by David Sherrin
For the first time, I feel some empathy for politicians who vote “no” to a bill even if it might be slightly better than the current law. The momentum to change is hard to come by and once the right moment passes it can take decades to revisit a policy. So, when the time is now for an important educational policy decision we need to make sure to get it right.
The proposed draft of the state social studies standards is slightly better than what we have today. At least it mentions crucial skills of the common core.
But nearly anything would be an improvement over the present New York state social studies curriculum, which is one of the most disastrous pieces of educational policy I have encountered. Here’s the situation: nearly all New York State students are required to pass the 9-10 Global History Regents Exam in order to graduate high school. Let me repeat and clarify: they need to pass an exam covering two years’ worth of highly specific and often obscure material when they have barely reached sixteen years of age.
I am currently completing my second master’s degree and I’ve never had to take a test covering more than a year’s worth of content. Yet we expect teenagers, in June of 10th grade, to recall the nuances of Hammurabi’s Code (which they probably learned in October of 9th grade) or the origins of the Cyrillic alphabet. Do we really want to prevent students from graduating because they could not remember an insignificant fact about the Gupta Empire that they learned two years prior to the test? I don’t know what the Regents exam under the new framework would look like, but if it takes the place of this catastrophe it probably could not be worse. Probably.
This is the fascinating conundrum about global history: it is essential to our students’ educational experience in a diverse and interconnected world but there are few areas of content that are absolutely essential to cover, which should take automatic preference over others. It matters little whether the students focus on European conquest and colonialism in Mexico or Peru, yet the state always favors the latter on the exam. Our students need to learn about the Cold War, but the teacher should decide whether the emphasis is on the Berlin Wall, Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or another of the countless microcosms of the larger conflict.
I’m not a knee-jerk progressive educator who automatically sits the students in groups for every activity. Sometimes I even do a lecture or two. So, to be honest, though there are countless ideas swirling through my mind for great American history theme-based classes, I will probably continue to opt for a more traditional chronological approach albeit with an emphasis on certain events and people that my students and I find compelling.
American history has a relatively doable time frame to cover and there is a comprehensible narrative that emerges by marching through time. A simple inquiry question, such as whether America has lived up to its founding values, can carry the entire course.
This traditional approach just can’t work in global history. Thus, in addition, to altering or dumping this draft framework, the Regents also needs to revisit their proposal to revamp the global history exam to cover one year’s worth of content. I’ve been lucky enough to teach with three courageous principals who unequivocally put their students’ learning above frustrating state policy. That is not the case in most places, where instead administrators push educators to teach to the test in order to boost scores, statistics, and their schools’ places in our city’s hierarchy.
Until the state explicitly pivots to a deeper theme-based approach in global history, most teachers will not have the freedom I enjoy to make learning “pop” in the classroom. This is why I value and back Insightful Social Studies’ support for the “freedom for school communities to choose from a menu of paths and emphases to best serve their students.” Otherwise, we will continue to suffer from the Regents’ current banquet approach, in which every society and event gets heaped on the same plate, boiled tasteless. And those endless spoonfuls of subsistence farming, cave paintings at Ajanta, and city-states in 14th century Venice only lead, frankly, to an overwhelming and discomforting sense of intellectual indigestion, especially for a growing teenager.