Saturday, October 3, 2015

"It's Jeb's Fault!"

The following editorial was carried by the Ft. Myers NEWS-PRESS on September 23, 2015

"It's Jeb's Fault!"   by Jack Bovee

Many pundits ask Jeb Bush about his support for Common Core, but none question him on his major gaffe as Governor—eliminating Florida’s long-standing graduation requirement that students successfully complete courses in American History and Government.  That this happened so soon after 9/11 and at the time numerous surveys reported American students lacked basic knowledge of history, civics, geography and economics is downright bizarre.  For example, a National Geographic study in 2002 revealed that young adults in Mexico and seven other nations could better identify the location of the U.S. on a world map, could more accurately determine the correct size of the U.S. population, and could better identify the Taliban or Al Qaeda than their 18-24 year peers in this nation!  Bruce Cole, Chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities, published “Our National Amnesia” in the Wall Street Journal in May, 2002 describing an entire series of devastating reports. Moreover, Jeb was fully aware that National Assessment for Educational Progress continually revealed our students’ worst subject as American History. That no state is ever compared on NAEP social studies assessments might give a clue as to why students do perform so poorly in historical and civic understanding and why Jeb could feel completely comfortable eliminating such courses as high school requirements!   This is still the case today.
     Jeb was also fully aware that a huge percentage of Florida’s students arrived in our state from non-democratic nations.  Under his proposal many would graduate without ever having exposure to our nation’s civic and historical heritage.  Jeb’s resistance to allowing civic and historical knowledge to even be considered when promoting students from one grade level to the next in grades one to five made the assimilation of these children virtually impossible. All attempts to add social studies to the state’s Pupil Progression Plan—even after the Florida Chancellor for K-12 lent his support to the effort—failed under his leadership!   Just how were Florida schools supposed to assimilate such children into American society?   
     After the legislature passed Jeb’s plan in 2003, he was excoriated in Congress by Jim Davis (D-Tampa) and by Senator Lamar Alexander, a former Republican Secretary of Education, who scrupulously avoided mentioning his name.  He was criticized by conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly and quietly rebuked by former Democratic governor Bob Graham.  None of it stuck and he remained undeterred. 
     Around this same time his administration sent to all districts a 90 question D.O.E. Drug Awareness survey that was administered to 70,000 Florida students.  Unlike civic and historical knowledge, Florida’s youth would be compared in these drug surveys —district by district--and Florida to the rest of the nation.
     The following year Florida’s history teachers went on the offensive.  Since the 1980s their pleas for some sort of state and district accountability—even along the lines of the Drug Awareness surveys—had fallen repeatedly upon deaf ears in Tallahassee.  They protested that Florida’s Department of Education had abandoned its civic education mission.  Florida’s D.O.E. distributed suggested reading activities for students at grade three, for example, that rarely contained historical or civic education content.  Rather, stories about the “differences between dogs and cats” and how to “make a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich” went out to school districts as “models” for reading instruction.  Floridians today can thank its history teachers and not Jeb Bush for the fact that once again all its graduates must successfully pass American History and Government to graduate.   He fought us all the way!
     For those who want to know why young Americans today know so little about our nation’s past or its form of government--I suggest some future pundit ask “Jeb!” 

Jack Bovee has been a social studies teacher in Florida for over 40 years and was formerly Chair of the Legislative Committee for the Florida Council for the Social Studies during this time.  He lives with his wife in Fort Myers.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Look What Freshman Composition Has Become

February 23, 2014
By Mary Grabar
"Real learning takes place outside the classroom," the late communist history professor Howard Zinn famously said.  Zinn practiced what he preached and led his students at Spelman College and Boston University on marches and protests. 
The 1960s saw plenty of teach-ins and marches by students and some radical professors.  But even then it would have been hard to imagine how the staple of first-year coursework, Freshman Composition, would be used to turn students into activists, subverting the idea of "composition" itself and leaving some students free of any ability to write.
Little Writing, But Plenty of Activism 
Indeed, as I learned from reading an article in the journal Hybrid Pedagogy, freshman composition provides an opportunity to display "bravery."  In "Social Action and the Status Quo: Bravery in First Year Composition," Susan Gail Taylor refers to the Rhetoric in Action project at the University of South Florida where she was then teaching as a graduate student.  The project asks students to engage in activism and then offer their "personal narrative of social action experience."  Although the website states that students should use the "writing process" and "academic conventions," much of what they do seems to go far beyond "composition" as traditionally known.  Students, instead, are asked to share first-person experiences in "multiple genres," such as "letter, website, video, artwork, flyer, pamphlet, panel, demonstration."
Taylor has given her students assignments at "Take Back the Night" and "Slut Walk" events.  She has had them videotape themselves discussing how they have overcome personal challenges.  Some students appear to resist, but Taylor tells colleagues, "I've developed a few ways to counteract possible hesitation and prepare my students to inspire others with their actions. For instance, I typically choose a social issue and have students organize and lead flash mobs in efforts to raise awareness."
In "brief moments," of flash mobs—90 seconds to 3 minutes—"students are faced with the power of their own voices (both literally and figuratively)."  (One wonders about the "power of the voice" of the student who disagrees with such causes.)  Students, Taylor claims, "are challenged to step outside of a traditional essay that discusses action and instead are tasked with becoming the action, thus inciting them to discover their own capacity for bravery and resistance."
Bravery?  In her YouTube video of the SlutWalk on September 16, 2011, her mostly female students chant, "what I wear does not mean yes." The male voices make an odd counterpoint towards the end, as does the image of a couple guys reluctantly tagging behind a few paces. Taylor writes under the link: "They made awesome choices in their posters, they were loud and they were proud. Rhetoric was definitely in action! :)"
She explains her pedagogical purpose: "I want to show students how the power of language and the power of action can intersect: they select our chants and the information we use, they design the posters (which I provide), and they choose the locations—all in an effort to have even one person be affected by their work."
Well, yes, this is a form of persuasion, but certainly outside the bounds of legitimate rhetorical persuasion.  Such an assignment seems to verge on illegality or coercion, and certainly has little to do with the "art of persuasion," as described in Aristotle's Rhetoric--the foundational text.
Taylor, however, does not seem to be outside the current academic mainstream. The 35,000-member National Council of Teachers of English publishes, among  other books, Writing Partnerships by Thomas Deans, which tells composition teachers how to combine "writing instruction with community action." 
Deans traces the recent evolution of composition: "As a discipline, rhetoric and composition has adopted the broadly defined 'social perspective' on writing," having "evolved from studies of the lone writer to more contextual understandings of composing; from a narrow, functional definition of literacy, focused on correctness, to a broader definition; from an exclusive focus on academic discourse to the study of both school and nonacademic contexts for writing; from presuming white middle-class culture as normative to analyzing and inviting cultural difference; and from gatekeeping at the university to facilitating the advancement of all students."
Betraying the Original Purpose 
Freshman Composition was intended to provide remedial help to students as campuses opened up to a broader mass of students—to the chagrin of traditionalists who wanted to maintain standards. It has been a service course, intended to equip college students with basic writing skills, to be transferred to other classes and then into the workplace. Advanced students could opt out by demonstrating their ability in writing tests, usually some variation of the standard five-paragraph essay. Increasingly, though, students have required remedial help for a course intended to be remedial. I know from teaching such courses that the remediation goes back to sentence-level grammar.
At the same time, I've seen the changes Deans notes: the emphasis on group work and peer review, the politically contentious topics almost exclusively from a leftist perspective, the addition of "visual literacy" as a category of literacy, and the multicultural sensitivities, not only in topics, but in language use.
The shift away from composition instruction to activism is evidenced in articles published in the organization's journal, the College Composition and Communication and in the journal Pedagogy.  Similar books, such as Composition and Sustainability: Teaching for a Threatened Generation, Rhetoric of Respect, about "academic-community writing partnerships" and  S.U.N.Y. Press's Making Writing Matter: Composition in the Engaged University, offer strategies for transforming classrooms into activist sites.  A professor writes in the foreword to Affirming Students' Rights to Their Own Language, "For many of us, the assertion of student language was inextricable from our national and international quest for social justice."  Major textbook publishers, like Bedford, are responding to market demand with single-themed readers on Sustainability, Money Changes Everything, Food Matters, and Composing Gender (the last with a cover photo of a female ballerina holding up a male ballet dancer).  The upcoming annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication is filled with panel discussions on activism; a featured speaker is Black Panther-turned professor, Angela Davis.  Her biography notes her "activism," from when she was a "youngster" to her work today as an advocate of "prison abolition." 
The radicalization is finessed by statements like Deans'—that the field is expanding beyond a "narrow, functional definition" and shifting from "gatekeeping" to "facilitating the advancement of all students" (emphasis added).  In plain English, this means that standards for writing are being eliminated.  Furthermore, writing itself is being replaced by visual and auditory forms of persuasion, often in mobs.  These are called "brave" actions.  
Deans attempts to spread a patina of academic legitimacy over such activism by claiming there is a "coherent and substantial theoretical framework" for it. He cites the progressive education theorist and philosopher John Dewey and Marxist theorist Paulo Freire. 
Deans also ludicrously claims that such activism goes back to the ancients.  He states that Aristotle's Rhetoric was intended to "intervene in the public sphere," (maybe), and not necessarily be used in today's "school settings," but he ignores the fact that freshman composition is being to taught to young people who should be acquiring knowledge and skills.  That is why they are in college in the first place.  He also misleadingly refers to Isocrates, Cicero, and Quintilian in the same way of needing "to connect rhetorical practice to civic responsibility."  He even uses the "sweep of U.S. history—from Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to Jane Addams and John Dewey"—to support "experiential learning."   
Indeed, if we did go back to Jefferson and Franklin, two men who did have a sense of civic responsibility, we would find an opposite approach, one that values study, introspection, imitation, and debate before taking on the adult duties of "civic responsibility."  Franklin in his autobiography describes how he educated himself by imitating the master stylists in the Spectator, by reading widely, and by debating his peers in the Junto club. In such education, the effort is made to gain a perspective outside one's own limited circle.  Shouting in mobs is the opposite of what Aristotle, Jefferson, and Franklin had in mind.
We have radical professors promoting the idea that students' own language is good enough, that there are no models for them to read and emulate, that they are to be change agents, participating in mob actions and demonstrating their "bravery" for credit.  The end results are sure to be confused, narcissistic, indoctrinated illiterates.
Mary Grabar is an instructor in English living in Atlanta.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

America's top liberal arts schools skip U.S. history, report finds


By Joshua Rhett Miller    January 28, 2014 

Prospective students and their parents tour the campus of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, in March 2009. (AP)

"It’s essentially representative of the ‘anything goes’ curriculum that reigns on college campuses nowadays."

         -- Anne Neal, president, American Council of Trustees and Alumni               

U.S. history doesn’t make the grade at the nation’s elite liberal arts colleges, where students can dodge classes on America's founding by studying electronic dance, movie animation and, at one school, a course on "The Rhetoric of Alien Abduction," a new report finds.

The report — “Education or Reputation?: A Look at America’s Top-Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges” — found that within those top 29 colleges, not a single institution except for three military academies requires a “foundational, college-level course” in American history or government.

“If you look at the course catalogs of most of these institutions, they recognize the importance of a strong foundation of varied skills and knowledge, but in many respects these are simply empty promises,” said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which released the report on Monday. “It’s essentially representative of the ‘anything goes’ curriculum that reigns on college campuses nowadays.”

For example, a student at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, can avoid a survey course in American history by fulfilling the general education concentration requirement by completing courses like “History of Electronic Dance Music” or “Decoding Disney: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Animated Blockbuster,” according to the report.

“Majors must take two courses from either East Asia or Latin America, however,” the report continues. “It appears the faculty understands how shoddy these requirements are, since they add the warning on the history department site: ‘Students considering graduate study in history are advised to undertake some course work in U.S. and modern European history to prepare for the Graduate Record Examination.’”

Of the 29 top-ranked liberal arts colleges, only the United States Air Force Academy, the United States Military Academy, and the United States Naval Academy requires a survey course in American history. One school, Claremont McKenna in California, requires U.S. history or economics but not both. Just two of those institutions require an economics course, and five require a survey course in literature, according to the report.

A survey conducted in 2011 found that 70 percent of Americans think colleges and universities should require all students to take basic classes in core subjects such as writing, math, science, economics, U.S. history and foreign language. Those most likely to agree (80 percent) were ages 25-24, or those most aware of what the job market requires, the survey found.

“It’s time for students and families to take a hard look at what they’re paying for and what they’re going to get,” Neal told “It’s possible to invest $250,000 in an education that ends in little intellectual growth, narrowed perspective and which qualifies the graduate for very little.”

Nationwide, inflation-adjusted tuition and required fees at four-year nonprofit colleges increased by an average of 13 percent in 2012-13, costing an average of $29,056. That figure jumps to $43,742 among the “elite liberal arts colleges” detailed in the report. Factoring in housing costs and other costs, the total cost of attendance typically exceeds $53,000 annually. Furthermore, students who graduate with debt start their professional careers with an average debt between $12,749 and $26,567, the report found.

For those who devote their careers to education, the report is not especially eye-opening.

“Maybe I’ve been doing this for too long, but none of this is particularly surprising,” said Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.  “What most people might find most disturbing or surprising is that the biggest reason the cost of college is going up is bureaucracy. There’s a tendency to think if you’re paying more, you’re getting more – well, that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

A lack of focus on the core product — a sound, varied education — on the nation’s campuses of higher learning is a key component of the problem, McCluskey said. Too much emphasis is placed on recreational and alternative activities and issues like grade inflation continue to plague colleges large and small.

“Because they’re small, we tend to think they’d be sort of immune from problems we tend to associate with giant research universities,” McCluskey said of elite liberal arts school in the report. “But this is telling us that those cute little colleges have the same problems as the mega-university with 30,000 students.”

As the sticker price of college continues to surge upward, coupled with rising inflation and a dwindling job market, McCluskey said more and more people may find that the typical four-year path “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense” for them.

“For some people, it would make more sense to get specific skills and then move on,” he told “The traditional, residential four-year model just makes less and less sense for most people and a report like this demonstrates one of the reasons why that is.”

Friday, November 8, 2013

WFTV (Volusia County), November 4, 2013

Hundreds of people in Volusia County are preparing a protest against a textbook that’s in public schools across Florida.  They believe a world history book dedicates too much material to Islam and doesn’t focus equally on Christianity and other religions.
Some protest organizers want students to go home and tear the section on Islam out of their textbooks.
The controversy started unraveling after a 15-year-old Deltona high school student showed her mom her 10th-grade history book, which has an entire chapter dedicated to Islam but none of the other world religions.
A conservative activist flocked to Facebook, calling for a curriculum overhaul, and nearly 200 activists are planning a protest at tomorrow’s Volusia County School Board meeting.  {snip}
Proponents say people need more time dedicated to the religion because is tied to a great deal of the United States’ foreign affairs, yet few know much about it.  {snip}
The district said it has no plans to change anything about the book.
Statement from the protest organizer:
An entire chapter is dedicated to Islam while that of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions are not focused equally. I did acknowledge that other religions are included throughout the textbook but in snippets with no dedication of a chapter for easy reference as is the case with Islam in Chapter 10.
Also, my statement about the tearing up of Isalm sections in the textbook was simply a suggestion to counter any possible claims from officials of budgetary concerns regarding the issuance of new textbooks, supplements to the curriculum and so on. I then suggested that a simple remedy to correct the issue for the current school year would be for the school to ask for student volunteers who would be willing to take the textbook home and tear out the pages to the chapter so as to quell the controversy, all at a whopping tax payer cost of $0.
I agree that many of the comments from others may appear to be intolerant, but I as the organizer of the event have made it CRYSTAL CLEAR on the events page that such comments need to cease but cannot control the mindset of such individuals as I am NOT intolerant of minority religions here in the U.S.
–Rick Sarmiento

Statement from the Council on American-Islamic Relations:
“The name of the FB page and intolerant comments is troubling. This group is holding a protest and rally to oppose the teaching of the historical and basic Pillars of Islam to students in Volusia County. This group is displaying an alarming level of intolerance and brazen disregard of minority religions here in the US. We find their  actions Un-American and against every core principal that makes this country so great,” the Muslim civil liberties group said.
Statement from the Volusia County School District:
Volusia County Schools is one of many school districts in Florida that have chosen Prentice Hall’s World History textbook as a primary resource for teachers to use as they ensure quality instruction on Florida’s Next Generation Sunshine State Standards for World History.
World History was chosen in accordance with the State of Florida’s standard procedure for textbook adoption. First, the State of Florida approves a list of textbooks from which Florida school districts may choose potential textbooks to adopt. As the State is considering which textbooks will make its list, the public is offered the opportunity to participate. World History was one of three state-approved textbooks that met the state’s criteria for the adoption process. A committee of Volusia County Schools Social Studies teachers selected the Prentice Hall World History textbook after reviewing all three potential texts. Volusia County Schools procedures for textbook adoption provide for public participation and viewing of the textbooks chosen by the committee before a final decision is made.
One key factor in selecting a textbook is its ability to accurately convey information aligned to  Florida’s Next Generation Sunshine State Standards (NGSSS). These mandated standards are established by the Florida Department of Education. Teachers may use the adopted textbook, as well as supplemental materials, to teach the mandated standards.
Prentice Hall’s World History textbook presents coverage of the standards for World History, which require students to learn information about world religions and their relationship to the development of civilizations. The textbook covers information related to Muslim Civilization in one chapter and information about Christianity and Judaism in seven chapters.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Result data from 2013 EOC Data by District & School

  Over 133,000 students participated in the May 2013 EOC assessment for American History.  Click 'HERE' for the results showing how many students participated in the assessment and what percent scored in the top, middle, and bottom 'third' of each county and each participating school.  These results mark the first time Florida has ever known what percent of its students scored in their understanding of American History in comparison to others in the state.  Currently, for every percent of students scoring in the top third category adds ONE PERCENT to each school's overall GRADE on the Florida School Report Card.  School and district administrators will therefore undoubtedly begin to pay more attention to Social Studies in the future.