Common Core and the End of History

As part of their effort to promote new national Common Core standards and mystically prepare students for non-existing 21st century technological careers, the New York State Board of Regents voted unanimously that students did not have to pass history exams to graduate from high school.
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The End of History and the Last Man is a book by Francis Fukuyama based on a 1989 essay called "The End of History?" Fukuyama argued that the end of the Cold War, the collapse of Communism, and what he perceived of as the triumph of Western liberal democracy and capitalism, signaled the end of human cultural transformation. It signaled the end of history and the process of historical change.

Since then, in the face of emerging conflict between the West and the Islamic world and global economic stagnation, Fukuyama, a neo-conservative commentator, has backtracked. Among other things, he challenged the Bush administration's idea that the U.S. could somehow export democracy and American values to the rest of the world.

Fukuyama's shift, however, does not seem to have affected the New York State Board of Regents. The governing body regulating education in the state recently voted once again to de-emphasize the study of history in the state curriculum. On Monday October 20, 2014, the Regents, as part of their effort to promote new national Common Core standards and mystically prepare students for non-existing 21st century technological careers, voted unanimously that students did not have to pass both United States and Global History exams in order to graduate from high school and maintained that they were actually raising academic standards.

The Global History exam will also be modified so that students will only be tested on events after 1750, essentially eliminating topics like the early development of civilizations, ancient empires, the rise of universal religions, the Columbian Exchange, and trans-Atlantic Slave Trade from the test. A final vote will be taken in January after a period of public comment, but the change appears to be a forgone conclusion. Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the State Board of Regents, described the change as an effort to "back-fill opportunities for students with different interests, with different opportunities, with different choice."

Students will be able to substitute a tech sequence and local test for one of the history exams, however the Regents did not present, design, or even describe what the tech alternative will look like. Although it will be implemented immediately, the Regents left all the details completely up to local initiative. Under the proposal, students can substitute career-focused courses in subjects such as carpentry, advertising or hospitality management rather than one of two history Regents exams that are now required. The sudden shift is puzzling because New York State is already committed to replacing Regents exams with new Common Core aligned PARCC exams starting in 2018.

Atif Khalil, who teaches at the Fordham High School for the Arts at the old Theodore Roosevelt High School complex in the Bronx, fears the options will create a logistical nightmare for small high school like the one where he teaches. "We already share space with five other schools in the building and we are all crowded together. If these are real technology programs, there are no facilities in place, no space, and no way to implement them. Who is going to teach these classes? They will probably just move teachers around and call it tech. Maybe we can call it Tech Social Studies." State Education Commissioner John King did acknowledge "funding for courses and programs leading to new tests would be a challenge."

In June 2010 the Regents eliminated 5th and 8th grade social studies, history, and geography assessments so teachers and schools could concentrate on preparing students for high-stakes Common Core standardized reading and math assessments.

As a result, social studies is no longer taught in the elementary school grades, at least according to Eric Mace, a third year teacher in JHS 185 in Queens, NY who is completing his Master's degree at Hofstra University with a focus on Instructional Technology. Mace agrees with the idea of alternative paths to graduation, particularly technology, but objects to it coming at the expense of social studies. Mace reports his middle school students have no idea which were the original thirteen colonies, where they were located, or who were the founders and settlers. The students in his honors class report that all they studied in elementary school was English and math. Morning was math; afternoon was ELA. He added, "Teachers were worried that this would happen, and it has." Mace describes his students as the "common core kids, inundated with common core, but they do not know the history of the United States." The cardinal rule of public education in the 21st Century seems to be that which gets tested is important and that which does not is dropped.

According to Gloria Sesso, co-president of the Long Island Council for the Social Studies: "By making state social studies exams optional, we have come to a point where our nation's own history has been marginalized in the classroom and, with it, the means to understand ourselves and the world around us. America's heritage is being eliminated as a requirement for graduation. The alternative-pathways approach being implemented in New York State could revive a system of classroom 'tracking,' in which some students are funneled into strictly academic courses, while others are directed toward occupational training."

I know I am biased. I am a historian, a former social studies teacher, and I help to prepare the next generation of social studies teachers. But these decisions by the Regents are politically motivated, lower graduation standards, and are outright dangerous.

Tisch hinted at political motivation behind the decision when she stated, "If counted towards graduation requirements, the [tech] courses may boost graduation and college acceptance rates, so schools may give them higher priority in their budgets." Perhaps unwittingly, Tisch echoed Sesso's claim that the change is really about appearances and tracking. Tisch told New York City officials she especially wanted "a commitment to wide expansion of CTE opportunities in our high-need school areas and high-need school districts," where, coincidentally, students struggle with the Global History Regents exam. The city is under a lot of pressure to support the revised and lower academic standards because in the next few weeks it is required to present plans to the state for turning around as many as 250 schools that are labeled as "failing."

History education in the schools is clearly the victim of Common Core and efforts by New York and other states to secure federal Race to the Top dollars. On October, 22, Andrew Cuomo and his opponents, Republican Rob Astorino, Green Howie Hawkins, and Libertarian Michael McDermott held the only public debate Cuomo would permit. A pre-recorded question submitted by a voter asked the candidates their positions on Common Core and whether they believed it is effective in education the young people of New York.

Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate, does not like Common Core at all. He described it as a "package that includes high stakes testing and curriculum modules that come from the state Education Department. And I hear from a lot of teachers and students and parents that they feel this curriculum and this whole package is a test and punish regime not a support and improve regime. That it narrows the curriculum. That it dumbs down to filling out bubbles and ignores a whole lot of things are about education, inquiry, questioning collaboration, cooperative project."

Michael McDermott from the Libertarian Party called Common Core an "unmitigated disaster" and an "abomination for our children." In his thirty second response to the question he discussed his own difficulty helping his nine-year-old with math homework that was made unnecessarily more complicated by Common Core procedures they were required to follow. Rob Astorino, the Republican candidate, did not get to answer the question during the debate, but last April his family opted out of state Common Core ELA tests

In his response to the Common Core question Andrew Cuomo took the coward's path. He claimed that as Governor of New York he had nothing to do with the Common Core Standards and he blamed the State Board of Regents and the state legislature for any confusion or chaotic implementation. He also took credit for delaying the use of Common Core assessments for evaluating students, teachers, and schools, but never actually disagreed with the standards and their impact on students, teachers, schools, and curriculum. Apparently candidate Cuomo forgot that on February 10, 2014, he issued a statement that "Common Core is the right goal and direction as it is vital that we have a real set of standards for our students and a meaningful teacher evaluation system." At that time he also announced the formation of a "commission to thoroughly examine how we can address these issues," a commission neither he nor the other candidates ever heard of.

Debate over the importance of teaching history and social studies is definitely not new. During World War I, many Americans worried that new immigrants did not understand and value the history and government of the United States so new high school classes and tests that developed into the current classes and tests were put in place. For about a week in April 1943 the front-page of The New York Times featured a debate over the ability of existing social studies curriculum to train Americans for leadership in the post-World War II.

The need to educate immigrants and to understand global issues like ISIS and Ebola remain pressing, but I guess not for New York State high school students. Right now, it looks like social studies advocates have lost the battle and we are finally witnessing the end of history.

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