The humanities have experienced repeated efforts at reform since 1980, when the Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities declared K–12 education the highest priority in the humanities and called upon scholars and policymakers to turn their attention to the schools. From “A Nation at Risk” to the Common Core, each of these reforms sought to improve competencies in core subjects of the humanities, particularly reading and writing.

Current research on the quality of education tends to focus on the character of and relationships among three elements—student achievement, curriculum and instruction, and teacher preparation—and the indicators here reflect that focus. Drawing on national and international studies, this area of the indicators focuses on measures of achievement in reading, writing, history, and civics; information on course-taking at the high school level; and the characteristics of teachers of humanities subjects in the schools. Since the high school curriculum usually includes requirements for the study of English, history, and foreign languages, information on teachers and students in these areas tends to be fairly accessible. Regrettably, in other, less frequently studied fields (such as philosophy or art history), data are rarely available.

The indicators in this area offer answers to several key questions regarding the state of humanities study in the American school system, including:

  • After more than 30 years of reforms, are there signs of improved proficiency in humanities subjects?
  • How do students in the U.S. compare to students in other countries?
  • How many classes do students take in humanities subject fields, and what sort of qualifications do teachers bring to those classes