Tag Archives: public schools

So less somehow equals more?

Tennessee officials are floating a proposal to combine geography and history.  This approach will supposedly “give students a deeper grasp of both subjects and free up more time for teaching language skills that are measured on standardized tests.”  I would’ve assumed that shoehorning two subjects into one class would mean students would get a much shallower grasp, so I’m a little perplexed here.

Of course, my perplexity is beside the point, because this isn’t really about giving kids “a deeper grasp” of history and geography, is it?  This is about marginalizing social studies to make way for math and language arts, because with the Common Core standards you live and you die by math and language scores on standardized tests.

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Commentator alerts us to looming threat of history standards that actually involve history

There’s a hubbub brewing over new social studies standards for Minnesota’s schools.  As is generally the case in these situations, there’s a fair amount of knee-jerk alarmism mixed in with the legitimate concerns.

Lawyer and commentator John Hinderaker is upset because the new standards emphasize the different impacts that the American Revolution and the Civil War had on various groups.  He writes, “One might have thought that events like the American Revolution and the Civil War would affect Americans generally, but such a concept is foreign to today’s academics.”

Well, certainly the Revolution and the Civil War did affect Americans generally, but it didn’t affect all of them in the same way.  If you were a white male living in Pennsylvania, the Revolution probably resulted in a greater exercise of political power.  If you were a white woman living in Massachusetts, you took on new roles as a republican mother and citizen.  If you were an enslaved black male who managed to hitch a ride with the British as they evacuated the seaboard cities, you got freedom.  And if you were an Indian of any gender living in the Ohio Valley, the Revolution wasn’t exactly a bonanza.  There’s nothing wrong with teaching kids about the varied effects of important events.  Indeed, history teachers need to introduce the complexity involved in significant events like the Revolution.

Hinderaker also charges the standards with attributing “institutionalized racism” to big business.  But that isn’t exactly what the relevant passage says: “As the United States shifted from its agrarian roots into an industrial and global power, the rise of big business, urbanization and immigration led to institutionalized racism, ethnic and class conflict, and new efforts at reform. ”  The standards are clearly dealing with a number of transformations in the U.S. during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of which the rise of big business was only one.  The rise of big business, the growth of cities, and immigration resulted in a number of changes in American life, including racism, class conflict, and reform efforts.  And, of course, shifts in immigration patterns and urban growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did result in institutionalized racism, as evidenced by the emergence of measures like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the restrictions on Asian immigration in the Immigration Act of 1917.

Perhaps, then, the problem isn’t with the standards, but with the reading comprehension of the people criticizing them.  Or perhaps the problem is something else.  Hinderaker writes that when he saw Joseph Brandt’s name on the standards’ list of “historically significant people” from the American Revolution, he had no idea who he was and had to look him up.  He notes only that Brandt was “a Mohawk Indian,” which is sort of like saying that Stonewall Jackson was “a guy from Virginia.”  Since Hinderaker had to look up the name of one of the most important figures of the Revolutionary frontier, might I suggest that he isn’t the person to be assessing standards for teaching history in Minnesota’s schools?

Joseph Brant, noted “Mohawk Indian,” as painted by George Romney, via Wikimedia Commons

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Mississippi’s elected officials engage in a remarkable waste of time

From the Associated Press, with a tip of the hat to Way of Improvement Leads Home:

JACKSON, Miss. — Some House members want to ban Mississippi school history courses from promoting “any partisan agenda or philosophy.”

Sponsored by House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, the measure is supposed to keep history teachers or textbooks from indoctrinating students according to a particular partisan viewpoint.

“We’re trying to protect the history of our nation in its purest form,” said House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon.

Great.  Now who’s going to determine what constitutes the promotion of a “partisan agenda or philosophy,” and how do they go about enforcing it?  What would be the penalty for indoctrinating students—a fine, prison time, community service, a stint in a re-education camp?

The measure says in part that “public school history courses may not promote any partisan agenda or philosophy and may not be revised for the purpose of significantly changing generally accepted history to create a bias toward an ideological position.” The bill moves forward to the full House after being approved Monday by the House Education Committee on a 10-5 vote.

How does a teacher “significantly change generally accepted history to create a bias toward an intellectual position,” I wonder?  By informing students that the Soviet Union won the Cold War, or that the Constitution mandates a belief in God for all elected officials?

Oh, and get this.  The guy who’s sponsoring the legislation

said it’s a reaction to Texas disputes over what should be included in textbooks that climaxed in 2010. He said he’s not aware of any similar problem that currently exists in Mississippi.

If it’s not a problem, then why in the name of all the deities on Olympus is the legislature fooling with it?

Let me suggest that for a state consistently ranked at or near the very bottom in national assessments of education, biased history teachers should be the least of your worries.

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Filed under History and Memory, Teaching History

Of critics and classrooms

A little while ago I was one of the few non-teachers at a Christmas party.  The faculty of the school where my mom’s a principal were celebrating the start of the holiday break. 

I tend to hang out with teachers a lot; in fact, I know more teachers than I do members of any other profession.  It was the family business.  My grandfather and both of his siblings were teachers.  He married a teacher, and had two sons who also became teachers.  The younger one was my father, who left law school to cover my grandmother’s classes as a temporary gig when she got sick, and ended up staying in the classroom for three decades. 

Mom worked in the county school system, got a doctorate, and then taught education classes to prospective teachers in college.  When the college decided to start its own prep school, she designed the curriculum and became the founding principal.  She’s on her third tour of duty there now.  My aunt is a kindergarten teacher, and her younger daughter is about to start her own teaching career. 

Since my parents both worked in schools, many—probably most—of their friends and acquaintances have been teachers and educators, too.  They made up the bulk of adults I knew as a kid, and are a pretty fair proportion of the ones I know now. 

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with history, it relates to an issue that pops up with some frequency in the historical blogosphere.  The issue, it seems, is that left-wing nut jobs are in control of America’s classrooms, and they’re trying to poison the minds of our children with their radical, agenda-driven approach to history. 

The people who tell me this often support their argument by citing anecdotal instances from the news or from personal experience in which history teachers have said or done things that indicate some nefarious, leftist design.  They also tend to lump teachers together with college professors, which at first glance seems like a sensible conclusion.  (People in college humanities departments tend to be very liberal, those people teach classes, K-12 teachers also teach classes, and thus K-12 teachers must be predominantly liberal.) 

Furthermore, teachers’ unions have a pretty well-deserved reputation for standing to the left of the center.  The NEA hasn’t endorsed a Republican presidential candidate in over three decades.  Over 90% of its donations went to Democrats during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, and it has lent its influence to a number of liberal social causes. 

From condemning teachers for being agenda-driven wackos, it’s just a short hop, skip, and jump to condemning them for being incompetent.  They’re so busy filling kids’ heads with liberal mush, we’re told, that they don’t do their jobs, which explains why so many younger Americans can’t find the Bill of Rights with both hands and a flashlight. 

Lately I’ve been trying to count the teachers I’ve known who were or are leftist radicals trying to turn their impressionable young students into pajama-wearing shock troops of Marxism.  So far I haven’t come up with any.  

(As a side note, my dad was probably the most conservative person I knew.  He was a longtime political activist, a member of Southerners for Reagan, an officer of the Tennessee Conservative Union, and a delegate for Pat Buchanan to the Republican National Convention.  His dislike of all things leftist was both intense and public.  I once heard him offer an invocation before a meal—an associate pastor of our church was present—which he closed by asking God why He saw fit to make so many liberal Democrats.  He thought it was hilarious.  The other people at the table weren’t amused, and neither was my mom when she found out about it.) 

One thing that’s often missing from blanket denunciations of radicalized teachers is any evidence that the person has actually made some attempt to find out what the political inclinations of most American teachers are.  Instead of relying on anecdotes and general suspicion, why not just ask the teachers about their political affiliations? 

From Wikimedia Commons

It turns out that people have indeed asked, and that teachers are pretty normal folks, after all.  Here’s a compilation of survey data indicating that the breakdown of political affiliations among teachers matches up pretty well with the population as a whole.  Note also that the breakdown for teachers is quite different from that for college professors, despite the fact that critics of American education often lump the two groups together. 

In 2001, the NEA itself conducted a study which sampled a group of public school teachers.  More of them self-identified as Democrats than Republicans—45% for the former, 28% for the latter—but Democrats still made up a minority (though a plurality) of those surveyed, and that minority presumably included Democrats from across the spectrum of that party.  The remaining 27% claimed no party affiliation at all, and doubtless included some who were fairly conservative.  An impressive 77% were members of a church or similar religious organization.  Remember that this study sampled only teachers in public schools, the group most often singled out by critics of American educators as both too liberal and too secular.  Factoring in private and parochial school teachers would probably bring the percentage of Democrats down more, as in the study linked above. 

It’s also worth noting that teachers in states with paycheck protection laws haven’t been at all shy about stopping unions from spending their dues money on political causes.  Such payments fell by 90% in Utah when teachers in that state got the choice to opt-out.  Whatever the political inclinations of the NEA and its affiliates, it’s clearly a mistake to assume that all dues-paying teachers share them. 

One other thing about K-12 teachers is too often ignored.  These folks are professionals.  When I was in college, many of my fellow students in the history program were double-majoring in history and education in order to teach when they finished their degrees.  Those of us who were strictly history majors had it comparatively easy; we had to fulfill the history program’s requirements from the catalog under which we entered.  The folks going into K-12 education, by contrast, had to fulfill the history program’s requirements, the education program’s requirements, and the requirements to become a licensed teacher in the state where they planned to work.  Furthermore, if the state’s requirements changed partway through their schooling, then they might have to add an additional year’s worth of classes or more in order to accomodate them. 

The crucial difference between studying history as a subject, as I did, and studying history in order to become a history teacher is that those doing the latter get trained to teach as well as to study and interpret.  I “teach” college, but I’m not a trained teacher.  K-12 teachers are.  They’ve spent years learning pedagogical techniques, curricula, and child development.  They have to, because they’re expected to know how their students learn as well as they do the subject matter of their classes.  As someone who teaches history at the college level, I’ll be the first to tell you that K-12 teaching is much more difficult, and that the professional requirements for it are more exacting. 

I don’t have a problem with people critiquing the state of history education in America.  It’s an important topic in which we should all be invested.  Such a critique, however, needs to be informed.  We need to be careful about drawing generalizations, and we need to stop blaming the folks working in the classrooms for policies that originate in administrative offices and legislative chambers.  Let’s leave the broad brushes at home, lest we wrongly use them against decent, hardworking, and competent professionals engaged in a brutally difficult, generally thankless, and critically necessary task.  Fair enough?

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