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Planting Cut Flowers or: U.S. History: American Students’ Worst Subject

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June 30, 2011 02:15 pm


“Trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.”

Those were the words of former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, as relayed by historian and author David McCullough in June 2005 testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Subcommittee on Education and Early Childhood Development.

McCullough’s testimony was part of a hearing entitled “U.S. History: Our Worst Subject.” Judging by the various results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, U.S. history continues to be American students’ worst subject.

As shown in the graph to the right, the percentage of eighth- and twelfth-grade students who scored at our above proficient on the most recent Nation’s Report Cards in history (2010), math (2009), reading (2009), and science (2009) continues to be extremely low. However, the results for U.S. history are even more discouraging. According to the results released earlier this month, only 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of twelfth-graders scored at or above proficient.

Why are American students performing so poorly in U.S. history? Has the focus on math and reading left high school seniors lacking in the knowledge and skills critical to the responsibilities of citizenship? What actions can be taken to improve results on the U.S. history and civics assessments?

On Wednesday, July 6, at 3:00 p.m., ET, the Alliance for Excellent Education will hold a webinar that will answer these questions and more. The webinar will feature Dr. Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, Kelly Kovacic, California’s 2010 Teacher of the Year and an Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history and AP U.S. government teacher at the Preuss School, a public charter school in San Diego, Dr. Cornelia Orr, executive director of NAGB, and Bob Wise, president of the Alliance and former governor of West Virginia. The webinar will also provide an opportunity for speakers to address questions submitted by viewers across the country.

Register and submit questions for the webinar at Or, if you’d like, you can also submit questions–or pose answers to America’s weakness in history–in the comments section below.

Before you go, I’d encourage you to watch David McCullough’s testimony from the June 2005 hearing. Here are some short tidbits from McCullough’s testimony. Video from the entire hearing is embedded below the quotes. McCullough’s testimony begins at the 12:22 point. The volume is a little on the soft side, so you may need to turn up your speakers a little bit.

“If we raise generation after generation of young Americans who are historically illerate, we runing a terrible risk for this country.”

“Will knowing history make one a better citizen? Absolutely. Will knowing history give us a sense of who we are and how we got to be where we are and why we are the way we are? Absolutely. But history is also a source of pleasure, it is a source of infinite pleasure, the way art and music and literature are. And to deny our children that pleasure is to deny them a means of extending and enlarging the experience of being alive.”


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