No Subject Left Behind

Friday, June 27, 2008
How to stick up for subjects that fewer and fewer students get a chance to learn

A recent Harris poll asked the public to identify the best presidents in history. The top ten, ranked by adding the votes for best and second-best, were Lincoln, Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy, Washington, Clinton, Jefferson, Truman, Theodore Roosevelt, and George W. Bush. Not surprising, historians would choose a different list. Clearly, some of the names appear near the top because of celebrity or familiarity rather than any generally recognized attributes of

Admittedly, concern about whether Americans know much about history, geography, economics, civics, the sciences, mathematics, or the arts is a hardy perennial. In 1987, I co-wrote a book with Hoover senior fellow Chester E. Finn Jr. titled What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? It was a report on the first national assessment of history and literature, which was administered to a national sample of high school seniors in 1986 by a federal agency (the National Assessment of Educational Progress); almost all the test takers had recently finished or were completing a one-year course in U.S. history. The results were unimpressive, to say the least, and the book got a lot of attention. Its purpose was to persuade state and local officials to increase instructional time for these subjects, as well as to lend support to other advocates of these subjects.

In the intervening years, there has been quite a lot of support for history education. One thinks of the National Council for History Education, National History Day, the Gilder-Lehrman Institute, the K –12 history frameworks adopted by California and Massachusetts, various programs sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, and a host of other valuable initiatives led by historians and their allies.

But today, the time available for history—like other subjects—is being squeezed by legislative efforts to boost reading and math skills in grades three through eight, along with the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects in middle schools and high schools.

How to stick up for subjects that fewer and fewer students get a chance to learn

To counter these trends, an organization called Common Core was launched on February 26 in Washington, D.C., to stand up for subjects ne-
glected by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation and by pending STEM legislation. The shortchanged areas include history, literature, the sciences, the arts, geography, civics, even recess (although recess is not a subject, it is a necessary break in the school day that seems to be shrinking or disappearing in some districts). I serve as co-chair of Common Core with Toni Cortese, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.

To call attention to the problems, we commissioned an abbreviated reprise of questions asked in the 1986 NAEP assessment of history and literature. The results from 1986 and 2007 are not strictly comparable, for all sorts of methodological reasons that are detailed in the brief report by Frederick Hess. (Read “Still at Risk: What Students Don’t Know, Even Now” at,filter.all/pub_detail.asp.)

Yet compare them I did, and it appears to me that those interviewed in the telephone sample of 2007 were somewhat better informed than their parents ’ generation of 1986. In 1986, only 32 percent knew that the American Civil War took place between 1850 and 1900 (this was not a trick question); now, 43 percent do. In 1986, 64 percent could identify the main holding of the Brown v. Board of Education decision; now, 71 percent can. 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.

A number of terrific educators agreed to join the board of Common Core because they are concerned about strengthening the subjects that have been ignored by federal legislation and that are at risk of being diminished. Among the board members are Pascal Forgione, the superintendent of schools in Austin; Joy Hakim, author; Richard Kessler, executive director of the Center for Arts Education in New York City; Barbara Byrd-Bennett, former superintendent of the Cleveland schools; Juan Rangel, head of the United Neighborhood Organizations in Chicago; Lorraine Griffiths, exemplary North Carolina teacher; and Harvey Klehr of Emory University.

No Child Left Behind is not uniquely responsible for causing a lack of knowledge of history. The 1986 survey demonstrates that the problems of “I don’t know” existed long before NCLB. It is increasingly clear, however, that the law’s relentless focus on raising scores in the basic skills of reading and math has had the effect of reducing time for all other studies.

The board of CC is not opposed to testing. The members view it as a necessary but not sufficient part of education. I cannot now speak for the board, but I would prefer to see the development and implementation of more thoughtful kinds of testing than those in general use. In particular, I would hope for new tests that call on students to describe, analyze, explain, and demonstrate what they know and can do, not just ask them to pick a bubble.

I am also concerned that NCLB’s intense emphasis on testing and basic skills inevitably narrows the curriculum. Defenders of the law say this has not happened, but it is inevitable. There are only so many minutes in the school day, and when the time devoted to basic skills and to testing and test preparation expands, other subjects must shrink or disappear. When only test scores of reading and math count toward the rating of the school and the bonuses of teachers and principals, then a disproportionate amount of school time will be devoted to them.

So where does that leave history education and the future of literature, the arts, and all the other subjects left out by today ’s policy makers? Is the answer to test them all? I would say no. With so many tests, there would be no time for instruction or reading or projects or discussion or activities.

School reform is dominated by the language of management and productivity. That may be appropriate in the business world but not in education, where the tests are not accurate enough to carry the rewards, sanctions, and importance attached to them by the federal government and the states. The people in the driver ’s seats mistakenly think they are running a business, with a bottom line. They forget —or maybe they never knew—that our schools are responsible for educating future citizens who will need and use far more than basic skills.