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No mystery about low scores in history
National scores in U.S. History have dropped to their lowest level ever. How can we turn it around?
Originally published in the Moultrie News.
I read that national scores in U.S. History are at the lowest point ever. With a son entering elementary school, I’m worried he may not receive a quality education in history. How can we improve these scores?
The drop is recorded in the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results. NAEP—the gold standard for national education scores—reported that 8th graders attained historically (no pun intended) low scores in U.S. History, the lowest since testing began late last century. A whopping 40% of 8th graders scored below the “basic” level, while just 13% performed at or above "proficient.” These scores have been trending downward for years.
We can only theorize about how to reverse the decline, but a few changes would seem likely to help:
We could stop the trend of educators veering away from teaching facts and knowledge. Administrators argue such basics aren’t needed because kids can just use Google or ask A.I. for them. In history courses, the new emphasis is on analyzing maps and graphs, debating historical decisions, glossing over various “themes”, and investigating niche topics. If students are spending a week researching a Data-Based Question like “Was Andrew Carnegie a hero?” (an actual example), there isn’t time for fact-based dives into the Barbary Pirates or the War of 1812.
Kids could start reading about history again. According to a recent RAND study, just 16% of elementary social studies teachers work from a textbook. What happened to that “read to learn” thing?
We could pull the plug on grading reforms that undermine learning. Reforms like not assigning homework, allowing kids to retake or correct their tests, and disallowing any grades lower than 50 do not hold kids accountable for learning anything.
We could stop discouraging quality direct instruction, a policy that has been especially hard on history courses. In place of teacher-to-pupil teaching, administrators demand student-to-student activities. Yes, some skills can be fostered this way under optimal conditions, but basic knowledge—like history—is stymied by the process. In general, knowledge and information are transferred from things that have it (like teachers and books) to things that don’t (like middle schoolers). It can’t be transferred from one uneducated student to another; that’s the blind leading the blind. Celebrity educators who admonish teachers that “90% of the talking in your classes should be done by the students” may be garnering likes on social media, but they’re shooting blanks in the classroom.
We could get back to holding high expectations for every child. It’s notable that history scores for the highest students haven’t changed, while scores for lower-performing students have dropped dramatically. That may be the result of lower-level classes being watered down to near-zero expectations. Teachers and administrators who don’t believe that lower-achieving kids can learn basic content have so diminished accountability and requirements that children don’t have to learn anything to pass.
We could make classrooms safe, orderly, and respectful environments. The documented decline in school discipline has made learning a struggle. In classes where students have little regard for teachers, rules, content, or classmates, kids can’t achieve, and teachers can’t teach, especially in difficult-to-master courses like history.
We could start respecting history as a subject again. Because state testing usually emphasizes reading and math, many schools de-emphasize science and history. The RAND study showed that 32% of 8th graders don’t even take a history course.
More parents could instill in their children a desire to learn history (and all subjects). The influence and isolation of phones have increased student apathy. Kids who aren’t curious and don’t care about education don’t learn. Teachers have always searched for the alchemy that can make apathetic students care, but until we find it, we need cooperation from parents.
Cicero said, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” Based on that standard, the drop in history scores indicates an entire generation is in peril of never maturing. The consequences of that, should we be unable to turn it around, would undoubtedly make history for all the wrong reasons.
Read the original column here.
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