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Teacher in a Strange Land

By Nancy Flanagan — January 17, 2010 2 min read
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“I have learned two ways to tie my shoes. One way is only good for lying down. The other way is good for walking.”
Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein)

There’s no more enlightening--or amusing--illustration of the inherent strangeness of Ed Policy World than this recent story out of Texas. Quick synopsis: hundreds of people in Texas are lining up to testify on Texas’s proposed K-12 social studies standards, and they all have cultural axes to grind.

This is a very big deal-- student content standards in Texas and California have enormous influence over what ends up in the most popular textbooks sold across the nation (our de facto national curriculum). If kids in Texas will be learning about Cesar Chavez and the Verona Papers--which evidently made the cut--then kids in North Dakota will probably encounter them, too. The fact that this story was thoroughly covered by the Wall Street Journal tells you pretty much all you need to know about who’s paying attention to the outcomes of these hearings.

This battle of Texas curriculum Titans has been going on for some time; it’s now scheduled for a final vote in March. In the meantime, it’s staggering to think about the meeting costs, organizational staff time--even the gas for dozens of men in suits to drive across Texas to advocate for inclusion of the non-fact that America was founded on “biblically-based” principles.

There was even a move to bump hip-hop out of the material on popular culture and replace it with country music. Did someone think kids in Texas would stop listening to hip-hop if they took it out of the state curriculum framework? Coach Popper might be more comfortable talking about Carrie Underwood than Lil Wayne, but---why are we having these conversations, again?

The whole exercise vividly represents the elevation of detail over substance. We’re good at this stuff in America: strategic planning, goal setting, minutiae mapping, aligning this and standardizing that. It makes us feel as if we’re in control of what our kids are actually learning, because it’s all written down, with boxes, arrows and a decimal numbering system for objectives. In the meantime, students go merrily on absorbing random things from the internet and the playground, mastering assorted skills which may or may not be on the test.

Actually, conversations about what students need to know are an important part of modern civic discourse. I do want my legislators--as well as my teaching colleagues and my students--to think periodically about identifying the most essential and significant disciplinary content, and to understand the necessity of carrying useful knowledge around in one’s cerebral hard drive. Even skirmishes over the inclusion of world religions in the outlines are part of healthy democratic debate. And wouldn’t it be interesting for students to watch policy-makers ponder the critical content intended to shape their working intelligence and their future?

Getting just the right names and facts into a cast-in-concrete social studies syllabus, however, is a little like tying your shoes for the purpose of lying down. A good set of standards will get up and walk around, flexing and changing every day. Just like our students. Just like the world.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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