The Clare Spark Blog

June 23, 2011

The U.S. History establishment: divided and failing

Gary Nash, my teacher in colonial history at UCLA

This blog continues my survey of the U.S. history curriculum as taught in both public and private schools. Professor Diane Ravitch has given me permission to quote her correspondence with me today, June 23, 2011. Also included are statements on recent testing in U.S. history conducted by the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress, or National Assessment Governing Board). These materials are followed with some comments of my own.

[My first email to DR:] Dear Prof. Ravitch, I have just been reading a publication for which you were “principal writer”, publ. 1990 and copyrighted by the California Department of Education. I also have been studying a 1994 curriculum developed by the NAEP, reflective of the Gary Nash-Joyce Appleby efforts in establishing national history standards.
I am wondering if either of these publications is representative of your current thinking about curriculum K-12? It is not irrelevant that I received my Ph.D. in history at UCLA and am acquainted with both professors Nash and Appleby and know first-hand how they think about U.S. history and politics in general. I do know that the multicultural curriculum was strenuously opposed in the 1990s by conservatives, but it appears to have prevailed, if History News Network is any indication. (They are currently lamenting low scores in the NAEP tests.)
Also, since I see Revel’s _How Democracies Perish_ in the 1990 bibliography and was amazed, I am wondering if that was your idea, and if not, who put it there? (I admit that I greatly enjoyed that book.)
Thanks in advance for any response. I have now read four of your books and have learned a great deal about education reform. In my young adulthood I was a science teacher at the high school level, and was warned when I was at Harvard (Gr. School of Ed.) to be prepared to trash Arthur Bestor! [Bestor was a sharp critic of progressive education. CS] They offered me a second fellowship, this time in guidance, possibly because I fit their child-needs-centered aspirations for the schools. [end first email to Diane Ravitch]

[Ravitch response:] “I was not a member of the National Assessment Governing Board when the US history framework was adopted. I never liked that “3 worlds converge” theme as the opening of US history yet there it was in the NAEP framework. [See].

[In a follow-up letter, I asked Prof. Ravitch if she referred to this convergence model, that I characterized as “vintage Gary Nash” (with whom I had studied at UCLA). Her response: “It was vintage Gary Nash. The three worlds are: Amerindian, Africa and Europe. Traditional histories had started in Europe, looking at the ideas that informed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Founders.” (My emphasis)]

Gary Nash's famous book, cover art

[First Ravitch email, continued:] As a member of the CA framework committee, I tried hard to strike a balance between demands for representation of every imaginable group and a coherent recapitulation of the evolution of American society. It was my contention that the US has a multicultural common culture. I had a large part in making sure that the world history was well-balanced and that students paid attention to human rights abuses in totalitarian countries. I probably did add that Revel book though frankly I don’t remember anymore. I was always very keen on the story of democracy as the unifying theme of US history. I think the CA framework has stood up well over the years.”
What follows is the results of recent testing in history, as conducted by the NAGB:  NAGB report (

The history assessment, a mix of multiple choice and constructed-response questions, was administered by the National Center for Education Statistics to nationally representative samples of public and private school students, including 7,000 fourth graders, 11,800 eighth graders and 12,400 twelfth graders.
Questions were designed to measure students’ knowledge and analytical skills in U.S. history in the context of four historical themes: democracy, including basic principles and core values developed from the American Revolution through the present; culture, focusing on how different racial, ethnic and religious groups interacted and the traditions that resulted; technology, focusing on the transformation of America’s economy from rural frontier to industrial superpower and its impact on society, ideas and the environment; and world role, the movement of America from isolationism to worldwide responsibility.

At grade 4, students who scored at or above the Basic level (73 percent) were likely to be able to interpret a map about the Colonial economy; students scoring at or above Proficient (20 percent) were likely to be able to understand that canals increased trade among states; students scoring at Advanced (2 percent) were likely to be able to explain how machines and factories changed work.

At grade 8, the 69 percent of students scoring at or above Basic were likely to be able to identify a result of Native American-European interaction; the 17 percent at or above Proficient were likely to be able to identify a domestic impact of war; the 1 percent at Advanced were likely to be able to explain two differences between plantations and small farms in the antebellum South.

At grade 12, the 45 percent of students scoring at or above Basic were likely to be able to understand the context of a women’s movement document. The 12 percent who scored at or above Proficient were likely to be able to understand Missouri statehood in the context of sectionalism; and the 1 percent who scored at Advanced were likely to be able to evaluate Civil War arguments. [End, excerpt from NAEB report]

Here is what Diane Ravitch had to say about the NAEP findings in her press release on their website:

“I have been advocating for better history curricula and instruction for the past 25 years. So when I first saw the upward movement in some of the NAEP scores in U.S. history, I felt excited and gratified.

But when I took a closer look at the patterns and the sample questions, I saw less reason for joy.The improvement in fourth-grade U.S. history is concentrated among the lowest-scoring groups, which is good news. But I suspect that the gains reflect an improvement in reading skills, not an improvement in knowledge of history. Fewer than half of the students at this grade level have had more than two hours a week devoted to social studies, which may or may not mean history. More likely, they have learned about a few iconic figures and major holidays. When fourth-grade students were asked to identify a photograph of Abraham Lincoln and give two reasons why he was important in American history, only 9 percent were able to do so. I suspect that many children recognized Lincoln but were not too sure about why he was important.

When children in this grade were asked the meaning of President Kennedy’s famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” about one-half correctly responded that it meant you should “use your skills to help the United States.” I am willing to bet that many more than half the fourth-graders have no idea who President Kennedy was, but about half were able to deduce the correct response by being able to read the question and the possible answers. Similarly, 43 percent of fourth graders correctly answered a multiple-choice question about a quote from Aung San Suu Kyi, the human rights leader in Myanmar. This probably happened not because the students had any idea who she was, but because the answer was contained in the question and the students could read well enough to figure it out.

It should concern us all that twelfth-graders’ knowledge of history has barely changed since 2001. This is found across almost every group that was sampled, including low-performing students, high-performing students, and those in the middle ranges. White high school seniors saw a score gain from 2001 to 2006, but not from 2006 to 2010. Among every other demographic group, average scores have been virtually flat over the past nine years.

History should inform our political decision-making and intelligence. In 2010, seniors were asked about the Brown decision of 1954, which is very likely the most important decision made by the U.S Supreme Court in the past seven decades. Students were given an excerpt including the phrase, “We conclude that in the field of public education separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” NAEP asked, “What social problem was Brown v. Board of Education supposed to correct?” The answer was right in front of them, yet only 2 percent of the students in the sample were able to give a complete answer, and another 26 percent offered only a partial answer. The rest gave an inappropriate response or didn’t answer. This is alarming. Bear in mind that virtually every student takes American history, usually in the eleventh grade.

It’s worth noting that of the seven school subjects tested by NAEP, history has the smallest proportion of students who score Proficient or above in the most recent results available. Among twelfth graders, for example, only 12 percent reach Proficient in U.S. history, compared to 21 percent in science, 24 percent in both civics and writing, 25 percent in geography, 26 percent in mathematics, and 38 percent in reading. As the report explains, Proficient on NAEP means “solid academic performance … [that] demonstrates competency over challenging subject matter.” It expresses the Governing Board’s judgment of what students should know and be able to do in a particular subject and grade, not the current weak averages for grade level performance.

Why does history matter? All of these students will be voters in a year, and almost 40 percent were already eligible to vote when they took the assessment. They will be making decisions in the voting booth that influence our lives. They should be well informed and capable of weighing the contending claims of candidates, especially when the candidates rest their arguments on historical precedent.

The results of this assessment tell us that we as a nation must pay more attention to the teaching of U.S. history. We should make sure that there is time for it in the school day, that those who teach it have a strong history education, that there is time for students to write research papers and to use primary source documents and documentaries, and that schools have the resources they need to engage students in this important study.” [end Ravitch press release]

[My comments on all the above:] In a recent blog on several of Diane Ravitch’s books, I criticized her for putting community cohesion above the search for truth. I honestly do not know where to locate her on the political spectrum other than in the moderate center, for though she is highly critical of the New Left and of black nationalism in The Troubled Crusade (as she was above in her rejection of Gary Nash’s formulation of early colonial history), she does not take her critique to its logical conclusion. In other words, she should be defending the Enlightenment without conceding any value to cultural nationalism. Ravitch is a hard-working historian and her detailed accounts of education history are very useful to me. But as is evident from her continued attempt to reconcile a “common culture” and “multiculturalism,” in a search for “balance,” she betrays the rationalism that she also defends. See, retitled “Diane Ravitch and the Higher Moderation.”

To conclude with some of my own observations on the state-mandated California history curriculum as devised and published in 1990: The thorny historical problems that are presented from kindergarten through the twelfth grade are nowhere accompanied by the understanding of basic economics that would lift the study of U.S. history above the level of “culture”. (It is beyond the scope of this blog to mention the need for basic science as well.) Economics does not enter the curriculum until the second semester of the twelfth grade! Nor is it clear why history and social studies should be joined at the hips, unless it is indeed the objective of the curriculum is to privilege duties to the “community” over an agreed upon set of facts. And undisputed facts are the necessary basis of “rights.” If not, our entire legal system would collapse. Again, I believe that Diane Ravitch is sincere in her advocacy of human rights, but she has, in my view, caved in to the very forces she has criticized so eloquently in the past; e.g. militant black nationalism and/or “The Language Police.”

As Ravitch shows in her press release (reproduced above), her model for community obligation is John Kennedy’s famous inaugural address, in which he passionately reminded a national audience that they owed something (not specified) to their country. For a different model of liberal nationalism, see Charles Sumner’s writings on limited government and the need for a popular education of the highest quality. (See See also, especially the asterisk explaining “cultural syncretism.”

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