Study Finds ‘Troubling’ Lack of U.S. History Knowledge

Published May 13, 2013

Comedian Jay Leno periodically devotes a few minutes of his TV show to “jaywalking” segments, where he and his camera crew take to the streets and quiz passersby about basic historical facts. Most interviewees embarrass themselves by not knowing, for example, the name of the first U.S. president.

Leno’s comical surveys hint at a real problem: The gaping hole in average U.S. history knowledge. The Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank, recently published a paper, “Shortchanging the Future: The Crisis of History and Civics in American Schools,” addressing this issue and where it starts—schools.  

Many Americans know U.S. students’ test scores on subjects like math and reading are low. In civics, however, they’re appalling. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a respected, voluntary nationwide test, 22 percent of students test proficient in civics, and only 18 percent rate proficient in U.S. history.

“American citizenship depends on its citizens sharing some body of knowledge together about the political structure that governs their daily lives,” said report coauthor Sandra Stotsky, who led Massachusetts in developing some of the country’s best education standards in the 1990s.

Reasons for the Decline
Historical knowledge is declining in American schools, according to the paper’s authors, for several reasons. First, schools are devoting less time to history. One reason for this is that students aren’t tested as frequently or widely in civics and history as in other subjects, said Cheryl Miller, manager of the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI’s) citizenship program.

There is also confusion about what American history is. Over the past half-century, the history curriculum trend has been to devote just as much time to “social history,” race, gender, and the achievements of non-Western societies as to Western society and politics, Stotsky said.

“There’s not a lot of consensus about what civic education should be. That’s true of teachers; it’s true of the general public,” Miller said.

AEI recently polled 1,000 teachers on what is most important to teach in history and civics classes. Only 64 percent said high schools should teach students “to understand such concepts as federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances.”

“That [number] is not bad,” Miller said, “but when you think about it, these are social studies teachers: If they’re not teaching it, who is?”

In that poll, only 56 percent of teachers agreed that “By graduation, virtually all students in my high school have carefully read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

Teacher Trouble
Social studies certification does not guarantee a teacher will be prepared to teach history or civics, since the term “social studies” encompasses so much, the report says.  

More specific requirements for teachers are the most important way to improve civic education, said Charles Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education. The center has worked with schools and state boards of education across the country and in more than 80 other countries to improve civics education.

“What’s needed is knowledgeable, skilled, and dedicated teachers who have adequate background in the subject,” he said.

Losing Schools’ Original Purpose
Many Americans have forgotten we have public schools so students can become educated citizens capable of self-government, said study coauthor Robert Pondiscio.

“If you ask people, ‘Why do we send kids to school?’ they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s so kids can get good jobs,'” he said.

Pondiscio finds that troubling. That’s why he recently moved to a new nonprofit called Citizenship First. It aims at “reviving the public purpose of education as citizenship.”

Like Democracy Prep charter schools in Harlem, where Citizenship First will soon operate, some charter schools are developing curricula to address students’ widespread lack of civic knowledge. 

The Pioneer Institute study authors are leery of national history standards, but do propose that states devise “highly rated” standards in history and social science, as in South Carolina, California, and Massachusetts. They also suggest states consider requiring students to pass the U.S. Citizenship Test or a similar assessment to graduate from high school or get into college.


Learn more:
“Shortchanging the Future: The Crisis of History and Civics in American Schools,” Pioneer Institute, April 2013:

Image by Lee Wright.