Historians Doomed to Repeat Themselves

April 28, 2020

The public schools might be closed, but based on the country's latest history marks, some kids aren't missing much! In the "Nation's Report Card" from the Department of Education, U.S. scores took another big dive in subjects like history, part of an alarming trend that's prompted the Trump administration to call for "fundamentally rethink[ing] education in America." And the sooner the better, most people say. At the rate things are going, the only civics our kids will know are the Hondas parked out back.

Calling it "disturbing" and "pervasive," federal officials tried to come up with some explanation for the across-the-board failure in most eighth-grade classrooms. Except for the "top performing students," scores in U.S. history were down four points from an already embarrassing mark in 2014. Now, less than a quarter of our country's eighth graders are considered "proficient" in any social science discipline -- and only 15 percent of those can make the grade in U.S. history. We're talking about students who don't know about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the Bill of Rights, or basic global geography, the Washington Examiner laments.

But could these results be coming at the perfect time? Heritage Foundation's Jonathan Butcher believes so. On "Washington Watch" with Sarah Perry, he pointed out that as discouraging as these numbers are, the coronavirus has actually given parents an opportunity to do something about them. For one, he explains, with more students at home, distance-learning, parents are catching on to what their kids are -- and in many cases, aren't -- being taught. By the time children do go back to school in the fall, moms and dads will be a lot more knowledgeable about the gaps in textbooks and classroom lessons. And they'll be able to bring up those issues and concerns with school administrators. "It's one thing to be upset about what you read in the news when you hear about what's being taught in schools. It's another thing to sit at home with your child [and see it for yourself]."

This pandemic has opened the eyes of a lot of parents, especially when it comes to the impact of Common Core and the rampant "teaching-to-the-test" that's overtaken education. And unfortunately, the cycle of underperformance and failure has gone on for so long that we've raised generations of Americans who lack basic knowledge about the country they're living in. Is it any wonder that they don't understand the dangers of socialism or the importance of a constitutional republic? How can they appreciate American exceptionalism if they don't understand where it came from?

And the surveys of current adults, Jonathan says, only shows where these shortcomings lead. The University of Pennsylvania does one, and in it, they ask people what they know about U.S. government. "And it turns out that just under half of respondents to that survey say that they cannot name any branch of government or they can only name one branch together."

Hopefully, as Sarah pointed out, this convergence of at-home learning and these pitiful test scores will force a major change in the public-school landscape. Because, as they both agreed, we need to be able to reach all kids, not just the ones who can afford to find a better option. "There are a lot of kids in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Washington, D.C... [whose] neighborhoods may not be safe. They may be coming from single parent homes. They may not have access to computers." For their sake, Jonathan insists, "we, as thought leaders and advocates [for education], and believers in the ability of every child to have [the same opportunity], need to be talking -- come summer, come fall -- about how we make the experience for those kids just as good as the ones who are attending private schools and charter schools and using K-12 scholarship." At the very least, they deserve a choice -- and a chance.