Chester Finn: History Teachers Are Being Manipulated by Biased Materials

Roundup: Talking About History

Chester Finn, in the Weekly Bulletin of News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (April 15, 2004):

If America’s history teachers were broadly educated, deeply knowledgeable about the content that they’re responsible for imparting to students, and free to draw their information, textbooks, and other instructional materials from whatever sources they judge best, all within a framework of sound academic standards and results-based accountability—under that dreamy scenario there’d be no reason for Sandra Stotsky to tackle the study that yielded Fordham’s newest report, The Stealth Curriculum: Manipulating America’s History Teachers.

The reality, however, is that many history teachers don’t know much history. And the textbooks on which they depend are vast, themeless compendia of dull, dated, and denatured information. (See A Consumer’s Guide to High School History Textbooks for more information.) Thus has arisen an immense cottage industry to supply teachers with pre-digested “supplemental materials” and “professional development” as part of an effort to prepare them better to teach about difficult issues.

As usual, this enterprise began with laudable intentions. Post 9/11, for example, how could we reasonably expect teachers who had never studied Islamic history to explain it to their pupils, especially if their textbooks lacked pertinent information? How could we expect them to handle complicated and emotionally charged subjects like the Holocaust and figure out what lessons to distill? To escort youngsters safely through the thicket of political correctness and ethnic politics that now surrounds such formerly benign holidays as Columbus Day and Thanksgiving?

So we try to compensate and backfill. Innumerable organizations and agencies, public and private, large and small, commercial and non-profit, create and deliver “supplemental” materials and “in-service education” or “professional development” for teachers. School systems and state education agencies. Publishers of every sort. Advocacy groups. Universities, research centers, and think-tanks. Itinerant teacher trainers. Cable networks and film producers. It’s a long list, engaging many people and spending many millions. (Nobody knows how much.) Some is subsidized by tax dollars or philanthropy. Some is baldly commercial. Much comes out of school system budgets.

Yet we know staggeringly little about how good these materials and workshops are, or whether the information they present is balanced and accurate. We know even less about their efficacy and intellectual integrity. This turns out to be a vast dark continent within our education system.

It’s also a troubled continent. Sandra Stotsky spotted the problem during her tenure as senior associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education (1999-2003) as well as during a distinguished career in education research, teacher preparation, and the development of academic standards. She began to collect examples of supplemental materials and professional development workshops aimed at K-12 history and social studies teachers. She attended some of those workshops and summer institutes. And she grew ever more alarmed by what she found.

It appeared that the creation of many of these “supplemental” materials, and the leadership of workshops by which teachers’ knowledge is supposedly enhanced, had fallen into the eager hands of interest groups and ideologues yearning to use America’s classrooms to shape the minds of tomorrow’s citizens by manipulating what today’s teachers are introducing into the lessons of today’s children. Yet this was happening with little or no public awareness. In effect, the K-12 social studies curriculum was being subtly politicized by adult interests working outside the closely scrutinized domains of statewide standards, textbooks, pre-service teacher preparation, and state certification.

For this report, Stotsky separated the terrain into two parts, one dealing with supplemental materials, the other with professional development workshops. The shortcomings she spotted vary by topic, of course. But most share these features: under the guise of heightening teachers’ awareness of previously marginalized groups, they manipulate teachers (and thus their pupils) to view the history of freedom as the history of oppression and to favor cultures that don’t value individual rights over those that do.

Is there a remedy? Stotsky would wipe out much of this “supplemental” stuff and replace it with something very different. Alternatively, she suggests several shrewd ways of mitigating the problems if this enterprise persists.

So far, so good. We should certainly seek to compensate for weaknesses in the knowledge base of today’s teachers while shielding them from manipulative mischief and reducing their risk of becoming unwitting pawns of ideologues. Over the long haul, however, we must insist that future teachers be better educated from the get-go or, as NCLB puts it, “highly qualified” in the subjects they will impart to children. Nowhere is this more important than in history.

But better-educated teachers ought not be equated with more time in ed school, maybe not even on campus (although well-conceived history courses taught by first-rate historians are hard to beat). People can also teach themselves history, pick it up from reading, the History Channel, even movies. The key is to insist that, however they learn it, tomorrow’s teachers must know it—and prove it—before confronting children in the classroom. It may be sufficient to insist that they pass rigorous subject-matter tests, such as the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence. They can prepare for such exams however they like, in universities or elsewhere.

As with children, let’s stop endlessly forgiving, compensating and remediating teachers. Let’s do it right the first time. Until we do, the stealth curriculum may swamp the one we think our schools are teaching—and our teachers will remain vulnerable to manipulation by people and organizations who do not place America’s best interests at the top of their priorities.

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