Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Ethnic studies and revising PPSD's history curriculum

I wrote a long piece on the Providence Student Union's campaign for the PPSD to offer ethnic studies courses in the February Common Ground (en EspaƱol).

Going a bit beyond what I could fit in the article, the PPSD history curriculum just strikes me as a universally unsatisfying document. Here's the basic breakdown, grades 6-12:

  • Grade 6: World History: early hominids -> 300 CE;
  • Grade 7: US History: Pre-columbian world -> 1790's;
  • Grade 8: US History: US Constitution -> 1900;
  • Grade 9: World History: 300 CE -> 1750;
  • Grade 10: World History: 1750 -> today;
  • Grade 11: US History: 1900 -> today.

This curriculum was put together rather quickly after the arrival of Tom Brady as superintendent of the PPSD circa 2008. At the time the Dana Center was doing a lot of consulting with the district, and they helped coordinate the process, despite their core competence in math, not history. It is closely aligned to world history standards, and follows the chronology of the Pearson textbooks the district bought at the same time. The curriculum is very standards-driven, despite the relative unimportance of history and social studies standards, compared to reading and mathematics standards.

One thing that it is important to understand is that it is not, by design, a particularly Western or Euro-centric curriculum. I don't think it is very good, and it is hard to say how different the taught curriculum is than the written curriculum, but look -- there is no Western Civ., and the world history standards are, you know, meant to reflect a global perspective, whether or not that is perfectly implemented at all times.

In fact, traditionalists or conservatives should hate this curriculum. In addition to having no Western Civ., there is no American history prior to 1900 in high school at all, no civics, no study of our foundational documents outside of English class, as required by the Common Core ELA standards.

If you try do do world history chronologically, it is going to seem rushed no matter what. There is a lot to cover! You're pretty much focusing on global trends, at a cultural or imperial level, entire nations just step in for cameos as they rise and fall. It is probably one reason kids feel like "their" history isn't in there. Hispaniola has a supporting role to Columbus, but you're not going to hear much about Germany before WWI either, except as "barbarians" vis a vis Rome. Regions like Southeast Asia are inevitably going to be described in terms of the waxing and waning influence of global empires, if at all. It is the nature of the beast.

Despite the rush, there are a few glaring redundancies in the high school curriculum. Many of the tent-poles of 20th century American history (11th grade) are also global events (10th grade), meaning the whole WWI, Great Depression, WWII, Cold War sequence is repeated in consecutive years. 19th century America is fairly interesting, but I'm not sure why it rates taking up all of 8th grade.

In short, it is hard to imagine anybody coming up with or liking this curriculum who wasn't preoccupied with meeting a standards alignment rubric. It should be re-written from scratch, yet the overall emphasis on world history should be acceptable to multi-cultural minded critics, including the PSU.

This process would be complicated by the fact that the PPSD does not have anyone in charge of History/Social Studies with a History/Social Studies background. As I recall, the same person -- with a literacy background -- is now in charge of history and ELA/Literacy, but I can't figure out who this person is from looking at the new PPSD website.

Here is a rough outline of a new curriculum:

  • A serious one or two semester ethnic studies course for all 8th or 9th graders (one or the other). This needs to be framed as an intervention that is going to help students understand their identity and place in the context of the world, America, Providence, and their school.
  • A one semester civics and government course in high school. This should be active, relevant, and participatory.
  • The world history sequence has to be reorganized and redesigned to connect to Providence's students. Arranging the whole thing chronologically does not seem to be working. A thematic, "less is more" approach could be a big improvement, particularly if it gives students and teachers more flexibility to explore a given theme in a geographic or cultural context that is more relevant to the students on hand.
  • US history needs new textbooks -- or no textbooks -- and a stronger and more varied set of instructional resources.

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