Relearning what it means to be an American

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When I started planning this editorial last month, I thought I'd use it as an opportunity to put forward some ideas for the new Biden team at the U.S. Department of Education. My NCTQ colleagues and I had a slew of ideas in mind. Then January 6 intervened, catapulting an entirely different set of priorities to the top.

In thinking about how January 6 happened, an insurrection incited not by a legitimate grievance but by a set of easily proven lies, there's broad agreement that social media and cable news must shoulder a good deal of blame. While that explains how the misinformation spread, it does not explain why it fell on such fertile ground.

What role should our nation's schools play in forming an electorate that would not fall victim to such obvious falsehoods? While our schools were not the petri dish that generated the January mob, it was the job of our schools to provide the inoculation. Each person who willingly took part in that attempted coup presumably spent a great deal of time in a school somewhere in this country and somehow left without acquiring the ability to distinguish fact from fiction.

Over these last several decades, the nation's school systems haven't been bothered much about this democracy thing. Their once essential role to nurture in every student an appreciation of what it means to be an American living in a democratic republic is no longer the priority it once was. Ironically, the decline in history and civics in our schools may be more likely the result of a lot of noise generated from the left, and not so much from the right. School districts have largely decided it is better to bore kids to death with vapid content, rather than to confront a multitude of constituencies wanting a say in what schools should teach. Interesting, thought provoking content is sacrificed for its inherent controversy. Rather than argue about who this nation's history belongs to and who it does not, we fail to recognize that in the most profound sense that it belongs to all of us.

This is not an argument for unchecked, knee-jerk patriotism with the flag playing the starring role. It is an argument that says our kids cannot grow up to be good citizens if they fail to learn what a grand and bold experiment American democracy is, however imperfect and unfinished, and their own role in protecting it.

It is also essential for schools to model for students responsible ways to consume the inevitable bombardments of both news and gossip from all sides (most notably social media), teaching kids to review the evidence on hand, discern truth, recognize science, and separate fact from fiction. The only way to make those lessons last into adulthood is for schools to create strong readers, capable of absorbing complex thought, not 280 characters, without getting distracted. And there's no other way to create strong readers than to read a lot, and on a wide range of different topics.

All of which brings us back not only to the Biden Administration and U.S. Congress, but also to a whole lot of educators who must sign on as eager, willing participants in change. Four big ideas:

First, President Biden (or Congress) should appoint a national commission that would be asked to identify a limited number of age-appropriate texts that will help students in every grade from kindergarten through 12 learn something about what it means to be an American.

Texts can be central to our founding but should contribute essential and diverse perspectives, not just through the eyes of a 17th century pilgrim. (Though it needs to be said that important history should not be dismissed on the basis of having "dead white males" in the starring role—they're Americans too.) Texts should not have to withstand an accuracy check, which means some great literature should have a place at the table. Work like The New York Times' "1619" might be considered, not because it got everything right (and what does?), but because of its important perspective on perhaps the most central issue in our history: race.

The commission should identify core topics in science as well, not a full science curriculum, but a small selection of topics these young students will likely need to navigate as adults. Students should understand how our world works and be exposed to the pressing issues for their lifetimes, such as climate change, renewable energy, and public health in times of pandemic.

The commission should provide options because many states will inevitably push back against a fixed list. Concerns over a federal takeover of schools can be mitigated by limiting the ambition of this exercise to less than a handful in each grade, with a plan to make formal revisions every decade or so.

Second, the U.S. Congress should pass new legislation that replaces the federal mandate requiring states to test students' reading comprehension skills with tests of student knowledge, acquired as a result of reading the core texts recommended by the national commission. After all, the content-neutral tests we've been using don't seem to have moved the needle much on reading achievement, and they've also led to the gutting of history and science in many grades, which is precisely what kids need in order to become better readers. And there's this bonus: teachers are more likely to embrace a test that is linked to what they actually teach than the current tests which bear no relationship to a school's curriculum.

Third, states should together or separately identify the various strategies by which students come to separate fact from fiction, starting with building their own knowledge of history and science but also including a basic knowledge of statistics, the scientific method, and looking for authoritative sources and balanced arguments in what they read or hear rather than relying on anecdote. Public schools (with plenty of professional development provided to teachers) should incorporate these strategies into everyday instruction.

Fourth and lastly, states should require their teacher preparation programs to prepare their aspiring teachers in the core texts they might find themselves teaching. They also should have plenty of practice leading class discussions designed to build the skills that students need to discern fact from fiction.

There's been little appetite over the years for anything that smacks of federal overreach into the governance of our schools. However, these ideas don't suggest a further overreach but rather a realignment of the current federal role. If our allegiance is to the United States of America, it is essential that we have a shared understanding of what that means, what is required of us to combat onslaughts against our democracy, and to restore in each of us a sense of true belonging.