"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"...no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." – Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Miseducation of the American Voter

John Merrow, the retired education journalist for PBS, recently wrote,
...public education is an efficient sorting machine that is undemocratic to its core. Schools sort young children in two basic groups: A minority is designated as ‘winners’ who are placed on a track leading to elite colleges, prominence and financial success. While the rest aren’t labeled ‘losers’ per se, they are largely left to struggle on their own. That experience leaves many angry, frustrated and resentful, not to mention largely unprepared for life in a complex, rapidly changing society...
The "losers" who aren't really labeled "losers," Merrow said, are the ones who find no reason to vote, and Merrow placed at least part of the blame on public education.
This practice [focusing on test scores] went into high gear with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. “Regurgitation education” became the order of the day. This approach rewards parroting back answers, while devaluing intellectual curiosity, cooperative learning, projects, field trips, the arts, physical education, and citizenship.
Education which focuses on test scores devalues critical thinking. Citizens who do not think critically cannot fully participate in our democracy...
...the end result is millions of graduates who were rewarded with diplomas but have never participated in the give-and-take of ordinary citizenship—like voting. Did they graduate from school prepared for life in a democracy, or are they likely to follow blindly the siren song of authoritarians? Can they weigh claims and counterclaims and make decisions based on facts and their family’s best interests, or will they give their support to those who play on their emotions?

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump welcomed support from those he called ‘the poorly educated,’ but that’s the incorrect term. These men and women are not ‘poorly educated,’ ‘undereducated,’ or ‘uneducated.’ They have been miseducated, an important distinction. Schools have treated them as objects, as empty vessels to pour information into so it can be regurgitated back on tests.
[To be fair, however, I must note here that teachers, those tasked with fulfilling the mandates of No Child Left Behind (and Race to the Top, which followed) have not been happy with those mandates. Many teachers have stood up against the test and punish policies. Many have left the profession. Many have fought back and been either beaten down or forced out. Spend some time reading the early posts from this blog to get an idea about how teachers have spoken out against what most of us would consider poor and inappropriate educational practices (see here and here, for example).]

Recent news about two topics have emphasized Merrow'a point.


The Pew Research Center issued a report titled, What Americans Know About Religion. The report indicated that many Americans don't know enough about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion.
...when asked what the U.S. Constitution says about religion as it relates to federal officeholders, just one-quarter (27%) correctly answer that it says “no religious test” shall be a qualification for holding office; 15% incorrectly believe the Constitution requires federal officeholders to affirm that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, 12% think the Constitution requires elected officials to be sworn in using the Bible, 13% think the Constitution is silent on this issue, and 31% say they are not sure.
Has our obsessive focus on reading and math resulted in a majority of our citizens being ignorant (or at best, forgetting) about the content of Article VI of the Constitution?
...no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
Americans are also apparently ignorant (or forgetful) about other parts of the Constitution. The most recent Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, for example, showed that a third of Americans could not name a single branch of the federal government. A year ago the same survey showed that a quarter of Americans couldn't name any of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

As a result of the general lack of civics knowledge among the populace, the 2019 Indiana General Assembly passed a bill, which the governor signed, requiring students to pass a civics test in order to graduate high school.

A better understanding of how our government works is a great idea. Unfortunately, the legislature's knee jerk reaction was to assign schools yet another multiple-choice test based on memorization of information -- an example of what Merrow calls "regurgitation education." There's no guarantee that much real learning will occur in preparation for such a test.

Is this civics information already being taught in America's public schools? The answer, I'm sure, is "yes." Sadly, however, our fellow citizens haven't really learned it and carried it into adulthood. We have political leaders who spout allegiance to the Constitution, yet don't understand the separation of powers with its system of checks and balances or the freedom of the press. And we have millions of citizens who can't seem to remember enough about how our government works to identify the ignorance of our leaders.

If it's taught, why don't our students internalize and remember it? Is it because it's not repeated enough times during the years of schooling? Is it because we focus on reading and math in our assessments of students and that becomes all that matters? Is it because reading and math have squeezed other items out of the curriculum?


Science, in addition to civics, is an area where Americans have shown ignorance/lack of memory. The fossil fuel industry has done a better job of teaching Americans that climate change is unproven science than schools have been in teaching children that it's real. Nearly 90% of Americans are unaware of the consensus within the scientific community that climate change is real and a threat to our civilization.
Nearly 90 percent of Americans are unaware that there is a consensus within the scientific community that human-caused climate change is real and threatens the planet, a new report says.

According to the report published last week by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, only 13 percent of Americans were able to correctly identify that more than 90 percent of all climate scientists have concluded that climate change is real.

The annual survey of 1,266 adults compiled in May and June failed to note that it is actually 97 percent of climate scientists that concur that human-caused global warming is happening...
Why is there only one nation in the world where climate change is a controversial topic? Why do we have a fossil fuel lobbyist in charge of the EPA?


How can we teach our students so they finish school ready for citizenship? How can we provide our citizens with the skills needed to recognize propaganda and demagoguery? How can we increase the critical thinking skills of Americans?

How can we change the national dynamic where, in 2016, only 64% of Americans eligible to vote were actually registered...and only 55% of those who were eligible actually voted?

It's obvious that our obsessive focus on "reading and math test prep" hasn't worked to create an informed citizenry. And to make matters worse (but not surprisingly) there are certain groups of students who are damaged more by test-and-punish policies than others. One guess who it is...
On the civics portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly called the "Nation's Report Card," students of color and low-income students have consistently scored lower than their white, wealthier counterparts. "If there are students who are not receiving adequate instruction in civics education, and if those students are among the disadvantaged groups, then that's going to perpetuate some of the barriers to political participation and representation that we've seen in the past," says Elizabeth Levesque, an education research fellow at the Brookings Institution.

That distance between marginalized communities and government has a disenfranchising effect.


In her recent book, After the Education Wars, Andrea Gabor explains that there are educational behaviors and characteristics which work better than a reliance on "test and punish" and "reform-based" education.
...[successful schools] share a number of traits in common...

  • They are nurtured through a process of democratic collaboration and iterative improvement, in which grassroots participation is key.
  • They are embraced by savvy leaders who have used participative management to foster deep wells of trust.
  • They have often been protected from bureaucratic meddling by winning exemptions from specific regulations, often including union rules, and sometimes with the help of enlightened policymakers.
  • They value data but understand its limits, knowing that the most important factors are often immeasurable.
So how do we make civics and science education stick?

Start early.

Start with qualified teachers.

Give experts (teachers, for example) input into the curricula.

And, of course, fully fund public schools...stop diverting public tax dollars to private and privately run schools...and end the obsessive overuse and misuse of testing.


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