Founders on education standards: James Madison

February 25, 2015

Photo of inscription to the left (north) of the main entrance on Independence Ave., of the James Madison Building, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Library of Congress photo

Photo of inscription to the left (north) of the main entrance on Independence Ave., of the James Madison Building, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Library of Congress photo

Madison said nothing against a federal role, but much which supports Common Core standards, and everything in support of public schooling (spellings and other longhand affectations of Mr. Madison left as they were in the letter; emphases added here):

Letter to William Taylor Barry

James Madison (Aug. 4, 1822)

Dear Sir, I received some days ago your letter of June 30, and the printed Circular to which it refers.

The liberal appropriations made by the Legislature of Kentucky for a general system of Education cannot be too much applauded. A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.*

William Taylor Barry was, in 1822, Lt. Governor of Kentucky (one of many posts he held in his lifetime of public service), and the author of the Barry Report, which proposed a system of free public education for Kentucky. Image from Kentucky Secretary of State, at Kentucky.gov

William Taylor Barry was, in 1822, Lt. Governor of Kentucky (one of many posts he held in his lifetime of public service), and the author of the Barry Report, which proposed a system of free public education for Kentucky. Image from Kentucky Secretary of State, at Kentucky.gov

I have always felt a more than ordinary interest in the destinies of Kentucky. Among her earliest settlers were some of my particular friends and Neighbors. And I was myself among the foremost advocates for submitting to the Will of the “District” the question and the time of its becoming a separate member of the American family. Its rapid growth & signal prosperity in this character have afforded me much pleasure; which is not a little enhanced by the enlightened patriotism which is now providing for the State a Plan of Education embracing every class of Citizens, and every grade & department of Knowledge. No error is more certain than the one proceeding from a hasty & superficial view of the subject: that the people at large have no interest in the establishment of Academies, Colleges, and Universities, where a few only, and those not of the poorer classes can obtain for their sons the advantages of superior education. It is thought to be unjust that all should be taxed for the benefit of a part, and that too the part least needing it.

If provision were not made at the same time for every part, the objection would be a natural one. But, besides the consideration when the higher Seminaries belong to a plan of general education, that it is better for the poorer classes to have the aid of the richer by a general tax on property, than that every parent should provide at his own expence for the education of his children, it is certain that every Class is interested in establishments which give to the human mind its highest improvements, and to every Country its truest and most durable celebrity.

Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty & dangerous encroachments on the public liberty. They are the nurseries of skilful Teachers for the schools distributed throughout the Community. They are themselves schools for the particular talents required for some of the Public Trusts, on the able execution of which the welfare of the people depends. They multiply the educated individuals from among whom the people may elect a due portion of their public Agents of every description; more especially of those who are to frame the laws; by the perspicuity, the consistency, and the stability, as well as by the just & equal spirit of which the great social purposes are to be answered.

Without such Institutions, the more costly of which can scarcely be provided by individual means, none but the few whose wealth enables them to support their sons abroad can give them the fullest education; and in proportion as this is done, the influence is monopolized which superior information everywhere possesses. At cheaper & nearer seats of Learning parents with slender incomes may place their sons in a course of education putting them on a level with the sons of the Richest. Whilst those who are without property, or with but little, must be peculiarly interested in a System which unites with the more Learned Institutions, a provision for diffusing through the entire Society the education needed for the common purposes of life. A system comprizing the Learned Institutions may be still further recommended to the more indigent class of Citizens by such an arrangement as was reported to the General Assembly of Virginia, in the year 1779, by a Committee appointed to revise laws in order to adapt them to the genius of Republican Government. It made part of a “Bill for the more general diffusion of knowledge” that wherever a youth was ascertained to possess talents meriting an education which his parents could not afford, he should be carried forward at the public expence, from seminary to seminary, to the completion of his studies at the highest.

But why should it be necessary in this case, to distinguish the Society into classes according to their property? When it is considered that the establishment and endowment of Academies, Colleges, and Universities are a provision, not merely for the existing generation, but for succeeding ones also; that in Governments like ours a constant rotation of property results from the free scope to industry, and from the laws of inheritance, and when it is considered moreover, how much of the exertions and privations of all are meant not for themselves, but for their posterity, there can be little ground for objections from any class, to plans of which every class must have its turn of benefits. The rich man, when contributing to a permanent plan for the education of the poor, ought to reflect that he is providing for that of his own descendants; and the poor man who concurs in a provision for those who are not poor that at no distant day it may be enjoyed by descendants from himself. It does not require a long life to witness these vicissitudes of fortune.

It is among the happy peculiarities of our Union, that the States composing it derive from their relation to each other and to the whole, a salutary emulation, without the enmity involved in competitions among States alien to each other. This emulation, we may perceive, is not without its influence in several important respects; and in none ought it to be more felt than in the merit of diffusing the light and the advantages of Public Instruction. In the example therefore which Kentucky is presenting, she not only consults her own welfare, but is giving an impulse to any of her sisters who may be behind her in the noble career.

Throughout the Civilized World, nations are courting the praise of fostering Science and the useful Arts, and are opening their eyes to the principles and the blessings of Representative Government. The American people owe it to themselves, and to the cause of free Government, to prove by their establishments for the advancement and diffusion of Knowledge, that their political Institutions, which are attracting observation from every quarter, and are respected as Models, by the newborn States in our own Hemisphere, are as favorable to the intellectual and moral improvement of Man as they are conformable to his individual & social Rights. What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty & Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?

The Committee, of which your name is the first, have taken a very judicious course in endeavouring to avail Kentucky of the experience of elder States, in modifying her Schools. I enclose extracts from the laws of Virginia on that subject; though I presume they will give little aid; the less as they have as yet been imperfectly carried into execution. The States where such systems have been long in operation will furnish much better answers to many of the enquiries stated in your Circular. But after all, such is the diversity of local circumstances, more particularly as the population varies in density & sparseness, that the details suited to some may be little so to others. As the population however, is becoming less & less sparse, and it will be well in laying the foundation of a Good System, to have a view to this progressive change, much attention seems due to examples in the Eastern States, where the people are most compact, & where there has been the longest experience in plans of popular education.

I know not that I can offer on the occasion any suggestions not likely to occur to the Committee. Were I to hazard one, it would be in favour of adding to Reading, Writing, & Arithmetic, to which the instruction of the poor, is commonly limited, some knowledge of Geography; such as can easily be conveyed by a Globe & Maps, and a concise Geographical Grammar. And how easily & quickly might a general idea even, be conveyed of the Solar System, by the aid of a Planatarium of the Cheapest construction. No information seems better calculated to expand the mind and gratify curiosity than what would thus be imparted. This is especially the case, with what relates to the Globe we inhabit, the Nations among which it is divided, and the characters and customs which distinguish them. An acquaintance with foreign Countries in this mode, has a kindred effect with that of seeing them as travellers, which never fails, in uncorrupted minds, to weaken local prejudices, and enlarge the sphere of benevolent feelings. A knowledge of the Globe & its various inhabitants, however slight, might moreover, create a taste for Books of Travels and Voyages; out of which might grow a general taste for History, an inexhaustible fund of entertainment & instruction. Any reading not of a vicious species must be a good substitute for the amusements too apt to fill up the leisure of the labouring classes.

I feel myself much obliged Sir by your expressions of personal kindness, and pray you to accept a return of my good wishes, with assurances of my great esteem & respect.

Careful readers will note Madison assumed public schools; he had been one of those who contributed to the Northwest Ordinances, which set aside pieces of every township, which land was to be used to create public schooling on the frontiers of America.  If you think Madison’s description of what was to be taught and how sounds an awful lot like Advanced Placement (AP) courses, or the International Baccalaureate curriculum (IB), you’d be in good company.  As opposed to those yahoos who oppose AP or question IB.

_____________
* This line was a favorite quote of Education Secretary Bill Bennett when I published his works in the area. I cannot say whether he still favors Madison’s view, but once upon a time Bennett was rational on these issues.

More:


Common Core of Errors and Nostalgia: Where is the future of education?

May 18, 2011

How do you plan for the future?

Oh, yeah, I know the old story about the ants and the grasshopper.  But it’s really a story about traditional agriculture and the need to look no more than a year ahead, as usually told.  In the classic Aesop version, the moral is about the need to prepare for “days of necessity.”    The story doesn’t say anything about how the ants planned for the advent of DDT, Dieldren or Heptachlor, nor for an invasion of immigrants from Argentina, nor for the paving of the forested field they lived in.

And that’s probably the point.  How do we plan for what we don’t know will happen, for what we cannot even imagine will happen?

In retrospect, much “planning” looks silly.  Bob Townsend, the former head of Avis and American Express, wrote a book years ago that I wish more educators would read today, Up the Organization.  In one of its brief chapters he talks about having been appointed poobah (vice president? managing director?) of “future planning” at one of those corporations, and how proud he was to have the title.  A few days after he got the job his bubble was burst in a most unusual way.  He got home for dinner, and his wife asked him, “What did you plan today?”

(I don’t do the story justice.  Go get a copy and read the story.)

Nancy Flanagan at Teacher in a Strange Land demonstrates the folly that Townsend’s wife brought to light, the folly in thinking we’ve got a good grip on what the future holds, and especially on what skills and education and training will be required to get there:  “Common Core Standards:  A though experiment.”

Soon after the report of the President’s Commission on Excellence in Education came out, and for some years after, there was much worry about just what was the “common core” of knowledge that a modern kid would need, both to be a successful student and prepare for a life of beneficial work, family raising, voting and tax paying.  Tradition and federal law had kept (and still keep) the federal government from writing a national curriculum, leaving that task to the states and local school boards — the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, plus territories of the Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico, and the more than 15,000 local school boards.  There is no national curriculum in the U.S., nor is there agreement from state to state or district to district on just what should be taught.  State standards exist, but they were supposed to be the floor above which students could soar, instead of what they have become, the too-low target at which students really aim in their drive to be good bubble-guessers.

Flanagan has a sharp and entertaining fantasy about what would have happened, if:

So now the Common Core Everything movement is worried about whether schools’ technological capacity is up to the task of constant, computer-driven assessment–and Bill Gates and Pearson are developing the aligned on-line curriculum that you always knew was just around the corner. Soon–all the pieces will be in place, and we’ll be on our way to that One Unified System that we’ve been pursuing for decades. At last. Too bad it’s taken so long…

Just imagine what could be in place if Ronald Reagan had leveraged the political will engendered by the “Nation at Risk” report to get Congress to agree to a set of common standards and tests.

Is it a glorious future?  Well, consider the standards for students to learn about business and communications:

The business career rooms are outfitted with zippy Selectric typewriters and dictation machines–Williams sees girls transcribing the tapes. He is especially pleased with the broadcast studio, where students can read the morning announcements over the public address system, meeting the standard for broadcast media. A group of students is taking French IV via distance learning there, watching a TV lecture, then mailing off their homework and quizzes. Elmwood could only afford one language lab, so Mr. Williams has phased out Latin and Spanish, deciding to offer only French in a four-year block. Rationale: the French Club can travel to France–but his rural students were not likely to meet Spanish-speaking people in the future!

Flanagan’s view is entertaining, and enlightening, even in that short glimpse.  Go read the rest of her fantasy.  If you agree — and you will find it hard not to — can you think of ways to prevent the obvious problems?  Can you think of how we could have dealt with those problems, in 1983 and 1989?  Are we avoiding those problems with our curriculum standards today?

Did any state plan to educate kids on the ethics of real estate deals, so they’d be ready to avoid the real estate bubble, or its bursting?  It’s still true that we are “ready to fight the last war.”

I responded:

Generally I argue, against those who claim any beneficial change in schools is “socialism” and should be fought, that we compete against nations who do better than we do, at least as measured by the international comparison tests — and every nation ranked above the U.S. has a national curriculum. So, I argue, there doesn’t appear to be harm in a national curriculum, per se.

But as you demonstrate, there could indeed be harm in a national curriculum set in stone that is wrong — or even the wrong curriculum set in Jello.

When I did quality work and consulting with big corporations, way back in 19XX, I often used the story about the difference between Nissan and GM on robotics. Nissan was seen as the wave of the future with fancy auto plants with lots of big robots doing high quality work in assembling autos. GM, on the other had, was struggling. GM sank $5 billion or so into a robotized plant in Hamtramck, Michigan — and had to close it down. Couldn’t make it work.

What was the difference?

Nissan used to make fenders by having metalworkers pound them out by hand. Nissan took a few of those workmen, and asked them to search for machines that would make their work easier. Those guys found some stamp presses, got expert on them, and Nissan was off to the races on automation. At each step, the people who actually did the work were brought in to make the next improvements. I saw one interview of a guy running several massive robots, and the interviewer asked what sort of education he’d gotten to get to that point. He said he’d started out pounding fenders with a hammer and anvil, years earlier.

GM saw those robots in that plant, and bought a whole plantful of them. When the robots were installed in Michigan, they began the search for people to run the machines, unfortunately having to let go a lot of the people who ran the old stamping machines, because they lacked the “necessary background.”

What is the equivalent front line worker in education today? What is the “necessary background?” Impose that on your story, you could get some good results.

By the way, I was handicapped greatly by my high school education. We didn’t have enough advanced math students to get a calculus class going. So I couldn’t get calculus. But, the district said, they had purchased a brand new machine to get going in “computer math.” It was a card compiler. Students could learn to punch IBM computer cards, and that would give them a leg up in the computer world . . .

35 years later, my kids needed help with their calculus homework. They took some of my old debate cards, on old [computer] punch cards, to school for show and tell. Antiques. ( I didn’t have any programs to send — I couldn’t fit the computer math into the schedule opposite “student council;” my counselor advised me to drop out of student council for computer math, a decision I probably would have regretted in my years in Washington.)

I spoke with one of my high school English teachers last year — she’s the doyen of the computer lab today, an after-retirement job.  Turns out the computer lab really needed someone who could teach kids to write, someone who knows grammar and a bit about reading and judging sources for research papers.

What did you “plan” today?


Pressure on Texas Board of Education to fix damage to social studies standards

February 18, 2011

Probably not enough pressure to get the board to act, but the Dallas Morning News turned a cannon on the Texas State Board of Education this morning, asking that they fix the damage done to social studies last year.

The paper’s editorial board keyed off of the Fordham Institute’s grading of state standards — Texas failed, with at D.

Here’s the editorial in its entirety — there’s more at the Dallas Morning News website and I encourage you to go read it there:

Editorial: Report offers new reason to rewrite standards

Just in case you think it’s only us warning about Texas’ new social studies standards, check out the awful grade that the respected Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave those benchmarks in a report released Wednesday.

A big, fat “D” is what Texas got for the history, economics, geography and cultural standards the State Board of Education approved last year for Texas’ elementary and secondary school students.

Some of that awful mark was for the way the standards are organized. Fordham researchers likened their confusing structure to a jigsaw puzzle. But much of the national organization’s critique was about how politicized the State Board of Education has made those standards.

We were particularly struck by Fordham’s conclusion that the hard-right faction on the board, which dominated the writing of the standards, made the same mistake left-wing academics have made in approaching such subjects as history and economics. The Fordham study puts it this way:

“While such social studies doctrine is usually associated with the relativist and diversity-obsessed educational left, the hard right-dominated Texas Board of Education made no effort to replace traditional social studies dogma with substantive historical content. Instead, it seems to have grafted on its own conservative talking points.”

Oh, it gets worse. Back to the report: “The strange fusion of conventional left-wing education theory and right-wing politics undermines content from the start.”

For the record, Fordham is not a left-wing outpost of American thought. Its leader is Chester Finn, a former Reagan administration official and one of education’s most recognized voices. At the least, his organization’s critique is not a predictable one.

The institute echoes the complaint this newspaper has had since the 15-member Texas board rewrote the state’s social studies standards. Its hard-right faction at the time insisted on inserting its slant on those important subjects, such as suggesting Joe McCarthy wasn’t so bad, that international treaties are a problem and that the separation of church and state is misguided.

The warped view is why the revised board must go back and rewrite the standards this spring. And that should be possible.

Voters were so frustrated with the board’s work last year that they elected more moderate Republican members. Moderates now have enough of the upper hand to fix these standards before schools start planning for next year and before publishers start drafting new history and social studies textbooks.

Some on the new board may believe that rewriting the social studies standards will be too difficult. But surely Texas students deserve better than a “D” when it comes to what the state wants them to learn in some of the most critical subjects.

 

Texas fails among its peers

How big states fared on the Fordham Foundation report on social studies standards nationwide:

California: A-

New York: A-

Florida: C

Texas: D

National average: D


White men gave civil rights to women, blacks and Hispanics?

July 16, 2010

It’s maybe an apocryphal story. Republicans in Texas hope so.

It was at a very large, mostly African-American church in Dallas. The social action committee, or whatever it’s name is, was meeting. The only white guy in the room was there to try to get them interested in the elections for the members of the Texas State Board of Education. Normally these races are sleepers, down ballot, and off the radars of almost all interest groups. The social action committee was just as tough an audience as any other group with limited resources and limited time to try to get good political action.

Besides, a good chunk of Dallas is represented by Mavis Knight, an African American who is a pillar of common sense on the Texas education board, and Ms. Knight’s seat isn’t being contested in 2010. Why should Dallas voters be interested in any of these races?

“Before we start talking,” the lone white guy said, “I’d like to show you some of what has been going on in the Texas State Board of Education over the last year, in their work to change social studies standards.”

And he showed the video below. The entire committee grew quiet, silent; and then they started to shout at the television image. “What’s that?” “Is he crazy?” “He said white men gave us civil rights?”  “HE SAID WHAT?”

A 58-second video clip that could greatly animate electoral politics in Texas. The comments came fast and loud.

“That was part of the debate?  What, are they crazy down there?  Don’t they know history?  Don’t they know the truth?  They aren’t going to tell our children that Martin Luther King didn’t work to get civil rights, are they?  They aren’t going to say Martin Luther King died, but some white man gave rights to African Americans — are they?”

It’s a video clip that every Republican candidate in Texas hopes will be hidden away.  The Democratic tide that has swept Dallas County in two consecutive elections threatens to stop the Republican stranglehold on statewide offices in November, if those who voted in such great numbers in 2008 turn out again.

There are other stakes, too — the Republican stranglehold allowed the state education board to gut science standards, to eliminate Hispanic literature from language arts standards, and to try to change history, to blot out Thurgood Marshall and as much of the civil rights movement as they could hide.  So Texas children get a second-rate, incorrect set of standards in social studies, in English, and in science.

Republicans have declared war on good education, war on the children who benefit most from good education.

So, according to Don McLeroy, who lost the primary election to keep his seat, this little piece of history, below, is inaccurate. Tough for McLeroy — the Schoolhouse Rock video sits in too many Texas school libraries. Sometimes, the facts sneak through, defying the best efforts of the Texas State Soviet of Education to snuff out the truth.

But don’t you wonder what every woman, African American, and Hispanic in Texas will think about the importance of the 2010 elections, when they see what Gov. Rick Perry’s appointee to chair the SBOE, thinks about how civil rights were achieved in the U.S.?

Over at Republican headquarters, they hope that story is apocryphal.

Video of the Texas State Board of Education from the Texas Freedom Network.

Here, you can make sure other voters see this video that Don McLeroy hopes you will not see:

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Educating for a creative society

June 29, 2010

Just as a reminder about what we’re doing in education, I hope every teacher and administrator will take three minutes and view this video (that allows you some time to boggle).

Surely you know who Tom Peters is.  (If not, please confess in comments, and I’ll endeavor to guide you to the information you need.)

Technically, Texas’s early elementary art standards are not so bad as Peters describes them.  But, check this document, from the Texas Education Code (§117.1. Implementation of Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Fine Arts, Elementary).  Do a search of the Texas standards and count how many times students are expected to stay “within guidelines.”


2010 Texas Democratic Platform: Reform of the Unbalanced State Board of Education

June 28, 2010

This post is seventh in a series on the education planks of the 2010 Texas Democratic Party Platform.

This is an unofficial version published in advance of the final version from the Texas Democrats, but I expect very few changes.

Generally I’ll not comment on these planks just yet, but I must say that I take delight in the perhaps unintentional commentary offered in the title of this plank.  I suspect the intent was to point to the bias of the State Board of Education, an imbalance of political views, and not to the sanity of the board.  But, I could be wrong — the title may be just an official Democratic labeling of the Board’s actions as unbalanced behavior.

REFORM OF THE UNBALANCED STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION

The right-wing Republican extremists who have dominated the State Board of Education have made a laughingstock of our state’s process for developing and implementing school curriculum standards that determine what our students learn. The damage they have done is no laughing matter. In rewriting the curriculum for social studies, English language arts, and science, they repeatedly have dismissed the sound advice of professional educators. Personal ideology, not high academic standards, has guided their work. Their skewed vision slights the contributions of racial and ethnic minorities. Their slanted versions of American history and of science mislead students and violate the separation of church and state. They use loaded language to favor the roles of right-wing organizations and activists. Led by a Rick Perry appointee as chair, this State Board of Education wants to indoctrinate, not educate, the schoolchildren of Texas. Their actions are unlikely to encourage a company to relocate and bring jobs to Texas. Any substantive changes to curriculum must be reviewed by non-partisan experts, and that review must be made public prior to any changes in curriculum by the State Board.

Texas Democrats will realign the State Board of Education with mainstream Texas values, will realign the state curriculum with objective reality and the facts of history and science, and will insist on the exercise of sober fiduciary responsibility for the Permanent School Fund, exposing and prohibiting conflicts of interest.


Cynthia Dunbar’s sham marriage of God and politics

June 7, 2010

Tony Whitson’s Curricublog has a rather lengthy, and very troubling, post about Texas State Board of Education member Cynthia Dunbar and her wilder gyrations on the issues of religion in education.  Go read it.  It’s got quotes, it’s got video, and if you don’t find it troubling you’re not paying attention.  There is an astounding smear of  Thomas Jefferson, the Constitution, and the principle of separation of state and church.

There’s a line usually attributed to Euripides, “Whom the gods destroy, they first make mad.”  That’s mad-crazy, not mad-angry.

What’s Dunbar done to upset the gods so?


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