Sunday, October 5, 2003

Don't know much about history

Many states do a poor job teaching kids about our nation's past

By Linda Cagnetti
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mike Royer illustration
| ZOOM |
In the post-9/11 world, it's more important than ever that our young people know America's history. The buildings hit in the attacks were targeted because they represented our economic and political systems. We were attacked for being American, so we should at least know what being American means.

But most young people (and many adults) don't know. Study after study finds Americans know little about our nation's past, the principles on which it was founded, the workings of its government, the origins of its freedoms and laws and how past leaders have responded to threats from abroad.

In the 2001 test of students' knowledge of U.S. history by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 11 percent of high-schoolers scored at proficient or advanced levels in U.S. history. In a 2002 survey of seniors at the nation's 55 most elite colleges and universities, 81 percent got an F or D when quizzed on basic American history. They couldn't identify words from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address or simple principles of the Constitution. In a 1999 study from Stanford University's Center on Adolescence, young American adults showed little awareness of current events and "virtually no expressions of social concern, political opinions, civic duty or patriotic emotion."

Education for democracy is not indoctrination. Nobody's asking for propaganda, knee-jerk patriotism or censoring our flaws. But unless schools change their approach, they'll continue to turn out students who are disengaged in society and ignorant of what they need to preserve.

So what are schools teaching?

A massive new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has some answers. The foundation is a nonpartisan, non-profit group focused on education research and reform. It recruited experts to review and grade the history or social studies standards from every state and to determine how well they handle U.S. history.

A state's academic standards are the recipes from which its entire education system cooks, says the foundation's Chester E. Finn Jr. They say what students should learn so they drive curriculum and tests, the selection of textbooks and teacher training.

The appraisal, "Effective State Standards for History: A 2003 Report Card" concludes that states' standards for U.S. history are mostly a parade of mediocrity, either weak or bad, falling far below what they need to be if we expect young people to be adequately educated in American history so they're informed citizens.

Only six states earned "A" grades, including Indiana. Ohio got a "D" grade and Kentucky an "F." States' standards were graded on comprehensive historical context; sequential development and balance (that is reasonably free of glorification of the past at one extreme, and politically correct posturing, distortions and omissions at the opposite extreme).

The review team was led by American historian Sheldon M. Stern, who recently retired as historian at the John Kennedy Library in Boston, where he was founder/director of the American History Project for High School Students. Good history standards, he says, should equip students and teachers with the skills required to understand context, master historical thinking and develop a sense of history.

Strong programs, he said, identify and discuss real people, give political history equal status with social and cultural history, discuss the origin and development of democratic ideas, as well as the evolution of slavery, be balanced and free of ideological agendas.

The foundation's Finn faults how schools teach, or don't teach history and social studies these days.

"The movers and shapers within social studies have had little respect for Western civilization, a disposition to view America as a problem for mankind rather than its best hope; a tendency to pooh-pooh history's factual highlights as 'privileging elites'; and a notion of 'civics' that stresses political activism rather than understanding how laws are made and why they matter."

He says teachers are not urged to explain to students why some people and tyrannical regimes abhor the freedoms America allows, why the U.S. is worth defending and how we've done it in the past.

A new bipartisan report called "Education for Democracy," from the Albert Shanker Institute, adds more fuel to the debate. It says schools are telling an unbalanced story of U.S. history, offering students plenty about America's failings but not enough about its values and freedoms. It calls for a stronger, more balanced history curriculum in American schools. You'll find it at (www.ashankerinst.org/education.html).

"Only history can give students an appreciation of how long and hard and tangled the road to liberty and equality has been," says Elizabeth McPike, chief author of Shanker Institute's report. It "helps students recognize antidemocratic ideas, in all their disguises. It teaches young citizens about unexpected consequences and the trade-offs that choice imposes. It forces them to stand with those who had to make difficult decisions, so they know the demands of responsibility."

American democracy is a rare and radical political system. We cannot take its survival or spread for granted.

"Devotion to human freedom, equal rights, social justice, the rule of law, civility and truth, diversity, mutual assistance, personal and civic responsibility, self-restraint and self-respect - all these must be taught and learned and practiced," says McPike.

It is our children's inheritance, she says. "We must not think we an give it to them casually. We must embed it so deeply in their souls that no one can take it away."

Tristate history report cards

"Effective State Standards for History: A 2003 Report Card" reviews each state's academic standards or guidelines for teaching history and social studies. Here are report summaries on Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Six states earned "A" grades; 30 got Ds or Fs. Full texts on all states, with examples and much detail, along with survey and grading methods, can be found online (www.edexcellence.net/foundation).

Ohio - 'D'

(18 points out of 30)

Missing persons: The report notes a disconnect between important historical concepts and the real people whose actions formed our history. For instance, the formation of political parties, the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expeditions are studied, but without any mention of Thomas Jefferson. Franklin Roosevelt seems to be missing from the study of the New Deal and World War II.

Kentucky - 'F'

(9 points out of 30)

An empty shell: The report says Kentucky's standards focus on facts "without any real understanding of what is involved in interpreting those facts." For example, eighth graders are told "America's diverse society began with the 'great convergence' of European, African and Native American people beginning in the late 15th century." There is no explanation that this "great convergence" involved war, slavery and conquest.

Indiana - 'A'

(29 out possible 30 points)

Head of the class: "This is one state in which the product matches the rhetoric," the report says. The standards show comprehensiveness, sequential development, balance, and sensitivity to historical context. For example, in studying World War II, high school students are asked to explain the economic and social changes to society that came out of the war, including the changes in status of African-Americans and women.


Contact Linda Cagnetti by e-mail at lcagnetti@enquirer.com or by phone at (513) 768-8527.

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