Declaring Our Independence from Ineffective History Instruction

Two hundred and forty four years ago, our nation first celebrated its independence. Had July 4, 1776 happened in our current environment, we likely would have watched Paul Revere’s ride via a Facebook Live video. Thomas Jefferson would have offered up the Declaration of Independence through a YouTube post. And Alexander Hamilton would have issued a call to arms to his colonial brothers and sisters on TikTok.

What we see as history should adapt to the time and mediums in which it occurs and also in which it is taught.

While George Washington and John Adams delivered their State of the Union addresses orally to the U.S. Congress, Thomas Jefferson changed the protocol and simply submitted a written address. That tradition continued until Woodrow Wilson in 1915. Harry Truman’s 1947 SOTU was the first to be broadcast on television. Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 address was the first to be broadcast during prime time, and 1966 was the first opportunity for the opposition party to also be granted a prime time slot.

FDR was known for his fireside chats, bringing the radio to presidential history. JFK introduced the nation to televised press conferences. And Donald Trump will go down in history as our first “Twitter” president. All adapted to the mediums that were most popular with the people at the time.

Despite all of these changes in how U.S. presidents have told their stories, how we teach history has largely remained the same as it was when public education was optional and provided in little red school houses. American history is taught through dusty textbooks. We still spend the first semester teaching about the American Revolution, and teaching it primarily through the lens of the white, male landowner. The winter and early spring are a lesson in the Civil War, taught through that same lens. Then after state testing, classes do a quick run from Reconstruction through modern times.

So we should not be surprised when those lessons don’t stick with today’s learners. Last year, I led a national research effort that explored what the average American knew about American history. Using multiple-choice questions from the practice tests for the U.S. citizenship exam, we surveyed 41,000 people nationally. We found that fewer than four in 10 could pass the test (meaning getting at least 12 of 20 questions correct). Passage rates were even lower for women and for people of color. And for those under the age of 50, only one in four could demonstrate a basic understanding of historical facts.

Late last year, I followed that history test with a national poll of American high school students about their attitudes towards American history. The results were disappointing, but not surprising. The average high school student found the learning of American history both boring and irrelevant. Historical knowledge played little value in their plans for college or for life.

Of course, learning American history isn’t about passing a multiple-choice test or doing well during a trivia night. Recent events have demonstrated how important it is for all of us to know our history – no matter how complex, confusing, or ugly it may be – and to think like historians. It is about asking tough questions and analyzing even tougher responses. It’s about beginning to understand what figures and moments and movements in American history we aren’t learning in class and asking why not and exploring what else hasn’t been taught. It’s about learning to think critically and focus less on just what happened and more on why things happened and the impact it had.

It’s about teaching a different type of history in a different way.

That’s why I am proud to officially announce the launch of the Driving Force Institute, a startup non-profit organization committed to transforming the teaching and learning of American history. This important work is based on a few key principles. First, video is the most powerful medium for teaching history to young people today, particularly video that is modeled after the YouTube videos learners are watching in their leisure time. Second, it is about making history more interesting and provocative for today’s learners. And finally, it is focused on telling our full history, with a particular emphasis on those important historical figures and moments that have been neglected for too long in our public school classrooms.

To launch this important work, DFI has collaborated with XQ Schools and its Rethink Together Forum to explore some of these important historical questions. We begin the month looking at the significance of the year 1619. Each week in July, XQ will share new DFI videos on the forum, exploring a range of issues important to today’s discussions of civic engagement.

I’m also proud to formally unveil “Untold,” a project of DFI produced and distributed by Makematic in collaboration with the USC Center for Engagement-Driven Global Education. We will provide an open-source collection of short, compelling history videos and animations designed to start new conversations shining a light on the stories that don’t always make it into the classroom and questioning what we think we know about those that do.

As the son of an historian, I was raised to appreciate the importance of history and to constantly ask questions about what happened and why. As the father of a teenage son whose lack of interest in history can be tracked to how poorly it has been taught in the classroom, I’m committed to seeking solutions to make history more interesting and relevant to young people today. And as an education advocate and agitator, I’m committed to breaking the learning models that have failed too many students for too long.

“Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining,” Teddy Roosevelt once said. Our collective lack of American history knowledge is indeed a problem. Hopefully, the Driving Force Institute is a solution for improving the teaching and learning of history.

Tearing Down Statues, Remembering History

These voices called out curriculum experts who they believed limited the study of anyone who wasn’t a white male landowners to February — Black History Month — and to only use those 20 or so days of instruction to study the same stories of Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. every year, ignoring the vast contributions that Black America has made to our nation, our history, our society, our community, and our nation. Ignoring the importance of weaving those stories into the context of the times they lived and happened, and not as stand-alone examples to check a box.

In essence, these young leaders were calling for a learning environment that moves beyond the basic names of generals and battles and the dates where they happened. They wanted an approach to American history that allowed them to ask why. An approach that explores understanding what happened, questions why society allowed it to happen, and probes what we can learn from it so it doesn’t happen again. They were urging educators to let them think like historians.

From Eduflack’s latest on Medium, Removing Statues Does Not Abdicate Us from Teaching History

A Potential Crisis for Special Education Families?

Across the nation, k-12 classroom teachers have been rightfully praised for quickly adapting to the new normal of virtual education. As tens of millions of students were forced to quickly shift to Google classroom and Zoom and other such tools to finish the 2019-20 school year, teachers adjusted to do the best they could in an incredibly tough, and unplanned, situation. 

For many students, it meant a lighter class load. A single school day broken into two. A shorter learning period. Grades were not to be discussed. And states cancelled their spring state assessments.

Three months into the great coronavirus virtual education experiment, we are now confronting a reality where many states may not have their students return to traditional classrooms in the fall. And in some that do, learners will deal with a “hybrid” schedule requiring some days in a physical building and some days online to ensure the needed social distancing that traditional public schools just haven’t been built to address.

All of that is ok, for the majority of students. We adjusted our expectations. In some instances, it was helpful for parents to see how hard it is to actually teach or to keep their kids on task, providing an eye opener into the realities of instruction. It was a temporary inconvenience that will soon pass. 

That is, of course, unless one is a special education family. As millions of families came to trust and praise their schools for adapting to virtual instruction in the age of corona, many special education families couldn’t overcome their distrust for a system that has taken actions over so many years to deny those with special needs the education to which they are entitled. 

If anything, these school closures may likely cast, in the long term, a nasty spotlight on the harsh realities of special education in the United States. They may showcase our collective lack of interest or commitment, as school systems, on the learners who need those systems the most. And they may, ultimately, do more to advance special education services – through likely class action lawsuits – than we have seen since the initial passage of IDEA. 

Might this seem a little harsh? Yes. Might this be unfair to teachers who are honestly doing their best and are exceeding the expectations of mainstream families? Absolutely. But challenging times cannot and should not absolve school districts from their obligations, and they definitely shouldn’t grant them a pass in challenging times for what they refuse to do during the easy times. 

In my highly resourced, overachieving school district, an email to special education parents at the start of quarantine announced that they were suspending all 504 and IEP meetings until traditional school resumed. Such a decision likely violated federal law. And until state directives forced the district to change course more than a month after it issued such an order, it also could have been seen as an act of educational malpractice. 

For those parents who have spent years engaging advocates and lawyers and spending tens of thousands of dollars on both to ensure their public schools are adequately educating their kids, there is little comfort in knowing that all the accommodations they fought for were tossed out the window in the name of BrainPop videos or Kahn Academy lessons. And that certainly is true as the “temporary” response of this spring is now potentially extended into the next academic year. 

What of the student who needs speech therapy, but whose district fought during the IEP process to deny such services virtually, demanding they could only be provided face to face?

What of the special services department that simply sends families a link to some online occupational or speech therapy activities to do at home with their children, never mind that parents are not trained service providers or may not even speak the language that their child needs the therapy in?

What of the family that fought long and hard for an array of needed accommodations, now to be told that they are all on hold until September or beyond, depending on what decisions the state and locality make?

What of the family already struggling to show that their special needs child is not making adequate gains, only to now be told this past year will be written off (just like the three or five years before it) because of unforeseen circumstances?

Any parent who has even sat across the conference table from the school administration for a 504 or IEP meeting knows what is coming next. Over the years, we have watched the number of people around the table grow, and we’ve seen the binders of data around them get larger, as we’ve witnessed the stonewalling, the delays, and the excuses increase. The administrators who become the adversaries of special needs families are trying to wait it out, hoping enough time passes so that the student is no longer in the school, the OCR complaint is no longer ripe, and a new clock starts at a new school, repeating the process all over again. 

In an already adversarial, contentious relationship between special needs families and resistant school districts, covid-19 school closures became the latest armor to protect systems from their legal and educational duties. 

One only needs to look at the IDEA guidance provided from the US Department of Education at the start of this great experiment to see this unfortunate fact. A whole lot of “mays” and no “musts.” School districts that pivoted to virtual learning only needed to ensure access to the same learning platforms, not to the accommodations their legally binding IEPs required.  

Truth be told, those who have never been through the 504 or IEP process would be aghast. We want to believe that all those involved in the learning process have nothing but the best interests of the child at heart. And while that may be true for the individual teachers involved in the process, it is nowhere near the truth for the system itself. Having sat at that table, having had my school district try to tell me – incorrectly –  that their rules trumped state and federal law when it comes to special education, parents like me are all too aware of the lengths districts will go to restrict their obligations. And we are all too wise as to how a time of crisis and pandemic could be used to deny millions of special needs students of the education guaranteed them under the law. 

Online videos and group chats may work for the vast majority of k-12 students for the past few months or even for the next school year. For those learners, they will make up the learning slowdown over the next few academic years to follow. But for those students who are already behind, for those who have fallen further and further back as their families have been required to fight a system hellbent on denying them, what happens to them? A high school diploma for those learners doing seventh or eighth grade-level work is hardly the reward. 

IDEA protections exist today because the parents of special needs students refused to be denied and refused to accept lesser for their kids. Some may enthusiastically see this covid-19 experience as the gateway to virtual education. Instead, at least for special needs families, it may be the match that reignites the special education community, providing the needed spark to empower parents. 

Trying to Find the Words

Eight years ago, when I was advocating for k-12 education reform, I spoke often on how “Black and Brown kids” were not receiving the quality of public education they needed, deserved, and to which they had a right. I was taken aside by both those in power and those I was working alongside in reform, and told that using “Black and Brown kids” made too many people feel uncomfortable.

From Eduflack’s latest at Project Forever Free, as I try to find the words to speak out.

Of Reading Proficiency and Civil Rights

“Literacy is an educational right. Every learner needs to be reading at grade level by fourth grade. The science is clear on how to best teach young children to read. Our educators and the teacher education programs that prepare them must adapt and transform to embrace both these obligations and the science on effective instruction.”

From dear ol’ Eduflack’s latest commentary on Project Forever Free, detailing the latest court ruling declaring Detroit students are constitutionally guaranteed a basic education, including literacy.

Give it a read! And give Project Forever Free a follow.

No, We Don’t Have Equity. But This Could Start the Discussion.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that the institution of virtual education in response to the coronavirus epidemic means we now have equitable k12 education. But if we are fortunate, it just might force a very real discussion of how we start working toward equity in teaching, learning, and access.

How? We explore the topic on the most recent episode of TrumpEd on the BAM Radio Network. Give it a listen here.

Equity, Access and Online Learning, Oh My!

Who’s Looking out for IDEA?

It’s very easy to say we just need to do as much as we can for as many students as we can. That tends to be the mantra for public education, as has been for generations.

But when dear ol’ Eduflack gets into a Twitter fight with a teacher about how special education is both unnecessary and gets in the way of what public schools ahold be focusing on, we are clearly losing something in the IDEA translation.

Over at the BAM! Education Network, I explored the topic, discussing why it is even more important today than usual to make sure we do not lost sight of special needs families during such an educational crisis. Hard times don’t mean we abdicate our responsibilities to the students and families who need us the most.

Give it a listen here!

What About Special Education in the Age of Corona?

As so many rightfully praise classroom teachers for quickly adapting their instruction for a new, virtual environment, advocates need to be sure that such desperate times do not provide school districts the opportunity to shirk their duties when it comes to IDEA and students with learning disabilities.

Big kudos to Emily Richards and USA Today for placing a spotlight on this important issue, and for speaking with dear illl’ Eduflack about his district’s decision to suspend IEP and 504 meetings for an undetermined period (read until next fall).

For students who already receive accommodations and special services to catch up because of the years their families fought to get them the adequate educations they are guaranteed under the law, lack of leadership by the US Department of Education and adversarial relationships with school districts that have denied special needs learners is a potential recipe for disaster.

“I get that this is the first week. But everything we have fought for in my son’s (individualized education plan) now gets put on hold,” Riccards said.

Read the full article here: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/education/2020/03/19/coronavirus-online-school-closing-special-education-teacher-distance-learning/2863503001/

Are We Up to Online Learning?

This week, tens of millions of students transitioned from traditional classrooms to virtual learning environments. This is the new normal of the coronavirus era.

But with high-speed data deserts and a decade of anti-Common Core parents failing against technology-driven instruction, are we prepared to make the most of this new normal?

We explore the topic on the latest episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen.

When It Comes to Schools, It Should Be About More Than Just the Benjamins

We often like to equate our commitment to public education based on how high our per-pupil expenditures can get, particularly during election seasons like this one. But is an input like dollars really an effective measure of quality and educational outcomes?

We explore that question on the latest episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network. Inputs may be important, but they can’t trump results. Give it a listen!