Eighth graders scored historically low on recent tests of US history and civics known as the Nation’s Report Card.
“History” being significant events in our nation’s past and “civics” encompassing the fundamental knowledge required to understand — or at least interpret — rights and responsibilities associated with American citizenship.
Just 13% of these students met history proficiency standards, meaning 87% could not explain major themes, periods, events, people, ideas or turning points in our nation’s existence.
In civics, only roughly one-fifth attained or exceeded proficiency.
(Those curious about their own ranking can find sample tests here and here.)
These appalling test scores should serve as a wake-up call to every American.
Kids with a compromised sense of national identity become ignorant adults who wield their voices and votes to their own and the collective’s ultimate detriment.
There are troubling signs these scores are not a just one-off due to the pandemic but instead the result of a general devaluation of social studies.
In New York, the State Education Department plans to “pause” the inclusion in school ratings of results from the crucial Regents exams covering US history and government and global history and geography.
Though billed as temporary because some schools canceled these tests during the pandemic, social-studies supporters note similar tests for fifth and eighth graders suspended in 2010 were never reinstated.
How states handle civics education matters. Federal law requires that students be periodically tested in English, math and science but not social studies, which encompasses history and civics.
Test scores influence school funding and, in some jurisdictions, teacher salaries.
Common sense dictates that what is tested directly affects what will be prioritized, if not outright taught.
Yet some teachers confuse their role of conveying knowledge with gatekeeping.
In North Carolina, a group of UNC-Chapel Hill faculty is fighting to prevent passage of a bill requiring aspiring graduates of a community college or UNC constituent institution to take a course in American history or government.
They called it an example of “overreach” that “substitutes ideological force-feeding for the intellectual expertise of faculty.”
Here is what these hoity-toity professors consider ideological force-feeding: Each student must read the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, at least five essays from the Federalist Papers, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Gettysburg Address.
Would-be graduates must also provide a comprehensive overview of the major events and turning points of American history and government. Someone fetch the smelling salts!
While truly astounding, this perspective is hardly isolated. It also reveals another reason civics literacy is falling.
The beliefs and attitudes of teachers themselves can determine whether a child or young adult has any exposure to foundational knowledge.
A 2019 RAND survey of 223 public high-school teachers found that only 43% considered it “essential” for students to be knowledgeable about periods such as the American founding, Civil War and Cold War — a 20% drop from 2010.
There were “significant declines” in percentages of teachers rating as absolutely essential topics like “embracing responsibilities of citizenship; identifying protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights; and understanding such concepts as federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances.”
Small wonder 66% of college students believe that shouting down speakers to stop speech is acceptable.
Twenty-three percent think the use of violence is fine for stopping a campus speech, as a Foundation for Individual Rights in Education survey of students at 159 colleges found in 2021.
Perhaps thanks to this increasing intellectual impoverishment, millennials and Gen Z struggle to even feel proud to live in the United States.
“Something is off. Either we are teaching American history in a way that alienates students or we aren’t teaching it much at all,” Dorothea Wolfson, a director for the Johns Hopkins University Government Program, told me.
“It’s hard for students to become attached to their country if they don’t know its history or the central role they are meant to play in perpetuating it.”
Clearly we must redouble efforts to help young people understand our values and heritage.
One bright spot in a dismal trend is the National Civics Bee. The Daniels Fund, a Denver-based private charitable foundation, partners with local and state chambers of commerce to create competitions with prizes for community middle schoolers to demonstrate their civic knowledge.
It’s not in New York yet but it could be.
It should expand to every community, especially as parents are increasingly realizing teachers may not always be a trustworthy partner for raising confident and educated kids secure in their ability and right to think, feel and speak as they please.
Anneke E. Green is a founding partner of Reach Global Strategies. She served in President George W. Bush’s speechwriting office.