Today, Massachusetts celebrates Patriots’ Day. In towns across the commonwealth, crowds will gather for parades of marching bands, scout troops and public officials. In Lexington and Concord, Redcoats and Minutemen will reenact the events of April 19, 1775, and that legendary march to the North Bridge.
The festivities would make Paul Revere proud. But Revere would roll over in his grave if he knew that the “the shot heard round the world” and the battle that put Concord on the map receive minimal attention in Concord’s elementary schools.
Why? In part, it is because many educators in “enlightened’ towns like Concord regard the study of our revolutionary past as politically incorrect (a period of time that, inevitably, requires them to focus on privileged white men such as John Adams and Paul Revere and places too much emphasis on violence and war).
Sadly, many liberal educators today reject the notion that public schools should teach kids to think of themselves as Americans united by a common past and a common purpose. They prefer, instead, to teach kids to think of themselves as members of distinct racial and ethnic groups, or as global citizens without any national identity at all.
But the failure to teach American revolutionary history is not just ideological. With limited hours in the day, teachers inevitably prioritize those subjects for which they will be held accountable (mostly math and English Language Arts).
Current Common Core standards, adopted by Massachusetts in 2010, and much criticized for their new-fangled approach to math, do much damage to history education. You see, Common Core does not require that students learn about the birth of their country. Indeed, it does not require that they study any particular period in American history at all.
Common Core demands only that schools teach skills, such as how to cite primary sources to support an argument. While understanding how to use primary sources is, indeed, important, it cannot take the place of a core curriculum that can help students from diverse backgrounds discover their shared American identity.
Unlike Common Core, the Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework, adopted in 2003, detail not only the skills that students should acquire, but also the content they need to understand.
Specifically, the third grade learning standards say students should be able to “explain the political, economic, and military developments leading to and during the American Revolution,” including the Boston Tea Party, the battles of Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill. Moreover, they called for third-graders to study the lives of Massachusetts patriots, such as John Adams, Paul Revere, Abigail Adams, or John Hancock.
But the state’s excellent pre-Common Core standards never had an enforcement mechanism. There was no penalty for those schools that did not teach the concepts outlined in the framework. And, although Massachusetts began to pilot statewide assessments for history, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2009 voted to postpone implementation of a 10th grade history test, citing budgetary constraints.
As a result, even before the adoption of Common Core, many Massachusetts public schools — if they taught history at all —got away with emphasizing social history, such as colonial cooking and Native American crafts, as opposed to political history and the study of Massachusetts’ patriots as required by state framework.
This fall, Massachusetts voters may have an opportunity to encourage public schools to bring back American revolutionary history. A ballot question in the works for November 2016, asks Massachusetts voters whether the state should keep Common Core or revert to the state’s own pre-Common Core framework.Repealing Common Core and putting the emphasis back on the state’s high quality homegrown frameworks is an important first step to restoring the teaching of American history. But encouraging the state Board of Ed to adopt an enforcement mechanism, and making sure that the Board does not “revise” the standards to downplay political events and stories of American heroism in favor of cultural history and the experience of the common man — as it now seems poised to do — are equally important battles for those who care about passing on our nation’s story and basic principles of democracy to the next generation.
The failure to teach our children the story of America is, of course, more than a local problem. It is a national embarrassment. But it is particularly ironic that here, in the birthplace both of American public education and of American liberty, many schools never teach students why a rag tag group of farmers were willing to risk their lives for freedom from political tyranny.