Want to improve Civics Literacy? Probably need to reexamine a few things first…

Ann Marie Banfield provides a note to members of the House Education Committee members along with testimony she provided them on SB216, an act covering “civics education”.

Dear House Education Committee Members; 

Please see below, my written testimony to SB216 that I presented to you during the public hearing. Here is the link to the article written by Diane Ravitch that was published in the American Educator, Spring 2010, American Federation of Teachers. When you understand the “skills” based movement, it will help you better understand the fads that we are currently seeing in public education today. 

There were questions on why our public schools have all but abandoned a quality academic Civics education for students in New Hampshire. I think the “skills” based movement has been a big contributor to this problem. The skills based, or Competency Based Education model, shifted the paradigm in public education from a Liberal Arts model, to a Workforce Training model. CBE shifted focus away from academic content to soft skills. This is why I added the historical parts of this model in my testimony. The skills based model is one that is focused on the needs of Corporate America, not the individual student or civilization.

I heard some of this discussed among the New Hampshire CTE coordinators a few years ago on a conference call. They were discussing the needs of the workforce versus the needs of the students. How do they get more students into the service industry? That is what one CTE Coordinator in New Hampshire asked the others. Is that what public education is about now? A workforce pipeline?  And if so, why would anyone be surprised that there is less emphasis on the academic content in these core classes? 

C. S. Lewis contrasts liberal arts education with preparing students for “employment.” While we certainly need good bankers, surgeons and electricians, he described the danger of training at the expense of education.  “If education is beaten by training, civilization dies….the lesson of history” is that “civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost.” It is the liberal arts, not workforce training, that preserves civilization by producing reasonable men and responsible citizens.

Competencies are required k-12. Workforce training starts when children are young. So the shift away from academic content begins in Kindergarten. Children learning Common Core math are ready for Algebra in 9th grade. That is two years behind their peers in Singapore. 

CBE (then called Outcome Based Education) was tried in several states before it became a national agenda. States that tried it, eventually abandoned the model because parents discovered that it took too much time away from learning the academic content. If you are going to continue with this model in the public schools, this is what you can expect. 

The focus on Math, Reading and Language Arts are part of the workforce model, but certainly not to the level we see in the top performing countries. The other subjects become marginalized, if they are even taught. 

What became of Civics instruction in schools? Students are now being trained to become political activists or community organizers. In Manchester, children are not learning the academic content, they are learning how to become political activists:

One might say, but students need to learn how to apply the knowledge. That is true, but it is the role of our public schools to make sure they provide the knowledge first. After hearing from teachers, you know first hand, this is not being done in our public schools.  Parents will certainly look for alternatives. 

Instead of addressing this, it becomes a political tug-of-war over school choice. Instead of fixing these problems at the root, the narrative shifts to offering school choice options where political battles are fought. Instead of political factions coming together to fix the actual problems, the effort turns to helping families escape the public schools while the other side tries to shut that down. 

Competencies were supposed to be about adding workforce “skills” to help children become career ready. But in reality, it takes additional time away from learning in the classroom. The best example I have for that is when a home-school mom called me concerned that her son she enrolled at Pinkerton was working on math projects with another student during class.  She knew she could cover the math lesson in a few days; however, she could see it was taking a week or longer because her son was bogged down with math projects. I informed her that the math teacher was now required to add team building “skills” to his class. Over that year, her son fell further and further behind in the academic content while he was learning teamwork. While teamwork may be a good skill to learn, forcing all teachers to shift their focus to workforce skills waters down the academic content.  Now we have SEL competencies that further dilute the academics. 

The video of the students in Manchester who were learning to become political activists, instead of learning the Civics content, are denied the knowledge that many of you were concerned about. This is now considered “action civics,”  but many recognize this as a way to turn children into illiterate political activists. 

Diane Ravitch’s article gives you the historical details on the “skills” based movement that many researchers describe as fads in education. The SCANS report is also explained in this article

What was described at the hearing was a problem of illiteracy. I’m not surprised given the change in the public education model. If you want excellence in public education, which is what I’ve always supported, then you look to the countries that have a track record of success.  When that happens, you will not see families fleeing the public schools, but supporting local public schools and their teachers. The best example of that is when Massachusetts developed the best academic standards and tests in the country. (Pre-Common Core) Parents weren’t looking to escape their public schools, but were some of the biggest supporters of public education. 

I hope this helps you better understand where some of this problem is coming from. If you want to improve the literacy of our students in Civics, and every other subject, you need to reexamine what it is you want out of our public schools. I don’t believe for a minute that this workforce model will ever provide the quality of education our children deserve. When you look at the declining enrollments, and the parents fleeing public schools, it’s time to be honest about what is driving them out, and work to make improvements. 

Ann Marie Banfield
North Hampton

Honorable Members of the House Education Committee:

My name is Ann Marie Banfield, and I am a parental rights advocate focused on excellence in education. Today I come here opposed to SB216. SB216 is an act to make changes to the requirements for civics education in schools.  I want to first start by saying that a quality content rich academic education in Civics is a priority that I support. I do not believe that SB216 offers that to the students in New Hampshire.

SB216, starts off with language that supports a quality academic Civics education in our schools. That’s good. However, it then directs focus away from academic content to focusing on other activities:
(b)  The acquisition of skills, such as the ability to analyze text and determine the reliability and biases of sources.
(c)  An understanding of the ways in which civic institutions operate and how individuals may be involved in civic life.
(d)  An appreciation for free speech and civil discourse, using historical references, such as the federalist-antifederalist papers, the major debates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, congressional and public debates leading to the Civil War, and Civil Rights debates of the 1950s and 1960s.

In the original bill, these were labeled as: (b) civics skills (c) civics dispositions and (d) civics behavior. While I do appreciate the senators amending the original bill to change the language, I do still see a problem with including (b), (c), and (d). What is wrong with students acquiring skills such as the ability to analyze text and determine the reliability and biases of sources?

Just like Competency Based Education, Competencies were to be focused on skills too. Today we are seeing competencies focused on measuring social and emotional dispositions. That means that they are measuring and sharing non-academic skills that are based on behavior, attitudes, values and beliefs. How do you measure all of this? Subjectively.

It was before this committee many years ago that there was bi-partisan opposition to measuring dispositions when House Ed members debated Competency Based Education. But today we have schools measuring a child’s dispositions. If you are going to include skills, then they need to be explicitly spelled out.

What skills exactly do you want a student to possess? If you offer suggestions in an RSA, that leaves the door open to subjectively measure all kinds of skills, dispositions, or behavior.

Some of this should also be placed in the Social Studies academic standards. For instance, analyzing a specific text could be included in the standards. Standards writers have an extensive background in the core subject, and they have the ability to drill down to what should be included as Civics skills. Those standards are then presented to the public where we get to weigh in, and make the argument to keep the standards or remove them. Ultimately the State Board of Education would then make their final decision.

We have an illiteracy problem when it comes to Civics knowledge among students in our public schools, and those who have graduated. Good quality standards and tests are the key to improving Civics education in New Hampshire. That is where we should all be focusing our attention. Adding non-academic suggested skills, behavior and dispositions, no matter how good they are, can be ignored, or worse, twisted into something all of you never intended.

I-a also includes this: I-a.  In all public, chartered public, private, and privately incorporated schools that serve as public schools in the state, there shall be given…Does this mean additional regulations on private schools? If so, that needs to be removed. There is no reason to add this kind of regulation to non-public schools. 

There are many voices that contribute to education reform in this country. For those who are familiar with Diane Ravitch, a prominent education historian who has an enormous following of public school teachers across the country, she addressed the “skills” movement in the AFT’s American Educator magazine in spring 2010. This accounting of the many attempts to remold public education into skills training is worth reading. I’m going to include the entire piece with my testimony, but I’d like to read some of what she wrote:

I am a historian of education and have written often about the educational enthusiasms and fads of the past century. One of my books, titled Left Back, tells the story of the rise and fall of one fad after another across the 20th century. In brief, what I’ve found is that in the land of American pedagogy, innovation is frequently confused with progress, and whatever is thought to be new is always embraced more readily than what is known to be true. Thus, pedagogues, policymakers, thought leaders, facilitators, and elected officials are rushing to get aboard the 21st-century-skills express train, lest they appear to be old-fashioned or traditional, these terms being the worst sort of opprobrium that can be hurled at any educator.

For decade after decade, pedagogical leaders called upon the schools to free themselves from tradition and subject matter. Ellwood P. Cubberley, while dean of the education school at Stanford, warned that it was dangerous for society to educate boys—and even girls—without reference to vocational ends. Whatever they learned, he insisted, should be relevant to their future lives and work. He thought it foolish to saturate them with “a mass of knowledge that can have little application for the lives which most of them must inevitably lead.” They were sure to become disappointed and discontented, and who knew where all this discontent might lead? Cubberley called on his fellow educators to abandon their antiquated academic ideals and instead to adapt education to the real life and real needs of their students. This was in 1911.

The federal government issued a major report on the education of black students in 1916. Its author, Thomas Jesse Jones, scoffed at academic education, which lacked relevance to the lives of these students and was certainly not adapted to their needs. Jones wanted black children to “learn to do by doing,” which was considered to be the modern, scientific approach to education. It was not knowledge of the printed page that black students needed, wrote Jones, but “knowledge of gardening, small farming, and the simple industries required in farming communities.” Jones admired schools that were teaching black students how to sew, cook, garden, milk cows, lay bricks, harvest crops, and raise poultry. This was a prescription for locking the South’s African American population into menial roles for the foreseeable future. As Jones acknowledged in his report, the parents of black children wanted them to have an academic education, but he thought he knew better.

Something similar happened in many high schools in the 1930s, where many avant-garde school districts replaced courses like science and history with interdisciplinary courses, which they called the “core curriculum” or “social living.” Some districts merged several disciplines— such as English, social studies, and science— into a single course, which was focused not on subject matter but on students’ life experiences. In a typical class, students studied their own homes, made maps and scale drawings, and analyzed such questions as the cost of maintaining the home; the cost of fuel, light, and power; and how to prepare nutritious meals.
But there were occasional parent protests. In Roslyn, New York, parents were incensed because their children couldn’t read but spent an entire day baking nut bread. The Roslyn superintendent assured them that baking nut bread was an excellent way to learn mathematics.

The early 1990s brought SCANS—the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills—which recommended exactly the kinds of functional skills that are now called 21st-century skills. These documents were produced by a commission for the U.S. Secretary of Labor. I recall hearing the director of SCANS say that students didn’t need to know anything about the Civil War or how to write a book report; these were obsolete kinds of knowledge and skills.When the SCANS recommendations appeared in 1991, I was an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education and I discussed them with David Kearns, the deputy secretary who had been CEO of Xerox. I said, “David, the SCANS report says that young people don’t need to know how to write a book report, they need to know how to write advertising jingles.” He replied, “That’s ridiculous. You can’t write advertising jingles if you don’t know how to write a book report.”

There is so much more to the article she wrote, but I think you can clearly see the elitism behind the skills vs knowledge movement that she details in this article. For these reasons, I urge you to vote ITL on SB216.  

Ann Marie Banfield has been researching education reform for over a decade and actively supports parental rights, literacy and academic excellence in k-12 schools. You can contact her at: banfieldannmarie@gmail.com

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