Diane Ravitch recently posted on her blog, “If you wanted to know more about ‘The State of Education,’ and how to ‘rebuild a more equitable system, the last person you would ask is a billionaire.” She was referring to Bill Gates, who just can’t stop funding charter schools and groups that advocate for high-stakes testing, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I have other names I want to add to Diane’s list of people you can’t trust, especially when it comes to civics education – Lamar Alexander (Bush I), Richard Riley (Clinton), Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings (Bush II), (Bush II) and Arne Duncan and John King (Obama) – the Unholy Six. They are all former United States Education Secretaries and people who share major blame for the dearth of civics and history education in United States public schools because of their demand for high-stakes testing in math and reading skills at the expense of substantive learning.
Diane chronicles much of their leadership failures in a recent article, “Twenty Years of Failing Schools.” While she focused on pro-charter, protesting, pro-privatization “educational reform” since the passage of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2002, she traces the blame back to Reagan policies in the 1980s. According to Ravitch “three successive presidential administrations — Bush, Obama, and Trump — have pressured school districts to accept privately managed charter schools . . . and vouchers as the cure for low test scores (which they are not). This so-called reform movement has paid little attention to the need for adequate and equitable resources.” It has also minimized teaching history and civics.
A big part of the problem when it comes to teaching history and civics is disagreement about what to teach. We see that in the recent efforts by Trump Republicans to suppress the New York Times 1619 Project. The solution proposed by the Unholy Six is a “roadmap” developed by “The Educating for American Democracy Initiative” that calls for examining “questions” while refusing to take a stand on an issue and allows states and school districts to teach anything they want. If Texas wants their history curriculum to celebrate the conquest of Mexicans lands, that’s their business. If Alabama and Mississippi schools misrepresent the impact of slavery, Jim Crow, and lingering racism, that’s a state’s right. If Arkansas wants to adopt Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission report, at least they will be teaching something like history.
Since the January 6 assault on the United States Capitol, the Unholy Six have turned their attention to promoting history civics education as a way to save the United States. In an op-ed piece in of all places, The Wall Street Journal, they start off pretty well:
“Following years of polarization and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the world’s oldest constitutional democracy is in grave danger. We stand at a crossroads, called to protect this democracy and to work toward unity . . . A key part of our task is to reinvigorate teaching and learning of American history and civics in our nation’s schools. A constitutional democracy requires a citizenry that has a desire to participate, and an understanding of how to do so constructively, as well as the knowledge and skills to act for the common good.”
The Educating for American Democracy Initiative (EAD) “roadmap” uses all the education buzzword, inquiry, project and community-based, and experiential learning, except the most important one – activism. Its 22-page companion never mentions support for student activism as the foundation for civics education. It also never mentions the pressing issues that student activists are confronting – climate change, gun violence, voter suppression, immigrant rights, educational inequality, incarceration rates, police misconduct, and racism. It is as if discussing the past while ignoring the present and the issues tearing the nation apart, national unity will miraculously blossom. The picture above shows a standoff between a militarized police force and Black Lives Matter supporters armed only with a cellphone camera. Students need to know how the past got us to the present and then they need to act as citizens in a democratic society to change the future.
The EAD Initiative states it is about celebrating the compromises needed to make our constitutional democracy work. That would include the 3/5 Compromise, the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 that reinforced slavery and the Compromise of 1877 that sacrificed the rights of African Americans in the name of national unity after Reconstruction. EAD wants to cultivate patriotism, which by the way, is what the “patriots” who invaded the Capitol building wanted to do. Mostly EAD wants students presented with a “content framework” and information to absorb from a “timeline of events.” Maybe students should all just sing “God Bless America”?
The Unholy Six, who torpedoed the teaching of civics and history, for the last 50 years now regret that “civics, which teaches skills of participation and the knowledge that sustains it, and history, which provides a frame of reference for the present, have been sorely neglected over the past half-century in U.S. schools.”
This country definitely needs a rebirth in history and civics in our schools coupled with support for democratic participation and student activism, but not the ‘roadmap” the Unholy Six offer.
Follow Alan Singer on twitter at https://twitter.com/AlanJSinger1.