Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How Politics Can Hamper School and Curriculum Reform Efforts

If you have been educator for any length of time, you know how difficult it is to get the education system to change. During the nineties, I remember all to well the struggles my high school had when we were trying to switch to block scheduling from the traditional six-period day. It took an entire two years to get the idea finally implemented, because it honestly takes long time to win over students, parents and teachers. One of the obstacles to any change or reform in schools is the common belief out there, that schools "should be just like they were when I attended." Everyone has some kind of idealized picture of how school should be, and attempts to change that picture receive very hostile attention.

A recent illustration of this hostility was North Carolina's attempts to revise the social studies and history curriculum. Basically, the state wanted to spread out the study of history over multiple grades so that students could get a more in-depth look at history and social studies. In a memo June Atkinson, State Superintendent, states that "one of the over-arching goals of the new curriculum standards was to give our students the opportunity to study U.S. history in depth to the present day." Because of this the team that wrote the proposed curriculum so that students would receive multiple opportunities to study U.S. history through reconstruction before they entered high school. In effect, STUDENTS WOULD RECEIVE MORE HISTORY RATHER THAN LESS. This mess all started after FOX news misrepresented the facts, as they so often do. They published a story that stated that "North Carolina Schools May Cut Chunk Out of U.S. History Lessons." The proposal from the North Carolina curriculum team was an attempt to restructure the U.S. History curriculum so that students encountered more of history. Well, after FOX News did its magic, our state education leaders found themselves battling the lies and half-truths spread by a national news network.

To make matters worse, it seems our state politicians are now voicing their concerns. In a letter published here, and written to our state superintendent and State School Board Chairman, one of our state senators, Marc Basnight voices his opposition to any changes in the high school history curriculum. His rationale is simply that only high school students can understand and appreciate our country's history like the Civil War or our country's founding. His suggestion to "offer history as an extracurricular activity outside the school day" demonstrates just how far removed this man is from the realities of the modern school and classroom. I'm sure we would have a million students waiting in line to study history after school! His argument in a nutshell is that "U.S. history must be taught in its entirety during the high school years." No room for experimentation or change. What is really interesting is the veiled threat placed at the end of the letter. "I look forward to working with you as we continue improving education in our state." My personal translation of that is, "Keep you hands off our history curriculum, or I will introduce and get passed a law that mandates that all U.S. History is taught in high school." It does not take a long look at our state's history to see that our legislature has no qualms about meddling in curriculum.

This incident illustrates the same forces at work that are keeping or trying to keep schools from moving into the 21st Century. The tendency to want to keep schools like they were in some earlier ideal time is extremely strong, and it is very difficult to introduce and implement change because of this. Whether it is suggested curriculum change like this one, or some kind of restructuring of the school calendar, politics sometimes dictates that schools should be same as the schools of yesterday.

I suppose the question at this point is, how do we break out of this rut? Usually a crisis of some kind is the easiest way. It took Sputnik and the belief that we were behind in the Space Race to change science and math instruction. Perhaps it is going to take the same kind of crisis, perceived or real, to force us to really and truly rethink our schools. When America is on the brink of becoming a true third world country because of an outdated education system, people might finally wake up and see that the schools they attended were first of all, not all that ideal. The old schools only educated a small number of our citizens. Now we are charged with educating everyone. They will also see that our schools, especially high schools are obsolete. Perhaps the true way we are going to really move our schools into the 21st Century is by attacking head-on this outdated vision of the perfect schools of the past, and replacing that image with what our high schools could really look like. Fellow 21st Century Administrators, that is no small order.

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