Category Archives: Education / Youth

Words Fail

I’ve been following the protests in Colorado over efforts to make that state’s AP History course “more patriotic.” A part of the backstory has just emerged, and it is absolutely appalling.

One of the members of Colorado’s state Board of Education arguing for “more patriotism” in the curriculum cited the “fact” that the United States voluntarily ended slavery proved “American execptionalism” and argued that this perspective should be taught to students.

Here is her Facebook post complaining that the AP U.S. History curriculum downplays America’s “noble history.”

As an example, I note our slavery history. Yes, we practiced slavery. But we also ended it voluntarily, at great sacrifice, while the practice continues in many countries still today! Shouldn’t our students be provided that viewpoint? This is part of the argument that America is exceptional. Does our APUSH Framework support or denigrate that position?

And this–this!–from a woman who sits on the Colorado Board of Education.

Words fail.

It Isn’t Whether–It’s How

Extremists on the Right constantly complain that religion has been banished from public school classrooms. This, of course, is inaccurate: what the Establishment Clause prohibits is proselytizing–imposing religious beliefs or observances on the “captive audience” that is the public school classroom.

The courts have been careful to distinguish between official endorsement or sponsorship of religion, which is unconstitutional, and instruction about religion, which is not only constitutional, but entirely appropriate. (Try teaching history, or art history, without reference to the immense influence of religious beliefs.)

One of the problems caused by low levels of civic and constitutional knowledge is that some schools have become skittish, avoiding even the appropriate study of religion for fear of lawsuits, while at the other end of the spectrum, schools have simply ignored the line between proper and improper instruction.

But some schools have gotten it right. Modesto, California is one of them.

The course’s inclusive curriculum ensures that it meets constitutional standards. It’s obvious from the design of the course and from emerging evidence that it succeeds in providing a thorough and objective education in world religions. For that reason, it’s a useful example of how religion ought to be taught in schools, if it’s going to be taught at all. And it’s sharply distinct from the Religious Right’s various attempts to insert sectarianism in public classrooms.

Modesto’s course and curricular proposals stand in sharp contrast to the Bible class designed by Hobby Lobby’s owners that has been proposed for use in Mustang, Okla., public schools. Steve Green, the corporation’s current president, called the class “the fourth leg of my personal ministry” and stated that it’s intended to complement his planned Bible museum in Washington, D.C. Legal objections from groups like Americans United have put the class on hold for now, but it could still be implemented in Mustang’s high schools.

If the goal is to have kids know about religion, there are perfectly legal ways to do that. The problems arise when your goal is really to impose your particular beliefs on others.

 

Time for a New GI Bill

I’ve been thinking.

There are a number of policy changes that would make a big difference in the lives of poor Americans. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to raise the minimum wage. We also need stronger banking regulations, better and lower-cost day care availability, and improved public education in our poorer neighborhoods, just for starters. These and many other measures would help narrow the wide gap between rich and poor.

But I want to suggest a more sweeping—and admittedly somewhat audacious—policy. I want to advocate for a new GI Bill.

Here’s my proposal: upon graduation from high school, students would enroll in a one-year program of civic service and civic education. Upon completion of that year, the government would pay for two years of college. The program would be open to everyone, but marketed heavily to the poor and disadvantaged.

Here’s my justification: we have massive amounts of research confirming that most Americans—rich or poor—know embarrassingly little about the economic and governmental structures within which they live. This civics deficit is far more pronounced in poor communities, where civics instruction (as with other educational resources) is scarce. Because civic knowledge is a predictor of civic participation, one result is that poor folks don’t vote in percentages equal to those of middle-class and wealthy Americans.

Of course, when people don’t vote, their interests aren’t represented.

As I’ve previously noted, Ferguson, Missouri, a town that is two-thirds African-American and has a virtually all-white power structure, reported a twelve percent voter turnout in its most recent municipal election.

Poverty explains more of this than race.

Poverty is a reliable predictor of low political participation and efficacy. Giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to go to college—an opportunity they may not have otherwise—and conditioning that opportunity on a year of civic learning and civic service—would do two extremely important things: it would give those students the civic skills they need in order to have a meaningful voice in the democratic process; and it would reduce the nation’s currently unconscionable level of student loan debt.

The need to borrow money in order to afford college keeps many young people from getting the education they need. It keeps others from taking lower-paying jobs with nonprofits and humanitarian organizations after they graduate. Our high level of student loan debt has been identified as a substantial drag on the economy, because payment on those loans is preventing many recent graduates from setting up households, buying homes and appliances and even starting families–all activities that keep the economy humming.

As with so many other aspects of contemporary American life, the burdens fall most heavily on those who can least afford them.

A new GI Bill along these lines would enable informed civic participation and give voice to the currently voiceless; and it would simultaneously addresses our horrific levels of student loan debt.

What’s not to like?

 

The Devil in the Details…..

Charter schools have become the flavor of the day for education reformers, and they clearly have some virtues. Unlike voucher programs that divert public school resources to private and parochial schools, charters are public schools, although operating under more flexible guidelines than their more traditional counterparts.

Philosophically, I have no quarrel with charter schools. (I have big problems with vouchers.) But I do have real issues with the very American tendency to prescribe one-size-fits-all solutions to complicated problems, and too many people have decided that charters are that quick and easy solution.

Charters were initially designed to be experimental–to try new approaches, to innovate in the classroom–and to offer parents a wider array of choices of educational philosophy. So far, so good. But as charters have proliferated without much in the way of accountability or evaluation, some of the reasons we need to tread with caution have emerged.  When Indianapolis’ Project School was closed for failure to perform, for example, parents who had chosen the school and were invested in its approach were furious and their children were uprooted. Ball State University, which had chartered some 20 schools, abruptly closed seven of them, with equally disruptive results.

And then there’s this…

While public schools must provide due process to students when making decisions about suspensions or expulsions, most states exempt charter schools from school district discipline policies. This lack of protection may have enabled some charter schools to suspend and expel students at much higher rates than their public counterparts. In San Diego, Green and his coauthors report, the city’s 37 charter schools have a suspension rate twice that of the public schools, while in Newark, the suspension rate in charter schools is 10 percent, compared to 3 percent for the city’s public schools….

It’s not just discipline, though; charter schools may be exempt from constitutional protections in areas like search and seizure and the exercise of religion. It’s obviously one thing for a Catholic school to require religion classes, but does the same logic apply to a charter school like Arizona’s Heritage Academy, which last month was criticized by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State for requiring 12th graders to read books claiming that God inspired the drafting of the Constitution.

So often, it isn’t what we choose to do. It’s how we choose to do it.

Charter schools–properly conceived, prudently financed and carefully monitored–can be part of the solution to our education woes. But they are not–and cannot be– a substitute for the hard work of fixing our public school systems.

 

 

About Those “Liberal” Professors

One of my graduate students pointed me to an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, highlighting a study into the persistent accusation that “liberal” professors are guilty of politically indoctrinating their students.

Dodson’s analysis of the data shows that students who get engaged academically are likely to increase their time talking about political issues and becoming engaged in civic life.

With regard to political views, academic engagement promoted moderation. “[T]he results indicate — in contrast to the concerns of many conservative commentators — that academic involvement generally moderates attitudes,” Dodson writes. “While conservative students do become more liberal as a result of academic involvement, liberals become more conservative as a result of their academic involvement. Indeed it appears that a critical engagement with a diverse set of ideas — a hallmark of the college experience — challenges students to re-evaluate the strength of their political convictions.”

The data on student activities demonstrate the opposite impact: The more involved that liberal students get, the more liberal they become, while the more involved conservative students get, the more conservative they become.”This finding suggests that students seek out and engage with familiar social environments — a choice that leads to the strengthening of their political beliefs.”

This research is consistent with a study I saw a few years ago: when people who were moderately inclined to believe X were placed in a discussion group with others who all believed X, they emerged from the experience much more invested in X. People who participated in more diverse discussions–who were placed in groups representing a range of positions on X–developed more nuanced (and less dogmatic) opinions about X.

It all comes back to what academics call motivated reasoning… the willingness of people invested in a particular worldview to choose the news and select the information environments that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs.

A good teacher provides students with a wide range of relevant information, at least some  of which will inevitably challenge their worldviews. As I tell my students, it’s my job to confuse you. I’ll know I’ve succeeded if, after taking my class, students use two phrases more frequently: “it depends,” and “it’s more complicated than that.”

Because, really–it is more complicated than that.