Michael Dukakis and Thomas Birmingham: State schools must do better on history
BOSTON >> Schoolwork, sports, and play were all very important to Rose and Joseph Kennedy, but none of these activities took precedence over the ritual of the family meal. They required their children to read news stories and even the Federalist Papers, which the family would discuss at dinner. As one family friend put it, "If you didn't talk about world affairs, you just didn't talk."
The Kennedys were fortunate enough to have a cook, kitchen maid, butler, and waitress to help with meals; a luxury most families today don't have. Most Massachusetts parents have to get dinner cooked and on the table and help kids with their homework; usually after a day of working full-time.
Parents will need some help if they want their children to have the grasp of U.S. history that Rose and Joe's kids did. The commonwealth should provide that help by restoring the requirement that public school students pass a U.S. history MCAS test to graduate from high school.
Massachusetts' 1993 Education Reform Act was not overly prescriptive when it came to what subjects should be taught. But it did require students to learn about the fundamentals of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. To ensure that students understand the principles of American democracy, it included the U.S. history graduation requirement.
Not tested, not taught
Massachusetts' highly-rated history standards and test were ready to be implemented when the Patrick administration jettisoned the requirement in 2009, citing the $2.4 million administration cost. Thankfully, the commonwealth has a lot more fiscal flexibility now than it did then, and there is no reason why we can't deploy the test at a reasonable cost.
It's often said that what isn't tested isn't taught. Unfortunately, that appears to be the case when it comes to U.S. history education in Massachusetts' public schools. Entire middle school social studies departments have been eliminated, leaving history courses to be taught by English, math, and science teachers.
Massachusetts public schools have much to be proud of over the last two decades. Between 2005 and 2013 we led the nation at every grade level and every subject tested on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), called the "Nation's Report Card."
In 2007 and 2013, the Bay State participated as its own "country" on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the gold standard of international math and science testing. Here too, Massachusetts students proved to be among the very best in the world in mathematics, and in 2007 our eighth graders tied for number one in the world in science.
But that achievement does not extend to U.S. history. In civics, the commonwealth's students are routinely outperformed by their counterparts from California, Oregon, Indiana, Virginia, and Alabama. In more than 25 years of the national "We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution" contest, Massachusetts has never finished among the top 10 states.
While in public service, we both were acutely aware that state budgets are more than line items and spreadsheets; they are expressions of our values and priorities as a commonwealth. Similarly, public education is not just a way to prepare students to be part of the workforce; it must also prepare them to be active civic participants in America's great experiment in democracy.
Rose and Joe Kennedy should be admired for their determination to steep their children in our nation's history. But nothing stands in greater contrast to the ideals upon which our country was founded than having only an elite few understand the journey that has brought us to where we are today. To avoid that fate, Massachusetts should restore passage of the U.S. history MCAS test as a condition of high school graduation.
Michael Dukakis is former governor of Massachusetts and distinguished professor of political science at Northeastern University. Thomas Birmingham is a former president of the Massachusetts Senate, co-author of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, and distinguished senior fellow in education at Pioneer Institute.
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