Wednesday, August 02, 2006

I'm glad I don't teach science!

When it comes to assembling a package of standards, social studies can certainly be a political football, but I'm glad I don't teach science. Kansas's battle over evolution and intelligent design is back in the news again.

Ed Zurga for The New York Times

KANSAS CITY, Kan., July 29 — God and Charles Darwin are not on the primary ballot in Kansas on Tuesday, but once again a contentious schools election has religion and science at odds in a state that has restaged a three-quarter-century battle over the teaching of evolution.

Less than a year after a conservative Republican majority on the State Board of Education adopted rules for teaching science containing one of the broadest challenges in the nation to Darwin’s theory of evolution, moderate Republicans and Democrats are mounting a fierce counterattack. They want to retake power and switch the standards back to what they call conventional science.

I just finished reading The Knowledge Deficit by E. D. Hirsch, who is probably the nation's foremost proponent of having a national core curriculum. He believes that teachers across the nation should all be teaching the same things at the same time in the same grades in things like history, math, and science. This way, as kids move from one grade to the next, from one school to the next, or from one state to the next, everyone should still be on the same page. I think that idea has merit, but even Hirsch concedes that it is very difficult to get agreement on what should be taught, and then when it should be taught. Obviously, just doing it within a state isn't that easy either.

In Minnesota we have the Minnesota Academic Standards. I've been told by teachers in other disciplines that their standards are reasonable, but the ones for high school American history are ridiculous, and we owe that to another battle between liberals and conservatives. In the first draft, the conservatives had their way, and I actually thought those standards weren't too bad. But, of course, liberals didn't like them, and they began to make a lot of noise. The end product of this battle was a compromise in which they put everything in that everybody wanted, so we are expected to teach an amount of material to our kids that can only be described as massive.

If I were to try to teach everything that my state government is now telling me to teach, I don't think anyone would learn very much, because there would be no time to cover anything in any depth. I would probably end up with a lot of kids not even knowing who we fought in the Revolutionary War, or which war had to do with slavery. Oh, we'd cover those things alright, but we wouldn't able to spend much time on them, because the state standards tell us that we also have to make sure to cover things like the differences between Aztec and Mayan architecture.

E. D. Hirsch advocates making sure that our kids are taught "taken for granted" knowledge. For example, if we make a reference to the Civil War, we take it for granted that people know that is the war that ended slavery. We assume that we don't have to explain that. I think what Hirsch is advocating here makes sense. It's too bad that ideologues on both the left and the right are so intent on pushing their agendas that deciding what "taken for granted" knowledge is becomes a political war. Something is wrong when the curriculum has to change everytime somebody new wins an election. I think the liberals go too far in some of the things they push to be taught in American history, and I suspect the conservatives are probably going too far in Kansas.

My own political views are somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. No one would ever have to worry about me pushing my views on my students, though, because I'm never very confident that I'm correct. I almost always see validity in the arguments of people who disagree with me. True liberals and true conservatives never seem to have that problem. That probably means that a lot of them are either very smart or very stupid. I know which way I'd vote on that one.


Blogger NYC Educator said...

As far as content, I've read that Texas has a fairly consistent veto over what does and does not make itsx way into textbooks, since they're such a large consumer.

Thankfully, they haven't yet determined evolution shouldn't be taught.

8/03/2006 6:05 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Here's what I don't understand: Isn't some of this stuff taught BEFORE high school? I mean, you must have social studies classes for 7th and 8th grade students, no?

8/09/2006 10:08 AM  
Blogger Ed Darrell said...

Evolution is under constant attack in Texas. There was a massive campaign against good textbooks in the last round of biology book approvals in 2003. Science won when the state's Nobel winners quietly met with the governor to ask that he not intervene against evolution, and he did. We have no guarantee the governor will stay out of the next round, nor that the Nobelists will have the clout they need. The Texas State School Board has a majority of creationists, several of whom work behind the scenes to get biology books cleaned out of evolution before they are proposed.

All the social studies books are dry and dull, for largely the same reasons. I agree largely with Diane Ravitch's book on the issue, and she urges a pox on both political wings.

But there really is a qualitative difference in how the right and the left view textbooks. Leftists want more in the books, more minorities, more details about events where the government wasn't a shining example and had to be brought around by citizens, more about the labor movement, more about voting rights and civil rights, more about Vietnam, more about the social upheavals of the 1980s adn 1990s, for examples. Conservatives want both less material, and they want to monkey with the material that is there. They want the nation's founding to look as if it were done at Jerry Falwell's Lynchburg church, with George Washington kneeling in prayer several times a day, though there is little evidence he ever did so. They want less about minorities, less about our constant fight for civil rights, less about dissent movements, etc.

Publishers for their part cave in partly to everybody. The books are dull, and the narratives are difficult to follow, at best. The standards require that kids know about John Adams and Jefferson, for example, but there is little time or room to tell the riveting story of how their friendship waxed, then waned in the politics of 1795 through 1810, then waxed again, to end on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence which they forged together and defended together; it's a story that humanizes the revolution and sticks in the minds of kids. Few serious narratives are told in the books.

To the extent that Texas has great influence on books, it's not always for the better. Perhaps teachers in other states could write to their state boards and ask them to intervene and get quality books.

That the books do not sing means that the burden is on the teacher.

Hirsch is right. We should have some national standards. Better they be voluntary standards from excellent curricula that teachers find fun to execute and students love to come to every day.

The political forces that work against good books also work against national standards. It's more than a bit of a shame.

8/10/2006 1:59 PM  

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