This week, history and civics scores across the nation plummeted to record lows among eighth graders. Just 13% of students performed at or above the “proficient” level in U.S. history. It is the latest appalling report on our declining educational system — a matter that should be treated as a national crisis of literally historic proportions. As discussed in prior columns, we are graduating students from high school who cannot proficiently read or do math. School districts have responded by solving the problem by simply lowering standards and eliminating gifted programs. Now we are producing citizens who know little about our history or our values.
The decline has been blamed on the pandemic, though these declines have long plagued our public schools. Nevertheless, the lockdowns had a profound impact on the psychological and intellectual development of our students. While other countries refused to shutdown their schools or go to virtual classrooms, the school districts and teacher unions pushed for closures. In Europe, countries cited ample scientific evidence refuting the need to close schools. However, experts in this country were banned from social media and attacked in the press for raising these studies. The National Education Association and teacher union leaders supported censorship during this period.
What is even more maddening is to hear those who opposed reopening schools, like Randi Weingarten, now insisting that they were really pushing for keeping schools open despite their public statements to the contrary. As the costs of this disastrous decision mount, suddenly no one in education or the media was opposed to in-person classes.
Putting those decisions aside, the drop in scores also reflects a deemphasis on civics and history over the last decade as other subjects have been given greater priority. I have watched with growing alarm the lessons given to my own children in public schools. History often seemed a vehicle for making political or social commentary.
I have been a huge supporter of public schools my whole life. While my parents could afford private schools, they helped form a group to keep white families in the public school system in Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s. They wanted their kids to be part of a diverse school environment. I also sent my kids to public schools for the same reason. I view our public schools as important parts of our society as we shape future citizens.
Now our educational system is dropping in history and civics scores as well as math and English. We are failing our children across the board and undermining a rising generation of citizens. Yet, we are likely to see just another shrug followed by some mumbling about the pandemic. There will also likely be demands for more money despite the unbroken record of failure in many of our public school districts.
These scores once again show how educators and unions are killing public education in this country. They continue to treat families as virtual captives rather than respond to these demands for competence and accountability. Many are voting with their feet and leaving public schools in jurisdictions allowing vouchers or other options.
The drop in civics scores may be even more alarming than the declines in math and English. We can train people for jobs in this new economy. It is far more difficult to shape citizens who have never been taught about the underlying struggle and values that define this nation.
James Madison is often quoted for his statement that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.” What is not widely known is that Madison made that statement in response to a letter from William Taylor Barry, a Kentuckian who wrote him about the effort to create primary and secondary educational programs in his state. Information remains the paramount value in public education as well as the transparency needed to secure it.
In the same way, the farce that is our current educational system is producing a generation of historically illiterate citizens. That can only be a tragedy in the making.