Despite what Americans have been hearing about the nation’s poor civics literacy, renowned education reformer Diane Ravitch suggests that, on historical subjects at least, civics education may have made “some headway.” She writes in the summer edition of Hoover Digest,
“Yet compare [the results of two 1986 and 2007 surveys] I did, and it appears to me that those interviewed in the [Common Core] telephone sample of 2007 were somewhat better informed than their parent’s generation of 1986…On most questions of a factual nature, the proportion who answered correctly was either higher or the same, seldom lower.”
“So perhaps the pressure to improve history education during the past twenty years has made some headway,” she concludes. Ravitch is co-chair at the non-profit Common Core (CC), which surveyed 12,000 17-year-olds this January.
Among the examples of improvement that Ravitch highlights are
• an 11% increase in the respondents correctly dating the Civil War
• a 7% increase in individuals who can explain the outcome of Brown v. Board of Education.
A look at the 2008 CC study results finds that 75% to 97% of 17-year-olds could correctly identify the following historical events and people (descending order):
• Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech
• The attack on Pearl Harbor’s role in World War II
• Thomas Jefferson as the primary author of the Declaration of Independence
• Plato and Aristotle were Greek Philosophers
• President Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation
• Germany and Japan were America’s major enemies in WWII
• The meaning of “checks and balances”
• Adolph Hitler’s role as Chancellor of Germany during WWII
• George Washington commanded the Revolutionary Army
• Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in North America
Only the first question about Martin Luther King Jr. had a success rate of above 88%.
Respondents earned an average score of 73% on the 22 history questions, compared to an average 57% on the literary quiz.
“Ensuring that all citizens have a shared sense of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech and the attack on Pearl Harbor are a start—but only a very modest one,” writes Frederick Hess in his review of the CC study, titled Still At Risk. “Alone such scattered kernels of awareness constitute no more than a handful of romanticized images flickering in the national consciousness.”
This raises an interesting question. How many of the above facts can be found in popular American movies?
An American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Resident Scholar and the author of the CC study, Hess is more skeptical of the nation’s progress. He writes,
“When it comes to familiarity with major historical events and significant literary accomplishments, America’s seventeen-year-olds fare rather poorly. When asked relatively simple multiple choice questions and graded on a generous scale, teens on the cusp of adulthood earned a D overall. Moreover there is an unsurprising but unfortunate gap between those children born into homes headed by college educated parents and their peers. When it comes to familiarity with the base of knowledge that enables us to engage in conversations and policy, our seventeen-year-olds are barely literate” (emphasis added).
They also get to vote within a year.
Only one Common Core question dealt with the issue of communism, and it asked about the controversy surrounding Senator Joseph McCarthy. According to Hess, only 51% of respondents knew that “the controversy surrounding Senator Joseph R. McCarthy focused on communism.”—and that’s on a multiple-choice quiz.
As Accuracy in Academia has documented, one common mistake in media and academic outlets is to associate Senator McCarthy with the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), even though McCarthy was a senator, and therefore could not have led House activities.
However, the National Education Assessment Program (NAEP) does confirm in its long-term studies, that (as Ravitch argues), history proficiency is making some slight gains. These gains are, however, marginal. Between 1994 and 2006 the average NAEP history scores have increased from 286 points to 290 points (a 1.4% increase).
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.