’m not just calling out the history teachers. We do the same thing in English classes, too. Our cannon is dominated by dead white authors, with very little contemporary literature or representations of female authors of authors of color.

    When what we teach has little relevance to our world, is it any wonder that students don’t care?

  3. Oops–that should be “canon,” not cannon.

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    We can blame this on NCLB if we want to, but this isn’t exactly new.

    On April 4, 1943, the New York Times published an article under the alarming headline of “Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen.” The article reported on a test of national history undertaken by 7,000 college students. The test showed that only 6 percent of them could name the 13 original colonies. Additionally, only 13 percent identified James Madison as president during the War of 1812, and only 15 percent knew that William McKinley was president during the Spanish-American War. Moreover, only a quarter could name two contributions made by either Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln.

    http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/legacy/research/edu20/moments/1943tests.html?cms_page=edu20/moments/1943tests.html

  5. Joanne – You should look carefully at the comment by Jack Buckley in the article. You really can’t compare across subjects that way.

    (This doesn’t mean that American students are doing well in history, just that there is no simple way to tell which subject is their “weakest”.)

  6. Our cannon is dominated by dead white authors, with very little contemporary literature or representations of female authors of authors of color.

    That’s because very little of the latter is worth reading, while the “dead white” authors are very, very good. But do go ahead and spill platitudes about how we’d be better off indoctrinating kids with political ideology and substandard pap that we pretend is “relevant”.

    That sample question for eighth graders is straight out of the SAT Subject test, so it’s clearly far too difficult for the average 8th grader, certainly as they are taught US history today–which is taught by people who think like Greg, confusing ideology with content.

  7. Scott,

    It seems to me that pretty much everything in Western history is relevant to American citizens. Plato anticipated many of the problems our democracy faces today. Rome is the inspiration for many American institutions, and serves as proof that even the mighty can fall. The story of Christianity’s evolution is deeply interesting to American Christians and atheists alike (most of my Protestant students didn’t know they were Protestant until we learned about the Reformation. They also learned that, lo and behold, Catholics were the only kinds of Christians in Western Europe for a thousand years). Feudalism is the antithesis of American freedom and democracy (and it’s coming back from the grave). Everything is connected to the Now, but you need a knowledgeable teacher to show the connections. I believe that every American should know this deep history.

  8. Homeschooling Granny says:

    “That 8th grade example in your post? Why on earth would a student today care a whit about that question or answer? He or she won’t without some serious help with meaning-making…”
    “When what we teach has little relevance to our world, is it any wonder that students don’t care?”

    Children love stories. Certainly different children will favor different genres but it is easy to entrance a child with a well told story that has nothing relevant to our world. Consider the ongoing popularity of fairy tales. How hard is it to find an engrossing biography or historical fiction?

  9. BadaBing says:

    Our cannon is dominated by dead white authors, with very little contemporary literature or representations of female authors of authors of color.

    Greg, did you recently get out of ed school, where you bought into the whole feminist, post-modernist, Marxist, Paolo Freire, anti-white-male slant on reality? I consider myself part of the resistance, so I will continue eschewing PC lightweights and teaching good literature by such luminaries as Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell, Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Steinbeck and others. These “dead white authors” live on in the timeless works they created.

  10. C S Lewis observed that if you want to destroy an infantry unit, you cut it off from its adjacent units–and if you want to destroy a generation, you cut it off from its preceding generations.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    David.
    With all due respect to Lewis, the former is considerably more difficult than the latter. Although, see Liddell-Hart’s “strategic barrage”.
    Would you think the practitioners of the anti-DWEM movement consider ruining a generation a feature, a bug, or a goal?

  12. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Just for fun I asked my 3rd grade granddaughter to answer the 4th grade questions. She did not know anything about the cold war, showing me a gap in her education, but she easily answered the other questions, putting her in the 80th percentile and ahead of the proficient.

    BTW, this was the 1st standardized test she has ever taken but she had no trouble with the format.

  13. Greg, did you recently get out of ed school, where you bought into the whole feminist, post-modernist, Marxist, Paolo Freire, anti-white-male slant on reality? I will continue eschewing PC lightweights and teaching good literature by such luminaries as Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell, Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Steinbeck and others. These “dead white authors” live on in the timeless works they created.
    ____

    No, I’m not recently out of ed school, and I haven’t “bought into” those theories. Like you, I continue to teach good literature by the authors you list. This year I have taught all of those authors except Dickens, and also other literary luminaries such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I’m actually the only one in the department teaching Hemingway to juniors. In no way do I suggest we throw out quality literature and replace it with lesser quality material.

    But in the school where I teach, the theme for junior year is “The American Experience.” How can we truly call it the American Experience if we don’t teach about how others experience America? How can we call it the American experience when all of the novels available for me to teach are written between 1884 and 1926? This excludes the experiences of so many Americans.

    I refuse to believe there’s nothing written since 1926 that isn’t well-written and worthy of study, just as I refuse to believe that only “ancient” history matters. If our students don’t know about the history of the U.S.’s involvement in the Middle East, for example, how can they possibly understand the political ideology that is constantly spun at them from all sides of a political debate? Most U.S. History classes barely get to Viet Nam, for crying out loud. If we don’t teach them what’s happened in our country in the last 40 years, how will they ever know?

    And I feel that a part of our job as educators is to do give them the knowledge that helps them understand the world around them so they are not as easily manipulated by politicians and political pundits. For a history teacher, that means giving them information about what has happened in the past. For an English teacher, that sometimes means helping them experience the world through literature–making connections to various times, places and points of view. When we limit our teaching to just a few authors or a specific time period, we are limiting out students’ ability to connect to the world around them.

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    Greg.
    Are you speaking of novels written since, say, 1926 that have the characters experiencing contemporary times?
    There are a million of them. It takes time to shake out the good ones, or anyway the ones that the English profs declare good. Not the same. Part of the problem is that history has to be agreed upon before novels can be said to accurately reflect their times. We haven’t gotten to that point. Note that I didn’t say that the agreed-upon history was to be accurate. Just agreed upon.
    Try non-fiction. T. R. Fehrenbach did the Cold War, earlier part, and Korea in “This Kind of Peace” and “This Kind of War”. Both well written and comprehensive.
    Fabulous writing in “Year of Decision”, explaining the US a couple of decades before and leading up to the Civil War, and “Across the Wide Missouri”, fabulous writing.
    IMO, trying to teach How Things Were through a novel is risky. You have to think the author understands the times, and that his view isn’t excessively narrow. And the characters’ struggles can’t overpower the lessons you’re supposed to be learning. And that he’s not trying to push a point by exaggeration. So that means you have to know the history of that era, and, more to the point, not have learned the history of that era through novels. Otherwise, you don’t know what is what.
    It would be kind of lame to teach the Depression through, say, Roy Blakeley or Garry Grayson.
    There was a lot more going on post-war than “On The Road”, or “The Man in The Gray Flannel Suit”.
    Most of everthing is junk and that includes novels. That certain political/social positions promote one or another does not make it or its author great.
    BTW, my father had a friend who got beat up pretty early in WW II and, as he got better, ended up censoring correspondents’ dispatches. His view was that it was a catastrophe for Hemingway to find out he was ERNEST HEMINGWAY, PAPA, no less. IMO, Hemingway is for the folks who get no further into the world and away from school than summer vacation their whole lives. Makes them think themselves worldly and knowing.
    You want kids to learn history, teach history. You want good writing, look for good writing in history.
    For example, we have a number of authors of England in the nineteenth century, from Austen to Dickens. Nice and all. Why not sweeten the pot with “Dando on Delhi Ridge” or “Dando and The Summer Palace”? The stories are fabulous and the characters’ backstories range from interesting to infuriating.
    You want to teach literature, find good literature and don’t try to sneak a particular view of history in with it.

    Additionally, you don’t want to be promoting a book and telling the kids This Is How It Was and then discover it’s bogus. It appears that Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” was mostly made up. Recent research. For example.

    “Black Like Me” is good. But Condi Rice’s autobio, if there is one, isn’t going to make anybody’s edskool list because of, well, you know.

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    What is it with this thing?
    Greg. You might find a novel about the social, moral, personal, and financial catastrophes suffered by the guys in the lumber industry in the Northwest after the Spotted Owl or whatever that scam was went through. I mean, you might. Sort of an updated Grapes of Wrath. If it were written. Not that it’s going to be on any edskool list as Great Littacher. Because, well, you know.
    My point is that teaching history through fiction is risky unless you have a particular goal in mind, one that you don’t want to share with parents. Hell, you might as well get the collected works of Tom Clancy.
    Everybody who is Anybody will show the movie “Platoon” to a class of unwary college kids. Nobody will show “Hamburger Hill” or “Hanoi Hilton”. Because, well, you know. Had a go’round with a newspaper movie critic about “Hamburger Hill”. She said she disagreed with its political message. You mean movies have political messages? Not like, say, “Platoon” being straight history? Stone’s company commander said Stone got a good deal of it wrong.
    Anyway, in sum, teaching history through fiction is lame. Not to mention the possiblility of miseducating the kids,presuming that would be a bug and not a feature.

  16. An interesting note about how history is taught in the U.S.: I know more about colonial and post-colonial times (the question about the decline in apprenticeship didn’t throw me) than I do about the decade or so before I was born (I guessed “The Soviet Union” on the Korean War and was wrong). I remember we’d usually end in June with WWII…sometimes WWI and WWII squished together really fast.

    (Also, I think WWI is harder to “narrative-ize” than WWII is; I still don’t understand the causes and stuff that happened in WWI as well as I think I do for WWII)

  17. Mark Roulo says:

    “Also, I think WWI is harder to “narrative-ize” than WWII “

    For what it is worth, WW1 is probably *easier* to turn into a coherent story than WW2. But … we have a lot more movie footage of WW 2 and the bad guys in WW 2 were much better villains than in WW 1. Also, the US managed to stay out for most of WW1. The US also missed most of the fighting of WW2, but we do have four years and two fronts to deal with.

    The WW 1 story is a fairly straightforward European war, touched off by a series of events that would be a comedy if not for all the corpses:

    (1) Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated (on the second try!) by Gavrilo Princip.
    (2) Austria makes mean noises towards Serbia/Yugoslavia
    (3) Russia (considering itself the protector of the Serbs) makes mean noises towards Austria.
    (4) Eventually, Russia decides to mobilize (but not attack, just mobilize … for the moment) against Austria.
    (5) Russia discovers that all the “mobilize against Austria” plans involve mobilizing against Germany, too. Russian troops start heading towards the Austrian and German border.
    (6) Germany says to Russia, “Hey, um … we don’t want 1,000,000 troops on our border. Stop this or we go to war.”
    (7) The Russians decline to stop mobilizing.
    (8) The Germans go get their “how do we fight Russia” plans and discover that *ALL* of these plans involve invading France first. The Germans are not so good at extemporizing, so they don’t want to make up a new plan on the fly.
    (9) The Germans ask France to surrender several border forts in exchange for the Germans skipping the “attack France” part of their “fight Russia” plan.
    (10) France says, “No.”
    (11) Germany declares war on Russia and France and invades France.
    (12) Carnage ensues.

    After this point we get a large number of very depressing battles with lots of casualties (the Somme, the Marne, …) that all blur together. Trenches. Poison gas. Zeppelin bombers!

    Eventually the Russians quit, the US enters and the Germans lose.

    But the US misses most of it.

    Straightforward and fairly linear, but easy to be boring, especially since we didn’t participate in most of it. You *can* focus on the early bi-plane (and tri-plane) fighters. And the U-boats. And the tanks. And keep it fairly interesting.

    But you still don’t have Nazis, or lots of footage, or US involvement.

  18. Michael E. Lopez says:

    How can we call it the American experience when all of the novels available for me to teach are written between 1884 and 1926? This excludes the experiences of so many Americans.

    How about instead of trying to make “The American Experience” into “The American Experiences” you just stick with the theme you’re given and find the commonality of all the American Experiences? Any five to ten American novels not written by the same person should do.

  19. Richard Aubrey says:

    Mark.
    Tom Clancy, talking to a bunch of journalists, said they have it easy. All they have to do is write down what happened. Fiction has to make sense. He used the beginning of WW I to make the case that if somebody had tried to market that as the premise for a war novel in 1909, nobody would have believed it.
    And behind your, say, 1-6 are various pressures that would have to be explained.
    For example, why was it impossible for the Russians to turn the mobilization around? See distances, communications, railroad capacity. Did the A/H get upset with the Serbs over only the assassination? Or was there more behind it?
    There used to be–in between wars there seems to be a need for such–a genre known as the military techno-thriller. Those ended in 1991. What was scary was not the fighting in one or another hypothetical war, but the writer’s lead in. How to get from here–no war–to there–war where he can let off his guns. Had to be logical in order to carry the reader. And it invariably was. “I can see that. Hell, I’m surprised it hasn’t already happened.”
    But real wars…you couldn’t sell that.
    So dismissing one or another idea about national security on the grounds that nobody would start anything like that, it wouldn’t make sense, is dangerous.

  20. Kirk Parker says:

    Mark,

    I’m with Richard Aubry: wouldn’t the assassination of Franz and Sophie be about step 10 in the process?

  21. Greg wrote:

    ” Isn’t it more important for us to know who the Taliban are, how the came to power, and who provided the weapons they are using against us than it is to know about nations that don’t even exist anymore.”

    And who provided them with those weapons?