Don’t Know Much About History

The NBC Nightly News had a report last night about kids and their knowledge of American history.  Anyone who cares about either education or history would find the report disturbing and this AP article reported on the same facts:

Just 13 percent of high school seniors who took the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress — called the Nation’s Report Card — showed solid academic performance in American history. The two other grade levels tested didn’t perform much better, with just 22 percent of fourth-grade students and 18 percent of eighth-graders scoring proficient or better.

Beleive it or not, there are some implications to business too.

I should preface this by telling you that I was trained in education (I actually majored in it along with English) and am the husband and father of teachers so I do have an axe to grind here but I think you’ll be happy to grind it along with me.

The AP piece reported on a reason why this situation is:

Education experts say a heavy focus on reading and math under the federal No Child Left Behind law in the last decade has led to lagging performance in other subjects such as history and science.

In other words, teaching to a test while ignoring critical thinking skills?

“We need to make sure other subject like history, science and the arts are not forgotten in our pursuit of the basic skills,” said Diane Ravitch, a research professor at New York University and former U.S. assistant education secretary.

Those subject tend to be contextual.  If we don’t teach critical thinking skills early on…well, this person says it well:

“When the foundation isn’t built in elementary school, these students are coming to middle school lacking crucial skills,” Brodigan said. “What is means is that in what is becoming a more and more global society, American students are more and more at a disadvantage.”

The point is that if we’re to compete globally, we need to get kids to ask questions, to think critically as well as contextually, and to thirst for facts.  Study after study has shown that we care less about facts when we make decisions than we do the opinions of influentials in our lives and the pre-existing “truths” those facts confront.  We’re teaching kids to take tests, not to think.  We’re also the only advanced country that uses a lot of multiple-choice tests to evaluate performance – others use essays and projects.  As these kids enter the workforce, they’re not armed with many of the skills business requires.  That’s something our schools can change but something needs to change in our schools.


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Filed under Huh?, Reality checks

4 responses to “Don’t Know Much About History

  1. This piece needs to be in the NY Times and every newspaper in the country.

    Michael P. Coyne

  2. Spot-on analysis, and thanks for explaining how an inability to think critically is bad for everyone, including business. After all, the old saw about those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it is as true in business as anywhere else. Just look at Detroit’s Big 3 rushing to make gas-efficient cars — is this the late 1970s all over again?

    While we’re at it — couldn’t kids be taught to read (and think critically) by reading history? And science? Maybe even the sports pages (my first reading Jones).

    • Thanks for the great insight, as usual. The sports pages are great for math skills, history, science, and psychology. Maybe we should open a school that only teaches sports??

  3. No child left behind has brought our education system in to a state of disaster. It cacn be turned around but needs quick, aggressive help before it is really too late.

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