Scott MacKay Commentary: Time to Test Public School Students On History?

Mar 18, 2016

As the presidential candidates trade barbs on television, and parents worry about whether the result is "family-friendly" viewing, RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says the dialogue could be improved if Americans were better educated about history and civics.

Senator  Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying that voters are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

The late New York senator’s dictum has more relevance than ever as we watch a presidential sweepstakes that has provided more heat than light among both Democrats and, particularly, Republicans.

It too often appears as if voters and some political journalists have lost a sense of the American past and how it informs the present. History is not important merely as a dry recitation of facts and dates. It’s crucial as a discipline that teaches critical thinking, the use of primary sources and how to make coherent arguments based on evidence. The past will always be open to interpretation – this is how new generations see history in novel ways.

Our 21st century public education system emphasizes testing and training students for the workplace. The testing regime is focused on such subjects as math and English, but not  history or civics. It’s great to better prepare the young for jobs.

But we should not lose sight of a basic purpose of public education – to teach students to be active citizens, with a grounding in the rights and responsibilities of our democracy. Our quandary in education these days is the reality that if a subject isn’t tested, it isn’t taught properly or extensively.

The lack of focus on history and civics in our schools has been lamented by both public school teachers and college professors. Luther Spoehr, who teaches the history of American education at Brown University, says that even on his Ivy League campus historical illiteracy is rampant. He says he’s astounded by the number of students who don’t know what the New Deal was about or who was president during its era in the 1930s.

If the erosion of history teaching is related to the `what’s taught is what’s tested’ attitude, we can change. An idea floated recently former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential  candidate Michael Dukakis may have some traction.

Dukakis cites national testing showing a deficit in historical learning among high school students. He is calling on the Bay State to revive a requirement that a student pass a U.S. History MCAS test to graduate from high school.

Results from the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that just 23 percent of American eighth-graders scored proficient or better in civics and a mere 18 percent were proficient in U.S. history.

Massachusetts actually had a plan to test history, but it was scuttled during the 2008 recession due to the $2.4 million cost of administering the test.

Rhode Island is a fertile state in which to revive history teaching. Our compact state has arguably the nation’s best record of chronicling and documenting historic sites. For a small investment, the state could ensure that students get to experience such important sites as the colonial buildings of Benefit Street, the immigrant experience featured at Woonsocket’s Museum of Work and Culture and the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution at Slater Mill in Pawtucket.

The Rhode Island Historical Society is working with public schools through its Anchor School program. The society picks one school district each year to give teachers training in Rhode  Island history. This year the society is working with the Burrrillville School Department.

Teaching history can start in early grades. In Kindergarten and First Grade, kids learn about the differences between how we live today compared to how they lived centuries ago. A trip to Bristol’s Coggeshall Farm Museum shows a hands-on view of animal husbandry and salt marsh farming from the 1790s.

What good does it do our state to have such wonderful history teaching sites if school children aren’t getting there? And how can we assess student progress on what they know about the development of American society?

If what’s tested is really what’s taught, maybe it’s time to require students to have some basic understanding about the ideals and journey of state and nation.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org