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Bring Back Social Studies – From the Pages of The Atlantic

President Bush signing the bipartisan No Child...

The beginning of the end: President Bush signing NCLB at Hamilton H.S. in Hamilton, Ohio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even if you’ve said it a thousand times, it doesn’t hurt to say it again.

Mr. D’s much more industrious little sister, Dr. D (yep, she finished that doctorate!) drew my attention to this recent article from The Atlantic.  The article advocates stopping the current trend towards neutering social studies as a distinct discipline in American education.

While the article itself breaks no new ground, it encapsulates the history and status of the issue well so that newbies to the struggle get an eye opener–whilst the veterans get a refresher course in the shitstorm that is No Child Left Behind.

Jen Kalaidis opens with the decline of student time spent studying social studies, to a whopping 7.6 percent.  More importantly, she details the history of this decline–and contrary to popular belief, it didn’t happen in the Cold War.

Kalaidis does mention the 1957 Sputnik launch as a “Pearl Harbor” moment in American education.  From that point on, millions of dollars poured into math and science programs to keep up the space race against the Commies.  Yet to assume education was a zero-sum game at the time would be false: social studies did maintain its status through the Cold War, in fact peaking in 1993-1994 at 3 hours per week on average in US classrooms.

The reasoning is simple: the Cold War was more than just a technological race.  It was a battle of ethics and morals, of hearts and minds.  Social studies was at the center of that struggle, for better or worse.  At its worst, social studies channeled jingoistic American patriotism into half-truths and propaganda.  At its best, social studies provided the historical foundations, civic structure and critical analysis that helped shape a better America–one that could hopefully achieve that moral high ground against the Soviets.

The real decline came with No Child Left Behind–and here is where the article gets mundane.

To old-timers of the education wars, Kalaidis’ retread of the decline of social studies–the sacrifical lamb at the altar of Common Core, ELA, and STEM–is an old argument shouted out in hundreds of teacher lounges, conferences and workshops across the country.  The emphasis on reading, math and science pushed social studies to a secondary discipline–one that was often not subject to standardized testing.  If you couldn’t use a number 2 pencil, it wasn’t worth knowing.

We also all know how important it is to develop critical thinking and analysis skills, something social studies was designed for.  If taught well, social studies makes students take ownership of history, of civics and economics, leading them to their own ideas, conclusions and opportunities.

One aspect of this decline that Kalaidis did mention–and should be mentioned more–is the “civic achievement gap.”  The lack of civic education has created an underclass not only ignorant of their own government, but wholly unable or unwilling to vote, to participate in local politics or pursue careers in public service.   As much as we rag on the government, we need one–a competent one–and that involves competent people working in all levels.  To ignore the civic gap in low-income Americans is tantamount to disenfranchising them.

Lastly, Kalaidis does mention steps to move social studies back to the forefront.  Obama has decried the lack of civic education in NCLB.  So has Arne Duncan in a half-hearted article in the NCSS journal in 2011 (I ripped him a new one about it).  Yet most of this is lip service, or that dreaded word integration (as in subject integration, not race).

The reality is that there is no concrete move to make social studies important again in American schools.  And I hate to admit it–but the conspiracist in me thinks the decline of social studies is deliberate.

When the lunatics run the asylum, they make sure no one figures out they’re really lunatics.  Without proper social studies education, there’s no way to tell the difference.

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The Education War – Who is winning?

TrenchThe word “quagmire” gets thrown around pretty casually these days.

Civil unrest.  “Nation building.” Revolutions. Economic crisis. Natural disasters.  The Q-word has been used repeatedly for so many of the dangerous, sticky situations we find ourselves as a society.

Yet does the education war—the clash of “reformers” that has stretched over a decade—deserve the dreaded label?

It depends on what you hear.

Many news outlets, in print and online, picture the education reform movement as clearly on the defensive.  Attacks on charter schools have increased as never before, viewed as undemocratic, tyrannical and ultimately ineffective.  The latest report on how Eva Moskowitz’ Success Academy charter schools were caught on record attempting to push out a special-needs student is particularly galling.

New tests based on the Common Core Learning Standards showed massive drops in scores, giving a giant raspberry to all earlier reform attempts.  Companies cashing in on the testing craze—Pearson, McGraw-Hill, etc.—are under the microscope for botched questions and poor scoring in state after state.  The Common Core itself is under attack, as state after state elects to opt out of the supposedly nationwide initiative—regardless of the DOE carrot-and-stick policy about Common Core adoption.

Even reform stalwarts like Teach for America, Michelle Rhee and the Gates Foundation find themselves under siege as critics wail on their status and perceived impact on public education.

Yet if you look at actual policy, it paints a very different picture.

Education reformers, backed bipartisanly, have pushed standardized testing into almost every classroom in America.  Teacher evaluation systems across the country are aligning teacher effectiveness with student scores on state tests, with unions knuckling under in the process.  The Common Core, though embattled, is now the rule in reform strongholds like New York, California and Massachusetts.  Governors from both parties are backing more draconian measures to shut down failing schools.

Even worse, the media machine of education reform has recently launched a counter-offensive.  Long criticized for not developing effective veteran teachers, TFA and other reform movements are now saying it is BETTER to have short-term teachers who won’t become veterans because their enthusiasm, their innate intelligence and God’s good graces are enough to provide a quality education for children.

This conflict looks like it qualifies as a quagmire… and part of fault lies with the opposition.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of standardized tests, TFA, charters, etc.  Most readers here already know that.  However, I am a very big fan of improving teacher selection and preparation, which is high on the education reform agenda.   I don’t like that it’s relatively easy access into our profession, and it hurts our reputation in the process.

I have feet in two very different parts of the swamp.  They shouldn’t be.  Both sides should be having real, meaningful policymaking sessions by now.  Why aren’t they?

The education reform movement does not take the opposition seriously.

This is a similar problem with the Occupy Wall Street movement.  It was a grassroots movement, to be sure, but there was no definition of victory: no goals, no leadership, no direction.  It “started a dialogue”, and you know how much J.P. Morgan and the like shake in their wingtips over that.

Occupy Wall Street failed because Wall Street itself never saw them as a threat.  They didn’t become an electoral force, backing candidates allied to them for Congress and Senate.  They didn’t become a fundraising power, soliciting funds so that candidates from both parties kowtow to them in alternating order.  They didn’t become a lobby, oiling and adjusting the rusty gears of the filthy gearbox called legislative politics.

The Tea Party, on the other hand, though still disorganized nationally, managed to become a force because it knew how to monopolize the conversation and the ballot box.  It wasn’t just Koch Brothers money that put the Tea Party boot on the throat of the Republican Party.  The Tea Party quickly moved from “starting a dialogue” to “kicking the shit out of anyone in their way.” Moderate republicans fell like dominoes.  Their candidates, whether they won or lost, made sure the Tea Party was firmly at the big boys table in the RNC.

The Tea Party became a threat.  They became feared.  Occupy Wall Street didn’t…and the education reform opposition isn’t much of a fear either.

As much as the opposition boasts numerous media outlets, a lightning-rod leader in Diane Ravitch, and numerous movements like Save Our Schools, etc., there is little to show for their efforts other than scathing editorials, page after page of incendiary blogs, reams of online petitions and packed comments on Facebook pages.

Victory is not “opening a dialogue.”  It is when the policies of the state and nation are changed.  That does not happen with a spirited debate.

If the opposition wants a seat at the education table, rightly placed across from the reformers, it has to fight for it.

Like Wall Street, the only thing many of these reformers will listen to is their wallet and the ballot box.  The opposition needs to attack both, ferociously and brutally.

It must out-Koch the Koch brothers and out-Gates the Gates Foundation.  It must attain its own billionaire allies to fund PACs, lobbies, and candidates to state and national office.  It must push their agenda by any means necessary.

It has to turn the media conversation forcefully, repeatedly and effectively to counter the sound-bites of the reformers.   The phrase “for the children”, co-opted by both sides, is both tired and unrealistic.  It ceased to be about children a long time ago, unfortunately.  This fight is about the adults, and hopefully the policies will serve children best.  But to say that each side is exclusively serving the children is to be in an extreme state of delusion.

More than anything, however, the opposition needs to get its hands dirty with the business of politics.  I know many in the opposition, and they are smart, savvy, earnest people who genuinely want to make a difference.  They want to “maintain the moral high ground” and not stoop to the level of the Broads, Kochs, Gates and the rest.  Their methods, frankly, will do nothing but create coffee-house chatter.

To change policy is a filthy, brutal, demoralizing and demeaning business.  Only by beating the reformers at their own game can the opposition sit with them and negotiate as rivals to pound out the policies that best serve everyone.

As for maintaining the moral high ground…that only works when your opponent has morals to maintain.

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David Letterman – Top Ten Reasons I’ve Decided to Become a Teacher

I’m knee deep in LearnZillion work as I came back from my long break.

The Gilder Lehrman conference at USC was great–wonderful professors, cool colleagues, and a special shout out to the folks at Tiki Ti’s for making things just a little bit better on Wednesday night.

My stopover in Colorado was even better.  So much fun to be with my western kin.  It was a blast, and the mile-high altitude didn’t faze me one bit.

I saw this video of David Letterman’s Top Ten List on my Facebook feed and wanted to share it for two reasons:

A. the satirical reasons Letterman comes up with may be fresh and new to his juvenile audience, but we teachers have heard enough of it.

B. Isn’t it a tad insulting when TFAers, especially those who HAVEN’T EVEN STARTED THEIR TERM YET, are brought out for this little stunt?  If Letterman really wanted to thank teachers he would’ve included some veterans who know there way around the classroom.

Personally, I want to see those ten kids in two years…all glassy eyed, strung out and ready for their Morgan Stanley/McKinsey/CitiGroup/PWC/etc. job they really wanted in the first place.

Comments are always welcome.

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