Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Attack on History

I suppose that many Americans will see the report that the school board in Jefferson County, Colorado has decided not to blatantly impose its view of United States history on the district's students as a victory for common sense and educational policy. For those who need a refresher, here's the basic idea, from the article:
After two weeks of student protests and a fierce backlash across Colorado and beyond, the Jefferson County School Board backed away from a proposal to teach students the “benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights,” while avoiding lessons that condoned “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”
So far, so good. The students and staff did a masterful job leading a peaceful protest against the proposed alterations and even shut two high schools down with a sickout last week. This paragraph ends, however, with a rather chilling sentence:
But the board did vote 3-to-2 to reorganize its curriculum-review committee to include students, teachers and board-appointed community members.
Which is then followed by the hammer blow:
The Jefferson County schools superintendent, Dan McMinimee, who suggested the compromise, said it represented the “middle ground” in a fevered debate that pitted the board’s three conservative members against students, parents, the teachers’ union and other critics who opposed the effort to steer lessons toward the “positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”
You see, the dispute has not been solved. The Superintendent and the conservatives have merely made their viewpoint a position that needs to be debated and taken seriously as an opening gambit in a larger attack on public school curricula. The other side, which includes students, educators and parents, now has to come up with a counter-argument for a discussion that doesn't have a counter-argument. Cutting out events you don't like or that don't satisfy your agenda is not how history should be taught. There is no "middle ground" when it comes to school boards injecting politics into what's taught in the classroom.

Even worse, the school board made this decision originally without the input of teachers, who should be the first ones consulted on any change to the curriculum, and the larger community, which clearly opposes the board's agenda.

There is a larger issue at work here that's operating under the radar of many citizens. There has been a heady debate over the past 10 to 15 years in education about whether the curriculum should focus more on teaching students skills or academic content. The Common Core Curriculum Standards and the Advanced Placement curriculum that's the basis of the Colorado argument, have sided demonstrably on the side of skills. The reasoning is that if students are taught how to conduct research, write coherent essays, solve equations and theorems, and apply experimental designs to scientific problems, then they will be able to use those skills for any educational endeavor. After all, the argument goes, middle and high school teachers are not training historians or mathematicians or research scientists.

I beg, humbly, to differ.

I'm a content guy. I can teach anyone how to structure an essay or to read a historical document and apply step-by-step analyses that will render a deeper understanding of its message, and the over 3,000 students, now adults, who have been in my classroom over the past 30 years can attest to my abilities and their growth. But if you don't have the knowledge, the "conceptual capital," as my former Rutgers University Graduate School Professor Wayne Hoy used to say at every turn, then you got...nothing. I am training budding historians because students need to see how history is written and debated and for that they need a detailed body of evidence, facts, conjecture and sources that will allow them to debate, judge, interpret and synthesize what they've learned. THEN, they can write an essay with a specific and relevant thesis and support their assertions with solid historical evidence. The same goes for every academic discipline. Unfortunately, the trend is towards skills at the expense of content.

A colleague and I wrote the new Advanced Placement United States History curriculum this past summer and I am now teaching my school's two section of that AP class. The College Board, which administers the AP program, has done a fine job re-imagining much of the new course. It's broken down into historical themes and focuses on the requisites skills that historians need to use to decipher the meaning of the past. There are content outlines that divide U.S. History into nine historical periods and tests that use documents and sources as the basis for evaluation and assessment.

At an AP seminar my colleague attended last spring, though, the leader could not adequately answer the question of what content knowledge the students would need to master in order to score well on the AP test. The best he could say was that students would need to know the usual facts. I think if you put 20 history educators in a room they could give you a rough outline of what the usual facts are, but this is the AP. They should be more specific. And the reason they can't be more specific is that the skills have won.

So how does that relate back to Jefferson County, Colorado, or any other mischief-making school board that wants to create more patriotic children who avoid conflicts and always respect authority (remember, we're talking teenagers here)? According to the article above, the AP has warned Jefferson County not to alter the curriculum because if they did then they can't call it Advanced Placement, but in the end, that won't matter. Why? Because now the content can be subtly manipulated to reflect anyone's agenda. When content and facts matter less, what people are actually taught can be chopped, rearranged or simply dropped while skills are used to fill the void. That's the danger, and as a nation, we have embarked on a new educational paradigm that will result in the striking contradiction of students practicing more, but learning less.

The Common Core makes the same skills-based assumption, and for me, that's a far more dangerous problem than the time lost for testing or the fear of the federal government injecting itself into state education standards. I cannot abide the thought of a generation schooled on how to perform tasks, but taught less content with which to provide context or relevance. We need to create analytical thinkers who know a specific body of knowledge. Then we can teach skills.

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