Assessing Common Core’s History Doomsday Survey

I commented on this survey a few days ago.  In that post I called for some historical perspective that could help us better understand the supposed lack of historical awareness among teenagers.  Diane Ravitch – who serves as co-chair for Common Core – has an interesting article at HNN in which she compares their results with a survey she helped prepare back in 1986.  Ravitch admits that the surveys are "not strictly comparable":

Yet, compare them I did, and it appears to me that the telephone sample of 2007 were somewhat better informed than their parents’ generation of 1986. In 1986, only 32% knew that the American Civil War occurred in the half-century between 1850-1900 (this was NOT a trick question!); now, 43% do. In 1986, 64% could identify the main holding of the Brown v. Board of Education decision; now, 71% 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 over the past 20 years was making some headway.

I recommend reading the entire article as Ravitch offers thoughtful commentary on the state of history education today. 

2 comments… add one
  • Kevin,
    On this topic, see the interview with Sam Wineburg at Historically Speaking, Jan 2006. I’ve posted an excerpt of the discussion below. I think it captures the problems of the persistent chicken little approach. I haven’t read Wineburg’s full book – I have it on order but what he says strikes me as a lot more accurate and useful than Ravitch’s latest.

    Lucas: A lot of people recently have been complaining about the lack of historical knowledge on the part of both high school and college students. Was there a time when people were satisfied with the degree to which American students knew their history?

    Wineburg: Let me give you a quote: “Surely a grade of 33 out of 100 of the most basic facts of American history is not a grade of which any high school can be proud.” Did this come from the 1987 National Assessment of Educational Progress report by Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn? Did it come from the 1976 bicentennial test that Bernard Bailyn did with the New York Times or the one that Allan Nevins did in 1942? No. This is a quote from a study done in Texas high schools by J. Carleton Bell and D.P. McCollum, published in the 1917 Journal of Educational Psychology. It was the first large-scale factual test of American history that we have in American education. Think about who went to high school in Texas in 1915 and 1916; only 10% of the population, the elite, and yet they scored horribly on this test.

    There is something almost comical about a group of adults wringing their hands, yearning for a time that never was. I published an article in the Journal of American History in March 2004 called “Crazy for History” where I challenge the soothsayers of the historical profession: show me the money; show me the evidence. David McCullough, who continues to sell this canard, is simply wrong. He cannot adduce the documents to prove his point. It’s quite ironic to listen to historians who claim that the basis of historical thinking is evidentiary, except when they go on the rostrums and make policy pronouncements, at which point—whether it’s Sean Wilentz writing in the New York Times or McCullough testifying before Congress—they seem to feel that they’re absolved from providing the warrants for their claims.

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  • Hi Aaron, — Nice to hear from you on this one. Thanks for the quotes. I really need to read Wineburg’s book too. It is striking how little historical analysis is carried out in these history surveys. And its worse when its historians of the caliber of McCullough who fail to provide it.

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