Should everyone take citizenship exam?

Immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship must pass a simple exam on civics and history facts. In Arizona and North Dakota, all students will have to pass the citizenship exam to qualify for a high school diploma.

Requiring the citizenship test is a good idea, editorializes USA Today.

Some questions are easy or trivial. But many about voting, the First Amendment, states’ rights and the Supreme Court offer jumping-off points for enticing discussions about current events. . . . The test can provide a floor on civics learning. It doesn’t have to set the ceiling.

One in three native-born citizens failed the test, according to a 2012 Xavier survey of adults.  (Quiz yourself here.)

The test trivializes civics education, responds Peter Levine, associate dean for research at Tufts’ College of Citizenship and Public Service.  It’s easy to memorize the right answers with a little cramming.

More than 90 percent of high school graduates have taken a semester-long civics course and most have devoted a year to studying U.S. history, Levine writes.

Then why do so many adults fail basic questions about the U.S. political system? Because we have forgotten what we learned in civics class. Too often, the subject wasn’t inspiring or challenging and didn’t build habits of following and discussing the news.

The problem with civics is not that we fail to teach it. The problem is that civics is often viewed as a set of disconnected facts, not as a challenging and inspiring subject that will continue to interest us after high school.

For example, the citizenship exam asks how many constitutional amendments have been passed, writes Levine. “You don’t need to understand reasons for or against those amendments, or have any sense of why they were important” as long as you’ve memorized the right answer, which is 27. 

Required civics classes and tests have little impact, if students don’t go “deeper,” argues a Jobs for the Future paper. Some students — usually the collegebound — “participate in high-quality service learning programs, collaborative research projects, student-produced newspapers, classroom debates, mock trials, model legislatures, and the like.” Most students don’t learn much that’s memorable.

My uncle and aunt helped a young Chinese friend study for the citizenship exam. The three of them knew the line of succession to the presidency down to the postmaster general. Which is trivia. If we strengthened the exam for new Americans, it might serve as a useful screen for high school students. Otherwise, it’s an absurdly low bar.

Los Angeles requires ethnic studies

Ethnic studies will be a graduation requirement in Los Angeles Unified by 2019, reports KPCC.

District officials estimate the new requirement will cost $3.9 million.

Several ethnic studies courses, such as Chicano Literature, African American History and Asian Studies, are offered at 19 district high schools. Only 700 students out of 152,000 high school students districtwide take an ethnic studies course, according to Ethnic Studies Now. Ninety percent of Los Angeles Unified students are non-white.

“There is a saying: ‘The real story of the hunter will be told when the lion and the buffalo get to write,'” said LAUSD board member George McKenna, co-sponsor of the resolution who represents South Los Angeles.

San Francisco should require ethnic studies, says Sandra Fewer, the school board president. “Yes, it will mean that something else will have to go,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle. Her first priority is expanding the course to all high schools.

In David Ko’s ethnic studies class at Washington High School, students learn to “talk about their experiences in a way that is less about the individual and more of the cultural norms or systems of oppression,” reports the Chronicle. Many of the students “were placed in the class because there wasn’t room in their elective of choice.”

It appears that few students are choosing ethnic studies over other electives, such as music, art, drama, journalism or an AP course. Why not let them decide?

Programming for all?

 Computer science should be a high school graduation requirement, argues Mike Cassidy in the San Jose Mercury News. He wants more girls to give programming a try so they’ll have a shot at Silicon Valley jobs.

In a series called Women in Computing: The Promise Denied, Cassidy focuses on the declining share of women who choose computer science majors: By 2011, it was down to 17.6 percent.

Some colleges have boosted that through outreach programs and classes that persuade women that computing isn’t just for nerds, writes Cassidy.

A Berkeley class called “The Beauty and Joy of Computing” draws as many women as men. In addition to teaching programming, lecturer Dan Garcia explores how computer science can solve real-world problems.

Garcia is training high school teachers to teach computing and creating a MOOC for would-be computer science teachers.

Everyone should take a computer class, says Chris Stephenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association. “To allow students to graduate with no real understanding of what is happening and how that is created is really shortsighted.”

Cassidy thinks girls would like programming if they tried it.

Imagine if classes were widely available and that girls were required to take computer science in high school or earlier. They would see how computing often requires teamwork and is a key tool in other areas, such as medicine, environmental science, finance, politics and space exploration — thereby putting a lie to the stereotype that programming is a solitary pursuit in which writing cool code is an end in itself.

A group of “tech superstars” have started Code.org to push state legislatures and school boards to add computer science to the list of core college-prep courses. “Co-founder Hadi Partovi, a Seattle-area angel investor and coding evangelist, says the organization will pay to train existing K-12 teachers to teach computer science,” reports Cassidy. The group wants a class in every high school.

In Rebooting the Pathway to Success, the Association for Computing Machinery calls for expanding K-12 computer science education and making it part of the STEM core.

I’m all for expanding opportunities for young people — female, male, whatever — to learn programming. I took a computer class in high school myself in the days of paper tape readers. (I took it to meet boys, not realizing I’d meet nerdy boys.)

But I don’t think mandatory programming will make significantly more girls — or blacks and Latinos — see coding as “cool.” It’s cool if you’re into logic. I did some programming in college too in a “math for non-math majors” class. I liked it. Everyone else hated it.

And I’m very dubious about adding graduation requirements. If computer science is added, something else should be deleted. Maybe a programming language can substitute for a foreign language?

Texas, Florida drop college-prep-for-all

Texas won’t require all high school graduates to pass Algebra II, reports the Texas Tribune. Of five new diplomas, only the honors and STEM diplomas will require advanced algebra. The school board feared struggling students would drop out if they saw no realistic pat to a diploma.

Only half of the state’s high school graduates go directly to college, writes Sophie Quinton

Rather than a recommended four years each of math, science, and social studies, Texas students now need just three credits in each and must take five end-of-course tests rather than 15. Students will be able to earn “endorsements” in areas such as public service, arts and humanities, and business and industry. The State Board of Education is currently debating which endorsements will require Algebra 2.

Florida is rolling back college-prep-for-all requirements passed in 2010, writes Quinton.  Students who take Algebra 2 and either chemistry or physics will earn a “scholar” diploma, while those who earn one or more industry certifications will earn a “merit” designation.

Sixteen other states have made Algebra II a graduation requirement, she writes. So far, they’re staying the course.

Once a state has multiple high school diplomas, it makes a lot of sense to create a college-prep diploma, a vocational-prep diploma and a basic diploma for those with minimal skills. People worry that fewer disadvantaged students will go to college. I think more will earn a degree if they’ve chosen the academic track. And those who choose the technical/vocational track will have a decent shot at success.

Mandatory volunteerism

I know I’ve banged this particular drum before, but it’s always good to remind yourself of the absurd and insidious, lest it draw you in.  High school seniors in Maryland right now are busy rushing around in that typical year end frenzy to make up credits, pass exams, and… get their community service hours squared away.  Maryland is the only state with a statewide “service learning” requirement.

Twenty years after Maryland became the first state to require student service for a diploma, the senior scramble is a rite of spring. In Montgomery, 25 percent of seniors still had hours to turn in this week. In Prince George’s County, 36 percent were not yet done.

Spring break is crunch time.

“Hopefully they’re going to find something meaningful to do,” said Pam Meador, coordinator of the program for Montgomery schools.

Because as we all know, working to make your life and the life of those you love better, to make yourself a content and happy member of society… that’s not meaningful.  But is this really the best way to go about it?

“All of us want kids to intrinsically want to give back,” said Peter Noonan, an assistant Fairfax superintendent.

But forced service can backfire, he said. “My experience with kids is that when they are forced to do things, they typically don’t want to do it again,” Noonan said.

You don’t say?  Well at least we’re clear about the purpose: to change what it is kids want to do, intrinsically.  It’s absolutely straightforward values manipulation — which is usually called indoctrination.  I’ve previously argued, on many occasions, that unpaid internships are really unfair to kids from poor families who can’t afford to spend the summer working for free.  (I wasn’t arguing for their legal abolition, merely pointing out their moral perniciousness.  I’m a free marketeer at the end of the day.)   We shouldn’t be surprised that kids with more home support are better able to deal with these requirements as well:

Some students have advantages. Their parents might drive them around to activities starting in middle school. They might attend community-service summer camps, which can cost $350 a week. They might accumulate hours for, say, a bar mitzvah or a church confirmation and use that to meet school requirements.

I’m not anti-community service.  Have people come in to schools and preach about the joys of community service if you like.  Maybe they’ll inspire someone.  Post opportunities at school on a big colorful board.  Maybe the curious will become true believers.

Heck, if you’re going to have mandatory community service, have it be school improvement.  Plant and tend gardens at school (decorative, not productive).  Clean buildings and floors.  Do tech work for a play.  Work as the water boy/towel washer for a sports team.  Work in the library.  Help with minor construction projects.  Sort files.  Straighten up the music library.  Polish the band’s instruments.

At least then the students will be engaging in public service that obviously benefits them, and they’ll be able to see daily the results of their labor.

Of course, the classified employee’s labor union would object to a lot of these.

Schools: Make us teach science or we won’t

California will require only one year of science to graduate from high school if Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget is approved, reports the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.

It’s part of a move to give school districts more flexibility on how they use limited funds, says Brown’s budget director.

School leaders say schools will spend even more time on reading, writing and math if the state requires less science.

“To me, it’s absolutely astounding that the state of California, our leadership, would actually believe it would be appropriate not to have more science and actually have less science,” said longtime Santa Rosa School Board member Frank Pugh. “I hope the public really understands — they are dismantling, day-by-day, public education.”

Funding flexibility lets districts shift money to required programs or drop expensive classes, such as lab science, in favor of lower-cost classes, educators  said.  In recent years, that’s happened to adult education, maintenance, art supplies, career technical and libraries.

“I imagine that districts that are really struggling financially will probably pocket the money to help their finances,” Pugh said.

College-bound students need at least two years of lab science to apply to state universities. The change will affect students who aren’t on a college-prep track. Some might benefit from the flexibility to pursue career options, said Nancy Brownell, assistant superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education.

Others believe all students need two years of science. “It’s a way to become analytical,” science teacher Patty Dunlap told the Press-Democrat.  “They don’t realize they are going to have to analyze everything they do in life,” she said. “All of our kids deserve the opportunity to have a well-rounded education.”

Of course, school districts can require more science than the state minimum.

Update: California’s science standards received an A in Fordham’s State of the State Science Standards 2012. Most states received a D or F.

In particular, state standards struggled with vagueness and an overemphasis on “inquiry-based learning” instruction, while overwhelmingly failing to clearly convey the crucial connection between math and science. Although the treatment of evolution has improved since Fordham’s last assessment of state science standards in 2005, many states still miss the mark on teaching this vital topic.

The District of Columbia also earned an A, while Indiana, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Virginia got an A-.  The F states, according to Fordham, were Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Wyoming.

Maryland: Graduates must be green

Maryland students must be “environmentally literate” to earn a high school diploma, reports the Baltimore Sun. No other state has such a requirement.

Under the rule, public schools will be required to work lessons about conservation, smart growth and the health of our natural world into their core subjects like science and social studies.

Districts will develop their own teaching and evaluation plans, which must be approved by the state superintendent. Maryland will not provide more funding for environmental education.

Eco-socialist propaganda will trump science, predicts Red State.

Seattle: Is D- good enough to graduate?

Seattle’s school board may delay a decision to let students graduate with a D average. Currently, students need a C — with a lot of exceptions. The board also wants to let D students compete on sports teams.

At the same time, the board vows to raise standards.

While parents and community leaders oppose the move, reports the Seattle Times, “most high-school principals and counselors support the changes, saying the C-average policy hurts students who can’t catch up if, for any number of reasons, they have a bad year or arrive in high school performing well below grade level.”

Yet in Federal Way — one of just a few nearby school districts that also require at least a C-minus for graduation and to participate in sports — the change hasn’t led to big problems. Superintendent Tom Murphy said he was skeptical at first and still worries that change might cause grade inflation. But overall, he says, it seems to have a positive impact, especially for athletes.

“It has shown kids that they can meet higher standards when they really want to and when they have to.”

When the C-average requirement went into effect in Seattle in 2001. one-fourth of students were at risk of not graduating. The district stopped counting F’s in calculating grade-point averages, and offered waivers to D students. Last year, the district went back to averaging in failing grades — but not for seniors who might not graduate.