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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 10/28/2010

Why are we failing in history, science education?

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Joy Hakim, a former teacher, journalist and now an author of award-winning textbooks in history and science.

By Joy Hakim
I keep a list. The story out of Virginia—that cities and hamlets around the state recently spent school funds on a book for 4th graders with an agenda that most Americans reject–-is the latest entry into what is becoming a catalog of schoolbook outrages. The Washington Post broke that story on Oct. 20th. Almost immediately some school districts began pulling the book from classrooms.

A few days later the New York Times told us that the World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. 48th, out of 133 developed nations, in the quality of math and science instruction. “48th is not a good place,” said the Times.

A month earlier, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported that the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has postponed making a U.S. history test a requirement for high school graduation.

“The move will result in continued marginalization of the discipline,” said the Gazette.

And this despite the commonwealth’s education standards that “provide for instruction in at least the major principles of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.”

So what’s going on? Why, in a world where almost everyone understands that a solid education is a key to personal success, are we failing so many of our children in the core subjects of history and science? Why is much of our adult population scientifically illiterate at a time when the ideas of science underlie the contemporary world? How, in a nation built on the concept of self-government, can we stop teaching our founding ideas?

And how did we get from a nation that led the world in mass education, to where we are today, limping along in 48th place?

It’s a story that has been told a number of times, but especially well by Diane Ravitch in an article called “Tot Sociology;” by Frances Fitzgerald in a book titled “America Revised;” and by others, especially Paul Gagnon in a series of classic Atlantic Monthly articles.

As they document the tale, it was decades ago that we gave up teaching history as an idea-centered discipline played out by a succession of characters—heroes and villains—whose actions led to results that can be analyzed. That kind of story-based history is engaging. We replaced it with litanies of facts.

As for science, in the 20th century, with the advent of the world-changing physics of relativity and quantum theory, we gave science to the scientists. We accepted what C.P. Snow called “two cultures;” disconnecting science and the arts. There was no reason to separate them. It shouldn’t have happened. Understanding the ideas behind today’s incredibly exciting sciences is something all of us can do. But to make science a true liberal arts subject means telling its stories, and science history is on the curriculum in only one state. So most of our “educated” population opts out.

For a variety of reasons, none good, many of our schools have marginalized the subjects that make you think, the subjects that provide intellectual stretching. History and science—taught as idea-based subjects—give you something to think about. Turning them into rote memorization disciplines gives you a headache.

For me there are two issues here: It’s newspapers that still keep informing us—in these cases about shabby books and outcomes. So far the Internet has not provided the financing necessary for investigative journalism. If we lose our great newspapers can we sustain our democracy? Jefferson didn’t think so.

He said, “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Second issue: We can’t afford to ignore the importance of schoolbooks. I write them and I’ve spent a lot of time considering those that make it into classrooms. I’m convinced that, even in the worst inner-city scenario, there are some children who, given good books, will learn. Standard textbooks are rarely good books.

This is a national tragedy. It’s also a story of greed.

A few big publishers control the schoolbook market, which means the adoption process, and what and how our children are taught. Those businesses also control testing and often professional development. They have led us astray with an agenda that keeps classics of learning, which are usually found in bookstores, out of classrooms.

When I talk to teachers and to children (which I often do), mostly I hear tales of frustration with a system that ignores what these major participants have to say.

What we are doing to ourselves and to our children is tragic. It doesn’t have to happen.

Follow my blog every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | October 28, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, History, Science  | Tags:  history, history textbooks, joy hakim, science, science textbooks, textbook adoption, textbooks, virginia textbooks  
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I think this post hits on one of the biggest concerns in Public Education today: the influence of text publishers, test publishers, and the growing class of "edupreneurs" who stand to earn great profits by peddling their products and ideas to school systems that are ready for the next best thing.

They conduct research to support their programs and pitch a good sell to policy makers and school administrators who are able to stand on the foundation of "data" to justify their choices.

It has almost become a career path- step one: spend a year or two in the classroom, step two: earn a higher degree, step three: move into public school leadership to make connections and demonstrate innovation, step four: move into the private sector and make money off of schools by using your connections and credentials to sell them on the next best thing- (products, ideas, programs, etc.)

Innovation should come from the ground up, but for the most part, teachers do not have the discretionary time to devote to innovation. They are busy teaching most of the day and preparing to teach the rest. The people who have the time to dream up innovation are the ones who can sit undisturbed several hours at a time because they have given up the daily interaction of the classroom.

Posted by: sturner1 | October 28, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Third issue: Self-interested or ideological public officials (elected and appointed) who use decisions about standards, curriculum, and textbooks to gain favor with campaign funders or implant their beliefs.

Posted by: AWCG | October 28, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

I don't usually comment from work, but my 10th grade chemistry class is taking their unit test on scoentific measurement right now, and I want to speak for them.

We are behind the pacing plan made up by our standards-driven teacher-leader. We have a pretty good textbook, Prentice Hall Chemistry, the 2000 edition. It isn't helpful for the pacing plan, because there is no time to develop any of the ideas in it, and still keep up with the trivial pursuit game of the multiple-choice common quarterly assessments thought up by the lead teacher, based on the quickest way to dispatch the Framework bullets.

Chemistry, for me, was the first subject where I could see the material world "make sense". My students today have NEVER had any opportunity to make sense of the avalanche of drivel they are being prepared to test on. Once the test is over, its architects and hangers-on don't care what happens to them at all.

My 15-year-olds have reveled in chemistry itself. They welcome reason into their growing minds. Repeating ninth graders are blossoming before my eyes, right at this moment, in this very room. I taught them to strike a match, to calculate density to identify a metal, to separate mixtures and determine if they recovered all their salt. We are so behind, from all those labs, because the block schedule now gives us the same class time as their Italian classes.

Above my computer is a poster made last year by my students for the upcoming unit: The Experimental Basis for the Modern Atomic Theory.

Dalton's definite proportions; Thompson's discovery of electricity locked in every "neutral" atom; Rutherfords Alpha particles bouncing off the nucleus, showing the separation of charge within the atom, and the massive positive charge at its core; and Bohr's bright-line colored spectra revealing the energy levels of the electrons. The quantum model isn't in the Framework, but we will consider the implications of representing the electron orbitals as standing wave forms.

Believe me, the subject of history would suffer more from being subjected to the standards-based benchmarking-to-the-bullets treatment than it will from being left alone. But whatever happens, colleagues: stand your ground and teach your subject, in its glory, to the children in front of you.

Posted by: mport84 | October 28, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Ah, found it. Tho' I have a copy of the original, and I knew that Barnes and Noble offers newer copies, here is the book in its entirety, and free! Below is a link that gives a fine answer to the question of why we are failing science. The book, "The Teaching of Science" by John F. Woodhull of Columbia University is rather revolutionary. Interestingly, it was written in 1918! Enjoy.

In general, regarding the teaching of history and science - oh, so many wonderful books go unread while we give snippets of the most profound events in history / science. Good books, in the right order, will help to liven the students that are exhibiting signs similiar to that of "failure to thrive" syndrome. Give them books that let them follow Pastuer, Fleming, Banting and Best, Maria Mitchell, Tesla, Curie, Walter Reed, and more, and some of the modern scientists too. Follow up with lab work and writings when reasonable. There are good books on scientists even for the early elementary levels.

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 28, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

mport84, wonderful stuff, thanks!

Your statement: "My students today have NEVER had any opportunity to make sense of the avalanche of drivel they are being prepared to test on." Within the book, "The Teaching of Science," Woodhull writes, "Some teachers think that schools and colleges are the places to teach fundamental principles only, leaving the applications to be found by the pupil, if he needs, in afterlife." (pp. 175-176 from the original copy).

I hope that you get a chance to read the book; your philiosophy seems quite similiar to Woodhull's.

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 28, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Virginia ... recently spent school funds on a book for 4th graders with an agenda that most Americans reject

Wait, WHAT? If this is the story I think you're referring to, then the issue is a lot more serious than the books having "an agenda most Americans reject."

Posted by: hainish | October 28, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Why are we failing in history, science education?

Well, maybe because the textbooks are written by non-historians and non-scientists, and approved by teachers who not only are not historians and scientists but may have never taken a college course in the subject, and used by other teachers who may actually be English or math teachers required to teach out of field or face being laid off.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | October 28, 2010 9:18 PM | Report abuse

shadwell 1, that is an incredible find. It is part of the body of progressive education theory we surveyed at UCSC in the 80s, but I had never looked at the whole work, and I had not the wildest hope that it could be in print, being read today.

I remember arguing with Education professor Art Pearl back in that time. He said my arguments for teaching high-level sciences to low-income and underclass youth didn't engage with the political struggle. I wish he were here, to see how political it has become.

I didn't order Teaching Science online, because I'm sure I can find it tomorrow in a Boston area bookstore. You've made my Saturday - picture me at my little table, opening my new book like an eager little kid. I will raise my latte to you. Thanks.

Posted by: mport84 | October 29, 2010 5:40 AM | Report abuse

mport84, you are most welcome!

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 29, 2010 7:43 AM | Report abuse

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