The last month has seen unprecedented social activism and debate that cuts to the very core of who we are as a country. While much of the advocacy has focused on police reform or political reform, some, inevitably, has focused on educational reform.
In fact — a fun side note — the NBA is allowing its players to choose various social justice slogans to put on their jerseys this year. Examples include, Black Lives Matter; Say Their Names; Vote; I Can’t Breathe; Justice; Peace; Equality; or Freedom.
One of the choices is “Education Reform.”
This is hardly surprising given that the educational system has always been one of the primary levers that Americans look to for social reform.
From what I can tell, so far I have seen calls for two kinds of educational reform:
1. Greater “Equity”
I put this in quotes because I still find this term maddeningly hard to understand. I know what it means, basically, but right now everyone seems to be using it in different ways. Here is an article from EdWeek from last year about how nobody has a clear definition of what an “equitable” education really is.
This week’s EdWeek has an article here titled “Six Ways District Leaders Can Build Racial Equity.” The first step is “Define the Terms” and the article highlights a district in Nebraska:
“In Omaha, Neb., the work has started at the beginning—with a common definition of terms.”
It took work:
“A committee of equity-minded educators and community members ‘wrestled for a good four months about our definition of education equity,’ Thomas said. In November, he presented the wording to the district’s leadership team.”
So what is that definition of educational equity?
“Omaha’s exact language isn’t yet ready to share, but the importance of the exercise was creating a set of common themes that apply to anyone in the school district, no matter where they work, Thomas said.” [Emphasis mine.]
So they spent four months on this — last year — and more than a year after they started, they’re still not ready to share a definition?
And an article in a national newspaper about the importance of equity cannot even present one district’s definition of equity?
This all furthers my confusion and frankly my belief that too often “equity” means whatever people want it to mean. Reminds me of the old definition of socialism: “Socialism is . . . the name of our desire.”
2. Curricular Reform
Predictably, people are calling for curricular reform to teach students about different events and understandings of history. I have heard a number of variations on “Did you ever learn about [historical event having to do with minority persecution in the United States] in school? Me either” — with the implication that this event should be included in a high school curriculum. For example, the Tulsa Race Massacre.
While it’s hard not to wonder sometimes at how little we all seem to know about the comparatively recent history of even our own country, I am skeptical as to the deeper implication that “covering” something in school necessarily changes a person’s perspective. First, let’s remember that most Americans have little understanding of even well-covered, basic functions of government, periods of history, or even basic geography. I have known plenty of adults who can’t identify all 50 states on a map.
There are many reasons for that. Some have to do with instruction — just because you “cover” something doesn’t mean students understand it. In fact, the notion of “covering” something at all is something of the scourge of social studies education. The old cliche — a mile wide and an inch deep — can too often be seen as a fitting indictment of many high school social studies curricula. So too the old student complaint that their classes never make it past World War II . . . even though they rip through the Civil War and Reconstruction in under a week.
So clearly, it matters what is included in the curriculum — but it also matters how it is taught.
My other thought is that I can’t imagine how hard it must be to be to design social studies curricula. Again, most social studies teachers I know are appalled at how fast they need to move, how much important history they have to leave out. The choices of what to include are always painstaking. Do you include the Tulsa Race Massacre? If so, how long do you spend on it? Do you spend a whole day — if so, what do you cut? Do you nix a day off the week-long debate unit you’re doing about American intervention in the 20th Century? If you do, those students might not be prepared, and the whole unit’s value might be lost. Or do you cut the day on The New Deal?
One of the things that stood out to me when I first started teaching novels in English class was how much of the nightly homework reading we just couldn’t talk about in class. I’d have page after page of notes on last night’s chapter, but I quickly realized that if I wanted to actually have a discussion during class, I probably had to narrow it down to just one or two points or quotes to talk about. Otherwise there was no time to discuss. You have to pare back so, so much . . . and I can imagine this difficulty is multiplied by a hundred when you’re talking about which events from history to spend time on. It’s hard.
None of this is to say that educators should not take a look at curriculum. They should. But it’s not as easy as simply including new or different material and hoping students will somehow emerge with a more capacious view of history or new and different attitudes as a result.