Speeches & Floor Statements

Remarks Of Sen. Alexander - American History Achievement Act Introduction

Posted on July 23, 2004

I rise today to introduce the "American History Achievement Act" and am pleased to be joined in this effort by the senior Senator from Massachusetts. This is part of my effort to put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American. This modest bill provides for improved testing of American history so that we can determine where history is being taught well - and where it is being taught poorly - so that improvements can be made. We also know that when testing is focused on a specific subject, states and school districts are more likely to step up to the challenge and improve performance. We could certainly use improvement in the teaching of American history. According the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), commonly referred to as the "Nation's Report Card," fewer students have just a basic understanding of American history than have a basic understanding of any other subject which we test  including math, science, and reading. When you look at the national report card, American history is our children's worst subject. Yet, according to recent poll results, the exact opposite outcome is desired by the American people. Hart-Teeter recently conducted a poll of 1,300 adults for the Educational Testing Service (ETS), where they asked what the principal goal of education should be. The top response was "producing literate, educated citizens who can participate in our democracy." Twenty-six percent of respondents felt that should be our principal goal. "Teach basics: math, reading, writing" was selected by only 15 percent as the principal goal of education. You can't be an educated participant in our democracy if you don't know our history. Our children don't know American history because they are not being taught it. For example, the state of Florida recently passed a bill permitting high school students to graduate without taking a course in U.S. history. And when our children are being taught our history, they're not learning what's most important. According to Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington, "A 1987 study of high school students found that more knew who Harriet Tubman was than knew that Washington commanded the American army in the Revolution or that Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation." Now I'm all for teaching about the history of the Underground Railroad - my ancestor, the Reverend John Rankin, like Harriet Tubman, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad - but surely children ought to learn first about the most critical leaders and events in the Revolution and the Civil War. Let me give a few examples of just how bad things have gotten: The 4th grade NAEP test asks students to identify the following passage: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness&." Students were given four choices for the source of that passage: (a) Constitution; (b) Mayflower Compact; (c) Declaration of Independence (d) Article of the Confederation. Only 46 percent of students answered correctly that it came from the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration is the fundamental document for the founding of our nation, but less than half the students could identify that famous passage from it. The 8th grade test asks students to "Imagine you could use a time machine to visit the past. You have landed in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776. Describe an important event that is happening." Nearly half the students - 46 percent - were not able to answer the question correctly that the Declaration of Independence was being signed. They must wonder why the Fourth of July is Independence Day. We can't allow this to continue. Our children are growing up without even learning the basics of our nation's history. Something has to be done. This legislation aims to help in that effort. The "American History Achievement Act" gives the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) the authority to administer a 10 state pilot study of the NAEP test in U.S. history in 2006. They already have that authority for reading, math, science, and writing. This pilot program should collect enough data to attain a state-by-state comparison of 8th, and 12th grades student's knowledge and understanding of U.S. history. That data will allow us to know which states are doing a better job of teaching American history and allow other states to model their programs on those that are working well. It will also put a spotlight on American history that should encourage states and school districts to improve their efforts at teaching the subject. This legislation is part of a broader effort to strengthen understanding of our nation's history and shared values. In June of last year, Senator Kennedy and I joined together with other senators to pass the American History and Civics Education Act by a unanimous vote here in the Senate. I'm hopeful the House will act on this bill before the year ends. The Senator from New York, Senator Schumer, and I introduced a bill to codify the Oath of Allegiance which immigrants take when sworn in as new citizens of the United States. The Oath should be protected in law just as the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance are. Today we're putting a new focus on the teaching of American history. Mr. President, our children are growing up ignorant of our nation's history. Yet a recent poll tells us that Americans believe the principal goal of education is "producing literate, educated citizens who can participate in our democracy." It's time to put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American. This bill takes us one step closer to achieving that noble goal. I urge my colleagues to support it.