Sunday, November 05, 2006

School ? History? Who cares?

In my last post, I mentioned that there are some very low scores on my "Required Knowledge" Test when kids enter my class as sophomores. When I wrote that, I expected somebody to ask the question that was eventually asked by Crypticlife: "If your students (sophomores) do poorly on this test coming in, why do you feel the schools are doing a good job preparing students?" That is a fair question, but in order to answer it, I've got to ask it the other way. If schools are doing a good job, why do kids do so poorly on a test like this?

Part of the answer for the last couple of years probably does lie in the fact that my school isn't doing as good a job preparing students as we used to because of teacher cuts. As the cuts have been made, too many teachers in our district have been bumped around and moved into areas that they've never taught before, and no discipline has suffered more from that in our school than social studies.

However, I'm not going to be too hard on those teachers who work with kids at younger ages, because, despite my efforts, I don't know that my former students do much better. I've heard too many stories about my own former students coming up blank when asked, a year or two after I've had them, something like when the Revolutionary War took place. And I really hate to admit this, but I'm talking about kids who got A's in my class. If you want to believe I must have done a lousy job, too, go ahead, but I could show you some of the work they did, the tests they took, the essays and opinions they wrote, and you would wonder, like I do, how kids could know something so well one year and seemingly completely forget it the next. I really believe that the major problem for our kids lack of historical knowledge is that too many of them just don't care. Some of them don't care about school at all, and most of them don't care about history.

For many students, I would say those who get C's and worse, school is very low on their list of priorities. They are more concerned about their friends and their social lives, their part time jobs, their family problems, their sports and other activities. School falls behind all of those and other things in importance. They might do work they are assigned if they have the time, but it isn't because they care about what they are supposed to learn; it's something they have to get out of the way. And if they don't have time, that's just the way it goes. After all, there are more important things. I mean did you hear what Bobby said about Lisa?

As adults we know how important education is to young people. We know that when they enter high school, most kids have an almost unlimited number of doorways to opportunities open to them. If they work hard and try to actually learn, the doorways stay open, and some of those doorways can lead to a very nice life. On the other hand, if kids waste their time in school, those doors begin to slam shut, and only those leading to the least attractive avenues remain open. We can tell kids that, and they might understand that at an intellectual level, but many of them never really feel it. For many kids today, in order for something to matter to them, the awards have to be almost immediate. The rewards and the punishments being promised in their education aren't immediate enough, so they end up pursuing the things that will lead them to mediocrity or worse.

This is true for alot of kids for all subjects, but I think it would be fair to say that it is most true in history. They simply cannot see any practical value that learning history will have in their lives. This is even true for kids who care about their GPAs. They understand that they need good grades in history classes, but only a few of them believe that learning the subject will ever have any real meaning in their lives. The subject matter is something to be learned for the test--period!

I know and believe all the arguments about the importance of understanding history: it's necessary to understand and appreciate the rights and freedoms that we have; it's necessary to be an effective citizen in our democracy; those who fail to understand the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them; it's important for cultural literacy; and finally, it's really quite interesting. But I can preach those things to my kids until the cows come home; most of them just aren't buying. If I can't show them how knowing the difference between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars will have an effect on their lives today, tomorrow, or maybe the next day, they aren't going to view that as something that "really matters."

I know that I am not the only history teacher who has trouble getting kids to believe that what I am trying to teach them is important. In fact, I've got plenty of company. I'm not sure why things are this way in America, but I believe that it has a lot to do with our culture. Immediate gratification has become pervasive in our society, and you can see it in our widespread drug use, our teenage pregnancy rate, the number of Americans who are obese, and in all the I-pods and cell phones that enable people to listen to their music NOW, and make and receive phone calls NOW. Education in general and learning history in particular are not immediate gratification propositions. They require a lot of work, and the rewards are going to come very gradually or well into the future. It is a rare teenager who is willing to buy into that.

I'm sure that there are people who will read this and conclude that this is just a cop-out, and the problem is entirely within the schools. They will say that regardless of parenting, regardless of the influences of our culture, it is the schools' job to get kids to learn. I can only say to them that this problem frustrates me as much as it frustrates anyone I know, and I've tried everything I can think of to get kids to learn and retain American history. If someone thinks they've got the solution, I'll be happy to listen.


Anonymous Ian H. said...

No solutions, unfortunately. I face the same thing when attempting to get the students to retain the French Revolution and whatnot. Some hope, however: I speak as someone who wasn't that interested in History in High School either, but my interest has grown as I realize how many of the problems in the world around us are rooted in the past. Students as a whole, I've found, aren't interested in their socio-political context beyond what Beyonce said about Britney. It's unfortunate that by the time most of them will awaken to what's going on in the world, they've already passed (barely) most of the classes that would give them their grounding and are forced to seek out the information on their own.

11/06/2006 5:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see this in Language Arts, as well. Who am I to condemn other teachers when I can't even get students to see the relevance of reading or public speaking skills.
My kids figure out what they need to do for the current assignment, but they don't apply it to other assignments they may have.

11/06/2006 4:45 PM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

It's not just a middle or high problem.....I could write my student's lack of motivation off to the fact that perhaps nine years old is a little young to begin a survey of American history, however, I don't think that's they only thing.

Do you how many people in this country don't watch the news, don't ever read a book, don't vote, don't know who is running, and don't even know who represents them in Congress? Hundreds....more than hundreds. I know many of them. If I can't discuss the headlines from Entertainment Tonight, the latest make-up advertised in Cosmopolitan, or gossip about who hasn't been to church in a month I don't have anything to talk with them about. Now, I'm not saying that every American should eat and sleep history....that's not necessary, but basic knowledge is not that hard to learn and retain.

Tomorrow is election day, and we already know voter turnout will be far less than half of the total number of our citizens.

I guess my point is why would kids think their history is important when they are constantly reinforced by the media they see, the people they live with, and by their modes of entertainment that history is something to scoff at and manipulate to fit a particular point of view.

Our chief executive is constantly bashed, our armed services are the butts of poorly constructed jokes by elected officials, and our students constantly see those in authority admit to illegal acts.

On the other hand we show them images of proud Americans, Americans participating, Americans supporting their government and officials.....Americans willing to die for a cause. The messages we are sending are so mixed with what they are confronted with outside of the classrooms it's a wonder they retain anything.

11/06/2006 4:50 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

I'm wondering why you had to ask it the other way.

I'm always suspicious when someone turns around and answers a question I didn't actually ask. You're teachers, you do agree that for tests, one should answer the question actually asked, don't you? It was for me when I was a student, though I guess I must admit some of my classmates frequently simply regurgitated what they knew regardless of the question, and scored passably.

Your turnaround of the question ignores the aspect of why you think the schools are doing a good job preparing students when, in fact, they are not prepared. The question was not, "why are the kids unprepared?" -- it seems you're saying here they're not. Saying, "they're not, but don't blame us", is not the same as "we are preparing them, but they're not prepared" (which is internally contradictory).

So, the answer remains that the schools are not adequately preparing the students, outside influences or not. This isn't meant to place blame -- just pointing out that something's not happening and that a change is needed. As a parent, I tend to be outcome-focused.

If I were faced with changing all of society, or changing the school system, I'd go with changing the school system. Are you really saying there are no changes the school system should make to better prepare kids? Saying "kids should be better" isn't really anything profound or helpful, it's just whining.

I'm not a teacher, and wouldn't presume to be able to judge your teaching skill. Looking at your arguments, however, I do wonder if you're presenting them in a concrete enough form to make them relevant. Maybe if you gave them example scenarios in which the knowledge would actually matter? Understanding rights and freedoms is crap before a cop stops the car you're in and searches it for alcohol, for example, or the principal says you can't wear an article of clothing stating "Mexicans should go back to Mexico". How many students knew, for example, what "Iraq will become another Vietnam" actually meant? Maybe these tactics wouldn't work and maybe you've already tried them; they're just suggestions.

I'm still somewhat suspicious of how motivated the kids were at the beginning of the year to do well on your test. Personally, if a teacher were to give me a test on the first day on things we hadn't covered, I might be motivated to do badly in it. Clearly the teacher's using the test as a diagnostic to judge where they should be aiming their teaching, so why not guide the teacher as low as possible?

Incidentally, I'm pretty pro-teacher overall. Teachers I've seen generally work hard, are underpaid (and yes, I've seen all the hours/work numbers and arguments -- I still think they deserve 150-200% of their current), underrespected, and abused. I think they should be given much more control over their individual curriculum (if not at the teacher level, at least at the school level). I have problems with a lot of the policies of the teachers' unions, but I don't attribute these views to all teachers.

Lastly, I'm not sure I understood all your reasons for knowing history myself.

Why does one need to know history to be an effective citizen in our democracy? Being an effective citizen presumably means being law-abiding (no history required) and voting (no history required, just watch the news). What else?

Fail to understand the mistakes of the past? Rather grandiose, no? This seems like it's stuff for presidents and cabinet members. Are your students really that ambitious? I'm in a pretty good job, but can't think of any policy decisions I'd make that would be based on knowing when the Revolutionary war took place.

Cultural literacy: a lot of your students would protest that Entertainment Tonight is more relevant cultural literacy than the Trail of Tears. For what it's worth, though, I'd try to present them with things in the here and now that related specifically to history. The confederate flag, maybe, emphasizing that there are still people who disagree on why the Civil War was fought (and even on the name of the war itself), and still have a sense of the north-south split.

11/07/2006 4:44 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Ian, AT and EHT, thank you for your comments. It’s nice to know that other people who do the same thing as me get it.

Crypticlife, I made a promise to myself earlier this summer that I would avoid flying off the handle and throwing insults at people in my posts and comments. You are testing my resolve.

First of all, there is no need to be suspicious. I have written a number of posts and comments explaining why I think those of us in public education are, in fact, doing a good job “preparing students.” I assumed by the wording of your original question that you had seen one or more of them, so I didn’t want to repeat things I’d already said. Considering that, I thought you were actually challenging me to try to explain those low scores on my required knowledge test.

My belief that we are doing a good job preparing kids is based on the performance of the students I’ve had once they leave high school. For fourteen of the seventeen years that I’ve taught here, I’ve had all of the sophomores, and this has given me a pretty good feel for the aspirations that the kids in our high school have. Students in our school who have had the desire to go to college have consistently been able to do that, and they have almost always done well once they’ve gotten there. Kids who have wanted to do something that requires going to a vo-tech have consistently been able to do what they wanted, kids who wanted to get into the armed services have done that, and kids who simply wanted to graduate from high school and get a job have done that. They may not have learned or cared about history as much as I would have liked them to, but the overwhelming majority of our students have been prepared for whatever it was they wanted to be prepared for. As I said in those earlier posts, our school has had students who have attended prestigious universities around the nation. We had one young lady, who earned a perfect score on her SAT graduate from Harvard Law School last year. We’ve got former students who are doctors, lawyers, biological engineers, computer programmers, nurses, teachers, and mechanics. We also have former students working at the local factory. Do I think some of those students could have had higher aspirations than they did? Sure. But it’s their lives, and who am I to tell them what they should want to do or be.

I use my school as an example, because I think our school is pretty typical. As I’ve also said in previous posts or comments, there is no evidence that my school is any better than most schools around the nation. In fact, we failed to meet our AYP in math this year, so I suppose someone like you would call us a failing school. We are in a working class town, and most of our population is made up of people who work in one of two factories. We are definitely not working in an affluent suburb with children of upper-middle class parents. Despite that, as I said before, by the time they leave, nearly all of our kids are prepared for whatever it is they want to be prepared for.

I have said over and over that I still think public education needs to get better. I have offered a number of ideas for things we could do inside the school walls, including doing away with teacher tenure. I’ve also stated a number of times that I think there are situations where vouchers are appropriate. But if anyone thinks all the problems are inside the school walls, they are dreaming. Poor parents, lousy friends, and a culture that does little to promote educational values often create problems that are impossible for those of us inside the schools to overcome. If you think that’s whining, so be it.

By the way, even though you say you are “outcome-focused”, I have no illusion about the evidence of my experience making the slightest dent in your thinking. I suspect that like many critics of public education, your mind is made up. Public schools are doing a lousy job. Or as you would say, "public schools are not adequately preparing the students." It doesn’t matter what I say or what anyone else says, I’m confident you will manage to find or twist evidence to support your arguments, and igore any that doesn’t.

11/08/2006 2:06 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

I have no intention to test your resolve, Dennis.

Believe it or not, I get nothing out of being a public education "critic." I have no vested financial or emotional interest in criticizing public schools. I have three sons. I want them to get the best education possible, and that's all. I don't know why you spend a paragraph discussing my motivations and mindset. I did not question yours, despite the fact that 1) your employment is in public education, and 2) you wrote a book on public education, both of which give you a strong financial interest in defending public education.

I'll agree that there are social problems. I don't think anyone seriously claims that "all the problems are inside the school walls."

Actually, what I'd hoped for in an answer was evidence of preparation.

Your argument is flawed. You're using specific examples to attempt to prove a generality, you attribute causation where there may be none, and the employment results you mention are necessary to a functioning society (so hardly represent societal accomplishments in themselves -- every society has jobs).

You'd do somewhat better by pointing out that America has some of the top individuals in some of these fields, but should that be attributed to public education? Top individuals tend to be stars regardless, so one might say the better measure is the average individual. Some of America's top stars aren't educated in public schools. And in many fields, it might be argued that America isn't top. India and China produce better computer programmers, Japan produces better engineers, and England produces better writers. And one might say that American society merely lets its stars shine, rather than some cultures which suppress them.

Maybe it was my fault, after all. I perhaps shouldn't have made the leap from this test to general preparedness. If the results of this test are not indicative of preparedness, then you'd be justified in saying they perform poorly on this test, but are still prepared.

You cast me as an enemy rather quickly. Thank you. I will take great care not to offend the teachers at my son's school.

11/08/2006 6:09 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, look at what you just wrote. It confirms everything I wrote in that paragraph discussing your "motivation and mindset." And your analysis of my motivation is flawed. Anyone who thinks I'm doing this to make big bucks doesn't have a clue. First of all, I'm eligible for retirement in December of 2007. I don't know how I can possibly "profit" from the public education system before I retire as a result of anything I say on a blog. And the book I wrote was self-published. I knew from the beginning that it would be a minor miracle if I ever broke even, and even though the book has done well for a self-published book, that minor miracle hasn't occurred. That's fine, because that's not why I wrote the book. I have put my money (and my life) where my mouth is because I actually believe in public education. And do I get offended by people who attack it? You bet!

I've had plenty of discussions with people I disagree with on these blogs, and I've usually enjoyed that. Most people I've gone back and forth with have been open to my point of view, and I have been open to theirs. I know I've gained from that, and hopefully, so have they. But I have also run into some people who aren't really interested in a discussion. They are simply critics waiting to pounce. Quite frankly, you strike me as one of them.

11/08/2006 7:25 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

You only addressed me in your last post, rather than any points related to education. You say my analysis is flawed due to lack of information (i.e., I "don't have a clue"). You're right, there's lots of things I don't know about you. You found it offensive that I'd make such a judgement, knowing so little, didn't you? And yet your judgements about me are based on two posts, and you claim not only to know what I believe now, but what I'm willing to believe. And in a response to a seven-paragraph post, that's all you chose to address. It takes a lot to then refer to "some people who aren't really interested in a discussion."

The discussion shouldn't be about whether your motives are pure or whether I'm willing to change my mind.

Here's what I see as your position:

Students do poorly on a history test, both before and after public education.

Students are well prepared for life at some point after being enrolled in public education.

Therefore, public education must have provided them with this preparation.

Does this accurately reflect what you're saying?

11/09/2006 10:30 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I am open to the possibility that my impression of you is wrong, but every comment you’ve made in this exchange has reinforced that impression. If I ever conclude that I’ve misjudged you, I will apologize, even though I'm not accusing you of a terrible thing. I just think that your mind is made up on this subject, and your sole purpose in these exchanges is to score points. If it were just you and me, I wouldn’t continue to respond, because as I said before, I don't think you're really interested in a hearing me. But other people read this and I’m not going to let certain comments you make go uncontested, especially when they distort my positions.

Nowhere did I say that students do poorly on the history test (Required Knowledge Test) after public education. I did say, “I've heard too many stories about my own former students coming up blank when asked, a year or two after I've had them, something like when the Revolutionary War took place." Such an incident had happened recently, and I told about it because I was frustrated by it, and I wanted to make a point.

That is not the same as saying that "students do poorly on the test after public education." In fact, every year there are seniors who ask if they can take the Required Knowledge Test again to see how they will do. They usually get something like three or four wrong out of the seventy questions. My guess is that if the two girls who choked when asked about the Revolutionary War took the test again, they would also miss very few items.

My position is that public schools are doing a much better job than we are given credit for. My position is that the millions of students who are successful at attaining their aspirations after high school are evidence that we have done a good job preparing them. My position is that the facts that the U.S. economy is second to none in the world, that our workforce is the most productive in the world, and that many of the same people who criticize public schools call our military the best trained and best educated in the world are also evidence that we have done a good job preparing our students for life after high school.

European kids outperform our kids on tests. I'd like to change that, but regardless of those tests, it looks to me like something in our system is enabling our kids to be better prepared for the real world. We must be doing something right, because as the old saying goes, you can't make apple pie out of horse manure.

11/09/2006 6:58 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

History was my favorite class in high school, and I was a history major in college. This interest came partly from having lived overseas and partly from having politically aware parents who discussed current events.

I think it would help if you found a way to connect history to current events and issues that do affect students. For example, some of your students could be subject to a draft if we had one. You could discuss with them what would be likely to spur a draft and tie this to historical events.

I think high school students must learn the basics of history. But I think it's more important for them to develop good reading comprehension. Once you have that, you can always read history on your own.

11/10/2006 6:11 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Elizabeth, I think what you say about having politically aware parents is important. When I grew up, Time, Look, and Life Magazines came every week, we got the Minneapolis Tribune every morning and the Minneapolis Star every night. Our TV was tuned to Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley every night. My parents were lower-middle class people, but I was surrounded by information about social issues, so like you, I was always interested in history. At least where I live, it seems like that type of situation is extremely rare. Math teachers complain that they have to do a great deal of review at the beginning of each year because over the summer kids seem to lose so much of what they had learned during the previous school year. History and the other social studies are no different. If there is no outside reinforcement for what they've learned in school, it's not going to stick. And for a lot of kids today, I think there is absolutely no reinforcement.

One thing where there has been reinforcement has been in the area of racial and gender equality. We have been teaching that is school since I've been in the profession, and it is constantly backed up by things that kids see and hear in the media. As a result, they get that.

I agree with what you're saying about trying to connect history to current events, and I have tried different ways of doing that. As part of their final exam requirement, I used to have my kids write a paper connecting things we studied with the current events that were going on during that semester. A very few kids did a great job, but the great majority of them didn't seem to get it at all. Now I periodically have kids write their thoughts about any current event of world or national significance that has happened during the previous three weeks, and I give extra points if they connect it in any way to something we've studied. Believe me, I'm trying, but it often feels like I'm trying to pull teeth.

11/10/2006 12:09 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Dennis: Maybe you should just start failing more of them. That might bring them to reality.

by the way I was puzzled by one of the above comments:

"Our chief executive is constantly bashed, our armed services are the butts of poorly constructed jokes by elected officials, and our students constantly see those in authority admit to illegal acts.

On the other hand we show them images of proud Americans, Americans participating, Americans supporting their government and officials.....Americans willing to die for a cause. The messages we are sending are so mixed with what they are confronted with outside of the classrooms it's a wonder they retain anything."

I thought teaching critical thinking skills involved teaching about different points of view and comparing them. Surely no one here thinks memorizing propaganda constitutes learning??

11/10/2006 5:41 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Elizabeth, I'm following your advice again. In the first marking period 21 out of the 92 sophomores in my regular American History classes earned Fs, and 6 out of my 16 basic kids are sitting with incompletes (I use mastery learning in that class.). I'm not proud of that--in fact, I'm very frustrated by it, but right now, our school has a lot of kids who just don't want to do any work. In past years, the number of Fs has always decreased as the year has gone on after kids figure out that they really will fail if they don't do work that they are perfectly capable of doing. I'm assuming (and hoping) that that will be the case again this year.

Regarding what EHT said, I understand what she's saying but I would put it a little differently. I think the very negative portrayal of politicians and government officials is a problem. Granted, they bring a fair amount of it on themselves, but I really think most people in government are good people who believe in what they're doing. You'd never get that impression from watching the news. Obviously the negative campaigns that so many politicians run don't help either, but it's hard to expect them not to use those tactics when they seem to be so effective. As the late senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone pointed out, young people look at community service as a very good thing, but they look at politics as evil.

11/10/2006 6:41 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I agree Dennis. The negative campaigning has to stop. If I were running for office and was subjected to slanderous attacks from a competitor, I would sue. If I won the lawsuit, I would consider that a bigger victory than winning the election, because maybe it would help change how campaigns are run.

on another topic, have you ever seen these resources?

11/11/2006 11:18 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

No I had not seen those resources before. Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing them with me. I have now bookmarked them.

11/11/2006 12:32 PM  

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