because something is important, it doesn’t follow that we should require everyone to study it

  • According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history. … Thirty-five states [get] an F because their standards require little or no mention of the movement, [the report] says.” (New York Times, 9/28)
  • “Most states do not include in their social studies/history standards a direct mention of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to a new study [released by CIRCLE], and only four states actually name Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda.” (Washington Post, 9/9)
  • “California will become the first state to require public schools to teach gay and lesbian history. As expected, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill on Thursday that mandates that the contributions of gays and lesbians in the state and the country be included in social science instruction and in textbooks ” (New York Times, 7/14)

Like everyone else, I have opinions about what Americans should know. I think, for example, that the Civil Rights Movement should be understood by everyone. It is not only a story of race in America (which is an essential topic), but also an example of democratic participation.

Yet it seems crucial to distinguish among several issues:

  1. Which bodies of knowledge we wish everyone would know.
  2. Whether lasting knowledge will result if we teach any given topic for a limited amount of time in school.
  3. What kinds of educational experiences we want students to have, e.g., in-depth research projects on a few topics, or a lecture on a different topic every day.
  4. What are the effects of any given state law or mandate, considering not only its content (e.g., “Teach gay history!”), but also the carrots and sticks that the law imposes.
  5. Whether it is wise to standardize the curriculum across a whole state.
  6. Whether states, districts, schools, communities, teachers, or teachers-plus-students should make curricular decisions.
  7. Which signals we wish to send as a society about the topics we consider important.

I think almost all the discussion is about #7. If we don’t require the teaching of 9/11, civil rights history, or gay history, the lack of a mandate is interpreted as a sign of unconcern–hence disrespect. The result is a default presumption that everything important should be included in state standards. And the standards become voluminous lists.

But the other questions listed above also deserve consideration. We found, for example, that whether the First Amendment was included in state standards had no effect on whether students could answer survey questions about the First Amendment. It did matter whether they had studied the topic, but not what their state law or policies said. Presumably, statewide content mandates do not encourage teaching that leads to lasting knowledge.

All in all, I would prefer that some of our students do in-depth research projects on the Civil Rights Movement and really learn it, rather than require all our students to memorize a few key facts about the Movement that may show up on a standardized test. I make that choice with some reluctance, because I really do think the Movement has transcendent importance. But I would bet that kids will forget almost everything they cram for a test, especially if it covers a long list of topics, whereas they will benefit permanently from a deep experience wrestling with a complex topic that they and their teacher find interesting. I am not in favor of unilateral disarmament–dropping the Civil Rights Movement but leaving 9/11 and the Mayflower Compact in the standards. Instead, I’d like to see a radical shift from lists of topics to core skills and concepts.