What Students Don't Know About History: The Latest Findings


Ms. Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University.

For most people, the popular culture is far more influential via movies, television, the Internet, radio, and other forms of mass media than what is taught in school. Thus, we see, for example, the latest Harris poll, which asks the public to identify the "best presidents in history." The top ten, rank ordered by adding the votes for first best and second best, are: Lincoln, Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy, Washington, Clinton, Jefferson, Truman, Theodore Roosevelt, and George W. Bush. Not surprisingly, this is not the list or the order that historians choose when answering the same question. It seems safe to say that some of the names appear near the top because of celebrity or familiarity rather than any generally recognized attributes of "greatness" as a President.

Admittedly, concern about whether Americans know much about history, geography, economics, civics, the sciences, mathematics, or the arts is a hardy perennial. In 1987, I co-authored a book with Chester E. Finn, Jr. titled What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? It was a report on the first national assessment of history and literature, which was administered to a national sample of high school seniors in 1986 by a federal agency (the National Assessment of Educational Progress); almost all of the test-takers had recently finished or were completing a one-year course in U.S. history. The results were unimpressive, to say the least, and the book got a lot of attention. Its purpose was to persuade state and local officials to increase instructional time for these subjects, as well as to lend support to other advocates of these subjects.

In the intervening years, there has been quite a lot of support for history education. One thinks of the National Council for History Education, National History Day, the Gilder-Lehrman Institute, the K-12 history frameworks adopted by California and Massachusetts, various programs sponsored by AHA and OAH, and a host of other valuable initiatives led by historians and their allies.

Today, however, the time available for history--like other subjects--is being squeezed by legislative efforts to boost reading and math skills in grades 3-8, as well as the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects in middle schools and high schools.

To counter these trends, a new organization called Common Core was launched on February 26 at a press conference in Washington, D.C., to advocate on behalf of the subjects that are neglected by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation and by pending STEM legislation. These subjects include history, literature, the sciences, the arts, geography, civics, even recess (although recess is not a subject, it is a necessary break in the school day that seems to be shrinking or disappearing in some districts). I serve as co-chair of CC with Toni Cortese, executive vice-president of the American Federation of Teachers.

To call attention to the problems that concern us, as well as to the existence of CC, we commissioned an abbreviated reprise of questions asked in the 1986 NAEP assessment of history and literature. The 2008 survey, however, was conducted by telephone, not in the classroom. The results from 1986 and 2007 are not strictly comparable, for all sorts of methodological reasons that are detailed in the brief report by Frederick Hess (Still at Risk: What Students Don't Know, Even Now).

Yet, compare them I did, and it appears to me that the telephone sample of 2007 were somewhat better informed than their parents' generation of 1986. In 1986, only 32% knew that the American Civil War occurred in the half-century between 1850-1900 (this was NOT a trick question!); now, 43% do. In 1986, 64% could identify the main holding of the Brown v. Board of Education decision; now, 71% can. On most questions of a factual nature, the proportion who answered correctly was either higher or the same, seldom lower. So perhaps the pressure to improve history education over the past 20 years was making some headway.

The reason that so many terrific educators (Pascal Forgione, the superientendent of schools in Austin; Joy Hakim, author; Richard Kessler, executive director of the Center for Arts Education in New York City; Barbara Byrd-Bennett, former superintendent of the Cleveland schools; Juan Rangel, head of the United Neighborhood Organizations in Chicago; Lorraine Griffiths, exemplary North Carolina teacher; and Harvey Klehr of Emory University) agreed to join the board of CC was because they are concerned about strengthening the subjects that have been ignored by federal legislation and that are at risk of being diminished.

NCLB is not uniquely responsible for causing loss of knowledge of history. The 1986 survey demonstrates that the problems of "I don't know" existed long before NCLB.

However, it is increasingly clear that the law's relentless focus on raising scores in the basic skills of reading and math has the effect of reducing time for all other studies. The board of CC is not opposed to testing. We view it as a necessary but not sufficient part of education.

I cannot now speak for the board, as the organization is just getting underway and board members have yet to articulate their areas of agreement and disagreement. So, let me say for myself, that I would prefer to see development and implementation of more thoughtful kinds of testing than those that are now in general use; in particular, I would hope for new tests that call on students to describe, analyze, explain, and demonstrate what they know and can do, not just asking them to pick a bubble.

I am also concerned that NCLB's intense emphasis on testing and basic skills inevitably narrows the curriculum. Defenders of the law say that this has not happened, but it is inevitable that it will and has. There are only so many hours and minutes in the school day, and when the time devoted to basic skills and to testing and test preparation expands, other subjects must necessarily contract or disappear. When only test scores of reading and math "count" towards the rating of the school and the bonuses of teachers and principals, then that is where a disproportionate amount of school time will be devoted.

Again, speaking personally and not for the board, I worry that school reform is now dominated by the language of management and productivity. This may be appropriate in the business world, but it is not appropriate in education. The tests that we have are not accurate enough to carry the rewards, sanctions and importance that is now attached to them by the federal government and the states.

So, yes, I worry about the future of history education. I also worry about the future of literature, the arts, and all the other subjects that are left out by today's policymakers. Is the answer to test them all? I would say not. With so many tests, there would be no time for instruction or reading or projects or discussion or activities.

American education is in serious trouble today. The people in the drivers' seats mistakenly think they are running a business, with a bottom line. They have forgotten—or maybe they don't know—that our schools are responsible for educating future citizens who will need and hopefully use far more than basic skills.

Related Links

  • Sample Test Questions
  • HNN Hot Topics: Low History IQs

  • comments powered by Disqus

    More Comments:

    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/11/2008

    We are not that far apart on the schools...

    Public housing has the insuperable problem of never being able to provide equally for citizens in equally penurious circumstances. The public purse never has enough for that, so commissars always must decide, with plenty of graft, just who gets the subsidized apartments, and who doesn't. The old alms houses were better. It should always be markedly unpleasant to be housed by the government, so that people are encouraged to provide housing for themselves. Those who do not provide for themselves, and cannot find relatives or friends to provide them with shelter, should only live in government bins, with a lower standard than all who do provide for themselves.

    R.R. Hamilton - 3/11/2008

    Ms. Johnson,

    No, I don't mean "it is what it is". Saying what I did, "Public education is to education is as public housing is to housing" was intended to make a point about the character of public education. Perhaps if I share another such saying with you, it may make it clearer: "Military justice is to justice as military music is to music."

    I hope that helps.

    R.R. Hamilton - 3/10/2008

    Mr. Hughes, I always look forward to reading your comments, but you err when you try to read too much into my comment that "Public education is to education as public housing is to housing."

    I am NOT for "abolishing public schools", departments of education, or all that. Nor am I for abolishing public housing or departments of housing. I invite you to think along with me about both for a moment.

    We can actually learn a lot about public schools from our experience with public housing. Certainly housing is at the same level of social and national necessity as schools are. And yet, while we have a public school system which demands a right to educate 90% of the students, no one proposes that we have a public housing system for housing 90% of the nation's residents. I have no problem with the government insisting on having the power to educate those children who would not otherwise be educated -- just as we feed those who would go unfed and shelter those who would be unsheltered, but how many is that? I would say perhaps 10% and certainly no more than 20% -- far, far from 90%.

    In general, people can be trusted to take care of their own schooling needs, just as they take care of their own housing needs. There is no reason we should spend $10,000 per student to get a public school education when he could get a private school education for much less that that.

    R.R. Hamilton - 3/10/2008

    I don't want the school districts doing anything other than rote skill-drill. I don't trust them to teach values. I will teach my children values -- the public school teachers have no business or right teaching anything but unadorned facts (rote skill-drill). Parents who want schools to teach values (or "critical thinking") should put their kids in private schools of their choice. Leave the public schools alone.

    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/10/2008

    Reading is a necessary catalyst to teaching anything else, so it must always take priority over teaching history. Math is more important, too. Geography and civics are generally more important than history, and don't arouse controversies like "history" does, either. In Geography and Civics you can have indisputably correct answers to all questions on the tests; not so with History.

    History and Literature are highly mutable courses, with very different content depending on the prejudices of their instructors and textbooks. While not to be neglected, of course, they should always have lower priority than reading, math, geography or civics. My first choice for elevation would be geography, where Americans of all ages rank behind nearly everyone else on earth.

    Student recognition of Brown vs. Board of Education, or the "I Have a Dream" speech, should not be taken as academic improvements. They should not count, given the national obsession with race by "educators" at every level the nation over in recent years. Students are simply hearing much, much more repeated about such items. Ask them if they ever heard of Robert E. Lee, now, and you will be struck dumb by their lack of response. Lee has been excised from the textbooks for some time, much as Joe Stalin erased the photos of purged communist leaders from his May Day parade albums.

    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/9/2008

    What Hamilton is saying is that "public" anything doesn't work, and we should abolish the public schools, abolish the state departments of education, abolish the federal Education Department, repeal the mandatory attendance laws, and start all over again with a totally private school environment--because the result could hardly be worse than what we have under the present system, and we could get to the same results we have now (actually, we would get to much better results very quickly), without the enormous public expense for schools, which is generally out of control and penalizes the many other things that governments must do, which would then include paying tuition subsidies to parents who needed them.

    Jen Johnson - 3/6/2008

    Re: "Public education is to education as public housing is to housing"

    So, "it is what it is?" I hope I am misinterpreting that statement.

    Chris S Nichols - 3/6/2008

    By the way, we have a running joke that NCLB should have been called, "No School Left Standing". Still makes me chuckle.

    mark safranski - 3/6/2008


    There is a reasonable need for an honest yardstick ( though NCLB has not established one)to measure school performance but a politically-driven "testing" agenda -and many of these state exams are no great shakes in terms of validity- has hijacked too many school district curriculums and squeezed out both subjects and critical thinking.

    School districts need to hear pushback from parents who want their children to have more to their education than rote skill-drill.

    Understand how you feel, both of my children are in the primary grades

    Jonathan Dresner - 3/6/2008

    No argument. What we need to be doing, then, is participating in the process, and measuring outcomes in a meaningful fashion.

    mark safranski - 3/6/2008

    Hi Jonathan,

    How many school administrators have any kind of an education in history, mathematics, music or the arts? Is it greater or less than 2 % ?

    How about members of school boards? Any nuclear physicists on your local school board ?

    Panic is part of the problem. The other part is that the key decision-makers themselves lack any detailed grasp of why these subjects might be cognitively important.

    Patrick Murray - 3/5/2008

    Chris S. Nichols is right. We got an MBA president and No Child Left Behind. The assumption is that all students arrive in class just like all ingredients in a cake, the same as all other ingredients for similar cakes everywhere in the country. The school year is too short. Years ago I was in the Public Record Office, now the National Archives in Kew, it was 15 July and the last day of the school year in England; the kids were doing research on their ancestors.

    R.R. Hamilton - 3/5/2008

    I feel your pain; "one-size fits all" isn't a good educational model. But let's be frank: Public education is to education as public housing is to housing.

    Chris S Nichols - 3/4/2008

    While I agree with the basic premise of the article, I believe that there are a host of other issues which continue to exacerbate the situation that schools face today. The problem is endemic to the educational system itself. The system must be changed radically - or nothing is going to change at all.

    I teach in Texas (7th grade Texas History) and in our district the curriculum has become a mile wide and an inch deep. The school year is so short (187 days) that there is litle time to adequately cover a given topic in any depth that. For example, I had two weeks to cover Texas pre-history, the Native Texan cultures and European exploration. Two Weeks!

    Admittedly, this is the first year that the social studies department has revamped our scope and sequence to keep all district teachers on the same pace, and as such is under revision, but you get the idea.

    I have also seen an increase in the number of students who are seriously lacking in the basic skills that are supposed to be emphasized in the primary levels. I have students arrive in class at the beginning of the year that are unable to write legibly, write complete sentences, effectively communicate ideas and concepts, or summarize basic information. As a result I have to spend an inordinate amount of time teaching and reteaching these skills.

    Not to mention that societally there seems to be less and less involvement by parents. The result is many students who walk into every class, not just history, with absolutely no self-motivation or desire to do ANYTHING. A few weeks ago I assigned something as simple as looking up 10 words from the back of the book and I would say that anywhere from 40-50% of the students did not do it. Things like this boggle the mind.

    The increasing pressure that teachers feel also adds to the remarkably low retention rate, which is right now averages at 4 years. The result is an unending stream of teachers with little practical experience who never last long enough to become truly great teachers. The illogical nature of holding a teacher wholly accountable for a students decisions is, I believe, one of the main causes of the high turnover rate.

    We cannot manage another persons mind. I have to explain to parents throughout the year, that the reason little Johnny is failing is because little Johnny doesn't turn anything in. The refrain over and over again is "I don't know what to do." from parents, yet many of them never do anything about it.

    I could go on, but I will leave it at that. The business model approach to education is definitely hastening the decay of education in our country, and unfortunately, very few people seem to have the will to change things.

    Sorry for any errors, I typed this up in a flurry before my next class begins.

    Walter D. Kamphoefner - 3/3/2008

    That accounts for George W.'s place in the top ten--at least most of the students knew his name.

    Lisa Kazmier - 3/3/2008

    ...even name 10 presidents?

    Jonathan Dresner - 3/3/2008

    Eventually someone will figure out that people read better if they have something interesting -- and history can be very interesting -- and do more math if they have a reason to do it -- science being a very good reason to do math. I don't understand why better-balanced programs don't wipe out "teach to the test" programs which overschedule reading/math to the detriment of all the other stuff. We already know that arts and music aid math learning -- that's been studied -- but they're still being crowded out because administrators are panicking (and well they should, because the law is designed to panic them) and abandoning good practices.

    This is a very real question for me: I have a six-year old going in to first grade next year, and I'm frankly very concerned that the schools we're looking at will consider my child a test score rather than a developing intellect and person.