America’s education receives a failing grade

Photograph is of Rochester borstal Kent, England. c1906 Original photograph owned by the Galleries of Justice Museum
Photograph is of Rochester borstal Kent, England. c1906 Original photograph owned by the Galleries of Justice Museum

WASHINGTON, May 10, 2014 – American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject, according to results of a recent nationwide test, with most fourth graders unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure, and few high school seniors able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean War.

Overall, 20 per cent of fourth graders, 17 per cent of eighth graders and 12 per cent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the exam, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Fewer than a third of eighth graders could answer what was described as a “seemingly easy question,” asking them to identify an important advantage American forces had over the British during the Revolution, the government’s statement on the results reported.

Diane Ravitch, an education historian who was invited by the national assessment’s governing board to review the results, said she was particularly disturbed by the fact that only 2 per cent of 12th graders correctly answered a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education, which she called “very likely the most important decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the past seven decades.”

Students were given an excerpt and were asked what social problem the 1954 ruling was supposed to correct. The passage read, “We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

In this case, declared Dr. Ravitch, “The answer was right in front of them. This is alarming.”

“The results tell us that, as a country, we are failing to provide children with a high-quality, well-rounded education,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The evidence of our failure to teach our history is abundant. Fewer than half of American eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights on the most recent national civics examinations, and only one in 10 demonstrated acceptable knowledge of the checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial branches.

“These results confirm that we have a crisis on our hands when it comes to civics education,” said Sandra Day O’Connor, the former Supreme Court justice who in 2010 founded , a nonprofit group that teaches students civics through web-based games and other tools.

“The results confirm an alarming and continuing trend that civics in America is in decline,” said Charles N. Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education. “During the past decade or so, educational policy and practice appear to have focused more and more upon developing the worker at the expense of the citizen.”

Justice O’Connor believes that, “We face difficult challenges at home and abroad. Meanwhile, divisive rhetoric and a culture of sound bites threaten to drown out rational dialogue and debate. We cannot afford to continue to neglect the preparation of future generations for active and informed citizenship.”

Historian David McCullough says that, “We’re raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate. I know how much these young people—even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning—don’t know. It’s shocking.”

McCullough, who has lectured on more than 100 college campuses, tells of a young woman who came up to him after a lecture at a renowned university in the Midwest. “Until I heard your talk this morning, I never realized the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast,” she said.

Some years ago, when 111 ninth graders in a Honolulu school were asked to write the Pledge of Allegiance, no one could do it correctly.

One response described the United States as a nation “under guard” and dedicated “for richest stand.” A teacher, who asked not to be identified so her students would not be embarrassed, called the results frightening. She said all the students had spelling problems and had little grasp of what the pledge words meant.

The word “indivisible,” for example, came out as “in the visible.”

The teacher said that 12 students had trouble spelling the word “America.” The word appeared in some papers as “Americain,” “Americai,” “Amereca,” “Amicra,” and “Amica.” The teacher said, “I’m sick. I don’t know what to do or where to turn.”
These trends were hardly new. More than twenty years ago, writing in Public Opinion magazine, author Ben Stein reported:

“Recently, a 19-year-old junior at the University of Southern California sat with me while I watched ‘Guadalcanal Diary’ on t.v. It goes without saying that the child had never heard of Guadalcanal. More surprisingly, she did not know whom the U.S. was fighting against in the Pacific. (“The Germans?”). She was genuinely shocked to learn that all those people were Japanese and that the U.S. had fought a war against them. (“Who won?”). Another student at USC did not have any clear idea when World War II was fought…She also had no clear notion of what had begun the war for the U.S. Even more astounding, she was not sure which side Russia was on and whether Germany was on our side or against us. In fact, I have not yet found one single student in Los Angeles, in either college or in high school, who could tell me the years when World War II was fought. Nor have I found one who knew when the American Civil War was fought.”

Stein laments that, “Unless our gilded, innocent children are given some concept of why the society must be protected and defended, I fear that they will learn too soon about a whole variety of ugly ideas they did not want to know about…People who do not value what they have rarely keep it for long, and neither will we.”

Things have gotten far worse since Stein wrote those words. One reason for students’ poor showing on recent tests underlines the neglect shown to the study of history by federal and state policymakers, both Republicans and Democrats, especially since the 2002 No Child Left Behind act began requiring schools to raise scores in math and reading, but in no other subject.

The federal accountability law (surprisingly embraced by Republicans who previously argued that education was a state and local, not a federal, matter) has given schools and teachers an incentive to spend most of their time teaching to the math and reading tests, and totally ignoring history.

“History is very much being short changed,” said Linda K. Salvucci, a history professor in San Antonio who served as chairwoman of the National Council for History Education.

Historian Paul Johnson points out that, “The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.”

Free societies are rare in history. If their history and values are not transmitted to the next generation, their survival is questionable. As Cicero (106-43 B.C.) understood:

“To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child. What is human life worth unless it is incorporated into the lives of one’s ancestors and set in a historical context?”


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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.
  • Bren Pool Vignaroli

    When most teens don’t even recognize the faces of our own
    presidents (past and present)…or can’t show you on a map where the White House is
    located…yes, we have failed miserably. It’s time to get back to the basics…and stop confusing AND short-changing our kids with jibberish, like the teacher who will allow her students to skip the final exams if they get 15,000 TWEETS on Twitter…say WHAT?

  • Ms_Scotty

    There’s now a big push to teach “creativity”, as If creativity can be demonstrated without skills. We’re going to create ourselves right over a cliff.

  • David R Priest

    We can’t have kids learning about history! If they find about how liberal policies have screwed up their country, they might start voting for conservatives!

    • G McC

      No comments section can escape this kind of drivel,,,,,,,,,,,,

  • Fiji’s Best

    Although Marxism is revolutionary and Fabianism gradualist, the centrally controlled system that each envisions is basically the same.

  • Prof. J.S. Harrison

    Having taught history at the high school and college level for over
    37 years, I have endeavored to teach beyond the text and for
    understanding. My classes stress such skills as critical thinking and
    clear communication. Students need to learn basic information about our
    history but more importantly how to analyze information. I want them
    to be more informed voters and caring citizens.

    The ultra focus on STEM, over the past few years, to the neglect of the
    humanities, such as American history, is troubling. It is unfortunate
    that immigrants, who must pass a test, sometimes know more about our
    history than some our students.

    We need to make the study of American history a priority and part of it begins with
    teacher preparation. My wife, like millions of others, was taught by a
    football coach, who knew nothing of history. A recent statement that
    half of US history teachers do not have experience or a degree in
    history must be reversed. WE are failing out children if we do not
    teach them.