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Volume 21, Number 6
November/December 2005

Is History … History?

Standards, accountability, and the future of our nation’s past


Last summer, historian David McCullough garnered headlines across the country when he testified before the U.S. Senate sub-committee on education and early childhood development, decrying the woeful state of history education in American schools.

McCullough, whose latest book, 1776, then topped the best-seller lists, told the subcommittee, “We are raising children who don’t know who George Washington was.”

Charles E. Smith, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, told the subcommittee that assessment reesults show that “the majority of twelfth graders did not know, for example: (1) that the Monroe Doctrine expressed opposition to European colonization in the Americas at the early part of the 19th century; (2) how government spending during the Great Depression affected the economy; and (3) that the Soviet Union was an ally of the U.S. during World War II.”

To those who know the, well, history of debates on the subject, McCullough’s and Smith’s words sounded familiar. Historians have railed at the state of history education for decades. But now a new concern has been added to the mix: the impact of standards and accountability—particularly the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)—on history instruction. While government officials credit NCLB with improving math and reading scores at the elementary level, the federal law has done little to support student achievement in history—and may have actually made things worse.

“Our Worst Subject”

History remains one of the subjects most often required at the high school level. Thirty-four states require students to take U.S. history in order to graduate, and 9 of the 20 states that require students to pass a test to graduate include history or social studies in the test battery.

Nonetheless, U.S. senator (and former secretary of education) Lamar Alexander describes history as “our worst subject.” Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) confirm this view. Students scored lower on the NAEP assessments in history than in any other area. Some 57 percent of twelfth graders performed below the basic level of achievement in history in 2001, the most recent year for which data are available. In 2000, by comparison, 35 percent of twelfth graders performed below the basic level in mathematics, and 47 percent performed at that level in science.

Students in earlier grades performed somewhat better than the twelfth graders. Only 33 percent of fourth graders and 36 percent of eighth graders performed below the basic level in 2001.

In the elementary grades, however, history consistently gets less attention than other subjects. According to a survey of teachers that accompanied the 2001 NAEP, 37 percent of fourth graders spent between one and two hours per week on social studies, 31 percent spent two to three hours, and another 19 percent spent more than three hours. In contrast, 73 percent of fourth graders spent four hours or more per week on mathematics in 2000.

Time spent on social studies may not include much instruction in history, however. “Social studies started with the belief that you could integrate history, geography, economics, and other subjects into a coherent intellectual structure. That never happened,” says Jeffrey Mirel, a professor of educational studies and history at the University of Michigan School of Education. “Instead, what you got was a little bit of history, a little bit of geography, and a little bit of sociology.”

A Shift in Instructional Time

There is some evidence that even this little bit began to erode with the advent of standards-based accountability in the 1990s. Efforts to establish national history standards erupted in controversy in the mid-1990s; in many states, history standards remain weak and have done little to strengthen instruction. The percentage of fourth graders who reported receiving daily instruction in social studies dropped from 49 percent in 1988 to 39 percent in 1998. And a 2000 study of education reform in Washington State found that 45 percent of fourth-grade teachers had decreased the amount of time they spent on social studies over the previous two years, in favor of other subjects featured on standards-based tests.

The decline in time devoted to history and social studies appears to have accelerated in the past few years, since No Child Left Behind attached high stakes to schools’ performance on reading and mathematics tests. In a 2003 survey of principals in four states conducted by the Council for Basic Education (CBE), 29 percent of the elementary principals said the time devoted to instruction in social studies had declined since the enactment of NCLB. The drop was particularly sharp in schools with large enrollments of minority students: almost half of the principals in high-minority schools reported moderate or large decreases in time devoted to social studies.

The study found some differences among the states. Elementary principals in New York State reported an increase in time spent on social studies. New York is one of the few states that has both strong standards in the subject and tests aligned with those standards. In comparison, principals in Maryland, which dropped its elementary social studies test in 2002 in part to comply with NCLB requirements, reported a steep drop in time devoted to the subject.

A national survey commissioned by a Maryland task force on social studies instruction and released earlier this year confirmed the CBE study’s findings. Of the 33 states studied, 16 reported reduced instructional time for social studies in the elementary grades. Only two states, New York and South Carolina, reported an increase in instructional time dedicated to social studies at the elementary level.
“The collapse of history instruction in the first eight grades is a direct result of the pressure caused by NCLB,” says Theodore K. Rabb, a professor of history at Princeton University, who coauthored a recent statement signed by 35 prominent historians on the crisis in history education. The statement called for increased federal funding to improve history teaching and state-wide history assessments.

But Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University and a longstanding critic of the teaching of history, disagrees. “It is disingenuous for history advocates to complain that students are getting more instruction in reading,” she says. “NCLB is not at odds with history education; it is supportive of history education. How can you learn history if you can’t read?”

“Second-Class Status”

What would it take to bolster instruction in history? Jack Bovee, coordinator of K-12 social studies in Collier County, Florida, says testing is essential to ensure that schools pay attention to the subject. He supports a bill, sponsored by Senator Alexander, that would authorize a trial, state-level NAEP assessment in history in up to ten states.

“If no one is held accountable, history will have second-class status in the curriculum,” Bovee says.

Educators like Bovee fear that without a stronger grasp of history, young people will grow up without the knowledge and skills that will enable them to function effectively as citizens in a democracy. Yet historians acknowledge that their discipline has few advocates at the national and state levels. Political leaders have so far failed to take up their cause and make history education a priority. Alexander’s bill has not been scheduled for a vote, and history assessment was not even brought up in the deliberations over No Child Left Behind.

Moreover, NCLB does not offer the level of support for improvement in history instruction that it provides in reading and math. The Reading First program, a part of NCLB, provides states $1 billion a year to train elementary teachers and coaches in research-based reading instruction. By contrast, a federal program to strengthen history instruction provides a paltry $119 million a year.

One reason is that policymakers may consider history an academic luxury. “If the focus is entirely on preparing people for jobs, that encourages a stark utilitarianism in what is demanded of students,” says the University of Michigan’s Mirel. “It’s easy to eliminate subjects like history and literature that don’t seem to have immediate utility in the job market.”

Perhaps more significantly, the low status of history reflects a country where saying something “is history” means that it is gone and forgotten, Mirel notes.

“There’s always been an ahistorical attitude in the United States,” he says. “This is a country looking more to the future than to the past.”

Robert Rothman is a principal associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and the editor of Voices in Urban Education.

For Further Information

For Further Information

Maryland Humanities Council. History and Social Studies Education in Maryland: A Cause for Concern. 2003. Available online at

National Council for History Education. The Crisis in History. 2005. Available online at

C.E. Smith. Testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Education and Early Childhood Development. June 30, 2005.

C. von Zastrow. Academic Atrophy: The Condition of the Liberal Arts in America’s Public Schools. Washington, DC: Council for Basic Education, March 2004.