What MUST we teach them in these schools?

Utah starred in one of today’s EdWeek Update lead stories: “State Lawmakers Make Curricular Demands”.

The story begins:

“It’s not unusual for lawmakers to debate aspects of the American political system, but a recent discussion in Utah’s House of Representatives wasn’t merely theoretical.
The bill under consideration, since signed into law, requires public schools to teach that the United States is a “compound constitutional republic.” The curriculum also must provide a “thorough study” of key historical documents, it says, such as the U.S. Constitution, the Mayflower Compact, and Supreme Court decisions.

Speaking in opposition, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss said the bill represented a “slippery slope”—indeed a “double black diamond slope”—of legislative interference. “A ‘no’ vote on this just would say, we don’t believe in micromanaging the curriculum,” the Democrat argued.”

I confess I hadn’t followed this debate (embarrassing, since I continue to team teach U.S. Government at a Catholic school in Utah), but my first reaction was: Haven’t we slipped, – no, skied – down this slope already?

Following this hunch, I rechecked the Utah State Office of Education social studies core standards. Sure enough, here are the very first objectives listed under U.S. government:

Standard 1: Students will understand the significance and impact of the Constitution on everyday life.
Objective 1
Investigate the ideas and events that significantly influenced the creation of the United States Constitution.
a. Identify and summarize the philosophies that contributed to the Constitution; e.g., Machiavelli, Locke, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton.
b. Identify and investigate the events that led to the creation of the Constitution.
c. Analyze how the idea of compromise affected the Constitution.
Objective 2
Assess the essential ideas of United States constitutional government.
a. Examine the purposes and role of government.
b. Investigate the major ideas of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other writings; e.g., Magna Carta, English Bill of Rights, Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Iroquois Confederation.
c. Compare the Articles of Confederation to the United States Constitution.

As for the “compound constitutional republic,” here’s Standard 3:

Standard 3
Students will understand the distribution of power in the national, state, and local government in the United States federal system.
Objective 1
Determine the relationship between the national government and the states.
a. Identify and explain the concept of federalism.
b. Examine the debate between federal supremacy and states’ rights.
c. Assess the unique relationship between the sovereign American Indian nations and the United States government.

I suspect the legislature harbors suspicions that Utah government teachers don’t always meet these standards and cover these objectives . . . and I suspect they’re right. I can actually plead innocent here: Perhaps as a tribute to all the terrific political philosophy courses I took in college, I always covered these particular constitutional principles, documents, and thinkers. I also found students woefully misinformed about federalism, and tried to mitigate some of this ignorance as well. But I can’t claim that I met every standard and objective listed by the State Office of Education, any more than I covered all the possible topics listed in the College Board’s even more daunting Advanced Placement topics. There just isn’t time in the school year, especially if the standard is “thorough study.”

Why does this matter?

It matters because a huge fight is now erupting over the Obama administration’s push to establish nationwide common curriculum standards. It’s one more battle in the ongoing war I’ve been discussing in this blog: uniformity versus diversity, central control versus local control.

These battles do make a difference, not least because they shape textbooks . . . and we teachers like to believe that textbooks shape learning, at least a little.

Moreover, whatever we may think about the Utah legislature’s actions, many citizens will applaud or decry other state curriculum actions. To continue from the EdWeek Update article:

“In California, a bill approved in mid-April by the state Senate would require public schools to incorporate the history and contributions of homosexuals into social studies classes. The Tennessee House of Representatives last month passed a bill that would require state and local educational authorities to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies,” including evolution and global warming. It also would protect teachers from disciplinary action for analyzing and critiquing those topics.
And Wisconsin lawmakers in late 2009 pushed through a mandate to revamp the state’s social studies standards to include teaching the history of labor unions and collective bargaining—a requirement that’s taken on an ironic cast with a new legislature’s curbs on public-employee unions.”

How do we reach a NATIONAL consensus on these subjects? Judging from the battle over history standards several years, ago, culture warriors will have a field day. Teachers, for the most part, will duck – and carry on. (For both sides of the history standards debate, see www.trinityhistory.org/)

So these debates matter, but . . . I have trouble taking them as seriously as I probably should. The problem, it seems to me, doesn’t lie with curriculum standards – bland, divisive or simply wrong-headed as these can and probably will be. The real problem lies with whether or not students learn as ANY of the standards promise. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, less than a quarter of U.S. high school seniors tested as proficient in civics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, even though 97% reported taking a required government course. Sigh.

Of course this evidence of failure that leads to calls for more meaningful assessment of what students have learned, which leads to more government-imposed tests, which leads to more accusations that we’re teaching to the test. It intrigues – and worries – me that many teachers are applauding a recent manifesto by conservative scholars criticizing the common standards. Is the common ground respect for diversity? Or is it flight from accountability?

Any thoughts?

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