Ari Armstrong, Education, Exclusives, Uncategorized

Armstrong: A homeschool dad’s take on state social studies standards

According to some conservative critics of Colorado’s proposed changes to school standards for social studies, some of the standards are vague, developmentally inappropriate, propagandistic, and overly concerned with “race theory.” Other critics say the standards do not pay enough attention to the “foundational documents” of the United States or to “our shared experiences that unite us as citizens of the United States.” Critics of the critics, on the other hand, say “conspiracy theories” and “homophobia” “fuel” the “backlash” against the revisions.

I thought I’d try simply to read what the revised standards say. There’s an initial problem, though: The relevant document is 147 pages long, and I am neither masochistic enough to read the entire thing nor sadistic enough to make you suffer through notes on it all. So I figured I’d delimit the project by reviewing only the standards for first grade (and then only selectively), the level of my homeschooled son.

Jargon-filled bullshit

My main problem with the standards is not so much what they include or fail to include, but that a lot of them are jargon-filled bullshit. And I’m talking about the original standards as well as the revisions. Many of these so-called “standards” would not actually be useful to any competent teacher. Often they either reiterate common sense, and so they are unhelpful, or they are nonsense.

Right out of the gate, the standards (and this is a revision) say that a “prepared graduate” can “apply the process of inquiry to examine and analyze how historical knowledge is viewed, constructed, and interpreted.”

In complete seriousness, many of the state standards would be just as helpful if they were generated by Science Geek’s education jargon generator. Just for kicks I’ll include the first five randomly generated lines of jargon that this came up with for me.

* We will synergize social contructivist aesthetics in data-driven schools.
* We will grow impactful student success through the collaborative process.
* We will seize school-based initiatives through high impact practices.
* We will synthesize student-centered convergence with a laser-like focus.
* We will visualize innovative communities across content areas.

Bizarrely, the standards try to describe the sort of things children should be able to do without talking much about what, specifically, they should be learning. So, for example, the (original) standards say first graders should be able to “use words related to time, sequence, and change,” such as “past, present, future, change, first, next, and last.” Uh, my kid understood such words well before preschool, and he’s typical. And do we really need to remind teachers to discuss the “past” when covering history? Any competent teacher would be insulted by such patronizing garbage.

A contrasting approach

Let me give you a contrasting approach. As a homeschooling parent, I rely partly on Core Knowledge’s free downloads. I have 118 of their books from preschool through eighth grade. (Many charter schools also use Core Knowledge materials.) Following are the history and geography books for first graders (the organization also offers works in language arts and science):

* Continents, Countries, and Maps
* Mesopotamia
* Ancient Egypt
* Three World Religions
* Early Civilizations of the Americas
* The Culture of Mexico
* Early Explorers and Settlers
* From Colonies to Independence
* Exploring the West

We supplement with many biographies and the like. Some favorites include Mary Walker Wears the Pants (about a Civil War hero and feminist), The Story of Ruby Bridges, and Sit-In (about the civil rights movement). What is helpful for educating kids are actual materials, not vacuous “standards” written by robotic bureaucrats.

Some elements of the standards are a little helpful, I concede. For example, first graders are supposed to learn how to use a calendar. Or, in the jargon of the (original) standards, “determine events from the past, present, and future using the components of a calendar.”

The ‘lived experience’ problem

Some of the revisions definitely take us into the culture wars. For example, students are to “understand that people’s lived experiences impact their perspective on historical events. For example: Multiple perspectives on the First Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Juneteenth, and Cinco De Mayo.”

Leaving aside the silliness of the language—there is no such thing as an “unlived experience”—this gets at the idea that different people have different views of various historical events. For example, British loyalists thought American Independence was rather absurd and unfortunate, but of course that’s not what the writers of the revised standards care about. They care about, for example, criticisms of the Pilgrims.

But why is “lived experience” the main concern? Surely the authors of the standards do not wish to imply that only people of a specific “race” or ethnicity can hold a particular view of history. That would be racist. The facts about the first Thanksgiving, and different evaluations of those facts, are of general interest. I’ve discussed critical accounts with my son.

Here is something specific from the civics standards (partly revised): “Identify and explain the meaning of various civic symbols important to diverse community groups. For example: the American flag, the National Anthem, Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Liberty Bell, Emancipation Proclamation, Turtle Island, a yellow sash (i.e., for 30 women’s rights), tribal flags of Native Nations whose ancestral homelands include present-day Colorado, and the Colorado Flag.” This is reasonable and specific enough to be helpful. Incidentally, my son and I had a great time touring the Colorado Capitol, where we learned about various Colorado figures and symbols.

Although the state standards have become fodder for the culture wars, the fact is that they are almost entirely irrelevant to classroom instruction. We can fight over the pretentious word salad of the standards all we want, but it will not make teaching any better or any worse. Thankfully, as a homeschooling parent, I can ignore all that nonsense when it comes to my son’s education and get down to the business of real learning.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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