Well, I think we found something close to closure in the social studies test saga. It won’t be back for a while…but there’s still hope.
Since we last left the saga of the missing state social studies tests, I have been badgering the Regents to give a more intelligent response than the terse, one-line cast-off I was given. Apparently, it must have touched a nerve to e-mail over the Jewish holiday, because today I receive a response from Dr. John King, Senior Deputy Commissioner for P-12 Education at the NYS Education Department. Dr. King wrote:
Dear Mr. D:
I appreciate the opportunity to respond to your concerns regarding the Grades 5 and 8 Social Studies Tests. They were canceled due to fiscal difficulties, not because they were inadequate assessments. Given the current fiscal climate, there are no plans to reinstate these tests in the immediate future.
States may not use Race to the Top funding to support the development and administration of summative assessments. The US Department of Education held a separate competition for assessment funding, but that was focused on the development of a new generation of ELA and mathematics tests. It is worth noting that the application of literacy skills to social studies texts will be a feature of the next generation of ELA tests.
Thank you for your interest in New York State’s testing programs and for all the work you do on behalf of our students.
Dr. John B. King
This response was a whopping two-paragraphs longer than the last note I received from one of the Regents. In spite of all the jerking around this summer, I really did appreciate Dr. King being frank with me about the reason why the tests were cancelled. Still, I didn’t exactly want to let him off the hook. Here was my response:
Dear Dr. King,
First of all, thank you so much for responding to my concerns. I had reached a dead end all through the summer and I appreciate your candor and forthrightness in explaining the situation and the disposition of funds re: summative assessment.
Also, I fully take into account the difficult fiscal situation we are in, and accept the fact that social studies assessments will not be reinstated in the immediate future. I had wished that social studies not be the perennial whipping-boy of austerity, unlike ELA, mathematics, and science, but such is the situation we face.
However, I do want to leave you with some words for the future. In my years of experience of teaching in the No Child Left Behind universe, I have come to one immutable conclusion: if a subject is not tested, then it is not taught. The pressure, often the terror, of failure in exams has pushed students, teachers and administrators to focus efforts on those subjects that matter most to the education establishment, namely ELA, mathematics, and science. Social studies, far too often, has been left on the backburner, either through tests that have little or no stake in promotion or in half-hearted attempts to “integrate” social studies into the more “preferred” disciplines.
I caution you, however, to not create a “holy trinity” of subject matter while leaving social studies as the mincemeat of integration. Former Harvard president Derek Bok once said that “If you think that education is expensive, try ignorance.” We cannot produce informed, intelligent citizens without a focused, intense instructional system in social studies. Integration into ELA, while useful, does not highlight the content, but rather the reading skills and strategies. The content matters. Our democracy cannot function if our citizens now little or nothing about its form, function or history. This instruction cannot be left to ELA curricula that have different priorities in mind.
To put it in more urgent words, do you trust the future of our American democracy to students that have been cheated out of a proper education about American democracy?
Please remember these words when the fiscal situation changes.
Thank you very much for your time.
I think this was an appropriate ending–albeit unwanted–for this summer’s social studies drama in New York.
However, that doesn’t mean we will give up the fight to restore social studies’ rightful status in the education of New York’s schoolchildren. If you want to contact Dr. King and give your reasons to protect social studies in this state, here’s his contact info:
Senior Deputy Commissioner
89 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12234
A Letter to Secretary Arne Duncan Re: the 2010 NAEP Civics Report Card
Image via Wikipedia
Dear Secretary Duncan,
(Again, is Arne okay? We tend to be informal here at the Neighborhood, so we hope you don’t mind.)
How’s it going, big guy? Still keeping up that jump shot? I’m just assuming since you seem to be more of a perimeter player than someone who dominates the paint…
…which is a lot like your current job as Secretary of Education (just kidding, I think).
Anyway, I’d like to start out by offering condolences. It wasn’t easy being taken to the woodshed for your alleged insincerity on Teacher Appreciation Day—especially from my friend Sabrina Stevens Shupe. I know, I know: your press flunky felt that the “broader teaching community” was in agreement with you. Yet the overwhelming evidence Sabrina and others brought—of glad-handing, double-talk, duplicity and outright hypocrisy—has got the intellectual feel of a few rounds with Mike Tyson in his prime.
Nobody likes an ass-kicking, Arne, but it builds character…at least that’s what I tell kids just before they get their butts whupped again.
Now to the crux of the matter, and I’m afraid it isn’t pleasant. You see, last time we spoke, the New York State Board of Regents was destroying social studies assessment in the state while you fiddled with the Race to the Top money. In the end, you ended up giving them the dough—for making New Yorkers dumber citizens.
It’s a brilliant move, if you were an authoritarian despot that depended on mindless sheep to vote for you in sham elections. Way to make our state look more like a banana republic, Arne.
New York is now not alone. Other states, in their zeal to give you your annual tribute in reading and math data, have either pared down history, geography, economics and government curricula, removed requirements, and even trashed state assessments altogether in social studies. According to a recent study in Education Week, “…the number of states that test elementary social studies declined from 30 to 12 over the last ten years. By the 2009–10 school year, about half the states had developed grade- or course-specific standards across all grade spans in English/language arts (27 states) and mathematics (26). Slightly fewer have such detailed standards in social studies/history and science (23 and 22, respectively).”
The fruit of this labor is the recent results in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)’ 2010 Civics Report Card—results deemed “pathetic” by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
I needn’t rehash the results for you, Arne, but just to highlight the bullet points: Less than 50% of eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights. Only 10% understood how the three branches of the federal government balance national power—the old “checks and balances” system. Only 25% of high school seniors were able to identify an effect of US foreign policy on other nations. The same percentage could name a power granted to Congress by the Constitution.
In all, only 20% of eighth graders—and only 25% of high school seniors—demonstrate a proficiency in the workings of their representative democracy.
Now, there are some people who will tell you that the results are skewed and not reliable.
There are others who do not deem this to be a crisis at all.
Frankly, Arne, these people are either committed to destroying our republic or waist-high in their own bullshit.
(Don’t tell me you’re offended by foul language…you played basketball in AUSTRALIA, for God’s sake! That’s like writing an encyclopedia of barracks humor.)
Now, the numbers for fourth- and eighth- graders, while abysmal, can be corrected in time with little collateral damage. But 25% proficiency in high school seniors should make any true-blue American brown their shorts.
You see, Arne, 100% of them are the legal voting age of 18. Yet only 25% knew what the hell they’re doing in the voting booth. That doesn’t frighten you? Doesn’t it astound you that in a few years, as the electorate gets younger, their knowledge of representative democracy diminishes just as fast…
…and yet we still expect them to participate in our democracy?
How about you give Father O’Malley the key to the boy’s orphanage, or my drunk uncle the keys to the Cadillac while you’re at it…because the education establishment’s outright disdain and neglect for social studies is just as irresponsible.
How many times to we have to repeat it, Arne? We live in a representative democracy that requires an active, informed and educated citizenry to run effectively. Speaking for my fellow teachers, it is our job to train young people to be fully active in their democracy, in all areas.
That includes a thorough knowledge of their history, their geography, and the diverse cultural heritage of our nation.
That includes a thorough understanding of the development, foundations, ideologies, functions and opportunities of our democratic republic.
That includes a thorough analysis of goods, services, inputs, outputs, needs, wants, theories, models and institutions that define us as an economic entity.
That includes a thorough understanding of a citizen’s role in a democracy: to vote, to petition, to complain, to foment dissent, to attack unjust policies, and to change politics and government itself through the electoral process or even direct action.
By the way, these things are not taught in that educational paradise you love called China. It’s because China is a dictatorship. A quasi-“Communist” dictatorship, to be sure, but a dictatorship nonetheless.
My students can have all the science, math and reading knowledge they can muster. What good is it in a dictatorship where dissent is silenced and citizens have little basic rights? Is that what you want to create in this country, Arne? A population of ignorant sedated blobs just educated enough to read the propaganda slogans?
Arne, I don’t want my students to be like the Chinese. If I did, I’d have moved there a long time ago. I don’t make data points in ELA, Math or any other subject. I don’t make goal setters, essential-question verbalizers, educational inputs, lifelong learners, lifelong objective makers, coherent planners, or jargon-based drones worthy of a “quality review” like widgets on an assembly line.
My job, Arne, is to make Americans.
The disciplines of the social studies involve every subject, every skill, every concept and idea embodied in the more “accepted” subjects of reading, math and science. They need to be nurtured, assessed and empowered as a separate subject in curricula throughout the nation. Otherwise, we can just pack up the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence and call it a night.
Arne, please help us in training the next generation of American citizens, leaders and politicians. Stop the rot now. Reverse the gutting of social studies by making them just as important as reading, math and science in data, in scores, in reports and especially in funding. Keep social studies on the pantheon of American education. Make sure our country has an informed, active citizenry for years to come.
The very life of the United States depends on it.
Thanks, as always for your time.
With warm regards,
Mr. D and the good folks at Mr. D’s Neighborhood
PS: If you choose to ignore this, the actions (or inactions) of your office could merit a call to the Department of Homeland Security as a potential “enemy of the state.” Not acting on this crisis is tantamount to high treason. You’ve been warned.
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