So Tom Hanks didn’t know what the Tulsa Race Massacre was, and we’re told that it’s an indictment of the inadequate treatment of our racial history in schools. Well, alongside Hanks, two-thirds of Millennials don’t know what Auschwitz was, and only two-fifths of Americans could name all three branches of government — one in five couldn’t name a single one. More broadly, less than a quarter of students demonstrated proficiency in civics, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
If our curricula have gaps about our racial history, perhaps it’s indicative of a deeper, far more pervasive mediocrity. The Fordham Institute ran a comprehensive review of school curricula across the country to investigate such shortcomings and found that schools too often
“provide overbroad, vague, or otherwise insufficient guidance for curriculum and instruction;”
“omit or seriously underemphasize topics that are essential to informed citizenship and historical comprehension.”
The curriculum in my own state of Wisconsin exemplifies both weaknesses. Regarding the first point, one section asks students to “analyze significant historical periods” and “evaluate a variety of primary and secondary sources.” Regarding the second point, where the curriculum does attempt to provide topics for learning, the standards list things like “Meeting of Peoples and Cultures” and “The Modern Era.”
These give me, as a teacher, about as much guidance regarding what I should do in my classroom as would an atlas without highway numbers and city names. Students could accomplish these goals with the words of the Constitution or a tweet in hand. Without sequenced time periods or events to cover, various teachers could end up teaching, in two or three different grades, labor history during the industrial revolution, with a student never once encountering Auschwitz or the basic structure of our federal government. Given that, they’re left with large knowledge gaps of what we would reasonably expect any citizen to know.
Such vagueness isn’t a result of pure incompetence either but has an ideological basis.