Theodore K. Rabb: No Child Left Behind Is Hurting History

Theodore K. Rabb, in the Boston Globe (4-18-05):

Patriots Day, April 19 th, is a date that ought to have particular resonance at this juncture in the history of the Republic. It commemorates the beginning of our first war: the day in 1775 when the first shots were fired, in Concord, on America’s path to independence. If in recent years the most widely reported event of that day has been the Boston Marathon, it is surely time to put its larger meaning front and center in the nation’s consciousness.

The central question we should all be asking ourselves is: How can one be a patriot without knowing what happened not only in 1775 but also in the years before and after? Without an understanding of history, patriotism is empty. And that is why, on this Patriots Day, the National Council for History Education is sponsoring a series of events, including a gathering on the steps of Capitol, to emphasize the need to remember and appreciate our past -- a reminder that is urgently needed in our schools.

That such a campaign, to be called “Make History Strong in our Schools,” is necessary is all too apparent, because survey after survey reveals pathetic levels of knowledge about our history. In one study, students aged 8-12 could name more alcoholic beverages than presidents of the USA.

Increasingly worried about this situation, some 35 distinguished historians and lovers of history issued a statement a few weeks ago entitled Crisis in History, which has since been signed by over 500 teachers and interested supporters nationwide. The aim was to seek remedies for the shocking decline in class time devoted to history in our schools.

Many of our citizens may not be aware that this is happening, but the numbers are unmistakable, and the consequences, in a nation that has long seemed willing to neglect its origins, are devastating. Nobody who talks about the problem seems to want America’s citizenry to be ignorant of our history, but the testimony is still chilling.

Reacting to the dismaying misconceptions about the First Amendment revealed in a recent study, Hodding Carter proclaimed: “Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future.” And he is not alone. President Kennedy emphasized that “a child miseducated is a child lost,” while President Reagan, in his farewell address, was even more blunt: “I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”

If the great and the good are so united in their concern, why does the problem seem to be getting worse? One major force that is at work is the shrinking of class hours in history as our schools, driven by the testing required by the No Child Left Behind law, focus increasingly on reading and mathematics.

The illiteracy that results is nothing short of a national scandal, and it is getting worse. More elite college seniors thought the general at Yorktown was Grant (37%) than Washington (34%). Fewer knew the source of “Government of the people, by the people and of the people” (22%) than could identify Beavis & Butthead (99%). In other words, the time clearly has arrived for an end to hand-wringing and a beginning of action.

Some efforts are under way. The Department of Education’s Teaching American History Grants, sponsored by Senator Byrd and overwhelmingly supported in Congress, have given a real stimulus to teachers nationwide. A more modest proposal, Senate Bill S2721 (sponsored by Senators Alexander and Kennedy) seeks further support for teacher preparation. But these efforts have to be expanded if the crisis is to be faced. ...

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Mike Bruner - 4/24/2005

The point remains that the craze for testing is hurting the teaching of everything except reading and math. Existing state testing was doing enough damage, NCLB has made it worse. Many schools have eliminated or reduced the time spent on teaching history at the K-8 level.

As more time and effort is given to reading and math, funds for professional development and curricular material for history, science, and the art are being reduced. It is becoming increasingly difficult for history teachers to get permission to attend professional conferences or take part in other professional development opportunities.

Textbook rotations are being moved to seven and eight year cycles. School library budgets are being cut as more and more is spent on reading and math. It is becoming increasingly difficult for teachers to have students do meaningful research assignment as the library collection deteriorate.

Dr. Rabb’s efforts on behalf of history education are very much needed.

John Reed Tarver - 4/23/2005

So are the Boston Globe and Mr. Rabb hurting history when they scramble President Lincoln's phrase pointing out the American source of political power and its proper recipients. This is journalism at its most ignorant.

Tony Luke - 4/23/2005

It seems to me that the crisis in history education has been around a lot longer than the No Child Left Behind Act and that to blame that law is simply another infantile dig at the Bush administration and a symptom of what's gone wrong with history and social science education. The crisis in history education has been around just as long as the crisis in reading, math, and science education. These became the primary focus of the NCLB legislation because math, reading, and science all tend to be rather straightforward without a lot of controversy over what should be taught or objective standards of measurement. That history and social science wasn't included in the NCLB legislation is the result of that field of education having become so highly politicized and relativized over the past 40 years that it would be virtually impossible to come up with common body of knowledge, goals and objective standards of measurement that everyone could accept. In a sense, you've done it to yourselves.

Michael Meo - 4/21/2005

Doesn't the handwringing ever get old? Every single year, the same complaints about the state of understanding of history? The same lament, that an uneducated populace will fail to support democracy?

Maybe if the writer had concluded that the most recent election proved how ignorant the public was of history . . . -- but no, it was the same old stuff: more people know some cultural hero of the moment than some worthy hero of long ago. Tsk. Sure is a shame.

Oh yeah, and the solution! God save us all, the solution! A few more federal grants!! That'll fix the problem, sure enough!

Perhaps what's lacking here is some knowledge by the writier of the history of the problem. Yes, I find it ironic as well.

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