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What About History Education?

So much of the nation's attention has been focused on literacy, numeracy and science since No Child Left Behind became law that history has been lost in the shuffle. A new book by David Feith titled Teaching America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011) calls the situation a "crisis" ("Boot Camp For Citizens," The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 9). I'm troubled by the neglect of the subject as much as Feith is, but I hasten to point out that fears about students' knowledge of history are not new.

In the 1830's, Horace Mann, secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, decried the historical preparation of students. Then in 1896, the Harvard Board of Overseers complained that based on examples of freshman writing "there was no conceivable justification for using the revenues of Harvard College to instruct undergraduates who were unprepared for college work." In 1943, The New York Times surveyed several thousand students who were entering college about their knowledge of history. The Times warned about the possibility of catastrophe because of their poor preparation.

Not that colleges are doing any better today. In 2003, the House Education and Workforce Committee found that many students from marquee-name schools couldn't name the President. And in 2006, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute assessed 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities about American history and constitutionalism. The average senior received a grade of 54 percent. More disturbing, many schools demonstrated negative learning, meaning that seniors performed worse than freshmen.

The most recent fix on what students know about history came in June when results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress were published. They revealed that students are less proficient in American history than in any other subject ("U.S. Students Remain Poor at History, Tests Show," The New York Times, Jun. 14). Specifically, 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of 12th graders demonstrated proficiency on the exam.

In the hands of talented teachers, history can be made to come alive. But I suspect that if the subject were added to the list of those already tested under No Child Left Behind, the effect would be counterproductive. Pressured to demonstrate adequate yearly progress, most teachers would probably resort to the use of worksheets in order to cram as many facts as possible into the heads of their students. If so, test scores would undoubtedly rise, but interest would certainly plummet. Once again, we would be able to chalk up a Pyrrhic victory.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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