Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Wolf — I Feel Like the Boy Who Cried This Once Too Often, But He Is At the Door

OK Friends, another day, another disastrous national assessment of what students know about US History. Here is the summary, and here is the link to the page where you can explore the results more carefully, As you can see from the article, the NAEP folks can point to some gains — an inch up in general “proficiency” and within that some improvement for students of color. You know, that is fine and worth not only noticing but investigating — why is it that history education has gotten just a bit better for students of color? That is a tiny sign of hope. But if you move past the headlines and look more carefully through the data your heart breaks.

The killer numbers come in the very same place as we found them in the NAEP Civics and Social Studies results — what percentage of our students, nationwide, score “advanced” — that is to say, 4th graders who can explain how factories changed work (even though I am certain every 4th grade state history covers this, especially in the north and east); 8th graders who can explain two differences between plantations and small farms in the South (even though have studied race, slavery, causes of the Civil War); 12 graders who who can name and define the purpose of the 1763 Proclamation Line (even though they have had US colonial history at least three times by then, not to speak of discussion of Native Americans and how they lost their land back to elementary school) — drum roll — 2%; 1%; 1%. This total failure precisely matches the outcomes we saw in civics and social studies.

In a nation where Race to the Top is the educational credo, where AP and IB classes proliferate, where we have magnet schools and charter schools popping up like day lillies, where supposedly we seek and reward excellence, in this land where, as the Times reported recently, some NYC parents are paying over $30,000 a year to tutors on top of the $30,000+ they pay for private schools, our best students know nothing. We are fooling ourselves, blinding ourselves, by looking at incremental gains in “proficiency.” Sure it is nice if the gread middle budges a bit. But think of what we have lost in silencing, boring, turning off our best students. I simply cannot believe that the % of students in this great land who can learn to think with history, social studies, and civics is in the low single digits. That cannot be. It is such a terrible failure — of our schools, our libraries, are books, our website. Common people — sa the 60s song went — smile on your brother — and convince him to care about history.

What do you all think? What is to be done?


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    So what exactly are we measuring? Recall of facts? Sure it’s good to know information. It’s hard to think without it. But…if we claim to want students to think about facts, to critically examine them, to consider perspective, historical context, to understand that history is constructed, that multiple accounts exists…and more, why aren’t we measuring that? Clearly, we are not good at remembering.

    At the same time, we educators need to be clear about our priorities. I was recently told by a teacher that she would not be able to do any indepth history work until it was time for the yearly nonfiction unit. Really? Nonfiction once a year? Where is the time for indepth study and reflection? Our students will not be reflective, critical, analytic, and responsive until we make this a priority by modeling it for them and being in it with them all year long.

  2. Myra, my thoughts EXACTLY. I’ve been studying the questions for the fourth grade test and they got me crazy. I want to know at one point in the school year the test was given, did the kids study, etc etc. As for the Chicken Little “The sky is falling because they don’t know what Lincoln did” business, as Gary Nash and others have pointed out in various publications over the years, it was ever thus.

    My curriculum is history-centered, but it is deep engagement and not the sort of superficial kind those fourth graders would have had to do well on that assessment. Teaching to this particular test isn’t going to make for better citizens, people, etc etc that I assume is what people want in the long run (or do they just want kids to be able to say what Thanksgiving is about evermore)?

    I have not noticed a focus anywhere on memorizing and retention of facts when people fuss about schooling today. Some of the questions actually asked the kids to think, but far too many of them are simplistic fact-based ones.

    At my school teachers sometimes express SHOCK when a class of fourth graders doesn’t know something in history, say indeed details about Lincoln, and my response is why should they? We don’t do a massive US history survey in third or fourth grade where they’d be exposed to Lincoln and I bet even if we did there still be many who wouldn’t remember. In my opinion what would make them remember would be the sort of deep engagement Myra is talking about and that ain’t gonna happen if they have to be ready for a test with questions such as these.


  3. Marc Aronson says:

    I am rushing this morning so will have to respond in more detail later, but if you read through the NAEP site, the tests to aim to assess deeper thinking and awareness of historical thinking, not just random facts. And I actually do think facts, and 4th graders knowing a bit about, say, Lincoln is both desirable and possible. I see with my own boys that knowing some islands of facts and information sparks curiosity to make connections and find explanations. If you don’t know about Lincoln, you have no ground on which to begin asking questions.

    Again, more later.

  4. “Knowing a bit” is not what I’m interested in helping my fourth graders doing. I want them to be able to take information and grapple with it. Some kids like your boys love facts and retain them easily, others do not. I’ve never been good at memorizing and retaining facts unless they mean something to me. You can have kids read about Lincoln, but the 4th graders like me may not remember a thing about what they read if it didn’t have meaning and they were sufficiently engaged. While they may intend this to encourage deeper thinking too many of the test questions do not support this. I would have to wonder how many adults who have taken plenty of US History as kids would recall and be able to use to take these tests.

    Piling up more content for teachers to have to try to squeeze in is not the answer. Until the powers-that-be are ready to address the sort of problem Myra discribes (of the teacher having one unit a year to “do” history) things are going to change much. The whole thinking with the focus on tests and standards and such is wrongheaded in my humble opinion and as long as teachers are being forced to teach that way, are evaluated on how kids do on tests, etc etc etc things aren’t going to change much, I don’t think.

  5. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I’m with you, Monica. Back in the days when I taught at Little Red Schoolhouse, I was allowed to take my time and develop my students’ understanding of American history. I taught Core, both English and Social Studies, so I could align the readings and writing assignments (English) with the Social Studies (American history) whenever I wanted to. That is the kind of educational planning that builds deep understanding. We need to relearn the importance of indepth learning. It should not only be for children in private schools. It should be for everyone.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    I take issue with the two of you with some hesitation as you are both vastly more experienced in the elementary school classroom than I am. But this all began with the NAEP test. Monica objected that, ala Nash, “it was ever thus” and testing facts does not show much. My concern comes from a place I don’t think you are addressing. The fact that average students perform in average ways does not surprise me. In fact you could make a good argument that we only very recently had the aim of fully educating all Americans, and since the slight nudge up in the middling NAEP scores is in minority populations, things are getting slightly better — and that is encouraging. But my worry is about the best students. Since NAEP includes private and public schools, in various neighborhoods, and segments by a number of indicators including gender, class (as I recall), parents level of education, etc, they are at least aiming to have a sample that includes an accurate % of the very best students. And yet their results show only 1% of 4th. 1% of 8th and 2% of 12th graders at an “advanced” level — where the “advanced” questions they display are hardly the sort of challenges that should stump 99% of students. I do insist that that level of failure to engage, challenge, and inform the very best students at all age levels is disturbing and is very likely a change. I think it has to do with how we devalue history, civics, social studies in our society at large, not just in schools.

    Now as to what needs to happen, sure teaching as Myra did it would be ideal, but the fact that most schools are not allowing for that kind of instruction only begins the challenge posed to us. We have to deal with the educational field we are in, and I do think the NAEP test are at least an indicator, and gauge, of what is taught, valued, and received in classrooms around the country.

    Finally, on facts — Monica, you may say that some kids respond to pure facts, others need context. But it is equally important to note that some kids do not like too much story, narrative, context beyond facts. As you know some kids dislike math problems set in the real world, they want pure numbers, while others prefer a tale of shopping at the store and making change. I think in questioning the value of facts we tend to assume the need for context is “better” and that facts are “dry” or can be described as “mere facts.” And that, while true for some, is not so for others — and remains as a bias that I do not think is examined often enough.

  7. My issue is with the reductiveness of the questions themselves (I took a good hard look at the ones for the 4th grade test) and what they suggest regarding the sort of teaching these children had — dry textbook-based. And basically that is probably the reality given everything else teachers are expected to do — say having to prepare their students for endless math and reading test on which they (the teachers, the school) will be judged.

    Marc, the numbers mean little to me because the test doesn’t even begin to test what I think matters.

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    Monica: two concerns — 1) if, as you correctly suggest, the students have been taught in dry, textbook-based ways geared directly towards this sort of test, and yet only 1% of them have managed to catch on, then that is deeply troubling; by analogy, driver’s ed classes in HS may not be great, but surely we expect more than 1% of kids who complete them to be good (note merely proficient) drivers; 2) deeper down at the NAEP site there is a section on the kind of historical thinking, not just historical facts, they at least aim to capture. Now you may well be able to discern that their aims are not met by their tests — that is your area of expertise, not mine. But clearly the test makers have in mind thinking and process not only isolated facts.

  9. Why is #1 troubling? My whole point is that sort of teaching DOES NOT WORK. So creating a test that encourages textbook teaching and then finding out that only a tiny percentage of the kids scored okay on the test — tells me that both the test and the sort of teaching it promotes is flawed, flawed, flawed.

    And for #2, they may have historical thinking in mind, but they sure aren’t going to get it with the kind of teaching required for questions like the ones on the 4th grade test.

  10. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Here’s another issue. As a teacher I often encountered children, like your son, who are interested in facts about a particular topic. We all know about children’s fascination with dinosaurs and other animals. And while this kind of interest is deeply satisfying and good, it isn’t a curriculum. For curriculum, we need big, overarching ideas that enable children to connect what they are learning into networks of ideas that they can then use for continued thinking and learning.

  11. I’m late to the dinner table for this conversation, but I think the conversation has focused on either/or and the answer is perhaps both/and? We don’t want teachers teaching to a multiple choice test the way they are in reading and math, that’s for sure. We’ve already seen what that has done to school, and it’s a miracle that kids are learning anything in the skill & drill environment.

    The best and the worst thing for social studies and history is that it’s been spared that. The consequence is that few school districts are teaching social studies in the elementary grades in the way that they used to, that integrated curriculum has become this fantasy. I work with many elementary school teachers who have been told by their school leaders that math and reading come first, and science and social studies are LUXURIES, with a half hour a week for each. These core areas are treated like physical education, music, and art have been treated. I’m not surprised if kids aren’t doing well; they don’t have a foundation really beginning until middle school, and it’s a little late to begin then.

    We need robust assessments that really tell us something, and we need, K-12, robust explorations of history that are deep, meaningful, student-centered, and inquiry-based. Real curriculum, as Myra advocates for, real engagement, as Monica advocates for, and real history, as Marc advocates for. There is a “with us or against us” attitude, I find, coming from policy folks in Washington, that we’re up against. If the three of you painted a portrait of what you want to see in the classroom, those portraits would look quite similar, I imagine. So my question is, how do we get Washington to listen? If the answer isn’t “test social studies every year,” because we know that’s not the answer, how do we make history curriculum and instruction relevant on the national agenda and actualize it in schools? How do we make it matter? Let’s not drown in data, but swim towards something.

  12. “We haven’t ever known our past,” Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said last week. “Your kids are no stupider than their grandparents.”

    In this week’s New Yorker:

  13. Marc Aronson says:

    I will read the article — I certainly know Sam and his work but at least the line you have quoted is odd. No one is saying the kids are dumber — my concern is that those 1% advanced responses show that we are not only failing to educate, we are actually preventing our best students from learning. The Bell Curve should not be so low at the top end — those numbers just do not make sense, unless our schools are actively suppressing the interests and ideas of our best students.