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Talking the Plane Down March 16, 2010

Posted by Bill in Current Events, Schools, Uncategorized.
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You all have seen the movies. The jet airliner full of passengers and the pilot and co-pilot suddenly stricken with food poisoning and unable to fly the plane. The hapless passenger who gets plucked from his seat and handed the controls of the airplane while on the ground a grizzled old war pilot with a hundred years of experience– usually one who is undergoing a “what use am I to anybody now that I am 150 years old and no longer able to fly?” type of crisis– talks reassuringly to the erstwhile pilot and guides him step by step through landing the plane.  As the relieved passengers leave the plane, the beautiful flight attendant kisses the hero and tells him that he saved everybody’s lives and he replies, “No, I couldn’t have done it without the help of Old Jake,” while the grizzled old veteran blinks a tear out of his eye and rides off into the sunset.

The passengers of that plane were lucky that they don’t live in Texas because if the Texas State Board of Education had been in charge, instead of getting Old Jake to talk the plane down, they would have pulled a minister in to pray with the passengers of the plane after a banker made sure they understood the benefits of the free enterprise system.

Far fetched? Not to anyone who has been following the escapades of the Texas State Board of Education in adopting the standards for Social Studies textbooks in the State of Texas, a process that will have ripple effects throughout the rest of the United States because of the clout Texas wields over all the textbook publishers because of its size.

In a process that was so acrimonious that one member walked out of the meeting in protest, the right wing faction of the BOE succeeded in passing such measures as requiring students to describe how “describe how McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the arms race and the space race increased Cold War tensions and how the later release of the Venona Papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government.” (I suppose twenty years from now a similarly situated panel will be directing students to learn how the search for WMD in Iraq provided justification for the Iraq War.)

Plenty of other columnists have lambasted the individual measures of the proposals– and there is plenty of fodder to lambast– but I have to ask, why are we letting a group of politicians make decisions concerning what will be taught in public schools to begin with? If your car is broken down are you going to call up your local school board member and ask him how to fix it or are you going to take it to a mechanic? If you need to have a tooth pulled are you going to go wait for a member of the Board of Education to have a chance to yank it for you or are you going to go to a dentist? Oh- wait a minute! One of the members of the Texas  BOE IS a dentist, so lucky you can actually get someone there who is qualified to pull your tooth!

But my point is, why aren’t experts in the subject area making determinations about what should be taught? Among the members of the Texas State BOE we have 4 teachers, 1 school administrator, 1 substitute teacher/instructor/test monitor, 2 attorneys, 2 realtors, 1 investment banker, 1 businessman, 1 dentist and a couple of professional volunteers. Very few of these members would be qualified to be hired as a teacher in a Social Studies classroom, yet they are making decisions about what will be taught in those classrooms?

We cannot hold teachers accountable for poor outcomes if the standards are stupid to begin with. If we want to improve education in the United States, we need to look at the top and evaluate the processes whereby curriculum decisions are made– and I do not believe that allowing a group of people who have little to no specialized education or expertise in the field of
Social Studies is the best way to determine what should be taught in such classes.


A Modest Proposal for the Teaching of History January 25, 2010

Posted by Bill in Schools, Uncategorized.
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My dearly beloved, otherwise known as Bill, is reading a book called THE GREAT UPHEAVAL by Jay Winik. The book discusses the invention of America in context with events going on in other parts of the world at the time or the revolution. It is a great book- he says- because nothing happens in a vacuum and it really allows the reader to see the significance of what is happening in the world at the time of our Revolution– and the effect of our fight for freedom upon other areas.

In listening to him talk about the book, it occurred to me, not for the first time, that the way in which we teach history to American schoolchildren is all wrong. In elementary school they start out with a year of state history and then a year of US History, then of World History. They then start over again in  Middle School with the same sequence and finally in High School they start over once again.

When studying US History, they spend about a third of the year on the exploration and colonization of America, then move very quickly through the Civil War and Reconstruction and maybe, if they are lucky, they get to the Viet Nam War before the end of the year. There is just too much to cover in too short a space of time.

Not only is there too much to cover in a short period of time, but this method of teaching makes it seem as though the history of each continent is a discrete entity with no relationship to anything else that is going on in the world. Yet, everything is interrelated. Our current quagmire in Iraq stems back to our history in placing the Shah of Iran on the throne and to the British partition of Israel after WW II and to the colonialism of the late 1800’s.

World War II had its roots in the Weimar Republic which had its roots in the harsh conditions imposed on Germany by the allies after WW I which had its roots on German European history stemming back to the 1800’s.

And the break between Britain and the Catholic church did not come about ONLY because Henry VIII wanted a divorce from Katharine of Aragon, but stemmed back into the history of protestantism.

It seems to me that rather than teaching history as a discrete study of individual nations or continents, it would be more effective to take blocks of time and study what is going on across the entire world during that time period. Devote a year to studying Ancient History and learn about the importance of Mesopotamia, the advanced Japanese civilization and ancient Rome.

Move on to the Middle Ages, the Islamic golden age, the Renaissance, the Asian dynasties and the Indian empires. The move into the early modern era, the 16-18th centuries and finally into the modern era and the post modern era.

There would be many advantages to this mode of organization– it would satisfy the needs of cultural diversity. Students of all various heritages would learn not just the Euro-American view of history but would learn the contributions to history of all parts of the world. They would better be able to examine cause and effect and see the continuity of how one period of history feeds into another.

And it would allow students to apply what they learn in history to other areas of study– at the same time that they are studying the Middle Ages in history, they could be learning about art and history in the Middle Ages, or literature from that era. It would give them a much richer base of knowledge and a better understanding of the arts. Reading AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY by Theodore Dreiser is so much more relevant when learning about the Industrial Revolution, for instance.

At this time a curriculum committee appointed by the Texas Board of education is making decisions about what students in Texas will learn about in history classes for the next ten years. Given that these are political appointees who, for the most part, have few credentials in history or social studies, and who seem more concerned with putting a Christian-centric view of history into the curriculum, I’m not real optimistic that history education will improve in Texas over the next ten years. But if anybody is really interested in trying to change the way history is taught, they might consider looking at a curriculum organized by time periods worldwide. Forget studying one continent per year and focus on one era at a time. Maybe then our kids will grow up and actually STOP repeating the mistakes of the past.

What Are We Teaching Kids Anyway? September 13, 2009

Posted by Bill in Church and State, Religion, Schools.
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In Texas, a proposal being reviewed by the State Board of Education would drop the mention of Christmas from the 6th Grade Social Studies curriculum, replacing it with information about Diwali, a Hindu religious festival. Not surprisingly, conservative Christians are up in arms and revisiting their Continuous “War on Christmas” battle cry.

Actually, to be precise, the standards being considered are a requirement that sixth graders be able to explain the significance of religious holidays such as Yom Kippur, Diwali, Ramadan and Easter. Christmas is not included in that list although it is included in the CURRENT standards and Diwali is not.

Personally, I’d include them both, however, it’s possible that the committee recommending the changes thinks that sixth graders are probably already very familiar with the significance of Christmas and don’t need the school to spell it out for them. Let’s face it, it is not possible to live in the United States and NOT be aware of the religious significance of Christmas. It’s kind of like expecting the schools to teach kids in Texas about the importance of football– oh, wait a minute, schools in Texas– Arlington, Texas– are already expected to teach students about the importance of football. That’s why the district is busing 500 fifth graders to the new Cowboys Stadium in September.

No! No! No! It’s not to teach them the importance of football! It’s so they can hear the former president, George Dubya Bush, explain the importance of a volunteer initiative that will happen during the 2011 SuperBowl.

Volunteering is important, and no one should have a problem with their kids hearing about it. After all, it’s an important value, kind of like staying in school and studying hard- but wait! This is the same school district that completely boycotted Obama’s speech to school children about staying in school and studying hard because it took 18 minutes of class time away from IMPORTANT things, presumably like teaching the significance of Christmas!