A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

What does it mean if NCLB wants to leave history behind?

A few of us from the high school got together with a couple of our middle school counterparts a while back. They wanted to meet with us to see how they could help align the skills and content they teach to help support their students who want to take AP level courses in high school. This was a watered down version of a concept known in AP world as "vertical teaming."

What finally came out after we got finished talking about specific things like creating a thesis statement and analyzing documents and pictorial evidence was this: they have gotten the message from administrators that their only function in an NCLB world is to reinforce the English curriculum. They were meeting with us in a bid to justify their existence as an independent department. Of course, this situation is already in jeopardy when you have not one soul teaching a social studies class in two of the three grades in one of the middle schools who has an actual major in social studies or history.

Not. One.

We actually have two-person and three-person teams in several situations in which the teachers all split up the social studies classes in addition to their "regular" discipline. All that means is another prep which teachers are supposed to juggle, inevitably shunted aside in both interest and importance to both teacher and student alike due to a lack of content knowledge. It's a miracle the students learn anything about history under those circumstances.

Because social studies is not tested under either federal or state guidelines, the administration (this word has multiple meanings in this context, and I use all of these meanings deliberately) has devalued history education as just a wonderful way to teach some basic writing and reading skills. This is not the first time I have heard something of this nature around these parts, either. Many schools-- elementary and middle level-- are doubling up on the minutes devoted to language arts and mathematics in a frenzied quest to meet AYP.

If one does the basic math (ahem!), one can see that some other subject or subjects somewhere will have to lose out. And around here that is history, since there is a groundswell of support for supporting more stringent science education, with which I agree, BTW (see here and here and here, just for starters). Regular readers know how I feel about mathematics education from previous posts. Nonetheless, several of my friends tell me that their elementary-aged children currently receive about 10 minutes of her day devoted to social studies content as their classes prepare to descend into the maelstrom of testing that ever and anon is bearing down upon us.

I fully support a more rich and meaningful science education in our schools. I mean, really, any time you've got nearly a majority of Americans thinking the world was created at 8 am on a Monday morning in 4004 BC or something, you KNOW you've got a crisis on your hands, not to mention a certain state where they also believe that babies are found in the cabbage patch and that's all kids need to know, except that God hates America's alleged tolerance of gays so much that God laughs when soldiers die in Iraq.

History is not targeted by any high-stakes tests. Does that mean that history doesn't count? Should history class merely function as an outpost to teach language arts and math and science? These are things I cover incidentally in my classes, but by no means do I believe that my sole purpose is to help kids pass federally mandated tests outside my subject area, much less IN my subject area, were they to even exist. That kind of education is a poor excuse for an education.

I believe all knowledge and all content areas are important. I explain and encourage discussion of math and English and science content whenever I see a question arise in class. To me, it's all about background knowledge and frame of reference. At this point, I must disclose that I am also a certified English teacher with 7 years' experience as an instructor in that content area. I expect correct grammar and spelling on work turned in in my class. For that matter, I expect correct computation on questions that I include in my students assignments which require mathematics skills. My middle name is "Multidisciplinary." Sue me.

Is the study of history and the social sciences irrelevant in fact as well as in testing?

I hold an unshakeable certainty that students need to be able to evaluate what it REALLY means when a current political figure is compared to Hitler, or to understand how hard it was to develop democracy in this country, and how hard it has been to develop it in other countries, not to mention that they need to be able to evaluate the benefits ans well as limitations of democracy. I think students need to understand why there is a difference between their gross pay and their net pay, and understand where that difference goes, and why. I think students need to understand why the math teacher gives them interest problems to compute.

I think students need to understand how religion affects societies both secular and theocratic in this world. For instance: why are people willing to die for their religious beliefs? Why are people willing to kill for their religious beliefs? Why is the term "crusade" an emotionally charged term in some parts of the world, just as "jihad" has become an emotionally charged term in other parts of the world? Why are some people of the opinion that faith and reason are diametrically opposed to each other?

It is these and a thousand other questions which are the duty of social studies education to address. An ignorant citizenry in any subject is a citizenry that gives up its liberty to think, much less to create and to lead. Some of my students tell me that the hardest thinking they do all day is in my class-- partially because there is often no verifiably "right" answer to the question with which we wrestle.

What a bizarre world to live in where NOT being a subject of high-stakes standardized testing is a cause for concern.


At 3/21/06, 7:12 PM, Blogger Polski3 said...

Here in the great People's Republic of Kalifornia, our 8th Graders are tested in History/Social Studies as part of the CAT (Calif. Assessment Test). It is supposed to be standards based.

As for NCLB, IF it stays around, Hist/SS may get added to the mix.....last May, there were some US Senate hearings about "American young people" not knowing much about our history and the Constitution. Senators Kennedy and Alexander were the chairs for those hearings, which included testimony from Historian David McCulloch. (Sp?).

But, I know your saddness at being a teacher of an orphin topic.....our current principal once remarked, "Polski, think of it this way, you're teaching language arts with a social studies emphasis."

Keep the Faith !

At 3/21/06, 7:31 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I am not so sure. Can the Powers That Be really add more? Do they really want history education to be emphasized?

Is that what I really want?

Unsure, unsure... but damned if you do, damned if you don't.

At 3/22/06, 7:20 PM, Blogger Heather said...

This problem is not new to NCLB; you'll find it anywhere that there is high-stakes testing. I taught French in Maryland a few years before NCLB, and the state test (MSPAP)did include Social Studies and Science. The rest of us were explicitly told that our function was to support the other departments. I was expected to do all sorts of English language activities in my classroom, and was horribly frustrated as a result. What a difference when I moved to VA where I taught Social Studies (yes, I was certified), and was well-treated, as it is a SOL subject!

At 3/23/06, 6:17 PM, Blogger Strausser said...

Well I teach 8th grade Science in Arizona at a K-8 school and I totally feel your pain. Our district is feeling the preasures and so have mandated 90-minute uninterupted reading/language arts blocks in our primary grades every day. That is all well and good but that means that both science and social studies takes a back seat in the curriculum.

Now people are starting to panic because starting next year in Arizona, our standardized state test (AIMS) is going to cover Science as well as math, reading and LA. And then social studies/history will be added a couple of years down the line.

Dept. of Educations and District Offices need to realize that you can sacrifice one subject for the benefit of others.


At 3/23/06, 9:18 PM, Blogger kontan said...

I addressed the frustrations of high stakes testing today. Our 11th graders are tested in US History, but like you I am astonished with the red headed stepchild treatment social studies gets. Oh if only we could engage in vertical alignment. It would make our job at the hs level much easier!

At 3/25/06, 11:47 AM, Blogger JHS Teacher said...

I'm in California too... so our students are tested in history.

However, it's a different story at our school. Our class periods are 49 minutes long (39 minutes on late start Tuesdays). This is far less than we need for English and Language Arts.

Last year there were only three teachers in our department teaching English full time. We had over 30 sections taught in our over-crowded junior high, and only 15 of those sections were taught by teachers focused primarily on English.

Instead, the choir director taught a section, three history teachers taught "CORE" which is a double period of History/English, the computer teacher taught a section, our Spanish teacher taught a section, and various part-time, mommy teachers taught the rest.

It's so good to hear from other people at other schools. I assumed English was the subject "anyone could teach" according to higher ups.

Why doesn't anyone every ask the teachers what they think?


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