Apart from the fact that the Social Studies standards designed by the Board of Regents in New York State omit a picture of the students themselves as being actors and influencers in civic life, and emphasize obedience to power rather than ownership of power, the Board does prescribe an integrative, broad, Connectivist K-12 program for exploration and learning. The curriculum encourages examination of the connections between history and present-day life, between public policy and the impact on the populace, between groups of citizens with shared or opposing beliefs and needs. The design of the standards is predicated on inquiry and expects as its outcome students who have learned to apply original, critical thinking to the questions that confront us in society, in our democratic society in particular.
But what actually happens in the classroom? How completely and successfully are the standards applied? Sad to say, there is a gross disconnect between the design and the reality.
In their university-level studies, students of education may read and discuss models of teaching and learning such as the Social Studies curricular design fashioned by academics in the New York State Department of Education, and may read such books as Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and other educational theories that incorporate full respect for the students and their eventual role in society. But once employed in the public school system, teachers enter an entrenched institution that to this day is built on a model designed in the 19th century to produce obedient and skillful workers for the sake of business and industry in the then-burgeoning industrial age. And the State and Federal governments that fund public education equate the health of our nation with how profitable its businesses are, and thus “the right to a free public education” turns out to be “the mandate that you learn how and what we want you to learn.”
Thus – with the exception of some innovative outlier schools founded by visionary directors or teachers, or via educator-community partnerships – the entire public education system is designed to serve not the cognitive evolution of individuals, not the strength of engaged communities, not the ability of workers and voters to think for themselves, not the spirit of innovation, and certainly not the spirit of dissent.
The goal is not to foster original thinking; if anything, the goal seems to be to stamp it out. And the intent of the educational model that still forms the foundation of public education was never to build a sense of the power of individuals and communities; it is to develop a class of workers and consumers whose skill-set, manipulability and sense of their own place in the scheme of things will benefit the profiteers. Institutionalized public education cares not about teaching people how to think, it instead tells them what to think; and cares not about what passions and talents are native to individual learners, but instead draws a box around what a student is expected, and allowed, to know.
Further, the use of high-stakes testing as a measure of student knowledge, teacher ability, and school merit has compounded this push towards rote learning. It has narrowed the latitude allowed teachers to choose their classroom resource materials, or to design and adjust their lesson planning (for example, in response to a student’s learning challenges or natural forté, or in response to unfolding current events). Students are not evaluated by such measures as the creativity applied to what they produce, nor by their ability to engage in deep inquiry involving research and original findings, nor by the connections they can make between classroom subject matter and real life. Certainly students are not evaluated on how well they collaborate in groups with fellow humans to achieve a goal, in preparation for working towards community improvement or, on the broader stage, towards social change.
Student progress is measured not by the capacity to learn, think and produce, but by fill-in-the-bubble tests, by the ability to repeat back what one has been told. “Student performance” has come to mean just that: how well did the student memorize and repeat a script. And then, in turn, teachers and schools are evaluated by machine-crunched statistics that look at the results of the standardized tests. Thus, teachers are forced to “teach to the test,” regardless of the fine educational ideologies they may have studied and embraced at university. There is little time or incentive for teachers to engage students in activities designed to nourish their sense of power and responsibility as members of a community nor as citizens of a state and nation.
Thus an educational system is in place that may require students to know the timeframe of the Holocaust, the name of Adolf Hitler, and factual details about the conduct of World War II, but that does not give points for making connections from that era to present-day issues such as Islamophobia, immigration policy, the “demonization of Other,” and foreign countries and factions that are practicing genocide today.
A system is in place that requires students sitting at their own desks in their own chairs to answer test questions so as to be graded on their own ability to absorb and repeat back classroom lessons, and that emphasizes education as a tool for personal success, but that fails to value group activities that teach organization and cooperation towards achieving mutual goals.
A system is in place that casts students as consumers of prefabricated curricular units, not as activist thinkers and producers charged with perpetually working towards a more just and sustainable society, towards a “more perfect Union.”
No matter how integrated and Connectionist a Social Studies curriculum is designed by New York State (or any state’s) Board of Regents in satisfaction of the law requiring students to receive instruction on “traits which will enhance the quality of their experiences in, and contributions to, the community” – the real-world educational and testing industries neither leave time to teach on such themes nor accord them any value when it is time to gauge performance.