Texas Textbook Standoff

Texas School Board of Education

I have been monitoring the Texas Textbook Standoff for the last couple of weeks. It all came to an end today with a majority vote of all of the standards from elementary school through high school for social studies/history (specifically American History) be changed for the next ten years. Watching the television shows and reading the op-eds about this has really enraged me. People on the left and the right claim that each side has supported a “revisionist” philosophy towards history. The left argues that the right is using history to push their conservative or “Tea Party” agenda, while the right claims that history has always been slant to the left and the current actions are used to just evening it out. It is unfortunate that politicians are fighting these battles, especially in the wake of an important election in November. Many times their “policies” are a regurgitation of “talking points” surrounded by esoteric words left to the media to decipher. As a history teacher myself, one of the things that I pride myself on is working towards offering my students various perspectives of history. It is not only important politically, but is one of the integral tools of history. I have a responsibility to make sure that students have the opportunity to use the same tools that historians use to draw conclusions. Additionally, I was quite surprised about all of the hoopla surrounding this debate. It begs the question what the Texas School Board was trying to accomplish? Finally, as an educator it made me think about the need for a national curriculum for students, and this debate on “whose history are we going to teach” has once again pushed that initiative to the background.

One of the things that troubles me about this debate is that the people who are making the decisions aren’t educators nor historians. “A historian customarily displays a certain diffidence about trying to influence events, knowing the unanticipated developments often lead to unintended consequences.” However, the people on the Texas School Board on both sides of the aisle did very little show anything but their pure ideological bias. Frankly, I am not surprised, “A policymaker…[has] as theory of action, even if they can’t articulate it, and they implement plans based on their theory of action, their guess about how the world works.” (The Death & Life of the Great American School System; Diane Ravitch, 2009) The board’s “guess” is exceptionally alarming. There were no large group of historians (from a variety of institutions) in the audience debating the rhetoric in the textbooks. The members themselves didn’t have a collection of primary source documents, videos, audio, pictures, etc. that would support their idea. They literally took a guess about “how the world works.” A student’s understanding of history should not be a reflection of the political waves of the time, rather it should be a reflection of solid scholarship from both sides of the aisle. The limitations that are put on the curriculum as a result of the board’s decisions to adopt their draconian changes to the standards will hinder students ability to offer a balanced perspective to historical scholarship in the future.

Your Typical History Book

As a history teacher, I am sure to present my students with as much primary source information they can get their hands on and interpret. That is especially important. A REAL historian would say that is not the place of the teacher, the president, or the Texas School Board to tell a student what he/she should or should not believe regardless of what side of the aisle is on/from. Students should be required to look at the information and draw conclusion, ideas, thoughts, and criticisms on their own. So while most may say think that I would be on the side of the “liberal bloc” of the Texas School Board. I say SHAME ON ALL OF THEM You let your ideology stand in the way for students to be able to do what history is support to do for students: give them the ability to apply historical patterns from the past to their lives today, analyse and criticise elements of history (with the teachers providing them the tools to do so) and increase their cognitive skills using history as a backdrop.
SOLUTION Once again it falls back in the hands of the teacher. Whether you are from the left or the right your job is to make sure that students are getting both sides of the discussion. A history teacher should be a teacher/historian first then an ideologue second. That means constantly reading and challenging their findings and giving their students the materials to do the same.

One of the other elements of the debate that troubled me was all of the hoopla around the debate. Unfortunately, most television news shows, newspapers, and other media outlets know very little about how this plays out in the educational context. The reason why I was surprised by the hoopla is the idea that students will finally be analysing history, but at the same time there is a test be developed to measure their learning. This is terribly contradictory. You cannot claim that students will analyse history and that putting and/or omitting information is going to hurt student learning of history, but in the same breath ask for an exam that puts historical events into small snippets and ask them to regurgitate information. Did the Texas School Board forget where the state of the educational landscape really is? So once again, this makes me think that his debate was NOT about the education of children, but another chance for politics to reign in something that is supposed to be apolitical.

At the end of the day this debate really tells me that it is time for a national curriculum. What a national CURRICULUM does over NATIONAL STANDARDS is set up the learning goals articulated by each year. Here is the difference: (I am going to use the Illinois History Standards)

16.C.2c (US)
Describe significant economic events including industrialization, immigration, the Great Depression, the shift to a service economy and the rise of technology that influenced history from the industrial develop- ment era to the present.

This ask a teacher to have students DESCRIBE economic events in American history. Not only is this horrifically limiting it doesn’t tell me anything and leaves it open to interpretation by the teacher or the school board.

Here is an example of what I think a national CURRICULUM goal should look like:

Event: The Industrial Revolution

1st-3rd Grade
-The shift from an agricultural society to an industrial society in the tools that they used.

4-5th Grade
-The shift from an agricultural society to an industrial society with reference to tools and the development of cities during the time.

6-8th Grade
-The shift from an agricultural society to an industrial society with reference to the development of tools and cities and evidence of labour and labour policies.

One may ask what is the difference? The difference is it leaves the teacher in control of choosing how they plan on getting this information across to the students. Are they going to describe it? Are they going to analyse it? Are they going to compare and contrast it? It leaves the LEARNING skill ambiguous to the needs of the students . Secondly, the framers of the curriculum can only write down specific events and group them appropriately across the grade level. When you focus on the events and not the learning skills it makes something like history standards more apolitical.

At the end of the day, I am disappointed by the debate and the outcome of this measure. It is shameful that we are having a textbook discussion and not a curriculum discussion because it assumes that teachers are going to solely rely on their textbooks. It is time that we look back to the purpose of learning and not your own personal intent behind it.

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Print? The Final Frontier?

I’ve had ample discussions with many of my friends that are around my age about the need for handwriting in school. When I was in school is was absolutely mandatory that we not only practice our handwriting, but be proficient at writing the letters. This goes for both print and cursive. 1st-3rd grade we practiced print writing and 4th-6th grade we practiced cursive handwriting. Grades 7-8 we were finally given the autonomy to write in whatever style we liked. Many of my friends who were in grammar school in the late 80’s and through the 90’s had a curriculum similar to this one.

Recently, I have read the second article of the year in regards to whether or not school districts should require their teachers to teach cursive handwriting. The most recent article “School Adjust How Writing is Taught in the Text Age” discusses this paradigm shift. Many education administrators site three reasons why cursive handwriting needs to be reevaluated.

1. In the days of high-stakes testing many districts have had to really streamline “ancillary” subjects like handwriting so they can spend more time with reading and mathematics.

2. As we conclude the first decade of the 21st century, many students aren’t communicating through pen and paper writing — let alone cursive handwriting.

3. Even when students are writing using pen and paper they typically skew to print writing instead of cursive.

Cursive writing should be here to stay.

Personally, I think these are all valid reasons why a district should re-evaluate the handwriting curriculum. However, to eliminate cursive handwriting would be a big mistake. I have two reasons why I think it would be a mistake:

1. If you are not a fan of high-stakes testing to evaluate student learning, then eliminating handwriting from the curriculum wouldn’t be consistent with that logic. If you analyze many of the “reforms” going through our system today, you begin to send a trend where little by little we are asking to dismiss many things that were core to our own learning. For example, reducing the amount of time student take elective courses (art, music, etc.), doubling the amount of time students are doing reading/mathematics, etc. Eliminating cursive handwriting from the curriculum would just add to schools just focusing on “core subjects” and straying away from creating the “whole student.”

2. Ironically as I am writing this blog I realise that once again I am not physically writing something down on a piece of paper. I am using type for a medium of communication. This shows my privilege in my access to technology for communication. However, I am one of the few people in our society that has this privilege. The article that I using as a basis for this blog discusses how many students use technology as means of communication. I will grant them that.

Texting is NOT the only form of communication.

However, as long as ALL students don’t have consistent access to communication through technology then eliminating cursive handwriting would be problematic. I feel it needs to be understood that handwriting is just one form of communication. This one form of communication is the easiest to teach (usually through repetition and application), the cheapest to teach, and is universal among all literate people in our society. Using WordPress for blogging, creating a Meebo account for streamlined communication, and developing a Linked-In page for social networking is not easy to teach, cheap to furnish, or particularly universal among everyone. Web 2.0 has done an excellent job at providing communication services free of charge, but training principals, teachers, and students in these Web 2.0 applications is not free. Therefore, until ALL districts provide ALL stakeholders with the tools and the knowledge to use texting, IM, and Web 2.0 tools, districts must not be quick to eliminate handwriting (including cursive) from their curriculum. Rather, they should find a way to strike a nice balance.