What we teach our students matters. It is imperative for all students to have access to not only a free education, but to a high-quality education. What our students learn, and how they learn it, is at the core of the public school curricula. Unfortunately, the institution of public education is under attack, and the war on public school has many fronts. Attacking the public school curricula – what and how students learn – is a powerful tool.
Changes in Public School Teachings
In recent years, there has been a dynamic shift away from teaching our students about what they need to know to be informed citizens of a democratic nation. When public schools first emerged centuries ago, the local community was responsible for drawing up a curriculum for its students. Parents, teachers, and lawmakers gathered to determine what students needed to learn to become successful members of society. In most cases, this included formal instruction for reading, writing, and arithmetic. Local economy and jobs would also influence which life skills and knowledge students would be taught. This helped to not only educate students, but also prepare them for life in the working world.
Over the course of time, public education became more centralized. As a result, the state and federal government gained increased control over decisions about what and how students should learn. At first, this helped to encourage courses of action that supported discussion of democracy and public policy. In the 1960s, public high schools generally offered three different courses to help students prepare to become citizens of a democratic society:
- Government, in which students learned about different forms of government and the inner-workings of democracy;
- Civics, in which students learned about the responsibilities of being a member of a democratic nation; and
- Problems of Democracy, in which students were able to discuss policy issues, current events, and other real-world problems that were relevant to them.
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find these courses in a public school. While you may find bits and pieces of each of these courses stuffed into a generic “American History” or “civics” class, these former cornerstones of the public school curricula are all but history. This is a relatively recent occurrence, thanks, in part, to the No Child Left Behind Act. Kids are forced to study for standardized tests, rather than prepare to become engaged members of society.
What Should Our Children Learn?
What should our children learn? Should we only focus on American victories, and limit the discussion of parts of our past that are dark and difficult to digest? Should we white-wash our past and allow our children to go through life without understanding the struggles of history? Or, should discussion about difficult topics be front and center? These are questions that have been at the center of debate for years.
As advocates for public education, we believe that it is important to allow our students to learn both the good and the bad. Critical thinking and independent analysis are crucial life skills. We must be able to present students will information, allow them to consider context, and provide them with the ability to derive an opinion and conclusion on their own. We cannot simply hand them an answer and force them to accept it as true. If we truly want our children to grow into active participants of an ever-changing society, we must equip them with the tools that can be of best use to them in that role. Preparation begins in the classroom with discussion of things that are difficult.
Teachers Hesitant to Discuss Current Events
The only way for students to hone their critical thinking and analysis skills is by putting them to the test. There is no better opportunity for this than the discussion of current events. In today’s society, there is certainly no shortage of topics to discuss. Unfortunately, many teachers are hesitant to open the floor for discussion of issues that impact students on a day-to-day basis.
Teachers feel pressure to stick to the curricula and not stray into conversations about current issues. In some cases, teachers are even hesitant to teach controversial books or ideas that have been part of our society for decades. Why? Teachers are always under scrutiny and often fear repercussions of allowing their students to have an open dialogue. Discussions can veer into areas with which parents are uncomfortable. However, school may be the only place that some students can have open discourse with a diverse community about things that really matter.
Public School Curricula Must Include Difficult Topics
Public schools are under attack. One line of attack includes dismantling the components of public school curricula that allow our students to build a foundation of critical and independent thinking. We must fight to revamp our public school curriculum and shift it away from test-based teachings. We must also not shy away from discussing the blemishes on our history, controversial current events, or other topics that can help our students thrive.