From Core Knowledge to civics

After five years writing the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio is moving on. He’ll help “launch a new organization to advocate for civic education, to renew and revitalize the civic purpose of education.”

He says some guy named E.D. Hirsch will take over the blog for now.

Pondiscio will remain focused on “the content of our children’s education–what teachers teach and children learn.”

With the advent of Common Core State Standards, much of the energy around school improvement is now squarely focused where it belongs: inside the classroom.  Does this mean K-12 education is now safe for content?  That curriculum is the most favored reform lever?  Not hardly.  CCSS implicitly rescues literacy from its status as a content-free, skills-driven intellectual wasteland, but questionable, ineffective literacy practices are the seven-headed Hydra of Greek mythology—cut off one head and two more grow in its place.

I choose to be optimistic.  The essential point made by E.D. Hirsch for nearly 30 years – literacy is a function of background knowledge – is settled science. For the first time in the reform era, American education is having a deep and fruitful conversation about what gets taught.  The understanding that the more kids know across knowledge domains, the more likely they are to read, write, listen and speak with comprehension and confidence, is enshrined in the Common Core ELA standards.

But the fight “will never be over,” he writes. “Education has a peculiar talent for endlessly re-litigating disputes, regardless of the weight of evidence, and relabeling old ideas as new and innovative.”

Also on the CK Blog, check out Jessica Lahey’s Epistle to the Romans on teaching Latin.

Latin students learn more, Lahey writes. But the best part “lies in the evolution of our language, the stories revealed through etymology, the history of our culture articulated through the words we preserve and the words we discard.”

 As Robert’s post points out, a big vocabulary does not come from sheer memorization. Anyone who has ever been subjected to an 11th-hour SAT prep course knows that. It comes from a deeper understanding of word origins and repeated exposure to novel words through reading. If I know that the Latin acer means “sharp,” I can deduce that “acid” has a sharp taste, an “acute” angle is sharp, “acrid” is a sharp smell, and an “acerbic” person has a sharp wit.

I am all for the memorization of vocabulary; in fact, my school teaches vocabulary using a lovely series called Vocabulary fromClassical Roots and my students memorize their share of vocabulary lists. However, if we want our students to achieve true depth and breadth of vocabulary, it’s worth spending some time among the Romans. A working knowledge of Latin is worth more than the weight of its word roots. It is an exercise in reverse-engineering our own language in order to understand how all the parts fit together to create a whole.

I learned Greek and Latin roots in a seventh-grade class called Vocabulary Reading. Etymology really is fun.

Abolish social studies

“Social studies” — as opposed to history, geography and civics — was invented in the Progressive era to socialize children for a future planned by technocrats, writes Michael Knox Beran in City Journal.  It’s become dull, vacuous and a waste of time.  Abolish social studies!

Social studies is hostile to individualism, Beran writes. A 1931 social studies book for junior high school students condemned the U.S. economy’s wasteful lack of central planning and extolled Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan, which “resulted in millions of deaths from famine and forced labor.”

In the 1940s, as social studies took root in elementary schools, there were no more paeans to central planning. Paul Hanna’s texts were designed to teach children  “desirable patterns of acting and reacting in democratic group living.”

A lesson in the second-grade text Susan’s Neighbors at Work, for example, which describes the work of police officers, firefighters, and other public servants, is intended to teach “concerted action” and “cooperation in obeying commands and well-thought-out plans which are for the general welfare.” A lesson in Tom and Susan, a first-grade text, about a ride in grandfather’s red car is meant to teach children to move “from absorption in self toward consideration of what is best in a group situation.” Lessons in Peter’s Family, another first-grade text, seek to inculcate the idea of “socially desirable” work and “cooperative labor.”

Hanna doesn’t acknowledge “individual exertion, liberty of action, the necessity at times of resisting the will of others,” Beran writes. It’s group, group, group all the time.

Today’s social studies books are big on group spirit.

Lessons from Scott Foresman’s second-grade textbook Social Studies: People and Places (2003) include “Living in a Neighborhood,” “We Belong to Groups,” “A Walk Through a Community,” “How a Community Changes,” “Comparing Communities,” “Services in Our Community,” “Our Country Is Part of Our World,” and “Working Together.”

“Social studies textbooks descend constantly to the vacuity of passages like this one, from People and Places” aimed at third graders, Beran writes.

 Children all around the world are busy doing the same things. They love to play games and enjoy going to school. They wish for peace. They think that adults should take good care of the Earth. How else do you think these children are like each other? How else do you think they are like you?

Beran prefers the “old learning” which awakened children to their cultural heritage. McGuffey’s Readers introduced  eight-year-olds to Wordsworth and Whittier, nine-year-olds to tShakespeare, Milton, Byron, Southey, and Bryant and  ten-year-olds to Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Sterne, Hazlitt, Macaulay,  Pope, Longfellow, Shakespeare, and Milton.

In my younger days, I loved to read history. We didn’t study it till high school. Social studies consisted of memorizing the three principal products of every Canadian province and every country in Latin America. I also learned that Birmingham was the “Pittsburgh of Alabama” and the “Pittsburgh of England.” Malmo produces ball bearings.

Social studies follies

There are no Common Core social studies standards, nor even a framework for standards, but there is a “vision” of a “framework for inquiry,” reports Ed Week.

Welcome to the social studies follies, writes Checker Finn on Education Gadfly. The “vision” of a College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework will “focus on the disciplinary and multidisciplinary concepts and practices that make up the process of investigation, analysis, and explanation.” The document goes on:

It will include descriptions of the structure and tools of the disciplines (civics, economics, geography, and history) as well as the habits of mind common in those disciplines. The C3 Framework will also include an inquiry arc—a set of interlocking and mutually supportive ideas that frame the ways students learn social studies content. This framing and background for standards development to be covered in C3 all point to the states’ collective interest in students using the disciplines of civics, economics, geography, and history as they develop questions and plan investigations; apply disciplinary concepts and tools; gather, evaluate, and use evidence; and work collaboratively and communicate their conclusions.

The C3 Framework will focus primarily on inquiry and concepts, and will guide — not prescribe — the content necessary for a rigorous social studies program. CCSSO recognizes the critical importance of content to the disciplines within social studies and supports individual state leadership in selecting the appropriate and relevant content.

Nowhere is there a mention of “knowledge,” complains Finn.  “When was World War I, why was it fought, who won, and what were the consequences?” Dunno.

Of course, “content” is mentioned, but Finn isn’t impressed. “This could turn out to be simply awful.”

American students don’t know much about civics and aren’t prepared for citizenship, writes Rick Hess, who’s co-edited a new book, Making Civics Count, with David Campbell, political scientist at Notre Dame and authority on civic engagement and Meira Levinson, education philosopher at Harvard and author of No Citizen Left Behind. In a 2006 survey of college students, “more than half of seniors did not know that the Bill of Rights prohibits the establishment of an official national religion.”

Students: School is too easy

School is “too easy,” according to many students concludes a Center for American Progress analysis. Many students aren’t challenged in school and aren’t working very hard, conclude Ulrich Boser and Lindsay Rosenthal, who analyzed federal education surveys.

Some 37 percent of fourth-graders, nearly one-third of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders say their math work is often or always too easy. Just under half of 12-grade students say they are always or almost always learning in math class.

Civics and history work is easier: More than half of eighth-grade and high school students say their civics and history work is often or always too easy.

For most students, school is not a “pressure cooker,” Boser, a senior fellow at the center, told USA Today.

Only one in five eighth-graders read more than 20 pages a day, either in school or for homework. Most report that they read far less.

“It’s fairly safe to say that potentially high-achieving kids are probably not as challenged as they could be or ought to be,” Boser said.

Almost a third of eighth-grade students report reading less than five pages a day.

The report recommends raising expectations and standards.

Here’s an interactive map of the states.

Teacher assigns ‘oppo’ research for Obama

Eighth graders at a Virginia public school were told to research the weaknesses of Republican presidential candidates, write a paper on how to exploit the weaknesses and identify who to send the paper to in the Obama campaign.

“This assignment was just creepy beyond belief — like something out of East Germany during the Cold War,” one frustrated father, who asked for his family to remain anonymous, told The Daily Caller.

Michael Denman divided his honors civics class into four groups, all assigned to do “oppo” research on Republicans. After parents complained, the principal told the teacher he should have let students research a candidate from either party, a Fairfax County Public Schools spokesman said.

Duh.

Allegedly, the teacher never told students to send their research to the Obama campaign, but why assign two students in each group to figure out the name of the right “oppo” person?

 

Educating citizens, not just workers

Pressured to prepare students for the workforce, America’s colleges have forgotten their civic and democratic mission, argues a new report: Colleges must educate citizens, not just workers.

Civics teachers dispatched to D.C.

With Congress deadlocked on raising the debt ceiling, “a special team of 40 eighth-grade civics teachers was air-dropped into Washington in a last-ditch effort to teach congressional leaders how the government’s legislative process works,” reports The Onion.

“We started them off with the basics, like the difference between a senator and a representative, and then moved on to more complex concepts, like what a resolution is,” Bozeman, MT social studies teacher Heidi Rossmiller told reporters as all 535 members of Congress copied down the definition of “checks and balances” from a whiteboard in the House chamber. “It’s been a bit of an uphill battle, since most of them seemed to have no real sense of how or why a bill is passed, and Sen. [Harry] Reid [D-NV] had to come up to me during a break and ask, ‘Ms. Rossmiller, what happens if Congress can’t reach a compromise?’ But hopefully it will all start to sink in soon.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) stormed out of a lecture on bipartisan cooperation, claiming it was “too hard,” reports The Onion, which is a satirical publication.

 

 

Many students see citizenship as 'stupid'

It’s not just that many U.S. students don’t know civics or U.S. history, writes Stanford Education Professor William Damon. Increasingly, they don’t care about citizenship.

“Being American is not really special,” said one high school student in a survey.  Another replied that citizenship is “stupid to me,” saying,  “I don’t want to belong to any country. It just feels like you are obligated to this country.”

Many influential educators believe “global citizenship” is the proper aim of civics instruction, not allegiance to the U.S., Damon writes.

As global citizens, it is argued, our primary identification should be with the humanity of the world, and our primary obligation should be to the universal ideals of human rights and justice.

Devotion to one’s own nation state, commonly referred to as patriotism, is suspect because it may turn into a militant chauvinism or a dangerous “my country right or wrong” perspective.

Schools with large immigrant populations neglect teaching students about “American identity and the American tradition,” he writes.

Educational critic Diane Ravitch observed this phenomenon when visiting a New York City school whose principal proudly spoke of the school’s efforts to celebrate the cultures of all the immigrant students. Ravitch writes, “I asked him whether the school did anything to encourage students to appreciate American culture, and he admitted with embarrassment that it did not.”

These and other American students are being urged to identify with, on the one hand, customs from the native lands they have departed and, on the other hand, with the abstract ideals of an amorphous global culture. Lost in between these romantic affiliations is an identification with the nation where these students actually will practice citizenship.

Adding to the dysfunction of this educational choice, as Ravitch writes, is the absurdity of teaching “a student whose family fled to this country from a tyrannical regime or from dire poverty to identify with that nation rather than with the one that gave the family refuge.”

Damon suggests civics instructors teach students to take pride in their country’s best traditions. In our recent history, students could learn about “the civil rights movement that extended rights to millions of citizens,” the victories over totalitarianism that “extended new freedoms to millions of subjugated people in Europe and Asia” and “the building of a middle class that offered economic freedom” to citizens and immigrants alike.

Damon is the author of Failing Liberty 101.

Many students see citizenship as ‘stupid’

It’s not just that many U.S. students don’t know civics or U.S. history, writes Stanford Education Professor William Damon. Increasingly, they don’t care about citizenship.

“Being American is not really special,” said one high school student in a survey.  Another replied that citizenship is “stupid to me,” saying,  “I don’t want to belong to any country. It just feels like you are obligated to this country.”

Many influential educators believe “global citizenship” is the proper aim of civics instruction, not allegiance to the U.S., Damon writes.

As global citizens, it is argued, our primary identification should be with the humanity of the world, and our primary obligation should be to the universal ideals of human rights and justice.

Devotion to one’s own nation state, commonly referred to as patriotism, is suspect because it may turn into a militant chauvinism or a dangerous “my country right or wrong” perspective.

Schools with large immigrant populations neglect teaching students about “American identity and the American tradition,” he writes.

Educational critic Diane Ravitch observed this phenomenon when visiting a New York City school whose principal proudly spoke of the school’s efforts to celebrate the cultures of all the immigrant students. Ravitch writes, “I asked him whether the school did anything to encourage students to appreciate American culture, and he admitted with embarrassment that it did not.”

These and other American students are being urged to identify with, on the one hand, customs from the native lands they have departed and, on the other hand, with the abstract ideals of an amorphous global culture. Lost in between these romantic affiliations is an identification with the nation where these students actually will practice citizenship.

Adding to the dysfunction of this educational choice, as Ravitch writes, is the absurdity of teaching “a student whose family fled to this country from a tyrannical regime or from dire poverty to identify with that nation rather than with the one that gave the family refuge.”

Damon suggests civics instructors teach students to take pride in their country’s best traditions. In our recent history, students could learn about “the civil rights movement that extended rights to millions of citizens,” the victories over totalitarianism that “extended new freedoms to millions of subjugated people in Europe and Asia” and “the building of a middle class that offered economic freedom” to citizens and immigrants alike.

Damon is the author of Failing Liberty 101.

Old enough to vote — whatever that is

Civics knowledge has declined for 12th graders, many of whom are old enough to vote, but climbed for fourth graders, according to the new civics report card from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Eighth-grade scores stayed about the same.

Hispanic students made gains, though the racial/ethnic achievement gap remains large.

Students were asked both multiple-choice and constructed-response questions to measure their knowledge of civic life, politics and government and their understanding of citizens’ role in a democracy and the relationship of the U.S. to other nations.

At grade 4, students who scored at or above the Basic level (77 percent) were likely to identify a method used to select public office holders, students scoring at Proficient (27 percent) could identify a purpose of the U.S. Constitution, and students at Advanced (2 percent) could explain two ways a country could deal with a shared problem.

At grade 8, the 72 percent of students who performed at or above the Basic level were likely to identify a right protected by the First Amendment, the 22 percent who performed at or above the Proficient level could recognize a role performed by the Supreme Court, and the 1 percent who scored at the Advanced level could name two actions that citizens could take to encourage Congress to pass a law.

At grade 12, the 64 percent of students who performed at or above the Basic level were likely to interpret a political cartoon, the 24 percent scoring at or above Proficient could define “melting pot” and argue whether or not the phrase applied to the U.S., and the 4 percent scoring at Advanced could compare U.S. citizenship requirements to those of other countries.

Some of the questions appear to test reading and reasoning skills rather than civics knowledge.

Grade 4 sample question:

Cartoon strip. A boy named Calvin says to his father, "I think it's time we had a new dad around here. When does your term of office expire?" Dad responds, "Sorry, Calvin. I was appointed dad for life." Calvin screams, "For life?! What about a recall vote? What about impeachment?" Dad responds, "There are no provisions for either." Calvin asks, "Did you write this constitution yourself, or what?" Dad replies, "Well, your mom helped some, too."

Calvin and Hobbes © 1986 Watterson. Dist. By Universal Press Syndicate.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

The child in the cartoon strip above is a six-year-old boy named Calvin. What is the main point of the cartoon?

1. Constitutions have rules about how long someone can stay in office.
2. Families and governments are not run the same way.
3. The term of office for elected and appointed officials is different.
4. Calvin does not know how a constitutional government works.

Grade 8 sample question:

In the United States, which civil right belongs only to American citizens?

  1. Freedom of speech
  2. Freedom of assembly
  3. The right to legal representation if charged with a crime
  4. The right to vote in local, state, and national elections

Grade 12 sample question:

Political cartoon showing a man pulling the handle of a large box labeled “The Kick the Bum Out Ballot Box Company.” A large spring extends from the box with a shoe at its end. The shoe is kicking a man holding a briefcase through the air. The caption underneath the cartoon says, “Still the best congressional term-limiting device.

© Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Which of the following best captures the meaning of the cartoon above?

  1. Voters can limit the term of any member of Congress by simply exercising their right to vote.
  2. Term limits can be put in place only through an amendment to the Constitution.
  3. Term limits are needed to prevent incumbents from staying in office for life.
  4. Voters too often throw good people out of office.

No Child Left Behind-mandated reading and math tests are supposed to be crowding out instruction in civics, science and everything else, notes Quick and the Ed’s Kevin Carey. But NAEP shows a different pattern: NAEP scores are improving or holding steady in elementary and middle school, where there’s lots of  NCLB testing, and falling in high school, where there’s only one NCLB-mandated test. He speculates, “it’s hard to learn civics if you can’t read.”