I was going to focus on my friend Rick Hess’ excellent discussion of the latest example of “Content-Free Social Studies Standards,” but then I remembered this recent cartoon lampooning the Texas State Board of Education’s latest “demonstration;” their latest attempt at political design of textbook content. For a broader look at that embarrassing and destructive process that is not nearly unique to Texas, look at the “Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption,” Diane Ravitch’s (2003) The Language Police, and Chapter 5 of Charles Sykes’ (1995) Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, or Add.
Recall that this factor — political control of schooling content — is one of the key roots of the problem of low-performing public school systems. It creates weak, boring schooling content.
Dr. Hess noted that, “a coalition of social studies organizations” had produced standards devoid of much substantive content (no mention of the U.S. Constitution — or other historical events, dates, or persons), which is nearly predictable from the word “coalition” that assures the need to find “common ground” among a diverse group of people. I say “nearly predictable” because zero content is an extreme example. The deletion or dilution of everything that offends someone usually still leaves room for some specific events and people, but this most recent, formerly extreme example of political correctness may be an indication that it is becoming an increasingly oppressive force as more and more special interests jump into the arena. Probably the coalition’s attempts to agree on content became so frustrating that they decided to limit discussion to non-controversial warm fuzzies like, “critical thinking, collaboration, and inquiry.” But as Dr. Hess wondered, lacking content, what will the students, “critically think, collaborate, and inquire about?”
The embarrassing, destructive political control of curriculum and textbook content demonstrates an important, non-ideological reason why substantive school choice is especially important in diverse countries like the United States. Some of the countries with more homogenous populations than the U.S. seem to be able to cobble together substantive content guidelines. But the same political and ethnic diversity that is a key element of U.S. greatness (disclosure: I am an immigrant) and liberty is a major reason to severely limit the scope of political control of K-12 education. We are unlikely to agree on content that is strong and engaging. Attempts to mandate content is already part of a much worse outcome — plentiful of misinformed, uninformed, and bored students — than allowing choice from a dynamic, diverse menu of schooling options that cannot include everyone’s notion of the highest priority uses of classroom and homework time.