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On How More Learning Of "History Basics" Might Be Bad For The Field

May 21, 2007

I noticed a CNN story last week on how primary and secondary students are learning more of the basics of history and civics. What follows are some excerpts from that piece with critical analysis:

– “More students are learning the basics when it comes to history and civics, but they aren’t rising to the next level, national tests show. The history and civics tests were given to students nationwide in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades last year, and the results were released Wednesday. History scores increased in all three grades over 2001, the last time that subject was tested. Only fourth-graders showed progress since the last civics test, given in 1998. None of the grades saw an increase in students moving beyond a basic competency for either subject.”

TL: Of what does learning “beyond a basic competency” consist? Where were students before with regard to those skills? [This is partially addressed at the end of the piece.]

– “The gains could counter arguments by critics who say the 2002 No Child Left Behind law has placed too much emphasis on reading and math by requiring those subjects to be tested and led to less time spent on history, civics and other courses.”
– “The Washington-based Center on Education Policy reported last year that a third of elementary school districts reported cutting back on time for social studies, which includes history and civics. However, a recent government study showed increases in social studies credits being earned by high schoolers.”

TL: Do they mean h.s. or AP credits? I think they mean the former, but the article doesn’t elaborate. I never took an AP test, but I don’t believe I’ve seen a college transcript (in my role as a student advisor) with AP credits in “social studies.”

– “Some officials say the extra attention on reading may explain the gains on history and civics tests. ‘If kids are learning how to read better, then they can take these assessments. They have a very large reading component to them,’ said Mark Schneider, commissioner of education statistics at the Education Department.”

TL: This seems plausible. But how does this also explain stagnation with regard to higher-order skills? I’ll get to a potential answer on that below, in my final thoughts.

– “The progress in history and civics was made by students working at the lowest levels, meaning there have been significantly more students working at or above the basic level than in the past. But there has been no increase in students working at or above the “proficient” level since the last time the tests were given. Public officials say proficiency is the goal.”

TL: So this is an admission that learning history as a liberal arts subject (i.e. beyond basic competency) will be delayed until college. Perhaps that’ll help instructors of first-year, introductory courses in higher education? Those instructors will be able to assume more “cultural literacy” with regard to history of their students.

– “Some critics of No Child Left Behind say the law has focused educators’ attention on students at the lower end of the spectrum at the expense of students working at higher levels. ‘That’s a concern, obviously,’ said Darvin Winick, chair of the independent National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests. ‘We’re delighted to bring up the lower-performing kids … but we haven’t brought up the higher-performing kids.’ “

TL: So should history educators assume that NCLB is democratizing the knowledge of history, but at a lower level than in the past?

– “The history results show:
* Seventy percent of fourth-graders performed at the basic level or better, meaning some of them scored at proficient or advanced levels. That is up from about 66 percent in 2001. Fourth-graders who can work at the basic level should understand the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, for example.
* Among eighth-graders, 65 percent performed at the basic level or better, up from 62 percent in 2001. Eighth-graders working at that level can typically identify slave states on a map.
* While there’s been an increase in 12th-grade history scores — a rare occurrence on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests — the results are still not seen as great news. Just 47 percent know at least basic-level history, up from 43 percent in 2001. Seniors working at the basic level should be able to explain the historical context of Supreme Court decisions.”
– “There was no change in the percentage of students performing at or above the ‘proficient’ level, at any grade level. About 20 percent reached that mark in the fourth and eighth grades, as did 14 percent of high school seniors.”


So after six years of NCLB, the ground-level gains for h.s. seniors are modest at best (4%), but we’re not engaging the more interested folks with the field’s higher order skills, such as an introduction to historiography, history writing, and primary research?

In fact, I would argue that we’re trading a 4% gain for fewer motivated prospects overall in the field. But how can I assert this? Don’t the last lines of my excerpt above indicate no drop in the numbers of students “at” or “above” proficiency?

I forward that there’ll be fewer because I’m betting that NCLB is creating more History Haters. Anecdotally, most complaints I’ve ever heard about learning history involve two things – disgust over the rote memorization of facts and the feeling that learning history is simply all about trivia. I contend that if schools reinforce these mistaken perceptions at an earlier age, and more people are permanently turned off about history, then there’ll be fewer history readers down the road. We might be producing more readers in general, but that cohort won’t want to read about history because of their childhood impressions. History won’t seem fun or interesting. Perhaps this will also mean lower history enrollments at the college level?

So despite CNN’s positive headline (“Tests show students learn basics in history, civics”), I think that more learning of just the basics may potentially – and counterintuitively – be bad for the field overall.

Am I just being overly pessimistic? – TL

[PS – I wrote my post before seeing this AHA entry on the subject. Arnita Jones is not quite as negative about the results as I am.]


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One Comment
  1. this issue is just so large that I feel like crushing my skull every time I start to think about how we would go about assessing the viability of a truly federal education policy.

    For example, is NCLB to BLAME for the poor showings? Or is it to be CONGRATULATED for pointing those (perhaps ongoing) deficiencies out to us? I think there is quite a bit of evidence to support either side of that debate legitimately, even while I might hate the idea of NCLB as a person who loves teaching history and encouraging enquiry, which NCLB clearly does not do. I probably won't have anything useful to say about this for at least two years.


    Dr. Christopher Miller, PhD


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