Experts' vision vs. reality
Back in February, I did a post about how frustrating it can be for teachers to discuss education with non-teachers. Some non-teachers took that post to be insulting, but it wasn't meant to be. As I said in the post, I wasn't arguing that non-teachers had nothing to contribute, but there are some things we, as teachers, have to deal with that non-teachers just don't understand. Elizabeth had a post recently that partially illustrates what I'm talking about. She writes about high school students who actually believed their teacher fought in the Civil War and knew Abraham Lincoln. Elizabeth understandably seemed somewhat shocked by this, but I doubt that any teacher was. We see it all the time.
Last year I wrote about a girl that I called Suzy to illustrate exactly the same type of thing. I'll shorten it up a little here, but this is the story:
Suzy was a girl that I had a couple of years ago in one of my American history classes. She was a nice girl, who made a reasonable effort in the class, but she was not the American history equivalent of a rocket scientist, so my class was difficult for her. At the end of every marking period, students in my classes have to satisfactorily complete a "Required Knowledge Test" in order to earn a passing grade. (I did a post on my Required Knowledge Test last fall.) The students have to get every item correct the first time the test is given, or demonstrate to me that they've learned any items that they've missed.
On the test at the end of the third marking period, Suzy initially got two wrong. That meant that after she got her test back, she would have to go back and learn the correct answers to the items she got wrong, and then I would quiz her orally on those and any related items.
One of the questions she got wrong was this: Who was the most important American general in Europe during World War II? The answer Suzy had given was George Washington. Ouch! When she came up to my desk to go over the two items she missed, she had no problem with the other item, but when I asked her this question again, once again she said, "George Washington." The girl was persistent.
Now, I wanted to help her through this, so I asked her three other questions that she had gotten correct on the test. "Okay, Suzy," I said, "who was America's commanding general in the Revolutionary War?"
She replied, "George Washington".
Then I said, "Okay. And when did the Revolutionary War occur?"
Suzy said, "In the 1770s."
"Okay, that's good. Now when did we fight in World War II?"
"In the 1940s."
"Okay, Suzy, you're right again. And like you just said, George Washington was our commanding general in the Revolutionary War, so who was America's most important general in Europe in World War II?"
At this point Suzy looked at me like I was an idiot who couldn't understand plain English, and said in a way to make it clear that she was running out of patience with me, "George Washington!!!"
This story did have a happy ending. Suzy eventually did learn that Dwight D. Eisenhower was our most important general in Europe in World War II, but it definitely took some help. She simply could not seem to make the connection on her own that if George Washington had been our general in a war that took place in the 1770s, it would have been a little difficult for him also to have been our general in a war that took place 170 years later. This inability to make connections is not terribly unusual for high school students. As I indicated earlier, high school teachers see things like this every day.
Suzy is a nice young woman who has since graduated from high school, and she will do fine in life. I think most high school teachers have at least a couple of Suzies in their classes every year, and it's our job to try to make our classes meaningful for them, just like it's our job to try to make our classes meaningful for kids who go on to prestigious colleges, as well as everyone who is in-between those two levels. We might not always succeed--Suzy's confusion certainly makes that point--but it's our responsibility to try.
One thing I have found is that there are very few non K-12 teachers who understand the incredible variety of kids we deal with when it comes to ability and background. This is as true for many so-called experts as it is for any layman. I recently visited a site containing E. D. Hirsch's Revised Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, and I checked out the section on American history from 1865 to present. I read Hirsch's original book on cultural literacy a year ago, and if my memory serves me correctly, he says that the items on his cultural literacy list are things that every high school graduate should know. Now, I think a lot of what Hirsch says makes great sense, but I find his belief that all high school graduates should know this stuff to be beyond pie in the sky.
I must confess that there are items on his list that I don't know--Mary McLeod Bethune, Jeanette Rankin, Stonewall Riot, Charlotte P. Gillman. (Looks like I'm a little weak on my women's activists!) That's not very many, but I teach this subject, and I feel like I know it pretty well. There are other items that I have only a vague familiarity with, and others, like Griswold vs. Connecticut, that I know only because I teach A.P. American Government. Yet, Hirsch says that any literate American should know them all. I don't think this guy has worked with too many high school kids.
In fairness to Hirsch, he doesn't pretend that his vision is the way things are now, or that it could be unless things were done much differently. His presentation of a cultural literacy dictionary is part of his push to have more content taught at earlier ages. What is intolerable is when politicians try to legislate something even more unrealistic than Hirsch's vision, and that is exactly what the Minnesota State Legislature has done with it's Academic Standards.
The Minnesota State Legislature and a bunch of ivory tower academic gurus have put together a list that my sophomore American history students are supposed to know by the end of the year that I have them. I can find any period in American history interesting, but I think it's fair to say that one of the least interesting periods to kids is the period from the end of Reconstruction (1877) up to the beginning of our involvement in World War I (1917). Here is a list of what the state of Minnesota says my kids should understand about that period:
Transcontinental railroad, Morrill Land Act, Plains Indian Wars, Dawes Act of 1887, Wounded Knee, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, White Earth Reservation, industrial mining in the southwest and midwest, the Bessemer Steel Process, barbed wire, business leaders such as James J. Hill, John Deere, J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie, impact of railroads, agricultural productivity and mechanized farming, factories, new forms of marketing and advertising, trusts, Mark Twain, Ashcan school of painting, Stephen Craine, Sears catalog, Street lights and trolley cars, the Tweed Ring, the new middle class Victorian culture, architecture and literature, Ellis Island, Angel Island, ethnic enclaves, Melting Pot idea, 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Scientific theories of race in the late 19th century, Jim Crow laws, Poll tax, literacy test, Grandfather Clause, founding of the Ku Klux Klan, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Plessey v. Ferguson; anti-Chinese movement in the west and the rise of lynching in the south, the shift from workshop to factory, Knights of Labor, Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor, Railroad Strike of 1877, Homestead, Haymarket bombing 1886, 8 hour work day, Pullman strike 1894, Monetary policy, Greenbacks, Gold Standard, Depressions of 1873-79 and 1893-97, Farmer's Alliance, Grange movement, Populist party, Omaha Platform of 1892, 1896 election, free silver, William McKinley, William Jennings Bryan, Eugene V. Debs, Frances Willard and the Women's Christian Temperance Union, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, National American Women's Suffrage Association, women's suffrage, 19th Amendment, Hawaii, Alfred Thayer Mahan's theory about the importance of controlling the seas, Cuba, Filipino insurrection, Puerto Rico, Admiral Dewey, Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, Yellow Press, William R. Hearst, intervention in the Boxer Rebellion, Jane Addams and the settlement house, Florence Kelley, Upton Sinclair and muckrakers, Ida Tarbell, Conservation, planned use and the origins of the national forest service, Preservationism, Yellowstone National Park 1890, Sierra Club 1892, Robert Lafollette, city manager system, civil service reform, initiative and referendum, Progressive Party and Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom, income tax, 16th Amendment, Sherman Anti-trust Act, direct election of senators, National Women's Suffrage Association, Carrie Chapman Catt and the winning plan, The Woman's Party, Alice Paul.
Last year we spent twelve school days on this period, including tests. Now, I suppose I can throw all this stuff at my kids, but if I do that, how interesting do you think it will be? How much of it do you think any of them will really understand? How much do you think someone like Suzy, or someone with just a little more ability than her, would understand? Do you think the geniuses who put these "standards" together, and the "statesmen" who voted to make them policy even know that kids like Suzy exist? Or maybe they just want us to leave those children behind.