What would Tom think?
Roger Beckett is executive director of Ashland University's Ashbrook Center, whose mission is to help schools across the country foster more intensive teaching about United States government and history. He spoke to the Trib regarding low history and civics scores in the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress test results released on Wednesday.
Q: On the NAEP test, just 23 percent of students were proficient in civics and only 18 percent were proficient in history. Do those results surprise you?
A: Well, the tests started, I believe, back in 1969 and they've always been low.
What's disappointing is that we've seen (virtually) no improvement over time or, if we see improvement, it's extremely minor.
Q: What is lost when history and civics aren't successfully transferred from one generation to the next?
A: I've always found it significant that the American Founders placed such an emphasis on education. After they created this new system of government, so many of them spent much of the rest of their lives working on education, whether it was Jefferson at the University of Virginia or (John) Adams in what we would now call elementary and secondary schools in Massachusetts.
They saw this important connection between preserving constitutional self-government and making their experiment work, and an educated citizenry. And so what ends up potentially being lost is our ability to have that system of self-government succeed, to have that experiment succeed.
Q: Two years ago, the Obama administration canceled history, civics and geography exams for fourth- and 12th-graders and replaced them with a test on technology and engineering literacy. Did that signal to you that the administration doesn't take history and civics seriously enough?
A: This is an issue that I think that, on a bipartisan basis, our country has been very bad on for quite a long time. So I don't mean to pin down one administration or another.
(But) I would not say that the Obama administration takes the issue seriously. This year, they only tested for history and civics and geography on the eighth-grade level. When these (subjects) were last tested, at least we were testing on the fourth-, eighth- and 12th-grade level.
I think that's a decision that's going to have large effects, because if you aren't testing something these days, the odds are that it's not going to be taught.
Q: Why aren't history and civics a high priority?
A: We've seen such a heavy emphasis on literacy and the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math. I think that's being done at the expense of history and civics education in this country.
It's an unfortunate downward spiral. Momentum is going entirely in the wrong direction.
But I think there are many organizations out there like mine that are interested in raising the profile of this problem and working to raise the profile of various solutions that are out there to try to address this history and civics illiteracy problem that we have in the country.
Q: You're attempting to buck a trend that you've said goes back at least four decades. Are you optimistic this problem can be fixed?
A: Oh, absolutely it can. Just like the good folks who worked on the STEM movement, where they brought attention to that problem and have really worked to change how those subjects are taught in schools, we can do the same thing for history and civics education.
The American experiment in self-government depends on it. So we have to fix this.
Eric Heyl is a Trib Total Media staff writer (412-320-7857 or firstname.lastname@example.org).