The National Assessment of Educational Progress has released a report showing that the vast majority of students scored below “proficiency” in American history, with many fourth graders failing to recognize a picture of Abraham Lincoln. Critics say history has been shortchanged due to No Child Left Behind and its focus on math and reading scores. How important is a history education?

Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University; former assistant secretary of education in President George H.W. Bush's administration
Don Schwartz, head of the California Council for History Education, a statewide organization to promote and enhance the teaching of history from kindergarten through university.
Cornelia Orr, executive director, National Assessment Governing Board
Cliff Baker, 8th grade American history teacher at St Paul's Episcopal School in Oakland

  • Kathy

    what incentive do students have to do well on this test? I recall one test a few years ago where high school students were asked to name the shortest route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian ocean: a surprising number answered “I-95”.  Was this ignorance? or a sense of humor?

  • chris in napa

    Another issue here is WHOSE version of history are we to teach?  In Texas they have re-written the curriculum to reflect a extremely conservative version. Here we are re-writing it to reflect the contributions of gays.  

    There are multiple versions of our history floating around, many partisan and biased.  We really should be teaching how to evaluate sources and to think critically about what we are finding.

  • Lee Thé

    Teaching to tests is a terrible problem, but even if it’s solved it doesn’t matter. Kids won’t learn history because both the curriculum and the textbooks nationwide have been designed with only one goal: to avoid offending right wing and left wing pressure groups. The consequence is a curriculum so boring all it really teaches is to hate studying history. Diane Ravitch researched and reported on this in her 2004 book “The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn.”
    If a history teacher tried to teach actual history, or textbook tried to tell the truth, all our political factions would go to war. Few government employees are brave enough to risk that.

  • Beth L.

    History is extremely important and I think it’s great that kids are being tested on this and bringing attention to the problem. However, I can speak for at least California, where I teach elementary kids, and Texas, where I went to public schools: fourth graders do not study American history. Fourth graders study state history, fifth graders study American history, 6th graders study world history;repeat cycle for spiraling instruction. While it is odd that fourth graders cannot recognize Abraham Lincoln (he’s on our money after all; my second graders can name the portraits on coins and bills!), the standards are not there for real history focus before 4th grade.

  • David

    I’ve taught math at all levels for 28 years. One has a chance of teaching math to anyone who can count, which is just  about everyone. So there’s always that ground of student experience to tap. But it has always seemed to me–one who hated history in school and now reads history and current affairs books with hunger–that until one has sufficient history of one’s own, then the student’s direct experience is tenuous, at best. How does a history teacher get around this?

  • sidedish87

    Good Morning,


    While listening to the guest talking  about an increase
    in scores for minorities in history being related to better reading skills I
    did not hear the guest talk about the internet and cell phones. It seems to me
    that the introduction of a powerful tool such as the internet and texting would
    place real immediate value on reading skills and would cause any child with
    access to the internet and cell phones to obtain reading and writing skills.


    Thinking realistically about children in general, they often
    respond well to incentives, and being able to use the internet seems like a
    more powerful incentive to read and write than a teacher trying harder.


    Thank You,

    Oakland, CA

  • Joe_snorkelboy

    Teachers are having kids dress up like Pilgrims and calling it a history lesson.   The fact is that there is too much focus on making it fun, and no emphasis at all on the broad dynamics of “why things happened”.
    I have 5 kids in California public education and even though they attend the best schools in the state (Los Gatos and UCSB) I am disappointed in the tendency to teach facts instead of important dynamics.

  • Lovica

    I was a mostly A student, but never did well in History or Social Studies. Most of my history classes focused on memorizing names and dates, which was near impossible for me without having some context or relevance. I second the notion that we need to connect to the stories behind these important events. Most of the historical information I known now came from reading historical fiction and other literature that sparked an interest in learning more about a specific era or event in history.

  • karen_green

    It is true that we can always improve the way anything is taught but that is not the only problem we have in education.  Why will no one study the relation between the ubiquity of MP3 players and cell phone usage on a students ability to learn.

    • Dana Tierney

      because it’s irrelevant? If a kid wants to listen to music while studying, more power to him/her if it helps. Teachers who take kids’ mp3 players are on an ego trip imho. I’m a parent whose daughter went back to high school for the social scene after years of homeschooling… she thought I was kidding when I told her about teachers like that. Until she met some 😉

      • Cuddlesmom

        Sorry, but I disagree, Dana.  A setting with 30 to 35 kids in a classroom is very different from the home schooling setting. Students rarely listen to music while studying. They have their phones, etc. out to avoid studying and test limits, as should be expected with young people in high school.

        When a teacher takes electronic devices, it is to comply with school policy as well as to limit distractions from the lesson.

      • timholton

        Strongly disagree. How can you think for yourself without a little peace and quiet? Add to that that so much of the music now is pure escapism. Letting kids distract and abstract themselves from what they’re supposed to be learning is irresponsible. They may pick up some points from the material, but simultaneously listening to music sure isn’t helping them ponder it, integrate it and make it their own.

        Multitasking has been roundly criticized by psychologists as inefficient. Letting kids practice it is instilling a very, very bad habit and doing them a disservice.

  • mlmlml

    Your guest mentions what I saw in history classes as I shepherded certain students through their high school classes.No matter if you are an interesting lecturer – the kids have to be asked to discuss the material to stimulate retention. Passive learning will not stick past the midterm tests. Only one of the 5 history classes I was in had this dynamic. Others, I guess, were afraid they would miss covering something on the state test, and followed the textbook format w. canned questionnaires students were expected to fill out. No wonder they don’t care.Science has become textbook pre-training for lab rats, and kids spend much of their time studying complex actions of the cell. The excitement could come from more time spent w the environment and whole animal biology – something the kids can relate to and use in their lives.How to kill a persons love of reading – drill drill drill. If children don’t read on their own for pleasure, they will lose sentence structure and vocabulary not to mention critical thinking.

    • Joel Wang

      Plus, like, also, people who are IN the PUBLIC REALM and who speak like this…not to mention occasionally offering free lessons in American History…really are saying that it’s OK to be remedial and are not doing the educators any favors. 

  • Elizabeth Milos

    I think that few people are aware that there is a small, very conservative body of school board officials in Texas that actually has been given the task of reviewing and approving the nation’s textbooks. The major textbook publishing companies get the Texas school boards to review it because they are one of the largest purchasers of the textbooks.
    That is why we don’t have good textbooks and that is why the textbooks don’t have enough information about Kennedy, Lincoln, and other important people in American History.

  • Chrisco

    On the bright side, there is the famous quote (apparently from Hegel): “The only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.”

    While learning history can be personally enriching, whether we get A’s or F’s it is apparently irrelevant to our behavior. Be it the “Best and the Brightest” or the “Smartest Guys in the Room, we are doomed to repeat history’s mistakes. (See, for instance, Afghanistan and compare to Vietnam.)

  • Ron Macklin

    I wonder why we keep skirting the real issue of why the restrictive goals assigned to schools and teachers is acceptable to any but the one group in American society that benefits the most from an un-informed citizenry. I would argue that this group intentionally see’s to it that Americans are only able to function at a level that provides productive office workers following detailed instructions, rather than people who can think for themselves and would therefore question many of our policies.  Call me crazy, but I believe it is the Oligarchy that runs this nation that has brought us to this point in the education of our young.
    Ron Macklin

    • timholton

      I think you’re right. Ms Ravitch, who I think is terrific, did speak to this toward the end, pointing out the overemphasis on using history for equipping students with economics training rather than the full scope of what it has to offer in building well-rounded citizens, which I took to mean citizens who can think for themselves.

  • Rseyman

    All the analysis presented ( w/which I agree fully) is great but…one factor not
    discussed so far that I believe also has done much to make the teaching of history boring and seem unreal to young Americans is that the real story of American history which arguably centers on the conflict between slave-holding states and the North remains highly divisive.  The political forces of the South,
    especially after the collapse of Reconstruction warred for 100 years against accepting the teaching of the reality.  Then when the Civil Rights movement was successful and led to other changes outlawing discrimination on racial, gender and sexual orientation, the South and other conservative areas saw the rise of private schools and home school in order to continue teaching a very
    narrow, false kind of American history story.   

  • AnnaMarie

    To Diane Ravitch – Are you familiar with the history textbooks and curriculum activities published by TCI – “History Alive”? If so, what is your assessment? We use History Alive in San Francisco public schools grades 6 – 8.

    • Cuddlesmom

      I would also be interested in Ms.Ravitch’s assessment of TCI. I was lucky enough to student teacher under a master teacher who had helped write the MIddle School materials.

      TCI has been a Godsend since then.

      Their materials have helped me to engage many of my most reluntant learners. Their stuff is so much better than the traditional textbook supplementials materials.

      The skill buider placards make it so much easier to get buy in from students that sturggle with reading the text.

  • Tessa

    When I was in school I went from 8th grade to high school with a friend of mine who was neglected when it came to reading, and even now I know little about history except for the little I got in the short period of time I was in high school. I had layers of bad schooling from elementary on, except for a handful of teachers in high school. I was in special education and they really dropped the ball in that section of school if I have anything to say. We should take a page out of other countries books and put equal emphasis on all subjects, and allow those who are capable to advance. 

  • Dana Tierney

    As a parent of two home-schooled kids who went on to college, I’d like to point out that only a very few schools actually encourage critical thinking in their students. Most, and most especially minority inner-city schools, teach little but institutionalization, ie, how to stand in line, follow directions, be on time and sit down and shut up. Of course they don’t teach a critical reading of history. If not afflicted by bad schools most kids do have an interest though — in grade 5 my kid tested off the charts just for being able to explain the role of Queen Victoria. Shrug. The problem is systemic.

  • acf

    Something that has always frustrated me with learning history (in elementary school, middle school, high school, college) is the compulsion to start at the ‘beginning’. The ‘beginning’ has been judged differently by different teachers, the stone age, the big bang, Mesopotamia, but it has always felt very distant and irrelevant to me. I suppose the notion is that history is chronological and to understand the cold war you need to understand the Aztec. A downside other than bronze tools feeling boring and irrelevant has been that very few teachers have ever made it beyond WWII, while most public debate of where we are today and how we got here brings up the Reagan era, the Clinton era, the fall of the Berlin Wall, etc.

    Thus (and I know this is controversial sounding and perhaps silly, on top of which I just though of it) I think history should be taught backwards. Start with an even that the kids were too young to remember, with my 14 year old brother this might be 9/11. Have them interview parents and read news papers and watch moves from then. This will teach them to do primary research. Then move backwards. This way you would automatically start history from a relevant point, and keep building to show the relevance of prior events. If you at the end of their schooling couldn’t spend quite as much time on farming in Mesopotamia, so be it. If the purpose of history is to understand a progression, maybe backwards is the best way to go.

    As my mom said when we talked about this, you don’t start to research your family tree with Genghis Khan.

  • Jazz And Democracy

    In addition to teaching students about America’s classical music (jazz) and using it as an interactive, interdisciplinary lens through which students learn their U.S. History standards, The Jazz & Democracy Project® also addresses what Prof. Ravitch mentioned later in the program re: values and being a person–or a participating member of a democracy–and what this means. It does so through an examination of the process of good jazz and how this mirrors perhaps a healthy democratic process. Check it out at

  • timholton

    Another quote i’ve always liked: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” What got me interested in history (hated it in grade school, ended up majoring in it in college) is discovering that.

    As a culture we’re obsessed with novelty–an obsession rooted fundamentally in status anxiety. This obsession naturally leads to devaluing the study of the past.

  • luhai167

    To be honest, only when I got into AP level history in my sophomore year high school, do I feel that’s I am learning the actual history. Previously, it seems history class in freshmen year as well as in middle school focuses on detailed, but unconnected fact that don’t seems important (and often they aren’t important). There is no discussion about trends, motivations and mechanisms that get us from that seeming foreign period to what we are here and now. 

    (As a side note, having been school in China as well, I feel they are doing a better a job focusing on the “big picture.” However, I think it’s because of necessarily. Had Chinese history been shorter, it’s probably the history teaching there will be just as if not more “event and fact driven” than how history is taught in US. )  

  • sammi_l

    I’m not sure whether students in that age can have the capacity to understand the American history. Is it too hard for them to understand the concept of wars and people dying for their countries? Also with the diversity in school, can students accept the fact that our past can be bad and good without judging each other?

    Keeping the young students to be interested in history is very important. I started taking history classes in the 7th grade and it just totally blew me off. I tried to avoid it as much as I could. However, now, I really like reading about the history. Even now I’m a PhD student in Computer Science and doing research in computer networks, I have to understand in the past how the Internet was designed and how we can improve it. I find it is interesting because it is totally related to us. (Think about recently we are running out of IPv4 addresses.) If we can teach our students about how to think (critical thinking) and how the history affects us today, it definitely helps them to understand who they are in the history and in the society.

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