Fact Is, Students Have Never Known History Study Reveals Ignorance Of US History, a headline reads. Think it's a story from this week? You're wrong.
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Fact Is, Students Have Never Known History

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Fact Is, Students Have Never Known History

Fact Is, Students Have Never Known History

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LAURA SULLIVAN, host: This week, in response to a whole lot of different things in the news, I called up my high school history teacher, Mrs. Clark.

NANCY CLARK: So I'm Mrs. Clark still, Laura? Will I be Mrs. Clark forever?



SULLIVAN: I hadn't talked to Mrs. Clark for 20 years, but she remembered me, and I sure remembered her.

One of the things I remember so much that you used to do is, you used to tell history like a big, dramatic, giant story, you know...


SULLIVAN: ...that we all got to be sort of on the sidelines of watching. And is that something you did on purpose?

CLARK: Oh, yes, I think I did. And I - it's very gratifying to hear you say that. I think a lot of being a history teacher is being really in love with the subject matter.

SULLIVAN: I called Mrs. Clark, of course, because of the news this week that lesser American history teachers may have something to answer for. Most of their students, a federal study reported, do not know basic historical facts - like why Abraham Lincoln is important, or what problem Brown versus Board of Education solved.

We'll have more from Mrs. Clark in a moment. But first, a line here from an article in the New York Times. It reads: Twenty-five percent of students do not know that Abraham Lincoln was president during the Civil War. Care to take a guess when that article was published? Here's a hint: It wasn't last week.

DR. DIANE RAVITCH: Well, it could probably be in 1943.

SULLIVAN: Diane Ravitch is a historian of education, and she's right. That 1943 article was headlined: "Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshman." Every 10 years or so, you can find almost that exact, same article printed again - like clockwork.

RAVITCH: There is currently a narrative in this country of failure and decline. The fact is, the schools are not in decline. We've seen fairly dramatic improvement in the reading and math skills of our children since the early '70s.

SULLIVAN: There are also tests that come out every few years, that stack American education up against that of other countries. You say the first test of this kind was issued in the mid-1960s.


SULLIVAN: How did we do then?

RAVITCH: We came in last. This is ironic - is, part of the decline narrative is saying, look at these international test scores. The last one came out this past December. We placed in about the middle - we didn't do that well - but the response was gloom and doom.

SULLIVAN: And yet it was an improvement.

RAVITCH: Well, what they didn't seem to realize was, we've never been first in the world in math and science. In the '70s, in the '80s, in the '90s, we have been in the bottom quartile. So when you hear this declinist rhetoric, we have the biggest economy in the world, the most successful economy in the world, the most productive workers, the most inventors. How could all of this success have come from kids who were in the bottom quartile in the international assessments? It suggests to me that there's no connection.

SULLIVAN: Education historian Diane Ravitch. So back to my history teacher, Mrs. Clark. It turns out in a few years, there will be a national assessment test that may be a bit easier on students than this past week's history test. The same federal testing program is going to test them on techno-literacy: how much they know about computers and technology.

DR. STEVEN SCHNEIDER: Well, it's actually a brand-new assessment.

SULLIVAN: Steve Schneider is a senior program director at WestEd, the company developing the framework for the new test.

SCHNEIDER: They've had a national assessment for educational progress in art. They've had it in music. They've had it in English language arts. They've had it in mathematics. They've had it in history. And everyone said, what about technological literacy and engineering, since we're into the 21st century and there's a large global demand for our students to be able to compete in these areas.

SULLIVAN: So we asked Steve Schneider to draw up some sample questions to figure out how a history teacher might do on this new techno-literacy quiz. Mrs. Clark and I took on the challenge.

SCHNEIDER: Trace the evolution of features on an early cell phone compared to current smartphone technologies.

SULLIVAN: All right. So you're saying, how is the early cell phone different than the new cell phone? Mrs. Clark, do you have a cell phone?

CLARK: Well, believe it or not, I have only had a cell phone for the last like, year and a half.



CLARK: But they were just about phone calls in the past. And now, they've got full-on computers in them.

SULLIVAN: And I also sort of remember that you could talk for about three minutes, and then it would go dead.



CLARK: I knew that to be true.

SULLIVAN: What do you think, Steve? Are we close?

SCHNEIDER: You guys are on the right track.


SCHNEIDER: Would you like the next question?

SULLIVAN: Yes, we're ready.

SCHNEIDER: OK. Describe a set of troubleshooting steps that we - would be appropriate for analyzing a problem with a printer.

CLARK: Nah. Call in the tech guy.


That was my number two.


SULLIVAN: A big thanks to Mrs. Clark and Steve Schneider.

You can find more sample questions from the new techno-literacy test on our website, at npr.org.



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