History takes a back seat

Monday, September 18, 2006
Jackson High School sophomores Alexis Bogenpohl, Matt Brown, Josh Cooley and Brian Crook took notes during history class Friday. (Don Frazier)

Missouri schools and those in most other states get failing grades when it comes to teaching world history, a new study reports.

Missouri scored an "F" on the study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, ranking only ahead of Iowa and Rhode Island in teaching world history.

The Washington, D.C., educational reform organization concludes that most of America's schools don't even try to provide students with a solid grounding in world history.

Students in most states, the study says, don't know about Simon Bolivar, the general for whom Bolivia is named.

Only eight states -- California, Massachusetts, Virginia, Indiana, Georgia, New York, Minnesota and South Carolina -- earned an "A."

Most schools largely ignore Latin American history, said Walter Mead, a historian at the Council on Foreign Relations who headed up the study.

"At a time when we're in the middle of a great national debate about how to assimilate the massive influx of immigrants from Latin America it's unconscionable that the states would consider a student well-educated without knowing much of anything about the history of this region," he wrote.

Local school officials insist that they aren't ignoring world history. At the public high schools in Cape Girardeau, Jackson and Scott City, sophomores take a class in world history.

Jackson High School juniors Cassie Kamp and David Law said their world history class focused largely on European history.

Kamp said the curriculum focused largely on world history, beginning in the 18th century.

Law would have liked the course to include ancient history. "We didn't touch on that at all," he said.

He'd like to see schools teach more world history.

Kamp said world history gives students a better understanding of different cultures and international events.

Missouri's public schools address various world history themes as part of social studies in sixth grade. The Cape Girardeau School District's curriculum, for example, includes lessons on Greek and Roman civilizations, historic African empires and native Latin American cultures, school officials said.

But local and state education officials admit that the increasing focus in Missouri to have students score well on the Missouri Assessment Program tests in communication arts, math and soon science has led schools to put less emphasis on history.

Some schools still give a social studies Missouri Assessment Program test. But schools aren't required to do so and those that do must pay the cost of the testing. The cost currently amounts to $9.25 per student tested.

"The legislature hasn't given us any money to give that test," said Bill Gerling, assistant director of assessments and social studies consultant for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

As a result, fewer and fewer schools are giving the social studies MAP test.

Gerling said even the voluntary test could disappear soon. For the purchase of the tests to be affordable, the state must have a minimum of 30,000 students each in fourth, eighth and 11th grades participate, Gerling said.

This past school year, the state barely met that participation level, he said.

Jackson public schools give the social studies test. The Scott City School District also gave the test to students last school year. But the district has dropped the test for this school year because of the cost, Scott City High School principal Kerry Thompson said.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, with its emphasis on communication arts and math and soon science, has led many states to drop social studies testing, Gerling said.

While Missouri doesn't require students to take a world history class in order to graduate from high school, Gerling said the state does require students to have three units of social studies.

"They have to have a year of American history and one semester of government," he said. As a practical matter, most schools offer world history as the third unit of social studies, Gerling said.

He and other state education officials believe the study was far too critical of Missouri's treatment of world history in the classroom.

The study, Gerling said, faults Missouri for having broad concepts in its curriculum standards and allowing individual school districts to come up with the content.

Those curriculum standards were developed as a result of state lawmakers passing the Outstanding Schools Act of 1993. DESE established grade-level curriculum "expectations" in October 2004, said Pat Fanger, assistant superintendent of the Cape Girardeau public schools.

The Cape Girardeau School District recently purchased all new social studies textbooks. Fanger said the textbooks include information on world history that meet the state's curriculum standards.

Jackson High School principal Rick McClard likes Missouri's focus on historical concepts. "I am less concerned about dates and that kind of thing and more concerned about major concepts, about the birth of democracy, for example.

"I am less worried about battles and more concerned about outcomes of war," he said.

But covering world history in one school year is a difficult task.

"In the last three years, we have cut out a lot of lessons in ancient history, trying to move it more into the modern era," said McClard. "What we are trying to do is dovetail world history into recent history."


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