Education

Some of us are heading in the right direction. . .

If you’ve ever been driving somewhere and have gotten really lost—I mean nothing looks familiar, don’t know how I got here, and have no clue how to get where I need to go lost—and then, due to maps, a helpful stranger, or blind luck, you experienced the profound relief of finding yourself on the right road heading in the right direction, you’ll understand a little about how I felt when I saw the headline, “Panel Proposes Single Standard for All Schools.”

Finally, in an era of national standardized tests (that I am not arguing in favor of—I am just acknowledging their reality), there is a growing realization that there should be a common set of educational standards.  The only two states that are not participating in the process are Texas and Alaska (but more about that later).

For those of you working outside of K-12 education, you may not be familiar with the labyrinth that is the US Education “system.”  Think of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as Cat Herder in Chief, and you get the idea.  “System” is a huge exaggeration.

Every state outlines the ideas, concepts, or skills that all students in the state are supposed to achieve, when the learning is supposed to occur, and what kind of achievement is appropriate at each grade level.  In theory, the state achievement tests match up to what students who are taking the test are supposed to have mastered by that grade level.  Add to that local school district, building, and department standards or curriculum.

Now—before anyone accuses me of advocating robotic teaching employing the same lessons on the same days nationally—I believe teachers who know their students, in combination with the parents and local schools, should decide what resources, pedagogical methods, lessons, activities, schedules, etc. are used to approach a body of knowledge.  That being said, having a common framework for what constitutes an adequate education is a good start.

Seniors are now able to apply to schools anywhere in the country, if they so desire.  As adults, they can move across city, county, and state lines to pursue education, love, or money. National standardized tests are a fact of life, whether or not we like them, support them, or think they are necessary. Entertainment is national. Providing young people with a common body of knowledge can be beneficial.

I read Ed Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy when it first came out and this passage still holds up:

Why is literacy so important in the modern world? Some of the reasons, like the need to fill out forms or get a good job, are so obvious that they needn’t be discussed. But the chief reason is broader. The complex undertakings of modern life depend on the cooperation of many people with different specialties in different places. Where communications fail, so do the undertakings. (That is the moral of the story of the Tower of Babel.) The function of national literacy is to foster nationwide communications.

Case in point: I once complimented a senior boy on his dancing by referring to him as a “regular Fred Astaire.” He thought I was insulting him. (I brought in That’s Entertainment the next week to school and showed them all who Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Esther Williams were.)

Of course, not everyone sees the benefit in national standards  (more on that in another post).  Some view them as to restrictive, some as yet more proof of Big Brother, some just seem to resent anyone who is a so-called “expert” in anything.  Some are worried that “national standards” will take away their power.

The last argument is based on the antiquated idea of “local control” of education, wherein local experts are deemed most qualified to decide what local students need to learn in order to be, presumably, locally successful.  Does that strike anyone else as an outdated way to design the system?  We keep comparing Alabama, Massachusetts, Ohio and every other state. But we’re using apples, oranges, kumquats, and fifty other kinds of fruit as the standards of comparison.

I, too, would be opposed to national standards if all the proponents are interested in is producing another generation of wage slaves addicted to McDonalds, American Idol, and Wal-Mart who think that is all they can afford, understand, or deserve (I have relatives who fall into that category, so I’m not being disparaging, just angry—but that’s a rant for another day.)

Which brings me to Texas.  *sigh*

The Texas state Board of Education consists of 10 Republicans and 5 Democrats.  Just last week, they adopted new state Social Studies standards.  Think you’re immune because you live outside of Texas?  Think again.  Here are three reasons why you should be concerned:

  1. The state of Texas has statewide textbook adoption, unlike most states where textbook adoption is by school, district, or teacher.  What this means is that textbook publishers tailor their offerings to the Texas worldview, hoping for a share of the millions of dollars Texas spends on textbooks annually.  (More information on textbook adoption at:  http://www.texastextbooks.org/index.asp)  Statewide textbook adoption happens in 21 states, led by California, Texas, and Florida.
  2. Texas adopts its standards for 10 years.  Textbook companies, of course, like predictability.
  3. There has been a deliberate effort among conservatives in Texas, dating back to the early 1960s, to influence curriculum by attacking all forms of objectionable textbook content, starting with Mel and Norma Gabler and continuing with the efforts of Donna Garner and others.

Here are a few examples from the current debate over the new social studies curriculum:

  • Excluding references to the Founding Fathers protecting religious freedom for everyone
  • Emphasizing the Christian influences on the US Constitution
  • Dropping the connection between the Enlightenment and Thomas Jefferson in world history (also removing references to the influence of TJ on later revolutions in history)
  • The term “capitalism” is being replaced with “free enterprise” in descriptions of the US economy because it is more positive, also “expansion” (good) replaces “imperialism (which is bad, probably because other bad countries do it)
  • Including Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address, alongside Abraham Lincoln’s

My personal favorite is including, specifically, the influence of Phyllis Schlafly.  Oh PLEASE, give me the opportunity to address her contributions in an academically critical context.

In keeping with the tradition of “local” standards, “Gov. Rick Perry argued that only Texans should decide what children there learn.”

Which is why, in a state where the governor has been sucking up slavishly to the Tea Party, it has been suggested that the Tea Party movement be included in the social studies curriculum.

Categories: Education

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4 replies »

  1. I too am in favor of national standards, provided there is significant latitiude for the local school systems to reach the goals. I always thought No Child Left Behind was good in theory but bad in practice.

  2. National standards are great. I just wish our nation’s standards – be they local or national – weren’t the equivalent of high-jumping 14 inches.

    Welcome to S&R, Cat. You can never talk about education too much…

  3. National standards are a great idea, Cat. The French (gasp!) have enforced them with real success – most French high school grads can converse in depth with critical thinking on diverse, difficult subjects – not just football and – football.

    My fear – and it’s real and based on what I’ve seen happen to education as a result of the NCLB fiasco – is that this will be seen as a opportunity to enrich textbook/test prep companies and further dumb down Americans.

    I mean, look at the shit the Texas BoE wants to change in social studies. Next up, science – the world is 4000 years old – literature – “Left Behind” books become required reading – history – GW Bush was a great president (which is already being proposed)….

    See where I’m going with this?

  4. I see the “what” as being something we can agree upon (unless “we” live in Texas or Alaska–why is it no surprise that the lands of George W Bush and Sarah Palin don’t want anything to do with this?) and the “When,” Where,” “When,” and “How” as being up to the local educators and institutions.

    I agree that the bar needs to be set higher, not lower. I’ve been involved in a number of debates with educators lately about “individualized, passion-based learning” vs. more traditional models. I’ve been arguing for the middle ground: high standards for individual achievement that can be met in a number of ways that involve varying resources, including technology.

    BTW, many Europeans, including the French, can have those conversations on “on diverse, difficult subjects” in more than one language, which our population needs to be able to do.

    So far as NCLB, problems with standards, and testing/test prep companies go, just give me some time to reload.

    It’s good to be on board.

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