- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

Many Americans probably could answer without hesitation if asked which stores have the best sales this Presidents Day, or whether their office is closed for the holiday.

But when it comes to facts about U.S. presidents, knowledge seems to be lacking.

Even some of the most educated Americans — students graduating from top universities — had trouble answering questions about Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and George Washington, according to surveys administered by the University of Connecticut’s Public Policy Department on behalf of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Researchers polled 14,000 college freshmen and seniors at 50 schools during the fall 2005 semester and found that the average score for seniors on questions related to U.S. presidents was a failing grade of 57.6 percent. Average scores for freshmen were roughly the same, meaning that students “failed to gain knowledge in their undergrad years,” said Gary Scott, a senior ISI researcher.

When presented with several choices, 36 percent of seniors didn’t know that the correct time frame for Lincoln’s election is between 1851 and 1875. Even 25 percent of Harvard University seniors answered this question incorrectly.

Asked how President Kennedy responded to the Cuban Missile Crisis, 43 percent of seniors did not answer correctly that he imposed a naval blockade on Cuba. Thirty-three percent of Yale seniors got this question wrong.

Given several phrases to describe the first U.S. president, nearly 30 percent of seniors failed to mark the correct answer, which described Washington as a prudent general and statesman. More than 21 percent chose answers describing him as a strong advocate for states’ rights or the leader of the Massachusetts delegation to the Constitutional Congress.

Mike Ratliff, senior vice president at ISI, called these results disturbing, especially as Presidents Day approaches.

“Most students enter college with little knowledge about America’s presidents, and unfortunately they leave college with virtually no gain in knowledge,” he said.

Among the rest of the findings, more than 70 percent of seniors failed to correctly identify Jefferson’s letters as the source of the argument for a “wall of separation” between church and state.

The surveys included questions about history, government, foreign relations and economics, and ranked the colleges based on how much their seniors’ scores surpassed freshmen scores.

Rhodes College, Colorado State University and Calvin College were the winners, Harvard ranked in the middle and elite schools such as Yale, Duke, Brown and Cornell were near the bottom. Mr. Scott said it appears that the typical Ivy League curriculum “systematically omits any particular knowledge about America.”

ISI has committed $1 million to start academic centers aimed at improving history education at colleges.

Another effort, using simple spare change, could improve younger students’ presidential knowledge.

The U.S. Mint officially began its $1 presidential coin program this week. Established under a 2005 law, the program will produce a new $1 coin every few months for the next several years, each bearing the imprint of a U.S. president and the dates he served, beginning with Washington’s coin this week and ending in 2016 with Gerald R. Ford.

The Mint is providing comprehensive, detailed educational material that schoolteachers can download free of charge. Materials include lesson plans, fact sheets and projects for classes to learn about the presidents.

A “Presidential Gallery” theme, recommended for grades four through six, allow students to identify major events and accomplishments in the lives of presidents and evaluate their administrations. Students in grades nine and 10 can learn where presidents were born and evaluate how geography affects election outcomes.

April Stafford, education coordinator at the Mint, said the coin program is intended to get children excited about discussing presidential history, much like the popular quarters program generated interest in state trivia.

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