15 June 2011

Are America's children doomed?

George Santayana's famous quote referred to "those who do not LEARN from history," not those who do not KNOW historical facts (which may not be the same thing), but a recent survey suggests that many American children fall into the latter category. From a StarTribune report:
U.S. students are less proficient in their nation's history than in any other subject, according to results of a nationwide test released Tuesday, with most fourth-graders unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure and few high school seniors able to identify the issue at the heart of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling...

Diane Ravitch, an education historian who was invited by the National Assessment's governing board to review the results, said she was particularly disturbed that only 2 percent of 12th-graders correctly answered the question concerning Brown v. Board of Education, which she called "very likely the most important decision" of the U.S. Supreme Court in the past seven decades.

Students were given an excerpt -- including the passage "We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" -- and were asked what social problem the 1954 ruling was supposed to correct...

The tests were given last spring to a representative sample of 7,000 fourth-graders, 11,800 eighth-graders and 12,400 12th-graders nationwide.

History is one of eight subjects -- the others are math, reading, science, writing, civics, geography and economics -- covered by the assessment program, which is also known as the Nation's Report Card...
And this from the WSJ coverage:
The overall lackluster performance is certain to revive the debate about whether history and other subjects, such as science and art, are being pushed out of the curriculum because of the focus on math and reading demanded under the No Child Left Behind federal education law. The federal law mandates that students be tested in math and reading...
A few sample questions are available at each link.


  1. Brown vs Board of Education the most important Supreme Court decision of the twentieth century?


    These kids are taught little about our Founders other than that they were evil men who owned slaves. How sad. They laid the ground work to end slavery. History must be considered in the context of the times. Our public school system is an abject failure.

  2. Seems to me kids could improve their reading skills by reading history.

  3. I'll bite, Dan. What IS the most important Supreme Court decision of the 20th Century (or past 70 years)?

  4. @Dan:

    Brown vs Board of Education might not be the most important decision handed down by the Supreme Court in the past 70 years; however, it's certainly right up there in the top 5 no matter who puts the list together. And it's certainly not absurd to place it at number one, especially since it fundamentally changed the lives and childhood experiences of almost every American born since 1950 who attended any type of public school. I'll echo the last poster: what in your opinion was so much more important?

  5. FWIW, apparently the Brown v. Board question required an essay response; it wasn't multiple-guess.

    Here's the complete question:

    "'To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority . . . that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. . . .
    We conclude that in the field of public education separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.'

    "Based on the quotation and your knowledge of history, describe the conditions that this 1954 decision was designed to correct. Be as specific as possible in your answer."

    One student responded:

    "It was designed to correct segregation in schools."

    This was marked incorrect because it was insufficiently detailed. But it's clear the kid knew what the decision was. Maybe not specifying "public schools" was considered too big a lapse.

    It's obviously not good that 98 percent of 12th graders didn't give adequate answers, but there was some element of judgment on the part of those evaluating the responses. Not quite as bad as if 98 percent had checked the wrong multiple-guess answer.

    --Swift Loris

  6. I'll add in (I'm the 1st anonymous) my top five quick picks off the top of my head:

    Rove v. Wade (abortion)

    Brown v. Board of Ed. (segregation)

    Lawrence v. TX (gay rights)

    NYT v. US (freedom of press, but the good stuff is actually all just dicta)

    Korematsu v. US (not the outcome, but applying strict scrutiny to governmental racial discrimination)

  7. These debates solve nothing, because everybody has different views on what kids should learn. I personally do not necessarily see failure in not knowing a particular court case.

    I witness one of the main problems in the fact that adults do not see the irony in bemoaning the fact children forced to go to school under threat of incarceration (to them or their parents) do not sufficiently know certain salient facts about slavery in America. Hello?

  8. I work in the library of a community college. Just this week a student who was trying to find a topic for a paper on pre-1877 America asked if she could do it on world war II. That sort of thing isn't all that unusual.

  9. No Child Left Behind might have been well-intentioned, but that's about all that can be said for it. Metrics like tests are supposed to give a general idea of progress, they're not supposed to be an end in themselves. But nooo, if your school doesn't get a high enough score, we're going to motivate you by cutting your budget further and increasing class sizes. That's sure to make things better.

    The result is that schools have to teach to the test, which may result in higher scores but is one of the least effective forms of learning overall. No child's left behind, but only because they're putting the brakes on everyone.

    (My husband's a teacher. Can you tell I feel strongly on this topic?)

  10. In resonse to anonymous v Dan



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...