be concerned, be very concerned
In November of 2004, Edutopia Magazine ran an essay by a textbook editor with some disconcerting insights into the way textbooks are written, adjusted and sold. It’s not just that the material may be mediocre to begin with that’s the scary part. The big issue is that political activists in two states get to decide what students in the rest of the nation will be learning in class in a process that has nothing to do with facts, only with political and religious passions wielded by groups on a mission to use public school as tools of indoctrination. Out of the two states, Texas wields the most might because it allocates the most money to buying books. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it seems that a fat wallet can crush the pen in an instant.
Since the article was written, not much has changed in the way states adopt new materials. Texas creationists still want to water down biology and their history, social study and cultural counterparts still want to rewrite any textbook they object to. California’s crusaders for political correctness are still insisting on excising anything they think will offend sensibilities, something which seldom adds to the educational process, but makes them feel good about what they do. What do the students end up learning in those school districts and all over the nation? Who cares? All that matters to these groups is that they leave a mark on the textbooks and impart their own view on the final educational product.
This desire of making sure kids learn what local activists think they should be learning also plays a role in the lack of a national standard for American schools. As states bicker about what students should learn, battling with their opinions of history, science and views of the educational system in general, students are slowly but surely falling behind and vague attempts to create unified proficiency testing to make sure each state’s unique curriculum is on par with others, leads to states trying to game the system with easy tests. After all, under the No Child Left Behind Act, each state can define it’s own definitions of proficiency, then punishes schools that aren’t living up to the state’s standard. In response, the states just lowered the bar to make sure that most of their schools pass. The public school system and the educational materials it uses aren’t about the kids or the learning above classroom level. It’s about getting money and appeasing special interests who are ready and willing to push their opinions at every school board meeting and at any time in between.
So what exactly do we get at the end? We get a system with mediocre, diluted textbooks, special interests and political groups wielding state school systems as tools of mass indoctrination, and administrators who stand ready and more than willing to bend over backwards for them just so the schools can get their funds with the least hassle. We also have politicians who can’t stand the idea of national standards because they think that the evil masterminds in the federal government will indoctrinate kids with all kinds of objectionable ideas so it should be up to states to decide how their kids should be taught. And that approach works well when a local community assembles a team of cross-disciplinary experts to hash out a curriculum. However, when a board of fiery ideologues on a mission is put in charge of a local school system, the results are probably not going to be anything to be proud of if not alarming and distressing.
Meanwhile, with every graduating class, employers and colleges will be looking at students who have a very different understanding of the same major concepts and wonder why they’ll have to accept students who are not adequately fluent in math because their school districts didn’t think it was important to stress this area of study, or hire someone who’s science education has been corrupted by religious activists for a job that needs the kind of knowledge that was demonized at board meetings. When experts are lamenting that the U.S. may be falling from its throne as a leader in global innovation, myopic zealots and school boards seem to be doing all they can to continue the trend in the name of what they think is good. Maybe it’s time to create a serious set of national standards and shield them from people’s who’s only concern is in making everyone think like they do on the taxpayers’ dime?