High School Students Fail to Pass History and Literature - How Can You Help Your Kids Succeed?

Audiences are usually delighted when late night comedy hosts wander onto the street to ask passers by basic history questions. We think it is hysterical when people fail to answer "Who was buried in Grant's Tomb?" or "When was the War of 1812?" The laughter dies however, when one considers a 2008 report produced by Common Core, in which they surveyed a random sampling of 1,200 seventeen year olds across the country. The report revealed some disturbing facts.

Thirty-three percent of the students could not identify the document wherein Americans are guaranteed their freedom of speech. Forty-nine percent could not identify the political party attacked by McCarthyism. A whopping fifty-seven percent could not correctly place the American Civil War within the second half of the nineteenth century, while forty percent didn't know that WWI took place within the first half of the twentieth century. And that was only the beginning.

If, as the report declares, "the first mission of public schooling in a democratic society is to equip every young person for the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship," then our public school system seems to be failing.

So what's to do? Blame our teachers and schools? That's probably not fair. After all, America's schools are over crowed, under funded, and sadly hampered by scholastic standards that put creative and civic instruction on the proverbial back burner. Just today, I spoke with a local high school curriculum coordinator who bemoaned, "I have plenty of content, but no time to teach it." Hardly a surprise when US Department of Education data shows that "the amount of weekly instructional time devoted to history and social studies in grades one to six fell by 22 percent between 1988 and 2004. The amount of time devoted to "English and reading arts" increased substantially during these same years, but there is reason to believe that most or all of this additional time was spent on basic reading skills, not literature."

The Common Core report, which you may read at http://www.commoncore.org/_docs/CCreport_stillatrisk.pdf, did notice that a segment of students who consistently scored higher had a few important aspects of their lives in common. One, they had at least one college educated parent. Two, they were more likely to have read at least one literary book not assigned in school. Three, they were more likely to have visited a museum or attended a cultural event with their family and friends. In other words, parental and family involvement in the cultural and historical education of a child tends to raise that child's grade point average by one level, sometimes two. The report seems to confirm what many parents and teachers have known for years-the love of history and literature begins at home. Knowledge of our past is a gift we receive from our parents when they take the time to share their passions with us.

So what are parents to do if they have no college education? What if they have no money for museums and theatre? What if they work three jobs and only see their kids a few minutes a day? Luckily, quality of time is truly more important than quantity. If you know your kids are studying US History, rent and watch John Adams with them. Ask them what they think of a bunch of rebels deciding to start their own country. You don't need to test them; just expose them to your culture's history and literature and then talk with them about it. If you watch a film about South Africa, be sure to get out a map and let them know where the country is. If they are watching a movie about WWII, look for a timeline that tells them what came before and after. Kids are naturally curious, and parents can't afford to wait for schools to try and cram a lifetime of learning into one semester. If you don't have the time, knowledge, or money, look for a mentor who does. Your community and your kids will thank you for it.

I personally would like to see Historybuster Clubs sprout up across America. What is a Historybuster Club? Designed by a history teacher, Historybusters provides parents with the tools they need to hook their kids on history early, encouraging active learning as well as parental and community involvement in the education of our children.