HM - Sept. 2014 - Lesh

The History Corner:  Member Viewpoints on History Education


Breaking news:
American Students are Ignorant
of Current Events and American History!

by Bruce Lesh
Franklin High School
Reistertown, Maryland

Unfortunately there is nothing either breaking or newsworthy about this headline or the claims in Jim Buxton’s “20 Reasons Why Current High School Students are Getting Less History Education Than Students Did 10 Years Ago,” (History Matters! March 2014) American educators have seen this headline--in one iteration or another--for almost a century.  Be it Jay Leno’s notorious interviews with random citizens on the street, the quadrennial roll-out of the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in American history, or Warren Hickman’s 1977 article, “The Erosion of History,” in which hewarns of “…the lamentable state of history in our educational system…,” history and social studies teachers are never far from some reminder of how ignorant their former students are of our collective past and lived present (Hickman, 1977).  Yet the reality is that students are no more or less ignorant of their history than they were 25, 50, or 100 years ago. What Mr. Buxton paints as a contemporary crisis of the past decade is in reality the long-term status quo.
As a high school history teacher for twenty-two years I empathize with the frustrations Mr. Buxton finds with the data generated by his undergraduate students. But the simple fact is that teachers of history are quickly coming up on the centennial anniversary of one of the first attempts to psychometrically measure students’ understanding of the past, and Mr. Buxton’s concerns are not new.  In 1917 two educational psychologists sought to determine what it meant to have an historical sense—what does it mean to understand the past after having studied it in K-12 schools? They developed and administered an exam covering what they felt were the most basic facts that constituted an understanding of American history and then administered that test to 1500 students in Texas. The results generated data showing that high school students scored 33% on a multiple-choice exam testing their knowledge of the basic facts of American history (Bell, 1917). Those Texas students in 1917 are remarkably similar to Mr. Buxton’s Rhode Island students in 2014. 

 Sam Wineburg, noted researcher of history education, pointed out in the preface of his seminal work, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, that when you look at a century’s worth of data on student knowledge of American history it does not show a precipitous decline in students’ knowledge. Instead, Wineburg eloquently argues, the data show:

…there has been little appreciable change in students’ historical knowledge over time…the consistency of these results casts doubts on a presumed golden age of fact retention.  Appeals to such an age are more the stuff of national lore and a wistful nostalgia for a time that never was than a reference to a national history whose reality can be found in the documentary record (Wineburg, 2001).

As Wineburg points out, Buxton now joins a long line of history education crisis mongers who lament the false decline from a once-knowledgeable American populace to one teetering on the brink of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.

What I find problematic about Buxton’s article is that he uses the specter of a false crisis in students’ knowledge of the past as an opportunity to attack what he generalizes as across-the-board changes in pedagogy and educational practice. Buxton’s piece utilizes this false crisis of a dramatic ten-year decline in students’ understanding of history and current events to scapegoat modern educational policies that may or may not have a causal, or even correlative, relationship to student knowledge in history and current events.

During my twenty-two years and counting as a high school history teacher the education of American students has undergone significant changes. Yes de-tracking has taken place in an effort to stop the obvious and illegal segregation of minority and special education students into lower-level classes. Differentiated instruction, although almost exclusively in the elementary school setting, has been used to provide an education that is more responsive to students’ individual needs rather than a one-size-fits-all approach that treats every child the same. Advisory periods, particularly in high schools, have attempted to modernize and make more relevant the old school homeroom so that students can make connections within an often-impersonal institution. Indeed, teachers in a few rare instances are afforded the opportunity to plan together so that they can accentuate best practices and increase their collective efficacy. These changes, well intended and often beneficial for students and learning, are in no way related to the long-term reality that students leave our K-12 institutions without a deep knowledge of the “basic facts” of history and current events.  This is not a crisis of recent inception but instead the elephant in the room that all teachers of history--from K-12 through undergraduate education—refuse to recognize. Could many of the pedagogical strategies that Buxton attacks have a pernicious impact on student knowledge of the facts of history? Sure.  But the reality is students’ knowledge of history and current events is simply not in decline.  It was never up, and the irony is that the dismal results we have been measuring since 1917 are in reality tied to a pedagogy that has not changed.

What has not changed, particularly in the high school history classroom, are the instructional practices used to convey the subject matter to students.  In fact, those instructional practices vary little from the ones employed at the outset of the twentieth century.  Even a cursory look at the student survey data from the 2010 administration of the NAEP in U.S. history shows that the majority of student time in high school classrooms is spent “listening to information presented in either video or online formats and that 71% of students read directly from the textbook at least once per week (U.S. History 2010, National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 4, 8, and 12. , 2011).  The notion perpetuated by Mr. Buxton that information is not being delivered from one authoritative voice via lecture, textbook, movie, or the internet and instead being replaced by “group presentations” and “cooperative learning” falls flat when this data is examined. A reduction of the use of the lecture and an increase in student reports is simply not true.  In fact, even in light of the challenges of No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top and Common Core testing, lecturing remains the dominant form of instruction in history classrooms. The notion that student presentations have replaced teacher talk is simply not borne out by the research (Grant, 2003) (S.G. Grant, 2006).

Even the largess of the federal government via the Teaching American History Grant program—to the tune of almost one billion dollars—has not substantially made an impact on the day-to-day instruction in history classrooms. Thousands of teachers participated in professional development workshops that focused on providing teachers more content so they could become more effective in the classroom (Ragland, 2009).  Premised on the false notion that the more teachers know the better they will be in the classroom, the grants exposed teachers to content and, in some cases, the research on historical literacy and engaging historical instruction, but the results are dubious.  The final evaluation of the program finds that teachers enjoyed the workshops they attended, but there was little evidence that the program had an impact on either instructional practices or student learning (Weinstock, 2011).

Mr. Buxton is correct that we do test more in high school.  Many states have a state test in social studies, teachers are held accountable for covering material through the imposition of district-wide pacing guides, and of course testing is central to the College Board’s Advanced Placement program. But the number of states without standardized testing in social studies and/or history far outnumbers the ones that do test. What research demonstrates is that this testing has had an impact on classroom instruction, but it is not as Mr. Buxton laments that “We are testing more and teaching less.” Instead, the testing drive for the paucity of states with testing regimes has increased the need for teachers to lecture so that they can ensure that they have “covered” all the material eligible for testing (Statement on History Assessments, 2011) (S.G. Grant, 2006). The majority of the testing, though, occurs in the realm of Advanced Placement exams. If a high school is to have a robust Advanced Placement program and pass muster with Jay Matthews of the Washington Post, it must grow the number of students sitting for exams.  The subject matter with the most courses offered and thus the potential for increasing the number of students involved and exams being taken: social studies. And guess what, these are intended to be college-level courses which in turn find more teachers lecturing and emphasizing the vocabulary and content that must be recalled for success on the AP exam. In addition, the most common score on an AP exam is a 3—commensurate with about a 50%. Yes, even the lauded Advanced Placement examinations demonstrate not a decline in student understanding of history, but instead sustained mediocrity.

History teachers must realize that with almost 100 years of research documenting students’ lack of interest in the subject matter and consistently dismal results on standardized exams our discipline is in what can best be described as a moment of great opportunity.  Pining for some lost golden age of attentive students absorbing mesmerizing lectures and then eruditely remembering that information for some time in the future is not a path to anywhere productive, nor is it rooted in reality. As a unified group engaged in the same endeavor, teachers of history from elementary school to graduate school must seriously examine our practices in light of the growing body of research on effective practices in the history classroom and actually change the one thing we can control:  How the subject is taught to students so that they are more engaged by the material and thus more likely to increase their understanding of how the past has informed our current world. The crisis, unfortunately, is that we have been teaching history in generally the same manner for centuries, our students do not find it interesting, we have been generating the same dismal results, and our former students consistently offer “boring” as the term to best describe their K-12 history classes (Thelen, 1998). The time has come for the teachers of history of align their practices with the research on history education.  K-12 classroom teachers and former teachers turned university professors and researchers in literacy, psychology, education, and history have been blazing a path that indicates that a different approach to teaching history can alter the continued dismal results that Mr. Buxton finds as he surveys his students.
Bell, C. and McCollum. (1917). "A Study of the Attainment of Pupils in United States History." Journal of Educational Psychology, 8, 257-274.
Grant, S. G. (2003). History Lessons: Teaching, Learning, and Testing in U.S. High School Classrooms. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Hickman, Warren L. (1977). "The Erosion of History." Social Education, 18-22.
Ragland, R. G, and Kelly Woestman. (2009). The Teaching American History Project: Lessons for History Educators and Historians. New York: Routledge.
S.G. Grant, ed. (2006). Measuring History: Cases of State-Level Testing Accross the United States. Greenwich, Connecticut: Information Age Publishing.
Statement on History Assessments. (2011). Retrieved June 28, 2014, from
Thelen, R. R. (1998). The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press.
U.S. History 2010, National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 4, 8, and 12. . (2011). Washington DC: The National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences.
Weinstock, P. (2011). Retrieved June 29, 2014, from
Wineburg, S. (2001). Historical Thinking and Other Unatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Other Works to Consider
  • The Challenge of Rethinking History Education: On Practices, Theories, and Policy, by Bruce VanSledright. Routledge, 2010.
  • Doing History: Investigating With Children in Elementary and Middle Schools, by Linda S. Levstik and Keith C. Barton. Routledge, 2010.
  • Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms, by Sam Wineburg, Daisy Martin and Chauncey Monte-Sano. Teachers College Press, 2012
  • Thinking Like a Historian: Rethinking History Instruction, by Nikki Mandell and Bobbie Malone. Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2008.
  • “Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer?” Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12, by Bruce A. Lesh. Stenhouse Publishers, 2011.
  • “Challenging History: Essential Questions in the Social Studies Classroom,” by Heather Lattimer, 2008. Social Education 72 (6): 326–329.
  •  “What Leads to the Fall of a Great Empire? Using Central Questions to Design Issues-based History Units,” by Edward Caron, 2005. The Social Studies (March/April): 51–60.
  • In Search of America's Past: Learning to Read History in Elementary School, by Bruce VanSledright. Teachers College Press, 2002.
  • Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, edited by Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas and Sam Wineburg. New York University Press, 2001
  • Thinking Historically: Educating Students for the 21st Century, by Stéphane Lévesque. University of Toronto Press, 200.
  • Building Students' Historical Literacies: Learning to Read and Reason with Historical Texts and Evidence, by Jeffery D. Nokes. Routledge, 2012.
  •  “Inquiry, Controversy, and Ambiguous Texts: Learning to Teach Historical Thinking,” by Daisy Martin and Chauncey Monte-Sano. In History Education 101: The Past, Present, and Future of Teacher Preparation. Information Age, 2008.
  • “Lost in Translation: The Use of Primary Sources in Teaching History,” by Laura Westoff. In The Teaching American History Project: Lessons for History Educators and Historians. Routledge, 2009
  • “Teaching the Skill of Contextualizing in History,” by Avishag Reisman and Sam Wineburg, 2008. The Social Studies, 99(5), 202-207.
  • Assessing Historical Thinking and Understanding: Innovative Designs for New Standards, Bruce A. VanSledright, Routledge, 2013.
  • “Beyond the Bubble: New History/Social Studies Assessments for the Common Core,” by Joel Breakstone, Mark Smith and Sam Wineburg, 2013. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(5), 53-57.
  • “New Directions in Assessment: Using Library of Congress Sources to Assess Historical Understanding,” by Sam Wineburg, Mark Smith and Joel Breakstone, 2012. Social Education, 76(6), 288-291.
  • “History circles: The doing of teaching history.” The History Teacher, February 2009 42(2), 191-203 by Sarah Drake Brown.
  • “A systematic approach to improve students’ historical thinking.” The History Teacher, 2003, 36(4), 465-489 by Sarah Drake Brown and Frederick Drake