Thursday, February 04, 2010

History by Dummies

Designing history curriculum shouldn't be all that difficult, but my state, North Carolina, is always tinkering with it trying to make it better, more "relevant." And they almost always end up messing it up. It's as if the people who work at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) don't have enough to do, so they sit around and draw up plans just to aggravate people. And now they've come up with a doozy to rejigger the high school history curriculum.

Like many states, we teach U.S. history in 11th grade. In 9th grade we do world history. The teachers scramble to cover from ancient times to modern. Since there is no end-of-course (EOC) test, the course ends up being whatever the teacher most enjoys teaching. In the 10th grade the curriculum covers civics and economics. About five or six years ago, there were complaints that the American history teachers didn't have enough time to teach from colonial times to modern. So, DPI stuck the colonial period through the Constitutional Convention into the 10th grade curriculum which has become a crazy quilt of subjects requiring the teacher to speed through all the required topics.

But those busy bees at DPI needed to do something else to justify their jobs. So they've come up with an even bigger proposal to aggravate everyone involved. The current proposal on the table would be to switch the 9th grade curriculum from being world history to be something called "Global Studies." American history in 11th grade would start in 1877 with the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes. Then they'd try to crowd the history from Washington through Reconstruction into the 10th grade. This is their myopic logic.
Under the proposed change, all ninth graders wouldn't study world history. Instead, they''ll have to take a course called Global Studies focusing on the modern issues like the environment.

Tenth graders will still get Civics and Economics, while the junior year U.S. history class would start in 1877. State officials say events prior to that year will be taught before high school and also incorporated into the sophomore year Civics class.

Education officials acknowledge this is a big change but believe it will allow them to connect with a standard of teaching based on a new national initiative called called Common Core which emphasizes standards to help prepare students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and careers and to be prepared to compete globally.

"The whole notion of the common core is fewer, clearer and more in depth standards. So that our students remember what's important," Garland said.
Basically, they're trying to dilute the entire history curriculum so they can teach some of these gauzy topics that presumably would help students to "compete globally." That's just horse puckey! Students need to learn the content of history in order to have a better understanding of how we got to be where we are today. The geniuses at North Carolina DPI think that it's enough that students cover American history in elementary and middle school so that should take care of what they need to know. History shouldn't be chopped up in little bits where they get a bit of American history in 5th grade. A bit more in 8th grade and another few chunks in 10th grade, and then jump into the Gilded Age in 11th grade. What students need is a coherent, in-depth study of the flow of American history. Studying the colonial era helps to set up current issues such as American attitudes towards religion, the law, civil rights, political participation, government, etc. Knowing that background helps students to understand why the colonists wanted to revolt against England and how slavery became an integral part of our nation's economy. Studying the early years of the United States sets up students' understanding of political parties and the increasing democratization of our politics. They learn about how and why America expanded across the continent and our relationship with Native American tribes and Mexico. They need to study those years in depth in order to understand how the nation came to a fight a great civil war. And they need to study Reconstruction in order to understand our nation's troubled civil rights history.

All that plus so much more is what we cover in the first semester of American history. And that is going to be scrapped to parachute the kids into history beginning in 1877. And don't feed me that garbage about learning the earlier history elementary and middle school. I teach at a charter school that draws from five or six different North Carolina counties so I get students from a wide variety of middle schools. And they come into high school history with such a wide variance in what they learned already. Since there is no EOC test on social studies in middle school, the teachers end up teaching what they want. Eighth grade curriculum is supposed to focus on North Carolina history and the official curriculum has the kids learn about topics such as the Revolution or the Civil War as they affect North Carolina. Some kids have a very minimal understanding of the big picture because their teacher used textbooks and focused on North Carolina that the students barely realized what was going on in the rest of the country. When I taught 8th grade, I just pushed the standard curriculum out the window and taught U.S. history with occasional references to North Carolina whenever it was relevant. But I was in the minority. And there is already a full curriculum in 10th grade to cover civics and economics plus a smattering of colonial and revolutionary history. And now they want to add in the same material that takes up a semester in 11th grade? What a recipe for teaching everything more poorly! The class will cover a hodge podge of material and the students will end up learning just a little bit about a wide variety of unconnected topics.

And they'll never get the wide sweep of world history if what they're going to focus on is "global studies," whatever that is supposed to be. But I don't have much confidence when it seems that they're going to throw out the history part of the curriculum to make more time for teaching about the environment. As if they don't get enough about the environment in all their other classes.

This is all part of a much larger movement called "Core Standards" for states to adopt a national curriculum devised by the education specialists for the nation. President Obama supports this movement. The focus is on some ill-defined ideal of "21st skills." When you hear educators talk about the importance of skills, what they're really talking about is taking the content out of the curriculum. Content becomes secondary to the skill set that they think people will need in the 21st century. For example, here is a report from a meeting of such education specialists, called Partnership for the 21st Century Skills or P21 about their goals for education.
The audience was comprised largely of NEA staff and representatives of DC’s alphabet soup of education associations. The question at hand was not whether the 21st century skills agenda was the right one for America’s schoolchildren, but rather how quickly more students can get signed on.For those who are concerned, as we are, that P21’s approach to learning will fail students because it does not integrate the teaching of skills with the acquisition of content knowledge, there was much said at the NEA to worry you. Paige Kuni explained that in the “search, cut, and paste environment” students live in today, they only need to know “enough of the most crucial information.” She didn’t say who decides when enough is enough or what P21 considers crucial. Is it enough earth science to know that the earth is round? Enough literature to have heard of Shakespeare? Enough history to know that we once fought a civil war because the North and South disagreed about something?

John Wilson said that with P21 “students create the learning environment with their peers and their projects” and the “teacher becomes the facilitator.” Ken Kay is more selective in his choice of words but the upshot of his comments fall in line with the others: Skills are what is most important while content is optional. In their remarks, none of the panelists mentioned science, geography, foreign languages, history, literature, art, civics—the list goes on and on.
What this translates into is the students doing projects which often involve a lot of class discussion as students give their opinions about material they don't know all that much about. And they do a lot of artwork. But the students remain amazingly free of any knowledge of whatever the content is supposed to be. I've encountered schools that pride themselves on teaching skills, not content. They're quite proud that their students don't learn the standard curriculum but that they do lots and lots of projects. Now prepare for states across the nation to follow that pattern.

Fortunately, there are some people fighting back against this dope-ification of our education system. They call their group the Common Core and they're fighting to keep content as a part of our education.
But a small group of outspoken education scholars is challenging that assumption, saying the push for 21st-century skills is taking a dangerous bite out of precious classroom time that could be better spent learning deep, essential content. For the first time since the P21 push began seven years ago, they're pushing back. In a forum here last week sponsored by Common Core, a non-profit group that promotes "a full core curriculum," they squared off with education consultant Ken Kay, co-founder of the P21 movement.

"It's an ineffectual use of school time," says E.D. Hirsch Jr., founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and author of a series of books on what students should learn year-by-year in school. He calls the P21 movement "a fragmented approach with uncertain cognitive goals" that could most profoundly hurt disadvantaged children: At home, he says, they don't get as much background as middle-class students in history, science, literature and the like.

Core Knowledge holds that an explicit, grade-by-grade "core of common learning" is necessary for a good education. So, for instance, when fifth-graders learn about Galileo's role in astronomy, they study Italian history and geography as well.

Kay calls criticisms by Hirsch and others "a sideshow that distracts people from the issue at hand: that our kids need world-class skills and world-class content."

Kay notes that virtually all of the industrialized countries the USA is competing with "are pursuing both content and skills."

His seven-year effort has earned enviable support — not only from lawmakers and policy wonks but also from a wide range of corporate backers. His non-profit board of directors boasts members from Intel, Apple, Dell, Adobe, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems, among others, and recent IRS filings show more than $1 million in revenue.

In November, a Massachusetts task force concluded that straight academic content "is no longer enough" to help students compete: It urged state education commissioner Mitchell Chester to add 21st-century skills to curriculum guides and teacher training. That drew a rebuke from The Boston Globe, which editorialized last week that it's "not clear that the approach can be implemented without de-emphasizing academic content."

At its heart, say Hirsch and others, the conflict is about what should happen in a school day: Do kids learn to think by reading great literature, doing difficult math and learning history, philosophy and science? Or can they tackle those subjects on their own if schools simply teach them to problem-solve, communicate, use technology and think creatively?

If you pursue the latter, says University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, the rich content you're after inevitably "falls by the wayside." While kids may enjoy working together on projects, for instance, the amount of knowledge they get often ends up being shallow. Furthermore, he says, research shows that many teachers find it difficult to actually teach children to think creatively or collaborate. In the end, they rarely get better at the very skills that P21 advocates.
I'm with Diane Ravitch who prefers 19th century skills. Fortunately, none of these changes would affect me because I teach Advanced Placement U.S. History and, for now, the curriculum, as determined by College Board, and that is supposed to parallel an introductory course in college. For now, that is a standard course of study from pre-Columbian America through to the present. Of course, give these enemies of teaching content a few more years and who knows what the colleges will be teaching?

My personal experience is that kids love learning American history. They can find the relevancy in what happened in the 16th or 18th centuries. They're fascinated with the story of why and how our Founders decided to rebel and create our nation. They love seeing the connections between political battles of the 18th century and those today. And they need that sweep of history to understand trends such as the expansion of our country, the growth of our federal government, racial relations, and our political parties. As they go through the chronological path, trends become clear to them. They're not so myopic that they can only care about recent history. It takes a really dull teacher to make stories like Andrew Jackson's presidency or the Civil War boring to students. Why mess with the most interesting subject kids have in school?

For those of you in North Carolina, this proposal is still in the planning stage. The leader at DPI, Rebecca Garland, says that they are encouraging public comments.
North Carolina officials are quick to emphasize that the proposal is just that--a proposal. And they are encouraging feedback from teachers and the public about the plan.
Well, here is the website with their phone numbers. I don't see an email address, but feel free to call up Ms. Garland and let her know what you think of these proposed changes. Then call your legislators and let them know that you don't approve of these changes in the curriculum.

My secret hope is that the dire financial problems that North Carolina is facing will stop this wholesale change. It's very expensive to revamp curriculum. There will have to be new textbooks. And right now there are EOC tests for 10th and 11th grade history classes. I heard once, about 10 years ago, that it cost a million dollars to develop and field test a new EOC test. That might be enough of a hurdle that DPI just won't be able to afford enacting their grand new plans. But don't be too sure what politicians will do once they can talk some blather about providing students with those very special "21st century skills."