Monday, October 24, 2011

The Decline of American History in Public Schools

A few weeks ago, several friends and I braved the impending rainstorm and went to the National Book Festival on the Washington Mall. The purpose of attending -- besides the obvious reason of wanting to stand in the company of Hollywood actors, renowned historians and poet laureates -- was to hear David McCullough speak. As one of the nation’s most prolific writers, and author of numerous biographies including John Adams and Truman -- David McCullough is also one of only a handful of Americans to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

While there was always an interest, it wasn’t until I read his seminal work 1776 that I developed a genuine appreciation for American history. This short book, which exemplifies his unrivaled ability to present dense subject matter into riveting and lucid prose -- should be required reading in public schools as an authoritative text on George Washington and his generals during the most significant year of the American Revolution.

Yet, after arriving at the crowded venue, and expecting to hear a scholarly lecture on his latest book – The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris -- I was surprised to hear him speak about the condition of U.S. public schools, and in particular how students lack a basic understanding of American history. Incidentally, the reason people were often thrilled to read his books, he said, was because they had never learned about these important subjects in school.

Nonetheless, after investigating what I imagined to be an exaggerated contention, I was appalled by what I discovered:
Apparently U.S. students are unfamiliar with the famous paraphrased aphorism, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” That’s because a new report shows that students anywhere from high school to fourth grade are solely lacking in their knowledge of American history.

Results from the 2010 gold standard of testing, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 13 percent of the nation’s high school seniors showed proficiency in their knowledge of American history, and only 18 percent of eighth grades and 22 percent of fourth graders scoring as well.

These statistics, of course, should concern parents, teachers and local communities across the country. But, at the end of the day, shouldn’t every American care?

We study our own history, at least in part, to commemorate and remember all of those who gave their lives to preserve the liberties and freedoms we cherish as Americans. To forget the suffering of Washington and his army at Valley Forge, the determination of the soldiers at Normandy, or the courage of the passengers aboard Flight 93 would be an affront to their legacy and reflect the narcissism and ingratitude of our own people.

Furthermore, by reducing the importance of U.S. history in public schools, we deprive American children of an opportunity to learn about their heritage. And in so doing, we fail these students by neglecting to adequately educate them. The study of history -- and particularly American history – cultivates an understanding and appreciation for the ideals the nation was founded upon. Thomas Jefferson, for example, believed deeply than an educated citizenry was essential to the preservation of the American experiment. After all, how can one expect posterity to preserve American democratic principles if they cannot define what they are?

The notion that American history -- a once a valued subject -- is no longer a priority in public schools is profoundly disconcerting. The denigration of history, in my view, will have dire ramifications as children grow up ignorant and unaware of the essential beliefs which have guided our nation for nearly three centuries.

An undereducated and disengaged public, however, is only the beginning. As David McCullough suggests, a firm understanding of history is paramount to the success and effectiveness of our political leaders:
“All of our best presidents -- without exception -- have been presidents who’ve had a sense of history. Who’ve read history, in some cases who wrote history -- who cared about history and biography. The only obvious two who never went to college would be Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman, and both of them read history, in particular, all the time.”

In other words, if the youngest generations of Americans lack a basic understanding of the past, what kind of nation will we be in ten, twenty or even a hundred years from now? What kind of leaders will we produce?

The purpose of the U.S. education system -- and the reason it was established -- is primarily to provide students with the requisite knowledge and skills to live more successful lives. Yet, when we perpetually fail to teach American history in schools, we inevitably weaken the nation because our children grow up without any real sense of a national identity.

And that, in the end, is ultimately what the Founding Fathers pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to establish.


Silence is golden: how keeping quiet in the classroom can boost results

Silence in the classroom can boost children’s exam results, improve their self-esteem and cut down on bad behaviour, according to new research. Encouraging pupils to keep noise to a minimum has substantial benefits and should become a valuable component of all children’s education, it is claimed.

Dr Helen Lees, from Stirling University’s school of education, said that “enforced silence” was seen as a punishment and often acted to suppress children’s natural ability.

But she said that teaching children about the benefits of “strong silence” – deliberate stillness that gives them the opportunity to focus and reflect in a stress-free environment – can have a significant effect on pupils’ concentration and behaviour.

The conclusions are made in a new book – Silence in Schools – to be published next year. It is the latest in a string of research to establish a link between the classroom environment and pupils’ academic ability.

A study almost a decade ago by South Bank University and the Institute of Education in London found that children’s exam results were cut by as much as a third if they taught in noisy classrooms.

Teaching unions have also called for limits of 26C to be put on classroom temperatures amid claims that staff and pupils struggle to work in hot conditions and some educationalists claim that too much clutter on classroom walls can lead to children becoming distracted.

Dr Lees said: “There is no educational reason why silent practices in some way should not be an integral part of a child’s education. “In fact, when we take various strands of research on school settings and put them together, what we see is that education without silence does not make much sense. “In areas of better learning outcomes, better interpersonal relationships, better self-esteem and wellbeing measures, silence in a person’s life and an individual’s education is shown throughout the relevant research literature to be a benefit.”

Dozens of schools across Britain already introduce periods of meditation and “reflective silence” into the timetable.

Kevin Hogston, head of Sheringdale Primary, south London, has just introduced a minute’s silence at the start of twice-weekly assemblies in which children are taught breathing techniques and encouraged to reflect. The school plans to roll it out into classrooms every day.

It follows a successful trial at his former school, Latchmere Primary in Kingston-upon-Thames, which also set up a “blue room” where children can spend an hour a week learning meditation and relaxation techniques.

Mr Hogston said: “The background was that at my old school children were having immense trouble going to sleep at night because of things like a lack of exercise, poor diet and exposure to TVs and video games so they came to school tired and unable to work. Teaching them relaxation techniques and some basic meditation had a great effect on them; attendance went up, results went up and they were fresher and more alert at school.”

Dr Lees is due to outline her research at a conference – Just This Day – at London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields church on November 23.


Australia: Ditch the national curriculum

Barry Maley

While preparations continue for the implementation of a uniform, nationwide Australian School Curriculum, some states like NSW are wisely delaying the process. At the same time the draft curriculum, particularly in the humanities subjects of history and English, has been severely criticised as devoid of essential content, ideologically skewed, and absurdly politically correct. Just as important is the weak case for uniformity and centralisation in the first place.

We are told that lack of uniformity between the states is a problem for employers and for children who move from one state to another, but there is scant evidence that this is a serious problem justifying the loss of potential for experimentation and competition for excellence in a non-uniform system.

More importantly, the claim that a national curriculum will produce better educational results deserves scrutiny. It is probably true that the less than satisfactory condition of state schooling owes much to its extreme bureaucratisation and capture by interest groups, especially the teacher unions. But why should we not expect the same, on a national scale, from a large federal bureaucracy and the even more sharply focussed and more extensive power of the same interest groups? If established, how much more difficult it would be to reform a national system if it failed and how much greater the damage if it did?

And what is the evidence for the claim that centralised national systems produce better outcomes?

The International Student Assessment program and the International Mathematics and Science Study assess student performance from countries that have, and countries that do not have, national curricula and standards. The results and statistics are extensive and detailed. The summary outcome is, on one hand, that Australian Students have been outperformed by students from countries with national standards. On the other hand, Australian students have outperformed students from some other countries that also have national standards.

Moreover, many of the lowest performing students come from countries with national standards. If this sort of analysis is confined to OECD countries, a similar pattern holds. The great majority of countries assessed had national standards, but their results did not show that their students regularly outperformed Australian students, and many performed worse. Canadian students, from a country without national standards, do well on international assessments.

To put it briefly, these international assessments show no significant relationship between national standards and curricula and better student outcomes. This, along with the dangers of a loss of variety and innovation with the disappearance of a working states system and the manifest deficiencies of the draft curriculum, justifies abandoning the project before more waste is incurred.


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