What do history results teach?

So what do the history results really teach us?

During their webinar earlier this week, The National Assessment of Education Progress officials tried to put a positive spin on the just-released history test results. And there WAS some good news. Eighth grade scores improved — a little. The score gap for black and Hispanic fourth graders narrowed — a little.

Guest commentator and noted educational historian Diana Ravitch promptly spoiled the mildly self-congratulatory mood. Looking over the fourth grade questions, she concluded that the slightly higher scores almost certainly reflected better reading skills, rather than more knowledge of history. In other words, students who could read the question could often guess the answer. They didn’t necessarily know any more history.

Nobody — commentators or call-in questioners alike — asked what struck me as an obvious question. Is it just possible that the much-maligned No Child Left Behind law, with its focus on basic skills and pressure to improve minority kids’ scores, actually did some good? I am by no means an uncritical supporter of the law, and Ms. Ravitch is — these days — a full-throated opponent. But I still think it’s a question worth asking.

Ms. Ravitch did repeat one of her attacks on high stakes skills testing, which is that test preparation now drives out content instruction in social studies, science and the arts. Again, I agree with her comment that elementary students study very little history, except perhaps on a few patriotic holidays. But if we blame too little history seat time for the lousy test scores, why are the scores lowest among 12th graders? Every high school student in America has to take American history, just as almost every high school student in America has to take government (remember the recently released, and dismal, high school civics scores?)

Ms. Ravitch made one final comment that disturbed me — even though, again, I share her commitment to devoting more attention and resources to content in our history and civics curriculum. She complained that American education focused increasingly on preparing students to succeed in a global market, not to participate as full citizens in a democracy. If by competitiveness she meant, as I assume she did, basic math and reading skills, then I’d like to vote for all of the above.

Back in the 17th century, when the Puritans were struggle to eke out a living from rocky and infertile soil, Massachusetts had one of the highest literacy rates in the world . . . and democratic participation (if not religious liberty) flourished. The next generation built and sailed ships all over the world, in no small part because they recast the mathematics of navigation. The generation after that managed to sustain their democratic experiment by taking on the greatest sea power in the world.

Hasn’t America’s competitive success always contributed to the attraction of our democratic model? And isn’t anyone else nervous about how China’s economic success lends legitimacy to its autocratic government?

I don’t think we can afford to choose between not knowing much about history, and not knowing much about reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. And maybe it’s nave of me, but I don’t think we should have to choose.

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