History by Design

No more Helen Keller! Out goes Hillary Clinton! The Texas state school board conducted another purge of its history curriculum recently. It’s tempting to see this as another right-wing curricular coup, but the winners and losers are a little more complicated. I gotta ask: Is this really the way we want to choose our history lessons?

Here’s what we know: The Dallas Morning News reported on the recent conclusions of the Texas state board of education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember other famous flaps on the board as captured by the fascinating documentary The Revisionaries. Back in 2012, conservatives on the board cut out “hip-hop” and inserted “country music” on the list of essential school knowledge. They wanted more Reagan, more NRA, and more conservatism in general.

These battles aren’t limited to Texas. Back in the 1990s, when Gary Nash and his colleagues tried to introduce new national history standards, they were accused of left-wing indoctrination. As one US senator complained, their suggested standards had more Bart Simpson than George Washington.

Today’s board has cut the requirement that schools teach about Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton. But they have also cut conservative icon Barry Goldwater. Plus, they have inserted stronger language that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War.

How did these decisions get made? A work group was tasked with evaluating historical persons and terms according to a list of questions. As the Dallas Morning News reported,

The 15-member work group came up with a rubric for grading every historical figure to rank who is “essential” to learn and who isn’t. The formula asked questions like, “Did the person trigger a watershed change”; “Was the person from an underrepresented group”; and “Will their impact stand the test of time?”

Out of 20 points, Keller scored a 7 and Clinton scored a 5.

By way of comparison, “Texas Rangers” got 16 points and “local members of the Texas Legislature” got 20. The state board didn’t have to honor these recommendations. For example, the work group recommended the removal of Billy Graham (4 points) but the state board decided to keep him.

So here’s the real question: Why are history lists composed this way? Why do political boards compile list of essential terms and facts that teachers must teach, even if no student really learns them?

Why Didn’t They Talk about Schools?

There was plenty of talk. Senator Sanders admitted he was “sick and tired of hearing” about Secretary Clinton’s emails. Senator Webb jabbed Wall Street. Governor O’Malley championed the middle class. And Governor Chafee was also there. But nobody said anything about K-12 education. Why not?

There was some talk about higher education. Both Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton insisted we need some way to relieve student debt loads, maybe with free college tuition. Governor O’Malley bragged about low tuition rates in his state.

But only Secretary Clinton mentioned early childhood education, saying offhand that every child needed it to live up to his or her “God-given potential.”

Seems odd. The Democratic Party, after all, is the party of both Head Start and Race To The Top. The Democrats’ Big Tent includes both “Test-Em-n-See” Arne Duncan and Curmudgucrat Peter Greene.

It seems in the high-stakes world of primary debates, these stark differences between leading Democratic voices would offer a chance for some lively back-and-forth on key issues. What should we do with the Common Core? How should teachers be evaluated? How do we know if a school is doing a good job?

We didn’t hear it.

Loudmouth education parvenu Campbell Brown calls it a conspiracy. The Democratic Party, she claims, is in the back pocket of the teachers’ unions. They don’t even dare RSVP to her debate invitation.

Peter Greene thinks the answer is even simpler: “when it comes to public education in this country, none of the candidates actually gives a shit.”

In The Atlantic, David Graham thought there was just nothing much to disagree about. “Overall,” Graham opined, “the Democratic candidates simply don’t have the same divisions that the Republicans one [sic] do.”

But none of those explanations makes sense. This sort of forum offers candidates a chance to grab attention. Clinton’s identification with the Obama administration makes her an easy target. Yet none of them took it.

Here in the Great State of New York, we’ve seen how protest candidates can and do win votes by blasting other Democrats. I’m stumped why none of these candidates—not even the fire-breathing Senator Sanders—took this opportunity to do so.

Here’s my hunch: In the fervent calculations of any serious presidential campaign, candidates must make careful bets about issues and positions. In the face of Mr. Greene’s assertion that the candidates don’t care, I think candidates will care about what they think voters will care about.

Why didn’t candidates make political hay about K-12 education? Because they thought it would not win them any votes. With their finely tuned political antennae, these leading candidates concluded that Democrats in general did not want to hear about it.

Compare that to the GOP, where every candidate is forced to pay lip service to creationism. Compare that to the GOP, where every candidate falls all over him- or herself to show off his or her penchant for “education reform.”

Leading Democrats, in contrast, don’t air their differences in public. Why not? I’m no cynic, but it seems obvious to me that all candidates have agreed implicitly that their differences will not give them a competitive advantage. In short, none of them is willing to bank on a groundswell of support for iconoclastic progressive educational notions.

What’s Left? Bernie Sanders on Education

It doesn’t really matter. But it has become a central part of the process nonetheless.

Even though the vast majority of thinking and funding of public schools is still done at the state and local levels, presidential candidates these days spend a good deal of time sharing their plans for fixing America’s schools. On the right, we’ve heard from all the GOP contenders. This week, Forbes Magazine summed up a few of Bernie Sanders’s positions on education. Some of the ideas are predictable, but some are surprising.

...and to my left...

…and to my left…

On the conservative side, candidates have a few hoops to jump through. Whatever their personal beliefs, contenders have to sound at least friendly to creationism. And these days—though as I argued recently this has not always been the case—GOP hopefuls have to denounce furiously any federal role in local schools.

Senator Sanders has a little more wiggle room. As a self-declared socialist representing the Peoples’ Republic of Vermont, Sanders has no real chance of snatching the nomination from front-runner Hillary Clinton. So his campaign can be more about ideas than votes.

What does the Socialist Senator say about schools?

First—no surprise—he has denounced the “privatizing” tendencies of vouchers and charter schools. Also, in February Senator Sanders suggested a federal program to cut college tuition in half. The federal government, Sanders thinks, must stop making profits off of student loans. More radically, Senator Sanders wants to make public universities tuition-free. Beyond higher education, Sanders has pushed for better pre-school options for all. And he has decried the fact that “the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers.”

It all fits. But there are some ideas that are conspicuous by their absence. Unlike other progressive pundits, we don’t hear from Senator Sanders an attack on the dehumanizing standardized tests that have taken over so many public schools. Nor do we see a strident defense of teachers’ unions.

Here in the Great State of New York, we’ve seen how protest candidates in the Democratic Party can win votes by adopting those popular positions. It’s still early days, of course, but we can’t help but wonder why Senator Sanders has not made more noise about these issues.