The U.S. History Regents and the REAL Goal of Education Reform

Zachary Taylor's nickname was "Old Rough and Ready"

Years ago I had a coworker who fancied himself a history buff. Not being a history teacher himself, he relished the thought of trying to stump me with a question. One of his favorites, which he asked me pretty much half the time, was “you do know what Zachary Taylor’s nickname was, don’t you?” I never answered the question, preferring to give him his moments to shine where he could puff out his chest and smugly inform me that it was “Old Rough and Ready”. I would nod my head in bland acknowledgment, allowing the conversation to end on a high note for him so I could get back to doing work. Like many self-professed history buffs, what he likes is not so much history as it is trivia. No understanding of history is required to know that Zachary Taylor’s nickname was “Old Rough and Ready”. My coworker would have done better to ask what role Taylor had in defeating Mexico or why he became president. These questions would require some ability to synthesize facts in order to give a sweep of history. It would be more in line with the historian’s craft.

Although the man is no longer my coworker, I am reminded of him every day by the fact that I have to prepare my students for Regents exams. For sure, I have spoken to many people associated with the crafting of the U.S. History Regents and they seem to be fairly competent and knowledgeable. The exams they produce, however, are the paper versions of my annoying coworker. They lie in wait brandishing overly specific questions, many of which they have asked before. A student’s entire worth as an amateur historian will be measured by whether or not they can answer tiny questions plucked from a vast historical universe. Maybe there is a student who knows everything about the Mexican War. They can even draw a map of Taylor’s and Santa Anna’s forces at the Battle of Buena Vista. But if they do not know that Zach Taylor was “Old Rough and Ready”, their knowledge of all early 1800s America is called into question. Essentially, our children are not expected to know much more than trivia when it comes to American history.

To be fair, the Regents usually do not descend to the same level of minutiae as my coworker. But when the format calls for chopping up 500 years of American history into 50 multiple choice questions, obviously some things will get focused on more than others. Take this past June’s Regents. The period from the ratification of the Constitution (roughly 1788) through the Reconstruction era (roughly 1877) was covered in six questions (questions 11-16): 11) Louisiana Purchase, 12) John Marshall, 13) Manifest Destiny, 14) Dred Scott, 15) Radical Reconstruction, 16) literacy exams, poll taxes and grandfather clauses. The message of these multiple choice questions is that it does not really matter if you know about Washington’s Presidency, the XYZ Affair, Lewis and Clark, the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson, Indian Removal, Nat Turner, John Quincy Adams or the creation of the Republican Party. The fact of the matter is that the Regents mostly asks important questions that every American should know. There is nothing wrong with asking about the Louisiana Purchase or John Marshall. The problem lies in the format. The test makers have to work within a framework that forces them to elevate certain topics over others. It is the only way they can get away with not asking a single direct question about the Civil War, the bloodiest event in American history. The grand, sweeping march of history is way too big for a series of isolated questions to contain.

In this we confront the danger of the education reformers. They love standardized exams. Exams are like the goose laying golden eggs of “data” for the reformers to use to give their vacuous ideas an air of scientific respectability. The grades on those exams will determine the fate of both the student and the teacher. That fate will involve a lot of school closings and a lot of money from those closed schools going into the pockets of wealthy charter school operators. As you can see, nowhere in this fate is our citizenry expected to have a true understanding of American history. They just need to be prepared for the dead end questions, many of them asked before, that are thrown at them arbitrarily. One of the original missions, if not the original mission, of public schooling was to help shape our kids to be solid citizens. If we have to give exams, why not give exams that require our kids to acquire, analyze and synthesize information so that they may have the critical thinking skills necessary to participate in American democracy? Why not have teachers create and grade those exams, since they should know better than anyone the themes and ideas to which their students were exposed? They can ask questions that require students to present a critical sweep of history.

We know full well why not. The reformers do not want our schools producing solid citizens. Solid citizens are informed, knowledgeable and expect certain basic things, like human dignity. The fabulous wealth these reformers accumulated in the business world depends upon an apathetic, uninformed citizenry. In short, the reformers want to educate poor children to accept poverty, while turning a blind eye to the obscene wealth of the reformers themselves. Instead of budding historians who would easily see how vast inequalities of wealth pervert democracy, they want a bunch of trivia freaks who can answer simple questions for prize money. Instead of professional teachers who know and love their craft, they want to boil teaching down to memorizing facts. The deskilling of the art of teaching that has taken place under the reformers is only their first step. Their goal is to get rid of teaching altogether. After all, if all kids need to do to graduate is spit back arbitrary facts, what better teacher than a computer? The student can run a computer program of random, disjointed facts from U.S. History played to catchy, repetitive music. After listening to it a few hundred times over the course of a semester, they will have memorized everything. In this way, learning will be no different than when kids listen to the radio and know all the lyrics to every song since the same songs are always being played. Test scores will go up, kids will think learning is cool, Bill Gates will be a triple gadzillionaire and the evil teacher unions will be no more.

It is time that people wake up and recognize that the reformers are genuine radicals who want to totally revolutionize what we are as a country. The rich and the powerful want to control the way every child is educated. They do this to keep themselves rich and powerful. The battle over our school system today will determine whether we can restore some semblance of democracy and goodness to our country, or whether the caste system that has taken hold here over the past three decades is here to stay.

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6 responses to “The U.S. History Regents and the REAL Goal of Education Reform

  1. Standardized testing of this nature is to be expected as control over education policy is centralized in Washington. In order for government officials to track the success of their programs in a system as vast and diverse as the American public school system, they need simple tools that gather data efficiently and give clear answers. Standardized tests can be used to obtain those answers about large student populations, but as you said they do a poor job of assessing understanding in a number of subjects. They probably have a detrimental affect on teachers, as their performance is judged by their students’ success on the tests, giving them an incentive to teach the kind of banal information you’ve been talking about.

    But I can’t figure out who your enemy is. You made a disparaging reference to charter schools, and associated them with the top-down style reformers you complained about. That contradicts my experience with charter school advocates and school choice advocates in general, who are opposed to centralized control of education. In fact, because they tend to support the freedom for parents and teachers to decide how children should be educated, it would seem that they would be a natural ally.

    So, who are the reformers that you believe are so dangerous?

    • By way of answering all of your questions, I would encourage you to read through other entries on my site. As a shorthand answer to your question, Bill Gates is both an owner of a chain of charters (KIPP) and an advocate of centralization (He was the driving force behind the Common Core Standards for the entire country). Charters love centralization because it gives their very wealthy advocates fewer places to throw money at in order to affect policy.

      “Choice” is a marketing word for charters. Here in NYC, charters have existed by using public officials to get them to hand them space in public school buildings. They are free to kick out kids they do not want to educate, unlike public schools. Their teachers work longer hours for less money than public school teachers. All of this and they still do not outperform public schools. There is very little “choice” involved for anyone except the filthy rich who own charters.

      Check here and look through other blogs that mention charters. Grassroots Education Movement and the ICE/UFT blog have some good stuff about charters. Thank you for your input.

  2. You are right about the whole drilling down facts on students. In middle school, I hated history with a passion because I was drilled down with facts that were completely meaningless to me because I did not know what it meant in the wider spectrum. Like you said, it was like being in a trivia game, where all you had to know were the important people, events, and places, but you did not have to know the why’s and how’s behind it all. The only reason why I got interested in history in the first place was because you explained how everything is connected and why. What makes history interesting are the why’s and how’s behind what students are asked in trivia-like questions, not just memorizing the most important events. Although there are people who really degrade history as a subject where all you have to learn are facts in order to pass, history is much more than that. In order to be able to understand history, you need both knowledge of the events that had happened and also some imagination on what could have happened instead because it could have totally changed the course of history. I think its a pity that history is being reduced to just a bunch of meaningless facts because there is so much more to it than just famous people, places, and events.

  3. I would argue that the original purpose of public education was to create a passive, uncritical workforce and consumer base, to funnel the children of the ruling elite into leadership occupations and the rest of us into jobs as their dutiful employees.

    The Ed Deformers certainly want to maintain this dynamic and standardized testing helps. However, what has really changed in the last decade has been their increasingly aggressive attempts to profit off the public education system. The test publishers are getting billions each year from NCLB tests. The textbook publishers are getting billions from Common Core. The educational management organizations are getting billions from the charter school conversions. Food management organizations like Sodexo and Aramark are getting billions from the free lunch program. Tutoring companies are getting billions from the NCLB mandated tutoring at consistently low performing schools. (For references, please see http://modeducation.blogspot.com/2011/10/modern-school-anniversary-no-capitalist.html)

    Furthermore, the states save billions by defunding schools, cutting jobs, implementing furloughs and freezing wages–all money that can go into the pockets of the wealthy by way of tax cuts. And, as anti-union attacks further weaken the labor movement, there is the potential of this bringing down all wages, thus further enriching the 1%.

    • I definitely agree that our compulsory school system was created to produce obedient workers for the capitalist class. When I talk of the original mission of public schooling, I am really thinking of Thomas Jefferson and his belief that public schools should instill democratic values. Too bad that is not the vision that has come to dominate.

      We certainly know that the deformers want to ransack public schooling like they did to the military and prisons. Public schools are really the final frontier for the privatizers. There are literally no purely public services left for them to ransack after education. In the process, all of the 1%’s biases and dreams are manifested: hate for workers’ rights, as well as for workers; opposition to any help for the poor (hence the defunding you mentioned); a nation of passive consumers and workers who will bubble within the circle and not question anything. It is all there, the entire vision of the 1%.

  4. Pingback: What Happened to all the Astronauts? | assailedteacher

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