"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Voters Beware

Pete weighs in on the importance of reading ballot initiatives:

Ballot measures appearing before voters next month require people to read them and know what they mean. At stake across the country are major pieces of legislation that have both intended and unintended consequences. Behind them are the efforts and dollars of professional lobbyists out to alter the course of the country.

Normally we rely on state legislatures and Congress to do the work of legislation. But legislators, esp. due to term limits, are more often than not puppets and spokespersons for lobbyists. A friend of mine in the MO state legislature, which has term limits, told me that she is presented with legislation already written by the lobbyists. She simply endorses it or not.

The appeal of these ballot measures is undeniable: let the people decide. It seems the ultimate tool in a democracy. But for this to work, we need to rely on the people, the demos of a democracy, to become an intelligent, critical electorate. Trouble is, when voting on ballot measures, most people have no idea what they mean; they hear about them for the fist time at the ballot box and are easily swayed by the way the proposals are written.

So how can we have a critical electorate that can be trusted with the awesome responsibility of making laws?

In its exclusive focus on reading and math, NCLB leaves aside the study of subjects crucial to forming a well-informed electorate. A survey released a few months ago by the Center on Education Policy found that since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002, 71 percent of the nation's 15,000 school districts had reduced the hours of instructional time spent on history, music, and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math. The center is an independent group that has made a thorough study of the new act and has published a detailed yearly report on the implementation of the law in dozens of districts. "Narrowing the curriculum has clearly become a nationwide pattern," said Jack Jennings, the president of the center, which is based in Washington.

The survey looked at 299 school districts in 50 states. It was conducted as part of a four-year study of No Child Left Behind and appears to be the most systematic effort to track the law's footprints through the classroom.

The historian David McCullough told a Senate Committee last June that because of NCLB, "history is being put on the back burner or taken off the stove altogether in many or most schools, in favor of math and reading."

For more and more children, the exposure to social studies --- the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, how the government runs, how laws are passed, US and world history, etc. -- has been eliminated. The sociopolitical implications of poor black and Hispanic children not learning about the Civil Rights movement, not learning about women's suffrage, not learning about the US Civil War, and not learning about any historical or contemporary instance of civil disobedience is more than just chilling. It smacks of an Orwellian attempt not merely to rewrite history, but to get rid of it.

But more importantly, NCLB works to dumb down an electorate that is increasingly being charged with the task of creating the laws of the land.

So what to do? (1) increase the threshold for getting things on the ballot; (2) sponsor forums for people to find out about the issues; (3) but the long-term strategy is to inject citizenry and civitas into the curriculum of every public school in the country and to reject the efforts of groups like The Business Roundtable and The U.S. Chamber of Commerce to make public education synonymous with job training. Dumbed-down schools produce dumbed-down citizens. And dumb-downed citizens are easily controlled, by both the government and by corporations.

Peter Campbell

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