Sep 6, 2022·edited Sep 6, 2022

One thing I don't understand about the debate over teaching racial history in school is the idea that this is a new thing. But I remember race and race relations being a central theme in my study of history in high school (I was in a Republican-leaning school district in California and would have been studying this around 2005). When I was in high school, we studied genocide of the Native Americans, the brutal realities of slavery, the xenophobia against Chinese immigrants in California leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the horrors of Jim Crow and segregation, and the backlash to Civil Rights movement. We studied the court cases covering affirmative action and the subsequent backlash. We learned about Thomas Jefferson's owning of slaves and the ordeal with Sally Hemmings, and how Jackson made his reputation attacking and displacing Native peoples. We learned about the Zoot Suit riots against Mexican immigrants, the Bracero program, and Cesar Chavez fight for labor rights for migrant workers. We read the People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn (which was balanced by more conservative text by Paul Johnson). We read first hand accounts of Japanese who were interned during WWII. I remember then having adults ask me then if our history class was too critical and made us feel too negatively about the country and our national heros.

Now I'm sure that there were gaps in my history education. It's true that I don't remember learning about Juneteenth or the Tulsa massacre. And I'm sure there were places where there was less focus on themes of race relations than I had. But it's hard for me to think that my history education was unusual for the mid aughts. But when we are having this conversation about race and history education, people my age are pretending like their history education was overly positive and patriotic, and that racial history of African Americans and other minority groups was this enormous gap. And either my memory is just completely wrong, or my education back in 2005 was truly exceptional for its time.

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This is a great piece and I think hammers home the concerns a lot of people (or at least I) have about this approach to education. To start, I think Chris Rufo is a shady character and I'm always amazed at how few remember his employer to be the intelligent design people. Whatever their goal is it probably isn't good, non-ideologically charged education on its own merits.

However the kind of Tema Okun stuff that characterizes habits of good students as 'white supremacy' is bad, and probably bad for kids and the education system. Introducing strange gender concepts without a lot of scientific basis to impressionable kids that can barely read is a recipe for stupidity, and in some cases seems to presume authority public schools don't have. I can think of no better way to destroy support for public education than to embrace ideas seemingly designed to hurt quality and piss people off.

So none of this is to say you don't teach about Jim Crow or redlining in a social studies or history class, not to mention of course the fact that these things are now illegal after the hard work of dedicated people. But if the perception becomes that priorities of the public schools are something other than core educational concepts like the 3 R's tax payers will eventually defect.

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I feel like a lot of the comments on here, and to some degree the piece itself, miss a core value of public education, which is the social emotional learning aspect.

For most people, a critical determinant of success in their future life, career, hobbies, and everything else is, "how good are you at interacting with other people." And there is no substitute for this but to interact with people in structured environments (because we mostly do not live in hunter-gatherer bands; we mostly operate in highly structured environments, like workplaces). A ton of what kids learn, at least in the early years, are skills like "listen to other people," "assess which rules are critical and which rules are breakable," "learn how to interact with people who have power over you," and "navigate the dynamics of groups where some people are mean / cruel / enemies."

As an undergrad instructor, I see this often with homeschooled kids who come to my classes with great cognitive skills (read, write, math) and terrible social and emotional skills (manage stressful interactions in class, interact productively with other people even when they are saying stuff you disagree with--esp. when they are empirically wrong, work in a group that includes people who are lazier or less competent than yourself). And I offer those latter two as examples of things that are legit irritating but which you encounter in real-world working situations all the time (I wasn't always an academic).

School-age kids are in a period of maximum social and emotional learning; there's really no substitute for throwing them into a pool of other humans and forcing them to learn that way. But this is also a big part of the value of the science, history, music, art, etc. teaching--not the curriculum, per se, but the exposing kids to a lot of material that becomes the building blocks of their identity in the world. This is a reason why desegregating schools really is a big deal (and why I wish we were more committed to making it happen). It is also why, frankly, conservatives are correct that Drag Queen Story Hour actually IS a big deal (and why I support DQSH).

Just as one example, from my own wheelhouse, a core function of history classes is to explicitly communicate social and personal values. That shouldn't be controversial; it has been the function of human storytelling from time immemorial (which is why value-communication is also a function of English class and of Sunday school). Unfortunately, that also puts you into tricky territory where people want to have fights, although honestly most of the values your kid gets in history classes are uncontroversial stuff like "helping people is good."

But the bottom line is that we need to quit treating school like it is exclusively about "hard" skills (3 Rs) and content mastery (Krebs cycle, atomic structure, Civil War) and recognize that a huge part of school is about that other stuff--social and emotional dynamics, physical mastery of the body, hobbies and interests, etc. That other stuff is hard to quantify, which is why people hate it, but it's some of the most important stuff, in terms of long-term success for individual humans.

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Sep 6, 2022·edited Sep 6, 2022

I think I agreed with everything here except maybe the "inject diversity to keep kids from being bored" thing, which isn't strictly wrong, but definitely has some slippery pitfalls. Core reading and math competency is far and away the most important part of an education and pubic schools should bias away from any particularly doctrinaire presentation of social issues.

For me the fundamental problem with schools is that students spend vastly too much time on inappropriately challenging material because we don't do anything remotely like sufficiently aggressive tracking, especially for kids that aren't in the very meatiest part of the bell curve. It's just not effective to give kids material that isn't appropriate to their ability level, either too advanced or too easy, and age cohort is just a laughably bad proxy, all the more so given that typical kids tend to advance at differing rates by subject.

We should be doing vastly more to accurately assess students subject by subject and slotting then into individual classes on a knowledge and ability basis. Instead we have a system where most kids are wasting their time while teaching resources are directed overwhelmingly at a small sliver of students typical enough to marginally benefit.

This total failure to meaningfully assess progress is core to the central policy failure of public schooling, which is that a High School Diploma has become essentially entirely worthless as an economic signifier. Every job that isn't entry level physical labor requires a bachelor's, absurd amounts of relevant employment history, nepotism, or all of the above to get hired because the HSD simply doesn't tell employers anything anymore. We've grade and graduation rate inflated away whatever value it used to represent and now every student gets shuttled into the higher ed/student loan debacle instead, so that public schools can avoid saying uncomfortable truths about who has learned what and bad teachers never have to worry about anyone coming to look at whether they're actually adding any value at all.

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Sep 6, 2022·edited Sep 6, 2022

I generally agree with the piece. As usual quibble with an aside: “culturally relevant pedagogy”. I can see much that can go wrong here. As far as science teaching goes, I highly doubt pictures of figures on the walls matter one way or the other. However, they do matter somewhat for cultural capital. Newton is a unique figure in physics and thus in world history, unmatched by any in terms of his contribution save, arguably, by Einstein. Not learning about him is missing a piece of common knowledge that is moreover a crucial link in the history of science. But it goes deeper: The fact is that due to complex historical contingencies the industrial revolution happened in Europe, and scientific progress was achieved by Europeans, almost alone, until the 20th century, after which white men continue to punch well above their weight. Ignoring this fact potentially has three problems:

1. Giving a wrong impression of the past and the world

2. hurting kids “cultural capital” by keeping them ignorant about the most famous influential people

3. The basic, frankly racist, assumption, that kids needs someone who “looks like them” to identify with and draw inspiration from. That’s nonsense. To quote the black former Harvard (currently Brown) economics professor Glenn Laury, when asked who is the Black Tolstoy: “Tolstoy”. I.e. if a descendant of Irish peasants can feel like the Russian aristocrat Tolstoy is “his” why not a black guy or Latina woman?

In short, ironically I think this whole (pseudo)-progressive cultural sensitive idea is set to give kids in white-majority public schools advantage over public schools like the one MY describes, all else being equal.

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As a parent sending my kids to relatively good local public school, when I read these NYT op Ed’s and other comments from really political left people, I wonder if they understand how much pretty much every single parent, left right or center, who is sending their young kids to school, is constantly worrying about how much regular stuff they are learning- math, reading, problem solving. It’s a huge thing that is for the most part out of our hands, we have entrusted the public school system with this tremendous responsibility. But when liberal journalists (and any conservative commentators as well, x10 probably) think about schools they just think of straight political bullshit. I am not being dismissive of racism when I say that I am just pointing out that when thinking about math curriculum it is really a problem when you are not discussing the math. Also with no legislation, with nothing at all, my daughter is getting a tremendous amount of education on racism, feminism, famous and impressive people of color. This stuff shouldnt be outlawed obviously but many people prob have very little appreciation of how much of this stuff is already taught.

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'“Culturally relevant pedagogy” where you try to make sure kids aren’t just reading books by white people with white characters or leaning history as a succession of things done by Important White People seems to work.'

Not sure whether you really mean 'culturally relevant' (as in the Thailand example), or 'racially uniform.' Jefferson, eg, is more 'culturally relevant' to an American black kid than Toussaint L'Overture, but is not same-raced. Shakespeare, for another example, is culturally no closer to today's white kids in America than today's black kids, though racial uniformity would recommend teaching him to the former, but maybe not the latter. Culture easily jumps the color line, to the chagrin of racists.

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"Citizenship" is not (or shouldn't be) a trojan horse for political indoctrination. People need to know the very non-political facts of our political system - two houses of congress, federalism, what are your rights if you are arrested, really basic stuff that never needs to touch culture war politics. I couldn't disagree more with the McGhee/Ray idea - being a good responsible citizen in no way requires you adopt any historical narrative about America, whether it's about anti-racism or anti-communism or whatever. It doesnt require much history at all. Participate in local politics if you can, vote, follow the law, be a good neighbor, go to jury duty if called, start a business and run it ethically, lots of ways to be a good citizen that never touch history.

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Sep 6, 2022·edited Sep 6, 2022

“ All of which is to say that improving the level of basic reading competency is basic citizenship education.”

There is essentially no evidence that reading competency can be meaningfully improved from current levels long term for the vast majority of people.

“ Let’s say you have 200 dollars in a savings account. The account earns 10 percent interest per year. How much would you have in the account at the end of two years?”

While only 18% answered correctly, I would venture to guess almost all were taught it. Many were tested on it and answered the test question correctly. They then quickly forgot it.

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There are many conceptual problems with piece, but I am going to stick with the most basic one (at least for now).

Matt keeps using the word "basic" as though his argument and desired outcome is simple and straightforward. He says what is missing is "basic reading competency," because the recommended target level for writing for the public is roughy eighth grade. He has been talking phonics for quite some time -- not unjustifiably. But phonics is really about lower elementary school, with some later reliance on it -- particularly for struggling readers. Phonics doesn't even get one to 8th grade reading levels.

Matt -- a somewhat Harvard-appropriate philosophy major -- has a certain sense of what appropriate general public writing ought to look like and has settled on 11th grade or maybe college sophomore level. And yet, he -- not unjustifiably -- screams about how the median voter is a 50+ non-college white person. He thinks that 50+ non-college white people currently read at a college sophomore level? Even an 11th grade level? 30+ years after graduating from high school, what does he think they've been reading all this time to keep that reading facility up?

Matt is *not* talking about "basic reading competency." He is talking about *advanced* reading competency. Is is talking about the ability to read complex passages in complex texts with layers of meaning. Perhaps not philosophy texts, but complex texts nonetheless -- in a world in which most people's entertainment and information sources are *not* text-based (e.g., YouTube now counts as research for so many people).

It looks to me as though Matt wants more focus and more success with the goals of the Common Core State Standards. It looks to me like his not talking about outcomes that achievable with drilling math, reading or anything. He want people to have a decent number sense -- something that has always been really challenging to teach. Drills help with facts and declarative knowledge. They do not supply intuition or judgement.

And I agree with *all* of that. ALL. Of. That.

But these are *not* basic skills. At no point humanity have these been basic skills. I do not know whether they will *ever* be basic skills. Certainly, there are cognitive development challenges to when different students are able to develop many of them.

So, here's my real criticism: It's a cheap trick to *call* them basic skills. It's a slight of hand that allows Matt to avoid thinking about what it takes to teach them. By *calling* them basic, he can suggest that schools are not doing the easier part of their job, the easily expected part of their job.

Acknowledge that these skills are *not* basic, despite being incredibly important to an informed citizenry and our democracy and future economic growth (and and and...) and the piece has to change. Then, one has to wonder whether it is possible to teach alls students these advanced skills and what it would take. If they are *not* basic they the assertion can be taken less for granted.

I think Matt wants our K12 public schools to instill better math skills that most good college graduates have (e.g., UVa? That's pretty good). I suspect that he wants folks long removed from college -- if they ever went -- to have better reading skills than al those people who graduate from college with majors that are not "reading intensive." He wants to raise the bar everywhere.

So do I.

With all my experience and expertise in this area, I don't think that this is generally about "basic" skills.

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You leave out one important grievance of the right wing with respect to public education. Since the 1950s, public schools in the US have been deChristianized. This is appropriate for a secular democracy. However, it is unacceptable to conservative Christians, hence the assault on public education.

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One thing that has always gotten my goat from the DEI industrial complex is the notion they have passed off that in 2019-2020 the country was teaching racial issues and history the same way it was in 1925.

Students were absolutely learning about things like the 3/5 compromise, slavery as the cause of the Civil War, etc.

Heck, I am not young and I was taught these things in school.

The DEI industrial complex in its absolute fraudulence pretends that they are "forcing America to confront difficult history."

Total nonsense.

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For a coalition that ostensibly believes education naturally produces people who agree with its goals and values, the progressive left is very insecure about whether or not people will actually end up agreeing with their goals and values.

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I'd also add basic science competency to the list. The leaps and bounds of scientific understanding of the past 50-60 years are completely foreign to most Americans, and I'd argue it's because many of these concepts are taught poorly (or not at all!) at most public schools. The pandemic has shown a harsh light on what happens when the populace doesn't understand basic science (not that this wasn't an issue before the pandemic).

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So Matt agrees liberals are trying to indoctrinate children into their politics, even if he’s skeptical it will work. And he also agrees they should put more of their focus on teaching the fundamentals.

If MY thinks that, imagine being a conservative. What must they think? Then liberals gas light them and say it isn’t true.

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I expect we're gonna start to see some major pushback to measuring reading levels in the coming years.

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