Florida hiding its history?

July 17, 2006

Earthaid3 sends a link to a column by University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen, in which he reports on efforts by the Florida legislature to snuff out the teaching of history in a fashion that recalls nothing so much as Stalin’s Soviet Union:

“Florida’s lawmakers are not only prescribing a specific view of US history that must be taught (my favorite among the specific commands in the law is the one about instructing students on “the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy”), but are trying to legislate out of existence any ideas to the contrary. They are not just saying that their history is the best history, but that it is beyond interpretation. In fact, the law attempts to suppress discussion of the very idea that history is interpretation.”

Go see the column, here: http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0717-22.htm

From this column, it appears to me that Florida, under Gov. Jeb Bush, is headed exactly the opposite direction of Texas, using the laws passed under his brother, Gov. George Bush, and contrary to the federal law, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Most troubling is what appears to be an effort to stamp out teaching about discrimination against African Americans and Native Americans.

Jensen said:

“Is history “knowable, teachable, and testable?” Certainly people can work hard to know — to develop interpretations of processes and events in history and to understand competing interpretations. We can teach about those views. And students can be tested on their understanding of conflicting constructions of history.
“But the real test is whether Americans can come to terms with not only the grand triumphs but also the profound failures of our history. At stake in that test is not just a grade in a class, but our collective future.”

See this account from “Sean’s Russia Blog”: http://seansrusskiiblog.blogspot.com/2006/06/revisiting-floridas-ban-on-revisionism.html

Readers from Florida: Can you lend details? Is this as bad as it seems?

Generally, if teachers are trained well in history, their students will get the sort of education that leads them to be better citizens, able to pull from history what they need to function in their lives as citizens of their cities, states and nation. Propaganda will be, in the end, self-defeating. The best way to teach history is straight up, warts and all, and invite criticism.

Georges Santayana had it right: Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. We teach history to avoid exactly that condemnation. Does Florida’s law help toward that goal, or hinder our efforts to educate our children?

Update: J. L. Bell at Boston 1775 looks at the Florida standards specifically with regard to the Declaration of Independence. It’s not pretty.

Revenge on Texas voters?

July 17, 2006

Paul Burka, at the Texas Monthly blog, reports raw rumor that Gov. Rick Perry plans to appoint state Rep. Kent Grusendorf to head the Texas Education Agency, as Texas Commissioner of Education. Grusendorf lost his reelection bid in the primary, as Republicans in Arlington registered their discontent with his inability to resolve the funding crisis in Texas schools. After the primary, the state legislature was able to get a bill through, in a special session that ended just days before the deadline set by the Texas State Supreme Court, which had ruled the previous funding system unconstitutional.

How this would affect history books in the next round of textbook approvals is unclear at the moment.

Update, August 2, 2006:  Gov. Perry’s office denies the rumor to the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram.  

Keep Education Green: Bring money

July 17, 2006

A member of the Utah State Board of Education has started his own blog. If I understand the politics correctly, Tim Beagley’s up for reelection this year. A blog, in that case, could be quite an exercise in bravery. It could also be an exercise in stupidity — maybe both at the same time.

In his first post he laments that Utah has fallen behind in spending, but he rather stops short of calling for a lot more money: http://kcmannn.bravejournal.com/index.php.

Utah was the most highly-educated state population in the nation in the not-too-distant past. The line I used to insert into speeches was Utah had an average educational attainment of more than 12 years in school — high school graduation — and that was not only higher than most states, it was remarkable because Utah had a significantly younger population than other states.

Education funding is a key place to improve results, if the money is spent wisely. My view is that teachers’ salaries in almost all cases need to be increased, and in most cases, increased a lot. Teachers are still the front-line workers in education, the people who make all the other delivery system improvements work (or don’t make them work), and the people who really influence children.

Any attempt to improve education without raising teachers’ salaries might be compared to an attempt to improve safety in the airline industry while freezing pilot salaries. We might get the results we want, but it will be despite our gross errors in judgment, not because of them. Let me rephrase that, trying to be more clear: The quick way, and lasting way, to improve education results is to raise teacher pay; we may get better results without raising teacher pay, but it will cost a lot more money to overcome the difficulty of making the system work when the front-line workers are not the best we can get.

I spent my last years in public schools in Utah. I had a handful of great teachers who coached me to do my best. On their efforts I won a National Merit Scholarship. Certainly the administrative decisions to keep our academic day short, and to keep calculus out of the high school curriculum, did nothing to help me achieve. I suspect that is true for most people.

It would be good to see an advocate of increasing education spending declare that openly, and win.

Postscript: I am not in the business of advising candidates for profit any more, but were I , and were he to ask, I’d urge Mr. Beagley to hustle himself to a good portrait photographer right away.

Hat tip to Lavarr Webb’s Utah Policy Daily, at UtahPolicy.com.

Bubbles bursting in air: Dotcom and Housing Departments

July 17, 2006

Perhaps you, as a social studies teacher, also teach economics.  Or perhaps you’re trying to help your students understand the dotcom bubble burst, or just venture capitalism in general. 

Then go read Paul Graham’s essay on venture capitalists:  http://paulgraham.com/venturecapital.html

Tip o’ the Cyberhat to Rick Segal.

Textbook fight in Texas:Watch carefully!

July 17, 2006

Texas textbooks suffer from political wrangling by the state’s school board, which has little else to do with the texts but wrangle over what is in them and why. News suggests the board, recently fortified with primary election wins by extremely conservative, anti-public school forces, now will try to use the texts to change curricula statewide.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the Texas State Board of Education (Texas SBOE) will go after English literature in the next round of text approvals: http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/printstory.mpl/metropolitan/4024620 Reporter Jane Elliott wrote:

“Many on the board want to replace a student-centered curriculum that calls on students to use their own attitudes and ethics to interpret texts with teacher-centered instruction that emphasizes the basics of spelling, grammar and punctuation.

“It was a fight social conservatives on the board lost in 1997, when moderates and liberals adopted the curriculum for all subjects. Now, with social conservatives expected to have a majority on the board for the first time after the November elections, the plan to rewrite the English standards is viewed by some as the opening shot in an effort to put a conservative imprint on the state’s curriculum.”

English does not lend itself much to political manipulation, generally. There is a set of classic literature that Texas teachers use, basically the same set teachers in other states use. It is possible that this change in process could help English instruction. Past experience suggests this is a stalking horse issue for the board to develop voting blocs and strategies to go after the content of U.S. history courses and biology courses later. Inherent dangers in these battles include the watering down of texts to the point that they are dishwater — deadly dull for students, and deadly to the teaching of the subjects.

Dr. Diane Ravitch, now of New York University, formerly the Assistant Secretary of Education for Research in the administration of George H. W. Bush, argues that both left and right share blame for bad textbooks as a result of these fights, in her book, The Language Police. I am most familiar with the Holt Rinehart Winston (HRW) series, The American Nation, from using it for three years (we were using an earlier edition of the book shown in the link).

The books must mention a broad range of specific topics and people. All of the approved history books suffer from a resulting dullness in their addressing the topics which makes history a real foot-slogging exercise for most Texas high school students. HRW offers significant additional products to help teachers — I made heavy use of the CD-ROM accompanying the text and especially its software to help generate tests. I found it necessary to use chunks from my extensive video library to supplement, and in critical areas for the Texas exit exam for seniors, the book did not inspire students to learn the material — for Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the Japanese internment during World War II, Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan, Vietnam and the Cold War, for example. These specific areas do not stand out in the book, not as I wish they would, and not in a way that the average kid would understand the issues.

History should sing. The study of history should inspire students, as patriots, as citizens, as parents and as humans interested in real drama. Dull books put the burden on teachers to make the history sing, and too few teachers are up to the task, especially in a world dominated by state-mandated teaching to a test (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS). I have a dream. I have high hopes that the Texas SBOE will make great new standards for English, standards that will lend themselves to helping teachers make the subject sing for the students so they will happily and well learn the topic.

I have a dream that this process will lead to a similar renaissance in U.S. history, and in biology, and in other topics. But I am dulled with the understanding of past history from the Texas SBOE.

Because Texas is a huge market for publishers, they will skew their books as Texas asks, often. You have a stake in the Texas curriculum regardless where you live. Watch that space!

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