The Sorry State of Social Studies Education

These are tough times for myself and other past and present social studies educators.

Exhibit A. Kathryn Schulz’s cogent explanation of everything that’s wrong with Netflix’s 10 hour long documentary “Making A Murderer”. Thanks Alison for the link, you saved me 9 hours and 20 minutes. Not quite sure how to spend those savings, maybe an extra hour of sleep for nine straight nights!

Excerpt 1, “. . . we still have not thought seriously about what it means when a private investigative project—bound by no rules of procedure, answerable to nothing but ratings, shaped only by the ethics and aptitude of its makers—comes to serve as our court of last resort.”

Excerpt 2, “. . . the documentary consistently leads its viewers to the conclusion that Avery was framed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, and it contains striking elisions that bolster that theory. The filmmakers minimize or leave out many aspects of Avery’s less than savory past, including multiple alleged incidents of physical and sexual violence. They also omit important evidence against him, including the fact that Brendan Dassey confessed to helping Avery move Halbach’s S.U.V. into his junk yard, where Avery lifted the hood and removed the battery cable. Investigators subsequently found DNA from Avery’s perspiration on the hood latch—evidence that would be nearly impossible to plant.

Perhaps because they are dodging inconvenient facts, Ricciardi and Demos are never able to present a coherent account of Halbach’s death, let alone multiple competing ones. Although “Making a Murderer” is structured chronologically, it fails to provide a clear time line of events, and it never answers such basic questions as when, where, and how Halbach died. Potentially critical issues are raised and summarily dropped; we hear about suspicious calls to and messages on Halbach’s cell phone, but these are never explored or even raised again. In the end, despite ten hours of running time, the story at the heart of “Making a Murderer” remains a muddle. Granted, real life is often a muddle, too, especially where crime is involved—but good reporters delineate the facts rather than contribute to the confusion.

Despite all this, “Making a Murderer” has left many viewers entirely convinced that Avery was framed. After the documentary aired, everyone from high-school students to celebrities jumped on the “Free Avery and Dassey” bandwagon.

Excerpt 3, “As of January 12th, more than four hundred thousand people had signed a petition to President Obama demanding that “Steven Avery should be exonerated at once by pardon.” That outrage could scarcely have been more misdirected. For one thing, it was addressed to the wrong person: Avery was convicted of state crimes, not federal ones, and the President does not have the power to pardon him. For another, it was the wrong demand. “Making a Murderer” may have presented a compelling case that Avery (and, more convincingly, Dassey) deserved a new trial, but it did not get anywhere close to establishing that either one should be exonerated.”

Exhibit B. The Republican frontrunner (tRf) repeatedly says we don’t win anymore and he promises to make America great again. His strategy of playing on people’s zenophobia, fears, and ethnocentrism is working. Most disheartening, few ask how a simplistic, single-minded focus on the U.S., will end up benefiting the U.S. in the medium and long-term. Similarly, few ask why international competition holds more promise than international cooperation.

Because his name wasn’t in the headline, tRf probably skipped this news story from last week titled “Slow Growth Clouds Progress on Global Poverty.”

“Unprecedented global economic growth over the past quarter century has lifted an estimated 1.25 billion people out of poverty, in one of the greatest recent achievements in human history.

. . . . In 1990, 37% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, which the World Bank defines as living on less than $1.90 a day. Today, the bank estimates that 9.6% of the world is in this destitute state—agricultural workers and others who live in rural mud huts with no electricity or running water, work others’ land, and spend nearly all of their resources on food, often going hungry.”

We don’t win anymore only if “we” is defined in the most narrow of ways. Social studies education has failed when so many are so taken with someone who thinks so narrowly. If we had done a better job as social studies educators everyone reading about the stupifying progress on global poverty would immediately realize the positive ripple effects including slower population growth, reduced regional and international violence, increased security, military savings, and increased global trade.

Instead nationalism and demagoguery are winning the day. Given that, the profession and I get a big fat “F”.

The Limits of Obama’s Liberalism

Post Inaugural Address, Slate Magazine trumpeted, “A Liberal Love Letter”. The tease read, “Obama’s partisan speech was a pledge to gays, women, immigrants, and the working class.

So forget all that January 2009 naivete about bipartisanship. The plan is to put the activist government pedal to the metal for the next 16-18 months.

Except when it comes to teachers and education. Obama’s education policy is nearly indistinguishable from George W. Bush’s whose reform proposals were nearly indistinguishable from Bill Clinton’s, whose policies were nearly indistinguishable from George Bush Sr’s. Pre-Senior, the education policy pendulum swang about every ten years between traditional schooling practices and progressive reforms. About twenty years ago the pendulum got seriously stuck. Wedged in wet cement that then dried when Bill Clinton adopted Senior’s narrow, uninspiring, national education goals.

Granted, President Obama jammed a lot into his inaugural address and inaugural addresses are more about vision and guiding principles than specific policies. Given that, here’s what President Obama should do before (#1) and during (#s 2-5) his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, February 12th, to extend his “liberal love letter” to education.

1). Thank Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for his service and appoint someone with real life K-12 teaching experience. A woman with credibility. Someone less inclined to use international test scores to criticize teachers. Someone less likely to mindlessly preach the math/science “economic engine” gospel.

2) Repeat this weekly. “We must learn to think about students as future citizens first, not consumers or employees.” And also, “We’ve erred in thinking about schools like businesses and only emphasizing math and science education. For the sake of our democracy, we must pay much more attention to the arts, the humanities, and social studies education.”

3) Empower teacher leaders—not Governors or other politicians, business people, or education bureaucrats—to design rigorous teacher evaluation systems. Acknowledge that the curriculum grew frighteningly narrow over the last twenty years in part because education bureaucrats have insisted on tying together students’ standardized test scores, teachers’ evaluations, and teachers’ compensation.

4) Acknowledge that appeals to economic competitiveness and national greatness don’t inspire teacher or students. Stop asking teachers and students to work harder for the sake of the country. Remind everyone that academic achievement results when students have inspiring teachers; positive peer pressure; and most importantly, caring adults in their lives who combine high expectations with tireless support and encouragement.

And since I’m in “pie in the sky” territory. . .

5.) Start a “MaD” program or “Mothball a Drone” and use the Defense Department savings to A) fund scholarships for especially capable, culturally diverse, college students pursuing teaching certificates and B) to boost teacher compensation more generally.

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I hereby swear to continue the education policies of George W. Bush (whereever he might be).

When It Comes to the Media, New is Not Better—The Huffington Post as Case Study

“Come here dad,” Sixteen said a few days ago, “you have to see this.” A vid made by some of her high school classmates.

What’s the capital of Washington? Some students say Seattle, others tentatively guess Olympia. Especially funny because they’re Olympia High School students standing two miles from the Capital Campus. Goes downhill from there. What foreign countries border the U.S.? Some guess South America. One girl says “Canada,” and then adds, “no, that’s a state.”

The students’ struggles make sense given 1) social studies content, disconnected from our country’s economic performance, is not seen as worthwhile today and 2) too many social studies courses are taught poorly. The students’ ignorance isn’t the story. The story is what passes for journalism today.

Thursday afternoon, skimming the Huffington Post, I was shocked to stumble upon the vid and this story. Three things to note.

1) Don’t expect anyone at the Huffington Post to take the time to scratch below the surface and show that things aren’t always as they appear. Over 1,200 students attend OHS and about twelve are highlighted in the vid. Olympia High students have been accepted to Yale each of the last three years. Two years ago, two young women went to M.I.T. This year, two young men got perfect 2,400 scores on their SATs. Another student will play golf at Stanford next year. Those stories don’t get highlighted because they don’t serve the purposes of those who want to convince others that U.S. schools are failing, teachers are lazy, and teacher unions are the root of all evil.

2) New journalism is not better journalism. The story and the vid have next to nothing to do with one another; as a result, the story doesn’t make sense, doesn’t hang together, and therefore, never should have ran.

Comedy aside, the United State’s poor international rankings in subject proficiencies such as math is a problem that could cost the country around $75 trillion over 80 years, according to a study called “Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?” Based on the research, U.S. students place behind 31 other countries in math proficiency, and behind 16 other countries in reading.

What the hell kind of segue is that? One minute 1% of students are unsure of some basic knowledge, the next, the country is $75 trillion dollars poorer. If this is new journalism, I’ll stick with the old.

3. Young people aren’t thinking about their privacy nearly enough. One minute a few students are having some chuckles practicing their videography skills, the next, their work has a word-wide audience. When I stumbled upon the story the vid had 37,500 hits. By now it’s probably six figures. The second comment, about a friend of Sixteen’s reads, “Dammn would nail the girl in gray by herself.” The “girl in gray” had no idea what might happen to the footage once her classmates uploaded it to Vimeo. I’m not buying this “end of privacy” bullshit. I’m guessing she regrets having participated. Lots of lessons for all of the young people involved. The primary one, having a vid go viral may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Postscript—one of the comments from someone at the school:

This article is incredibly misleading and should be taken down immediatel­y. It doesn’t contextual­ize the video properly and makes it sound as if the answers given in it are representa­tive of… well, something. The following descriptio­n is from the High School Student newspaper “The Olympus” which produced the video:

“Students found Jay Leno’s “Jay Walking” videos funny and decided to make one of their own. As is natural for a comic bit, the creators edited in the funniest responses, with the students’ consent. Though there were many correct answers to these pop questions, the comments in national forums concentrat­e on the negative, and, as usual, do not take into considerat­ion the amount of editing it took to get these funny, incorrect answers. So, we are taking down our video. Thanks for thinking about this. It is an interestin­g lesson for all.”

Post Postscript—On Thursday, after the video was taken down from Vimeo, someone, an OHS student I believe, uploaded the whole thing to YouTube. As of Friday afternoon, the video is embedded in the Huffington Post article under a different person’s YouTube account. My guess is the administration required student one to take it down only to have another upload it. Point four. Given the proliferation of social media, school administrators stand no chance of censoring students.