Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center released the results of a study finding that U.S. students’ ignorance of the basic history of the civil-rights movement has worsened. One major cause: states’ poor academic standards.
Based on data drawn from the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the report found that only 2 percent of the 12,000 high-school seniors who took the test could correctly identify the condition that prompted the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Students didn’t even have to identify Brown v. Board of Education as the source of the quote they were given, yet “fully 73 percent either supplied an answer deemed ‘inappropriate’ (by parroting phrases from the question or providing irrelevant information) or simply skipped the question altogether,” according to the report.
Lest you suspect this is an ideologically loaded data set, often referred to as “the Nation’s Report Card,” the NAEPs are the closest thing we have to a gold standard in terms of standardized tests capable of delivering apples-to-apples comparisons of student performance from one state to another. They have been given to a random cross-section of the nation’s student body every year since 1969 by a statistical division of the U.S. Department of Education.
Minnesota earns an F
Minnesota is one of 34 states that earned an F, meaning our standards include none or less than 20 percent of recommended content. Indeed, as outlined by the report the standards are maddeningly vague.
Fourth- through eighth-graders, for instance, “will explain the changing patterns of society, expanded educational and economic opportunities for military veterans, women and minorities,” and “will explain how Minnesota has both affected and been affected by the events, people and changes in the nation and the world.”
Further states the report: “Minnesota’s existing standards, with its sets of unrelated examples (Malcolm X, the Clean Air Act and Phyllis Schlafly appear in one list without explanation of their relation to one another) lacks clarity.”
(What do Malcolm X, the Clean Air Act and Phyllis Schlafly have to do with one another? As a proud graduate of St. Paul Public Schools, I’m risking serious personal embarrassment here, but I have no idea.)
The benchmarks battle
Dull though they sound, standards are one of the more superheated ideological hot potatoes flying around the education sphere these days. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and most other education-arena folks would like states to adopt a widely applauded, state-developed set of benchmarks known as the Common Core Standards. The Tea Party and religious conservatives fear they are a crack in the door toward a national curriculum.
The battle has been waged, albeit out of view of most people, in Minnesota, too. Bad though it finds our current standards to be, the Southern Poverty Law Center suggests that a proposed set of standards that would take effect in 2013 will be a step backward.
“The state would do better to identify a set of core personalities, events and concepts and organizing [sic] those into a coherent group of standards rather than trying to group all post-World War II movements into a hodgepodge of suggested knowledge,” the document recommends.
“When it reorganizes these standards, the state would serve its students better by including elements of opposition to avoid conveying the message that the movement was largely inevitable. Omitting the Ku Klux Klan, racism and disenfranchisement tactics, Jim Crow laws and other obstacles seriously distorts the nature of the struggle.”
Do you remember Education Liberty Watch, the advocacy group with deep ties to Rep. Michele Bachmann that played a major role in scuttling a revenue-neutral bill promoting quality in early childhood education because it smacked of — not kidding — a nanny state? Their small but vocal membership has had a lot to say about the proposed new standards.
A taste of their position: “The social studies standards are revisionist, anti-American and anti-capitalist. The national standards are an unconstitutional, one-size-fits all means of eventual federal control of curriculum.”
The group lobbied (at 39:50 mark on audio link) against them, and the education omnibus bill that passed during the 2011 Legislature’s regular session barred the state from adopting any Common Core Standards. The prohibition disappeared during the special session.
Education Liberty Watch is every bit as disgusted with the way the civil-rights movement is handled as the Southern Poverty Law Center — just from the opposite stance:
“Students then move into the Civil Rights era, complete with a requirement that they ‘analyze’ different movements including African American, Native American, Women, Latino American, and counter culture,” an Education Liberty Watch board member who reviewed the standards posted on the group’s website.
“Students must also ‘understand the changes in American Indian policy’ and ‘analyze its impact on indigenous nations.’ My guess would be that there would be inadequate coverage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based upon sex and race. I would also surmise that no mention would be made that it was the Republican Party that fought for civil rights for all, the Democratic Party that fought against such rights, and that civil rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican.”
Struggling with the truthiness of this last assertion? Remember, this was the advocacy group that launched a homeschooler who recently signed a public proclamation that asserted that during slavery, African-American kids at least had two parents.