Can we blame Trump on bad history teachers?

One version of the meme spawned by Andy Borowitz’s Facebook post on March 21 2016

Andy Borowitz is a funny guy, but the many people sharing the above meme appear to take his point seriously, and so shall I.

After two decades in public education, I am no longer surprised when schools get blamed for every social ill. When that blame is misplaced, I push back as hard as anyone.

In this case, however, the accusation rings true. Colossal public ignorance is the only possible explanation for the electoral success of a petulant bigot and braggart who — whenever asked to demonstrate modest competence for the office he seeks — responds with insults, changes the subject, or just talks out of his… wherever.

Given Trump’s startling polling strength among poorly educated whites, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the bloviating billionaire’s popularity stems directly from a longstanding systemic failure of K-12 civics and history education in this country.

The subject is close to my heart, because I taught high school history and civics for 13 years before becoming a principal. As an administrator, I have invested considerable time in supporting social science instruction at the elementary and secondary levels.

So… how have K-12 schools made us historical ignoramuses? Let us begin the inquisition by waterboarding the usual suspects.

Is it Common Core? No. The much-maligned curriculum is too new to have made any difference among people currently registered to vote. Consider that Trump voters skew old and white, while our public school population is more diverse and, of course, too young to vote. Common Core math and English standards date from 2010, but many states have been slow to adopt and implement them. When and if they do, then Common Core’s focus on supporting arguments with evidence should, if anything, help future voters evaluate the fitness of political candidates. However, Common Core contains no content standards for social studies; each state retains the exclusive right to determine those.

So, is it the state standards? No. Every state’s curriculum is 90+% congruent with the standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Social Studies. There is always room for improvement, but the standards themselves are basically sound. If students actually gained the skills and knowledge specified, we would be light years ahead of where we are now. The problem is that schools generally do not teach the standards effectively.

Is it the textbooks, then? No again. Textbooks generally reflect the NCTSS standards, with some distortion by the bizarre wingnuts who dominate review boards in certain benighted states. Still, if students actually learned the content of those textbooks, then we would be in much better shape. But they do not. All districts dutifully buy textbooks, but few teachers ensure that kids read or understand them.

What about No Child Left Behind? On balance, the strange legislative lovechild of Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush harmed history and civics education. Under NCLB, districts did not value social studies because it was not tested. Student scores on high-stakes math and reading tests comprised the sole federal measures of school success — with stiff punishments in store for failing districts, principals, and teachers. Thus, many elementary and middle schools reduced or even eliminated social studies instruction at the elementary level to free up time for more math and reading.

Fortunately, at the high school level, students still needed to earn a certain number of social studies credits, so those courses survived to satisfy minimum graduation requirements. However, NCLB led many districts to urge or force history and civics teachers to spend less time teaching their subjects and instead help the school’s test scores by providing auxiliary instruction in reading and math.

So, NCLB robbed many children of history and civics, and some of those kids are now old enough to vote. But they are casting their ballots overwhelmingly not for Trump, but for progressive candidates.

Sadly, there is little cause to hope that replacing NCLB with Every Student Succeeds will improve matters. Reducing accountability — ditching high-stakes tests for low- and no-stakes tests — will only weaken learning in math and English, while doing little to improve performance in social studies.

Before high-stakes testing transformed education, the social contract was simple: Schools mostly taught the students who wanted to learn — the ones whose parents demanded decent scores on college entrance exams. The rest of the kids learned little, but received diplomas as rewards for their meek compliance. Districts asked little of teachers and paid them less.

NCLB upset the social contract by using tests to ensure that schools equipped even the most reluctant learners with minimal math and reading skills. Some districts claimed this was impossible and never made a serious effort to meet the new standard. Others tried and failed.

But some educators buckled down and pulled it off. When we aligned all the stars — when strong school and district leaders worked with extraordinarily gifted and dedicated teachers to elicit hard work from willing students — those kids made massive learning gains, exceeding all expectations.

I was fortunate to play a part in two stirring successes in rural Arizona — first as a teacher in Patagonia and later as a principal in Ajo. Both schools served mostly minority, low-income students, including many who did not speak English at home. Thanks to pressure from NCLB, both schools successfully reorganized to enable teachers to help students achieve extraordinary student growth in reading, writing, and math. In both cases, I expected educators from less successful districts to beat down our doors, demanding to learn our secrets so they could replicate with their kids the educational triumphs we achieved with ours.

It never happened, because the teachers and administrators in those other districts did not want to work as hard as we did to achieve those successes for their students.

And it is hard to blame them. It was brutally hard work. Utterly exhausting. And — frankly — not much appreciated by the kids or the communities in question. Nor were there significant material rewards. Successful teachers and administrators earn about as much as their least capable peers. In strictly economic terms, we were fools to burn ourselves out logging long hours and working as hard as we did.

Still, to us, it was well worth it. We love our students. None of my comrades in Patagonia or Ajo rue the sacrifices we made for our kids, but we all regret getting paid so little for our work. In the end, most of us had to leave Arizona and/or education to make a decent living.

NCLB’s error was asking teachers to do so much more for the same pay. No sensible professional would put up with that regime for long. Now that NCLB is gone, learning will deteriorate further. By de-emphasizing testing, the misnamed “Every Student Succeeds Act” ensures that many educators and kids will work less hard, and no one will much mind. People would rather have no idea how schools are doing than receive frequent reminders that their child’s school does not measure up.

If we really cared about history and civics, then we would develop challenging high-stakes tests to assess student knowledge and skills in those disciplines. The only sure way to force administrators, teachers, parents and students to care about learning in any discipline is to make that learning a prerequisite for kids advancing to the next grade and graduating, with direct implications for educator evaluation and compensation.

My experience as a teacher in mid-’90s rural Mississippi vividly demonstrated this reality. Before the state had a high-stakes history test, my high school reserved positions in the social studies department primarily for the employment of athletic coaches. None of them modeled love for history or showed much aptitude for teaching the subject. For these coaches, “instruction” meant slowly dictating opaque notes for a few minutes, then giving students “free time” for the bulk of the period. “Assessment” meant administering the department’s poorly written multiple choice tests. Before testing, these coaches provided students with “study guides” containing the exact language of the test questions and the correct answers, so students could ace the assessment merely by distinguishing familiar phrases from novel distractors. (Bored out of their minds, many kids failed, anyway.)

When Mississippi introduced the requirement that students pass a high-stakes U.S. History test in order to graduate, the superintendent told the principal to give the junior American History classes to the three teachers in the department who did not coach sports. That included me, the rookie from Teach for America.

Determined that my kids would dominate the state test, I taught up a storm, assigned ample homework and gave kids lots of practice writing essays. My students hated it. Most flatly refused to do the work. Early in the year, the administration noticed I was giving “too many” Fs, and summoned me to the office. There, the principal and both assistant principals triple-teamed me, taking turns telling me to ease up on my classes. Their repeated refrain? “Mr. MacKenzie, these kids ain’t goin’ to college.”

Fortunately, shortly thereafter, the state department of education informed district leaders they would be held accountable for student performance on state tests. Our superintendent then notified the principal his head would roll if students fared poorly on the state U.S. History exam. Suddenly, my supervisor changed his tune and warmly praised me for holding my kids to such high standards. When my students saw that resistance was futile and that I would do anything to help them, the vast majority of them came around and learned like champions. As a group, they significantly outperformed their demographic peers on the state test. As individuals, nearly all of them graduated.

Sadly, Mississippi did not live happily ever after. Sometime after I left in 2001, parents complained about kids not graduating because of failing a mere social studies test. With the pressure on from NCLB, the state caved in and dumbed down the history exam so drastically that pass rates now hover around 99%. With the bar set that low, I am sure coaches are allowed to teach U.S. History again.

Tragically, my experience in Mississippi reflects longstanding national trends. Most secondary schools do not have enough physical education positions to employ coaches for every sport. So, many districts sacrifice middle and high school social studies instruction to the athletic department. Few coaches are capable academic teachers. Thus, most of the time allocated for social studies instruction gets squandered on worksheets, textbook busywork, inane projects, vacuous PowerPoints, and watching movies of questionable value. None of that really teaches anything. Kids learn little and remember less.

In the primary and intermediate grades, an even grimmer picture prevails. Most elementary faculty teach reading and writing reasonably well, and some can teach math, but few have the inclination or the qualifications to provide useful instruction in social studies (or science, sadly). Consequently, their students advance to higher grades knowing nearly nothing about history or civics, society or the wider world.

Even if a student has the good fortune to encounter an effective social studies teacher once or twice along the way, that diligent instructor must first compensate for the errors and omissions of her incompetent predecessors. Building that foundation is necessary, but leaves her with less time to teach her own material. And when her time with them is up, her students will forget most of what she taught them as their brains shrivel in the care of meathead coaches masquerading as history teachers.

Ignorance begets indifference. Neuroscientists report that we remember things that are emotionally important to us and/or related to something we already know. Thirteen years of K-12 educational deprivation produces adults deeply ignorant of history and civics, and generally uninterested in seeking knowledge to reverse that ignorance.

This longstanding failure of social studies education has produced a credulous and confused subset of objectively privileged people who nevertheless feel like victims. These fearful folk mistake Trump’s arrogance for authority, hear his empty boasts as tough talk and see a scion of inherited wealth as a self-made man. They glory in their refusal to consider evidence that might lessen their admiration for the billionaire bully.

For the first time in our nation’s history, a major political party has embraced fascism. It is hard to imagine a more damning indictment of the last eight decades of history and civics education in this country.

History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store