HM - Mar. 2014 - Buxton


 20 Reasons Why Current High School Students Are
Getting Less History Education Than Students Did 10 Years Ago

Jim Buxton
  University of Rhode Island Political Science Dept. / Salve Regina U. Education Dept.

            Before I begin with my arguments regarding my concerns in relation to breadth of content covered in high school United States and World History classes, let me alert you to my background, which will help you appreciate the perspective I feel that I have on this topic.

            For 32 years, I was a Social Studies teacher at South Kingstown High School in Rhode Island.  I taught Psychology, Sociology, Philosophy, “American Citizen in a Changing World,” AP Comparative Politics, Honors International Relations, two levels of US History and two levels of Global Studies. (No, not all at the same time!)   I was named Rhode Island Social Studies Teacher of the Year in 1996.

            Since retiring in 2009, I have taught as an Adjunct in the University of Rhode Island Political Science Department, and as an Adjunct in the Education Department of Salve Regina University.  In this capacity, I have supervised Social Studies student teachers, and through this experience I have been exposed to Social Studies teaching at a variety of Rhode Island high schools.  Hence, I feel like I have a good sense for what Social Studies student teachers are learning, what high school teachers are teaching and what college professors are expecting. 

            The crux of my argument is that there is a major disconnect between what high school Social Studies students are being exposed to and what History and Political Science professors, in mid-level colleges, may be expecting in their incoming students.  It is my belief that this disconnect shows up in many ways.  The area I will be focusing on is the breadth of content disconnect, that would lead many college professors to be shocked by the reduction in prior knowledge in their 2014 students as compared to their 2004 students.  As I am primarily an International Politics teacher at URI, I will be focusing on Global Studies / International Politics illiteracy.

            For the past four years, I have done a polling of my URI students and my Salve Regina students.  I polled approximately 300 URI students and 85 Salve students.  They ranged from Freshmen to Juniors, and approximately a third of them were Political Science or History majors.  I teach a 100 level course in International Politics at URI, and I was curious as to their prior knowledge in this area.  The poll was simple.  It was a list of 36 historical figures or locations.  The students had to indicate the country they were from.  The results were alarming.  I’ll share a bit of the results.  Hopefully, you are as alarmed as I was.

54% correctly answered that Nelson Mandela was from South Africa.

11% correctly answered that Mecca is in Saudi Arabia.

59% correctly answered that Baghdad is in Iraq.

52% answered that Mao Zedong was from China.                 

13% answered that Ayatollah Khomeini was from Iran.

Following are the percentages of students who answered correctly in regard to where the person listed was from:

53% Vladimir Lenin (Russia/USSR)

60% the Taliban (either Afghanistan or Pakistan were correct answers)

11% Yasser Arafat     

4% Mohammed    (a variety of answers were acceptable for the last 2)

18% Ahmadinejad    

68% Fidel Castro                   

62% Joseph Stalin

32% apartheid            

13% Kabul or Hamid Karzai 

16% Hutus and Tutsis

75% Gandhi             

37% Kim il Sung                    

3% Ho Chi Minh

83% Cairo                  

50% where Osama bin Laden was killed

14% Darfur                

47% Saddam Hussein – most common miss was Afghanistan

            Now, I cannot contend that the sample size was sufficient.  The poll would not pass validity and reliability expectations.  However, I hope it brings up some serious questions, and perhaps a more official polling might be initiated. 

            A separate section of the polling asked students to approximate how many class periods they had learned about topics such as South African apartheid, Indian independence, Islam or the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Predictably, there was not very much coverage of global topics.

            My data is admittedly limited, so let me add to it by citing findings from a variety of surveys of American geographical, historical and political literacy.  In a 2002 Roper Public Affairs study, 18-24 year old students in the following countries were surveyed regarding their geographical knowledge:  Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Great Britain, Sweden and the United States.  Students from the US came in next to last, just ahead of those from Mexico.  In that survey, 50% of the US students couldn't accurately place New York on a map, one-third of students couldn't tell you which direction was northwest, and 47% couldn't correctly place India on a world map.   

           In the 2006 National Geographic survey, it was found that 63% of American 18-24 year olds could not find Iraq on a map, and 90% of them could not find Afghanistan on a map.  It is ironic, and deeply disturbing that this was the case considering the hundreds of thousands of troops we had in those countries at the time.  In that same survey, 54% of those surveyed did not know that Sudan was in Africa, this despite the genocide that was raging in that country. 

             In the 2010 NAEP test on historical knowledge, only 12% of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the exam, with 88% falling in the bottom category: Basic.  On that test, only 2% of test takers were able to tell what social problem the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was supposed to resolve. ("US students remain poor at history, tests show"; Sam Dillon; NY Times; 6/14/2011)

             Finally, and most recently, in 2013 Public Policy Polling found that only 39% of those who felt that Benghazi was an extremely important issue could accurately say what country Benghazi was in.

             Does this matter?  Following are some of the campaign gaffes made by a variety of candidates for the Presidency in 2012.  My concern is in regard to whether or not most American college students would pick up the mistakes.

            Michele Bachman said:  “What people recognize is that there's a fear that the United States is in an unstoppable decline. They see the rise of China, the rise of India, the rise of the Soviet Union and our loss militarily going forward….”  (NOTE:  THE SOVIET UNION BROKE UP IN 1991) 

            Herman Cain said that China does not have nuclear weapons (“Yes, they're a military threat. They've indicated that they're trying to develop nuclear capability”), and Michele Bachman said that Iran already had nuclear weapons.  (NOTE: CHINA HAS HAD NUCLEAR WEAPONS SINCE 1964, AND IRAN HAS NOT DEVELOPED NUCLEAR WEAPONS………….YET???)

            If you’d prefer non-Global Studies examples, you’ll remember when Michele Bachmann told the crowd in Concord, New Hampshire that they were in “the state where the shot was heard around the world at Lexington and Concord.”  Another faux pas:  Rick Perry stated there were eight Supreme Court justices, couldn’t remember many of their names and said that the voting age was 21.

            The question I would ask is whether there is a certain amount of historic literacy expected in our citizenry if we are to have a functioning democracy.  The assertion I would make is that the breadth of content covered in high school Social Studies is diminishing, and this reduction has significant implications for our democracy.  I will focus, however, on the implications for professors of History and Political Science. 

            The following is a list of 20 reasons why many college History and Political Science professors might be seeing a reduction in the relevant prior knowledge of their students.  In each section, I will try to acknowledge the possible benefits of each of the well-intentioned initiatives, before I discuss the inevitable costs.  In some cases, I’ll refer you to an article on the subject in my Blog.  (

1)  In high schools, generally, there is less lecturing /fewer teacher presentations/less direct instruction

Benefits:  The old days of lecturing from bell to bell are thankfully over.  Research studies have found that the attention spans of most students are out of sync with 45-minute lectures.  There are many alternatives to the old presentation method.  Cooperative learning, problem-based learning, classroom discussions and more can enhance student interest in the subject being taught. 

Costs:  As much as the above is true, the question we must ask is “are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater?”  Have we reduced presentation time so much that we have significantly reduced attention span.  Add to that the instant gratification of computers, smart phones, Facebook, twittering and more, and is there any surprise that after five minutes of instruction, the eyes of the students are glazing over.  High school teachers then accommodate this phenomenon, massively reducing their lecture time and one of the results is less content coverage.  (Read more on this topic in my 1/5/2014 Blog article, “Are lectures going the way of the do-do bird?)

2)  Student presentations are more common

Benefits:  The ability to communicate is crucial in this information age.

Costs:  If you have 25 students in class, and each one of them does a ten minute presentation (including processing time), that’s over four hours of content that has been forfeited.  Please don’t tell me that students will learn equally well from the content presented by their classmates, vis-à-vis that of their teachers.  If this is true, then why do we pay teachers?          

3)  More time-consuming alternative assessments are being used more frequently

Benefits:  Students can demonstrate what they have learned in a variety of non-traditional ways.  They can create a poster, write a poem, do a power point or create a skit, as opposed to taking a test or writing an essay.

Costs:  Certainly, we would all support the above, but if it’s done too much, does the student get the impression that specific factual information is unimportant.  Does it matter who’s in the opposing trenches, or is the only thing that matters the idea that World War 1 fighting was hell?  Also, is it sufficient for students to do a power point on one aspect of World War I, such as trench warfare, as opposed to being asked to demonstrate knowledge of alliances, causes, the Versailles Treaty, etc. on an objective test?  If so, will they attend fully when we review the causes of World War II?

4)   Cooperative learning in small groups is being used to a much greater extent.

Benefits:  The cooperative learning model involves student cooperation and interdependence to promote tolerance, acceptance of diversity, and development of social skills, as well as academic achievement. 

Costs:  Certainly, we all would support the benefits listed above.  However, one could argue that the more students teach each other in small groups, the less content you will inevitably cover.  Also, there is much less quality control in regard to cooperative learning; some groups may be very dysfunctional.

5) Heterogeneous grouping / "de-tracking

Benefits:  Homogeneous grouping (or tracking) implies dividing students up by ability, so that you might have four levels of US History.  Each level would be taught differently.  One of the major problems with that is that students in the lowest group are stigmatized.  They feel they are labeled as stupid, and as a result they may not try very hard.  Often, the major behavior problems are all grouped together, increasing the levels of distraction in these classrooms.  By creating heterogeneous classrooms, you spread out the educationally and behaviorally challenged.  These students are then in classrooms with students who will more likely pay attention, do their homework and are generally respectful, responsible and curious.

Costs:  If the teacher teaches all 25 kids, with very diverse ability levels, with the same lesson plan, then she will either leave some students behind, or she will be going too slowly for the more advanced students.  Defenders of heterogeneous grouping, will often say that the more advanced can help the less advanced which will help the leadership skills of the more advanced.

                Concern # 1:  If this happens frequently, will the more advanced students be exposed to less content than they would be in a US History A class?

                Concern # 2:  If this happens frequently, should the student “tutors” be paid?

                Anecdote:   I know of a student who was a very good high school Spanish student.  Her love for Spanish was augmented by a couple trips to Latin America.  As much as she loved Spanish class, she would often complain about the slow pace of the heterogeneous class.  She would be driven crazy by Spanish 3 students who still could not pronounce Jose and Juan correctly.  However, it was an easy A, which she appreciated since she was loaded down with AP and Honors classes.   

        In preparation for college, she took the SAT 2 in Spanish, and her essay on her standard college  application was about how trips to Latin America sparked her love of Spanish.  She was very shocked and disappointed when she saw her SAT 2 result, feeling that her score of 500 delegitimized her “love for Spanish” essay, and that it may compromise her college application.   The bottom line question is whether her heterogeneous Spanish class could compete with AP Spanish classes (which her high school did not have). Some argue that heterogeneous classes are a benefit for all students.  If that is true, then why do we have Honors and AP classes?

6)  Differentiated instruction:  Teachers are learning to differentiate instruction in order to teach students with diverse learning styles in the same classroom.

Benefits:  The goal of differentiation is to challenge students of all abilities in the same classroom.   If possible, this would enable the educationally challenged student to be in the same classroom with gifted students, while at the same time challenging the gifted students to attain their highest levels. 

Costs:  This would involve many different lesson plans for each class, and would necessitate a considerable amount of independent and cooperative learning, and would involve much less teacher presentation.  See above for concerns about this.  There may be wonderful learning experiences using these methods; however, the amount of content covered would logically be reduced.

Important note:  The trend toward heterogeneous grouping and differentiated instruction does not affect Honors and AP classes.  AP classes, in particular, have externally imposed curricula, and student success is measured by national standardized tests.  Any attempt to fully move toward heterogeneous groupings across the board, thereby eliminating AP classes, would be met headlong by the parents of AP-eligible students, who would provide the necessary political pressure to head off that movement.  The students who are more likely to be compromised by many of these educational reforms are the “upper middle” students who are not quite capable of success in AP courses.  They are mixed in with the “educationally challenged,” but the AP students are not.

7)  Graduation by Proficiency in many schools involves the production of a Portfolio

Benefits:   In many Rhode Island school districts, students are asked to produce a portfolio to fulfill one of their diploma requirements.  According to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), the portfolio would be a “collection of work that documents a student’s academic performance over time and demonstrates deep content knowledge and applied learning skills.”  For many students who are poor test takers, the portfolio affords them the option of showing their proficiency on Science labs, Math projects or persuasive essays.  This process also ensures that every student will, at some point, produce a lab report that met the standard.  Falling through the cracks would theoretically be less likely.

Costs:  For a significant number of students, more or less depending on the school system, producing a portfolio is seen as a time-consuming, mindless task that does not promote significant learning.  At one Rhode Island high school, students take a semester course in portfolio during each of their four years in high school.  That amount of time may be needed for some, but for others it is a study hall.  For the more advanced student it may be a lost educational opportunity.  Additionally, one might question the degree to which the portfolio represents “deep content knowledge,” considering that the assessment is supposedly the same for all levels of students in the school.

8)  Re-writes

Benefits:  There is a greater emphasis on allowing the student re-write opportunities. Additionally, it is common for 50% of the end-of-course exam to involve applied learning, and students must be afforded re-writes.  The first effort is considered a first draft.

Costs: The time spent doing a second draft is time lost from other educational opportunities.  Perhaps this is needed by some students; however, is it needed by all students?

9)  The introduction of Advisory period into the school day.  

Benefits:  The idea of Advisory period took off after the Columbine massacre.  In an attempt to help certain students to feel less anonymous, it was decided that students would spend a certain amount of time each week in an Advisory period with the same teacher and students for their four years of high school.  There would be lots of discussion and bonding.  There would be no grades.  It would provide a haven for the lost child.  Advisories might be every day for 20 minutes, or three times a week for 30 minutes each, or twice a week for 45 minutes each time.  According to RIDE, there would be “time and opportunity to support student achievement in the academic, career and personal/social domains.”

Costs:  We can all appreciate the need for more personalization in high school, especially in schools with 4,000 students.  However, anything that is added add must be taken from something else.  Clearly, for better or for worse, Advisory reduces classroom time and therefore the breadth of content delivered.

10)  A “Less is more” philosophy is promoted by many in educational circles

Benefits:  When too much content is presented to students, they often learn it for the test and forget it immediately afterwards.  Immersing in a topic provides a much better learning environment.  There is so much to know about World War I.  Wouldn’t it be better if students delved into some aspect they were interested in, such as trench warfare, chemical weapons or the sinking of the Lusitania?  Some argue that it doesn’t matter what you learn, the important thing is that you learn how to learn.  It’s not important that high school students learn about the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Rather, if they learn how to research, they can learn about the Arab-Israeli Conflict when they want to know about it.

Costs:  When students immerse too much, they are deprived of crucial content because they don’t get to many other topics.  Robert Marzano, a well-known educational reformer who wrote The Art and Science of Teaching, proposes a 15-day unit plan on Hiroshima for a US History class.  In the unit, there are only three days when the teacher uses some of the time to do direct instruction regarding the important content.  There is considerable time devoted to pre-assessments and formative assessments, establishing learning goals, creative ways of setting up groups, individual research and sharing of that research, development of a product displaying what students learned, journal reflections, and much more.  The unit plan would take up over 10% of the US History class time for the year.  An important question I would ask is, “What topics were not studied because of all the time spent on Hiroshima?”

                  Another concern I have is that without a significant degree of teacher-led content, students also don’t get enough context to fully appreciate the topic they are immersing in.  For example, can students really understand an article they might read about Israel, if they don’t know what Zionism, the West Bank or the 1947 Partition mean?

11)  For a variety of reasons, there are no national or state US or World History content standards that have been approved.  This is certainly the case in Rhode Island. (For much more on this topic, read my post, “No Common Core US History or World History standards”, which I posted on my Blog, January 8, 2014)

Benefits:  Instead, the Common Core has actually already released skills standards for Social Studies.  There are a set of 10 literacy standards and 10 writing standards that all involve higher-order thinking skills and college and career readiness skills in Social Studies.  (Examples include being able to analyze primary sources, construct arguments when presented with conflicting viewpoints, etc.)  Some argue that these standards will serve as a major push for Social Studies teachers to transcend basic-level facts instruction and embrace a skills-based pedagogy

Costs:  As a result of the focus on skills, teachers will be assessed on their transmission of these skills, and not on their transmission of content.  Certainly, critical analysis skills are absolutely important, but can you critically analyze the gaffes of Michele Bachmann if you don’t have the background knowledge to do so?  According to Penn State Geography Professor Roger Downs, "students aren't learning subjects such as Geography and History as teachers spend more time on Math and Reading in order to accommodate standardized tests."  ("American students appear to be lost in latest study of geographic aptitude"; John Hechinger; Bloomberg News; 7/19/2011

12)  Common Planning Time

Benefits:  According to RIDE, common planning time shall be used by teams of teachers, administrators and other educators for the substantive planning of instruction, looking at student work, addressing student needs, and group professional development.  By the year, 2011-2012, there had to be one hour per week of common planning time at the high school level. 

Costs:  One hour less of student-teacher contact time

13)  “We’re testing more and more, and teaching less and less”

Benefits:  There are many obvious benefits that have been discussed fully.

Costs:  As is commonly heard, “we’re testing more and more, and teaching less and less!”

14)  Block scheduling

Benefits:  Having classes of 90 minutes, rather than 50 minutes, allows for greater depth, and more variation in pedagogy. 

Costs:  Greater depth may very likely reduce breadth.

15)  Very little of a High School Social Studies teacher’s evaluation relates to knowledge of the content.

                  Will content knowledge become less important in the hiring process in the future?

16) Flexible deadlines for homework to be submitted (See my post on my Blog: “Flexible deadlines for student               work”, January 4, 2014)

17) Maximum amount that homework can count for the quarter grade (10 – 15 % is becoming typical). For much            more on this topic, see my post, which I posted to my Blog on January 24, 2014.

18) Textbooks are used much less frequently

                Textbooks are expensive.   More and more Social Studies Departments are choosing against replenishing the texts when they get worn, lost, or out-of-date.  Frequently, teachers only have a classroom copy.  Hence, texts are only used in class, and not for homework.  The result:  less exposure to the massive content in the text, which can be viewed positively and negatively.

19-20)  I’m sure that any History teacher can come up with at least two other reasons.  Please, add to this list!




            Having reviewed the reasons for content reduction in high school in non-AP Social Studies courses, I’d like to make a variety of clarifying statements.

             1)  I taught AP Comparative Politics for 10 years.  My students performed well on the AP test, but I eventually cancelled the program because I thought that the content requirements of the course were too expansive.  Instead, I created an Honors International Relations course where I had more control over the content taught.

            2)  It can certainly be argued that there have been a lot of benefits to getting away from the lecture and fact-based history teaching of the 1950s. 

            3) It can be argued that just because students may have been exposed to more content in the past, it doesn’t necessarily mean they truly learned more information.  Indeed, some would argue that techniques such as cooperative learning, student presentations and alternative assessments may create more internalized learning than the teacher-centered approaches of the past.

            4)  My comments are focused on the kind of students that go to URI.  Therefore, my comments may not apply to Honors-level students or to “educationally disadvantaged students.”

            Whether the reforms are mostly positive or mostly negative, I believe that there are significant implications for History and Political Science college professors:

1) Students will not have as much note-taking experience as students of the past.

2)  Students will have shorter attention spans.  If professors employ a substantial amount of lecturing, they may have to reduce the length of lectures, or make some adjustments in the way they lecture.

3)  Students may have less prior knowledge, and therefore the texts you used in the past may assume prior knowledge that is just not there. 

4)  Students will expect a greater degree of active engagement.

5)  Students may expect alternative assessments and may not appreciate the amount of traditional assessments used in a class.

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” - FDR