A Facebook post from The Nation’s Report Card proudly announced that 50% of 4th graders answered the following question correctly. My reaction is: ONLY 50%??!!
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 . . .
According to this document, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are
- God-given rights that governments cannot take away
- rights given to citizens and not to noncitizens
- rights that are made into laws by governments
- the rights to a place to live and a place to work
(The correct answer is A)
By 4th grade, 95% of children are developmentally able to internalize (and memorize) this passage, especially with a little help from their teachers in explaining what the passage means. At least 80% are developmentally able to start to retrieve and examine it critically. The literature of developmental psychology tells us this.
Having said that, there are two questions that come to mind: Are American school children being exposed adequately to the Declaration of Independence before 4th grade? Are the critical thinking skills of children being adequately addressed in elementary school?
If American children are expected to be able to compete intellectually with children around the world, no skill is more important than critical thinking. Critical thinking can start with simple things like why a classroom rule is in effect, and discussing with students not only the material in their readers, but also topics addressed in critically acclaimed children’s literature that is age-appropriate. History lessons should be presented not only for the material presented, but also what the importance of the topic of the lesson is to either other events surrounding the events under study, or to the events that followed. For example, if all we teach children in the early school years is about the contents of the Declaration of Independence, later they will not only be bored with history all-together, but will have problems integrating world events that led to its writing and the effects it had on European history, such as France’s revolution which followed closely on the American experience. The whole idea of the Enlightenment may be too much for 4th graders to grasp, but the idea that world-wide literature informed Thomas Jefferson and his fellow “revolutionaries” as forward-thinking Americans can certainly be brought down to the level of 4th grade learners. (Remember that Jefferson was the “writer” in the group, but he was not the only “enlightened thinker” among the Founding Fathers.)
Exactly how teaching-to-the-test has affected critical thinking development among students is up for debate. That critical thinking skills have not been adequately address is not. Pride that a whopping 50% of 4th graders taking a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam should be viewed as a failure in the education system, not a point of pride. To raise the level of American youth in the governance of America, critical thinking skills need to be given priority. The 50% should not be a point of pride; it should ring an alarm that this score–as indicative of critical thinking as “learning”–indicates that either this question is asked too early in the NAEP testing process, or that the critical thinking skills of 4th graders are being inadequately developed to critically assess the response choices to come up with the right answer if the topic was not yet addressed in schools.