Students still don’t know the basics of U.S. history

posted at 12:05 pm on June 15, 2011 by Tina Korbe

This is just sad. The vast majority of American 12th-graders — more than three-fourths — didn’t know China was North Korea’s ally during the Korean War, and only 35 percent of fourth-graders knew the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, according to national history test scores released Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that U.S. schoolchildren have made little progress since 2006 in their understanding of key historical themes, including the basic principles of democracy and America’s role in the world.

Only 20% of U.S. fourth-graders and 17% of eighth-graders who took the 2010 history exam were “proficient” or “advanced,” unchanged since the test was last administered in 2006. Proficient means students have a solid understanding of the material.

The news was even more dire in high school, where 12% of 12th-graders were proficient, unchanged since 2006. More than half of all seniors posted scores at the lowest achievement level, “below basic.” While the nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders have seen a slight uptick in scores since the exam was first administered in 1994, 12th-graders haven’t.

One bright spot: The minority gap closed somewhat for both blacks and Hispanics. At the fourth-grade level, the gap between Hispanic and white students decreased from 39 points in 1994 to 26 points in 2010. In eighth grade, the black-white gap narrowed by 5 points — from 28 points in 1994 to 23 in 2010.

Educators immediately suggested this tried-and-true solution: More tests (and presumably, standards by which to craft the tests). Supposedly, history gets the shaft because No Child Left Behind only mandates that students be tested in math and reading.

Actually, more state-level testing could be a part of the solution — but only at the state level. In Florida, for example, stiffer standards and more comprehensive tests have yielded impressive results, according to Heritage Foundation education expert Lindsey Burke. As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush says, “What gets tested, gets taught.” (Incidentally, that’s also what Sue Blanchette, president-elect of the National Council for Social Studies, said in the WSJ article.)

At the federal level, Burke said, national history standards have been tried — and overwhelmingly defeated (as they should have been!). In the 1990s, the push for federal standards in education started with history standards, but the poorly written metrics quickly revealed just why the federal government should stay out of curriculum-crafting: Subjects like social studies are extremely subjective.

Today, the push for national standards has begun anew with the development of “Common Core State Standards” in English and math — but even these more objective subjects shouldn’t be the province of federal standard-setting. Whatever subjects they address, national academic standards threaten a host of problems.

Bottom line: Parents and teachers know the children they teach personally and so can adapt their approach to accommodate the learning needs of the child. Distant, unelected bureaucrats simply can’t.

Which brings me back to the woeful lack of knowledge today’s fourth- and eighth-grade students display. My first thought upon reading the article in The Wall Street Journal had nothing to do with “education policy” and had everything to do with my family. Most of what I learned about history as a kid I learned from the books I checked out at the library on summer excursions with my mom and brother — or at the dinner table, where I’d listen to my dad and mom “talk politics.”

Teachers alone can’t turn around test results like those reported by the WSJ this morning — and Congress’ “help” would only create more red tape for states. But parents have a prime opportunity to teach the basics to their children, if they’ll only take it.


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Care to respond? :)

JimP on June 15, 2011 at 2:30 PM

Sure. As we moved from station to station, my wife and I went to public schools and met with administrators to see if there was any merit in trying public schools. I mean, why would you pay for a private school if the public schools were of a quality that you desired for your child. They never were.

Now, if your debate is going to continue to be so personal, I’m not sure why I’d bother again, but I’ll finish with just these observations of what you’ve said.

You seem to want to inject a lot of what you think I believe, based on what I didn’t say. I made no comment concerning how well or poorly I think parents rear their children. Somehow, to you, this infers I absolve them of responsibility.

I am quite familar with Conservative teachers from DODs schools who have taught both in DODs and the public sector. They are a cut above and I would have given anything to have been able to send my kid to their classrooms. Their experiences are no differnt than what I’m sure you would consider Conservative meme. They are not allowed to even express their politcs to their liberal peers for fear of censure. And you certainly don’t have to look any farther than your local headlines to see teachers injecting politcs. In Fayetteville NC, it was a teacher telling a military dependent child that her deployed father should only want to support Obama because it was Republicans who started the war; while her father was deployed!

Now, you called me a blowhard. I think I’m just direct and pretty accurate in what I assert. If you think you can make a comment, an intelligent comment without insult and innuendo about what you think I think, based on what I didn’t say, I’d consider continuing the exchange.

hawkdriver on June 15, 2011 at 2:55 PM

K-Kill. Bravo Zulu.

J.E. Dyer on June 15, 2011 at 2:34 PM


hawkdriver on June 15, 2011 at 2:57 PM

Studies have shown that the “learning gap” for poor students, including minorities, is actually a “retention gap”.

Wealthier families are more likely to encourage summer reading, take them to museums and parks, and otherwise push their development. Poorer kids forget much of what they learned at school, thus starting the following year behind.

Of course, part of the problem with HISTORY scores is that many colleges teach the teachers a very twisted version of history.

hawksruleva on June 15, 2011 at 3:10 PM

Friends, these are the same yoof who had to Google who Osama Bin Laden was – we are shocked?

PJ Emeritus on June 15, 2011 at 3:26 PM

Off to work JimP. Sorry the exchange took such an ugly turn.

Just so you know, I’m not a public school teacher, but I am an instructor. An Instructor Pilot and Platform Instructor. It’s what I did for the Army for as long as I can remember and it’s what I do for the civilian firm that I work with now. So, I do know about teaching. Those who I work with and I pride ourselves on trying to be the experts in our subject area. It’s a failure to not turn out a product that meets or exceeds the standards set for us. It’s a failure to not have an intelligent answer to a student’s question. We are continuously tested and evaluated ourselves to ensure we are proficient in what we teach. We continuously test and improve each other. There are no distractions to what we do; no politics and no agendas other than teaching the students. This concept is just so alien to liberals, they can’t even begin to comprehend it.

hawkdriver on June 15, 2011 at 3:39 PM

Why are you people talking to wallboard? You’ll seem really unstable attempting to have a conversation with an inanimate, flat-surfaced object designed to divide.

Even if you painted it bright colors, or even papered it over, it is still only fit for hanging pictures and separating spaces. It isn’t a wise choice for communication.


I too spent many years of my active duty career as an instructor, including being a senior instructor evaluator, and parts of my post-retirement life as an technical trainer for a laser manufacturer. Students who fail to achieve minimum standards were always MY responsibility. It is extremely rare that an utter inability to comprehend the material is the cause of attrition. Usually the causes were attitudinal, or other personal factors interfered with valid learning. But always, ALWAYS, the first review of a failing student would be aimed at the instructor’s techniques/methodologies and capacity to effectively present the material to a diverse audience. That’s usually a formality, since instructors/trainers in such capacities are regularly evaluated.

I dare the public teacher’s unions to institute a similar evaluation system and structure of accountability, because no such thing exists.

On the other hand, none of that makes teachers ultimately responsible for the education of an individual child. The parents MUST be engaged, involved, and aware. Instead, the socialist patterns and policies of the last 60 years have led the parents to assume that their only responsibility is to get the warm body into the schoolhouse seat. And too many parents today were treated so by their parents, who were treated so by their parents, that today there’s not even a source of questioning this behavior. That still doesn’t allow the parents to abdicate the basic requirement that they see to the best upbringing for their children which they can provide.

The least fault lies with the child, because even bad behaviors/habits referred to here in other comments should be laid at the feet of the parents/teachers.

Freelancer on June 15, 2011 at 4:36 PM

On the plus side, future generations of public school kids will not know anything about the Obama Presidency.

ChrisB on June 15, 2011 at 12:13 PM

On the minus side, much of the current generation of the public doesn’t know anything about the Obama Presidency.

How many states are there in the USA?

slickwillie2001 on June 15, 2011 at 12:57 PM

Four. From left to right:
1. Denial
2. Apathy
3. Complacency
4. Outrage

malclave on June 15, 2011 at 4:38 PM

But parents have a prime opportunity to teach the basics to their children, if they’ll only take it.

The problem is that most parents don’t know history either or think that leaving it to the schools is sufficient.

Colorado has state standards and mandates for US history. High school freshmen have to take a semester course on government and the Constitution is taught regularly from elementary school to high school. That doesn’t mean the kids are absorbing it or that the teacher is teaching it competently, but at least the opportunity is there.

I think that understanding the basics of our country and what it means to be a citizen is more important than any other subject. I have personally taught those basics and more to my three children, all now well-informed young adults.

Common Sense on June 15, 2011 at 6:35 PM

“Now, you called me a blowhard. I think I’m just direct and pretty accurate in what I assert. If you think you can make a comment, an intelligent comment without insult and innuendo about what you think I think, based on what I didn’t say, I’d consider continuing the exchange.
hawkdriver on June 15, 2011 at 2:55 PM”

Gee, don’t go away mad. Where’s the fun in that, ‘Hawk’? Wasn’t it you that started the whole be rude and insulting exchange? That’s what I thought. Innuendo? I was pretty direct in calling you a blowhard I thought. Ah well. No hard feelings on my end. Thanks for the banter. It was fun. We still disagree, however.

JimP on June 15, 2011 at 6:56 PM

Ignorance of American History is due to a deeper reason than a lot of poor education we see. The big trend in textbooks for years has been to be less “Eurocentric” and American-centric, and focus more on diversity and other cultures. So at least some of the reason why children know less American history is because they spend more time learning about particular tribes in Africa that had no real influence on the development of the nation and culture we know.

It’s not that it’s a bad thing to learn about other cultures and peoples, but time spent on these is time not spent learning about how we wound up with our system of government, or what wars we went through as a nation, or why the English are considered allies, and why the Japanese once were sworn enemies.

In other words, history touches Who We Are and How We Got Here, but learning about the history of obscure peoples who have had no influence on us as a nation teaches us very little about Who We Are, etc.

tom on June 15, 2011 at 8:57 PM

But parents have a prime opportunity to teach the basics to their children, if they’ll only take it

Thank You! Thank you for stating what many people don’t grasp. It is not the school’s ultimate responsibility to teach children but it is infact the responsibility of the parents to make sure that they get educated and to find subjects that interest the child and go deeper than what a standard school curriculum teaches.

School is a worthy tool that parents use and has other purposes such as learning social interaction (I’m not advocating homeschooling here), but if we can change the paradigm to where parents make sure their kids are learning the essentials of history, civics, math, reading, and filling the gap if they are not, this will be a better country, and frankly a more conservative one. Of course many parents themselves, even well-meaning ones, grew up with the same problem and thus are not currently in a position teach their kids. Sad.

OhioBuckeye7 on June 15, 2011 at 10:43 PM

Gee, don’t go away mad. Where’s the fun in that, ‘Hawk’? Wasn’t it you that started the whole be rude and insulting exchange?

No, I wasn’t. Now, I can understand how you can be so challenged by facts if you are a product of the public school system, but you were the only person who was rude in this exchange. You responded to a comment I made that had no element of the rudeness.

“Bull. Teachers today are seldom qualified to teach. They don’t prepare themselves. Often, they’re not any more intelligent in their area of academics than the students. There are very good ones. But the good teachers I know all have one thing in common. A Conservative background. They seem to want to teach rather than spread liberal politics.
hawkdriver on June 15, 2011 at 12:49 PM”

Apparently you live in a state that has no certification standards for teachers. My state has had these standards for decades. Thus I conclude your entire state must be populated with liberal idiots, except for you, who expect it all to get done by the teachers and believe the parents and legislators have no responsibility to require standards and are content to hire people who have not prepared themselves. Why haven’t you moved?

JimP on June 15, 2011 at 2:00 PM

That’s what I thought.

No, you just didn’t think.

Innuendo? I was pretty direct in calling you a blowhard I thought.

No argument, you’re good at the namecalling. Maybe you should look up the word, innuendo. It referred to a different part od the exchange.

Ah well. No hard feelings on my end. Thanks for the banter. It was fun. We still disagree, however.

JimP on June 15, 2011 at 6:56 PM

I guess if you enjoy looking like an ass, that might have been fun for you. Here’s a hint, next time, try and address the actual subject.

hawkdriver on June 16, 2011 at 5:53 AM

So the longer a kid stays in public school, the dumber they get.

Thanks libs.

Squiggy on June 16, 2011 at 10:56 AM

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