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Those Who Do Not Learn History ...

We put the teaching of history into ever narrower straitjackets, and spin test results that demonstrate profound ignorance into symptoms of a brighter future.

By Theodore K. Rabb

Last month the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally financed "Nation's Report Card," released the results of its 2006 tests of historical knowledge among schoolchildren. Although there were hints of small improvements since the last NAEP test in 2001 (47 percent rather than 43 percent of 12th graders had at least a "basic" knowledge of U.S. history), the findings were still little short of appalling. The far more telling proportion, of those with "basic or below" knowledge, declined only from 89 percent to 87 percent, yet another index of the inadequacies that leave most young people incapable of understanding the world.

Because the report appeared amid plans to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, whose focus on reading and mathematics has been blamed for cutbacks in other subjects, like history, the suggestion of even slight gains had predictable effects. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings enthused that the law was not narrowing the curriculum. Come again? Of course it is. The evidence is so overwhelming that the secretary should really be trying to figure out why there is even a glimmer of hope.

Take Pinellas County, in Florida, where elementary-school teachers are allowed 60 minutes a day to teach all of social studies, science, and health, and where the county's strategic plan omits history. Or New Jersey, which is removing world history from the core subjects required for graduation. (American history cannot be omitted, because it is mandated by the Legislature.) When I asked a random group of school superintendents if history hours were shrinking, the answer was: by at least one-third, and occasionally by two-thirds. In Maryland a county-by-county survey has shown similar results. And national surveys have shown clear declines around the country in teaching subjects other than reading and mathematics.

In sum, there is no doubt that the curriculum is narrowing. The federal government finances the Teaching American History program, which has stimulated major improvements in the qualifications of history teachers, but the eroding class hours give them less and less opportunity to use their skills. How, then, can the NAEP scores give encouragement?

The area of improvement particularly emphasized by celebrants was at the fourth grade (a rise from 66 percent to 70 percent who scored at the basic level or above), although the more telling "proficient" level remained stuck at 18 percent. What undermines even that ray of hope is that the "proficient" percentages declined in the eighth and 12th grades in 2006, despite the fact that our schools typically offer specific American-history classes in the fifth grade and later. What then is being tested?

Secretary Spellings emphasizes that reading is the foundation for mastery of content. But the ability to read or decipher language is easily mistaken for mastery of content. Asking fourth-grade students, as the NAEP test did, to identify the "meaning" of three sentences in Lincoln's "House Divided" speech was to check their ability to decode his words, not to understand his ambiguous views. In a study of college seniors several years ago, the top vote getter in answer to the question "Who was the American general at Yorktown?" was Ulysses S. Grant. In the new NAEP test, only 14 percent of 12th graders could give a reason for America's involvement in the Korean War. Do we think that, having neglected history, we can clutch at straws from multiple-choice tests that tell us little about the capacity to reason or comprehend, and claim we are preparing a generation to face an increasingly globalized world?

This may not be the most important instance of America's preferring illusion to reality in recent years, but its implications are serious. If we gave talented teachers of history their heads, they could convey the joys of this endlessly fascinating subject, with its heroes and villains, conflict and engagement, drama and discovery. Their students, in turn, could gain a sense of perspective about themselves and their world, and learn to analyze the news that surrounds them. Instead, we put the teaching of history into ever narrower straitjackets, and spin test results that demonstrate profound ignorance into symptoms of a brighter future.

Theodore K. Rabb is a professor emeritus of history at Princeton University.

— Theodore K. Rabb<
Chronicle of Higher Education


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