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John Monfredo: Knowledge of American History and Civics in Danger of Becoming “History”

Saturday, February 09, 2013


According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (known as the Nation’s Report Card), data revealed that only about one-quarter of American students scored at or above proficient in their knowledge of United States History.

Student’s lack of basic civic knowledge should be a concern for everyone. Nationwide, the worst performance was by seniors in high school with 12% reaching proficiency. We all know that most of education reform has focused on closing the achievement gap in English Language Arts, Math and Science. However, we also need to look at the basic knowledge that our children are acquiring in knowing the concepts of American History.

According to the research, American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject. According to results of a nationwide test, most fourth graders are unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure and few high school seniors are able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean War.

Just recently four members of Worcester’s School Committee filed an agenda item to consider whether the students should be encouraged to demonstrate an appropriate mastery of basic civics prior to their graduation through the administration of the civics portion of the United States Naturalization Test. This would be done to seniors or to a representative sample of seniors on a pilot basis. Two years ago, an agenda item was filed relating to adding a civics course requirement for graduation.

Both items were discussed and administration will be bringing back additional options for examination at a future standing committee meeting of the Teaching, Learning and Student Support Committee. Dr. Marco Rodrigues representing administration spoke about the need for the American history curriculum to go into greater depth in regards to issues and not to just focus on factual information. Administration did indicate that the Massachusetts History and Social Science Frameworks and the curriculum of the Worcester Public Schools provide a myriad of opportunities for students to study both civics and the Constitution of the United States. Also, all Worcester Public Schools are mandated to participate in the federal recognition of Constitution Day, September 17. Common-age appropriate lesson plans have been developed and shared with teachers across the district. In addition, the City Clerk and City Manager in conjunction with the City Council are exploring the possibility of implementing a voter registration program at several Worcester Public School’s high schools and local colleges. Other ideas were to utilize high school seniors who are multi-lingual to work at the polls on election day and have the Blue Star Mothers participate in school related programs.

In the audience at the standing committee meeting was the retired principal of Wachusett and a resident of Worcester, Charles Gruszka, who has long been an advocate for quality education for the children in Worcester. Mr. Gruszka suggested that everyone who graduates from our schools should have the knowledge of how education and other areas of government are funded and how local school and municipal budgets are developed and passed. He also advocated for a way of measuring how our students are developing their basic citizenry literacy skills that one should learn in school.

During the discussion on the item another issue related to the agenda items was suggested on whether the students should be given the U.S. Naturalization Test for to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, one must pass the naturalization test. Thus, the test would give students some insight on what the knowledge basis is for immigrants becoming new citizens. I suggested that a pre and post test be given prior to a history/civic course that the students take in their junior or senior year.

Here is a sample of some of the test questions and if you don’t know the answers they are there too.

1. What is the supreme law of the land?
the Constitution

2. What does the Constitution do?
sets up the government
defines the government
protects basic rights of Americans

3. The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?
We the People

4. What is an amendment?
a change (to the Constitution)
an addition (to the Constitution)

5. What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?
the Bill of Rights

6. What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment?*
petition the government

7. How many amendments does the Constitution have?

8. There are four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. Describe one of them.
Citizens eighteen (18) and older (can vote).
You don’t have to pay (a poll tax) to vote.
Any citizen can vote. (Women and men can vote.)
A male citizen of any race (can vote).

9. What is one responsibility that is only for United States citizens?
serve on a jury
vote in a federal election

10. Name one right only for United States citizens.
vote in a federal election
run for federal office

11. Who lived in America before the Europeans arrived?
American Indians
Native Americans

12. When was the Constitution written?

13. The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
James Madison
Alexander Hamilton
John Jay

The test has 100 civics (history and government) questions and it is an oral test that a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service Officer will ask the applicant up to 10 of the 100 civics questions. An applicant must answer 6 out of 10 questions correctly to pass the civics portion of the naturalization test.

It is not a bad idea for our students to take a pre and post test for during their study they can then get an understanding of how those events came about. We all know that good education is much more than just factual information but one also needs to know factual information in the learning process as students have had to do with vocabulary, math facts and the spelling of words. Knowledge of how our government works is something that is essential for tomorrow’s voters and leaders. 

Perhaps Linda K. Salvucci, a history professor in San Antonio who is chairwoman-elect of the National Council for History Education, summed it up best, “History is very much being shortchanged.” Many teacher-education programs, Ms. Salvucci said, also contribute to the problem by encouraging aspiring teachers to seek certification in social studies, rather than in history. “They think they’ll be more versatile, that they can teach civics, government, whatever,” she said. “But they’re not prepared to teach history.”

History education makes us aware of our civic responsibilities to which most of us simply don't feel bound. Is American History/Civics an area that needs our attention? Absolutely! 


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Sandy Williamson

"Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." - Edmund Burke (1729-1797) a British Statesman and Philosopher. We've all heard some version of Burke's warning.

Mr. Monfredo is pointing out a serious gap in the education of our children. While I don't always agree with Mr. Monfredo, in this case, I believe he right on the money.

One might ask how we got to the dangerous condition he notes in his article. I can only conclude it is because the folks in charge of public education decided that history and civics aren't important. When, for instance, was it decided that it is OK for students to avoid the Pledge of Allegiance at school? When was it decided that children with birthright citizenship shouldn't be challenged to master and demonstrate the level of knowledge of United States history and civics that we require of naturalized citizens?

How do we expect our students to enter adulthood and fully participate in the American Experiment if they don't know the basics of it's formation, principles, and the tribulations of the years since it's founding. It seems the world is more dangerous and confusing with each passing day. How will our young people negotiate the future with no shared principles and history? While Language Arts, Math, and Science are certainly important, we can not afford to put History and Civics in a priority where 3 of 4 students exhibit less than adequate knowledge.

When things get tough, it is often useful to go back to basics, or "first principles". Without the shared "experience" of U.S. history and civic responsibility, we are seriously diminishing the future prospects for younger generations and America. In fact, we will be dooming them to repeat the errors of the past. We owe them more.

Brian O'Malley

I have heard of a proposal to make the citizenship test a required part of the MCAS to be able to graduate from high school. As I am amazed at how little my children learned in Worcester Public Schools on these subjects, I think it would be a great idea.

D Stanley

To the State’s credit, they were going to have an MCAS history exam, but my take is that the determination of test items was too controversial in today’s polarized America and they quit. Nonetheless, history represents, by far, the biggest proportion of homework that my children have to do in the schools they go to. Hours; my children are outside less than a convict at the State Penitentiary. I would prefer that the burden be more evenly shared amongst the other subjects but it is not. That just goes to show that the model of wrote memorization of dates and battles, and writing little essays every night, does not contribute to an understanding of civics, or much of anything, for that matter. Students only consider it important for the grade and dump the factoids as soon as they don’t need them anymore. So they learn their civics on facebook (the playground would be an improvement).
I think civics is the job of ALL the subjects, as it is the job of public education in general to grow a citizen out of a child, not a “consumer”, or a manageable cubicle or factory worker, or someone who can get into a “good school”. These things might all be PART of being a citizen, but each is not the whole. I am not willing to turn over the duty of teaching civics to the history department alone, although they can take a leadership role if they insist. If teachers were allowed to slow down a little, then they could address where civics intersects their subject, be it math (live within your means; can we make a deal and compromise?), science (can’t get something for nothing), English (What do they mean when they say that?), art (pursuit of happiness), or physical education (obesity and other preventable health problems are a burden to other citizens).

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