Math, History, and Science: Political Battlegrounds in Schools from Larry Cuban

The previous post offers a re-framing of the math wars that have marked the past century of teaching math. Historians and critics have pointed to the culprits of “curriculum wars” as Progressives fighting Traditionalists (e.g., 1900s, 1960s, now) or the influence of particular “thought leaders” (e.g., John Dewey, James ConantTed Sizer). In re-framing these tired tropes, Christopher Phillips points out that these debates about teaching and learning math are,

debates about how educated citizens should think generally. Whether it is taught as a collection of facts, as a set of problem-solving heuristics or as a model of logical deduction, learning math counts as learning to reason. That is, in effect, a political matter, and therefore inherently contestable. Reasonable people can and will disagree about it.

By seeing these cyclical “math wars” as political skirmishes between different interest groups (e.g., teachers, high-tech companies, foundation officials, state administrators, business leaders, parents) disputing which ways are best for teachers to teach and students to learn thinking skills, Phillips makes the case that

[A]s long as learning math counts as learning to think, the fortunes of any math curriculum will almost certainly be closely tied to claims about what constitutes rigorous thought — and who gets to decide.

Overall, I agree. Splits over the teaching of Common Core math standards essentially arise from politics in schooling. But one crucial item is missing from Phillips’ analysis. He fails to mention that deeper and competing values beyond math numeracy are also involved as rival interests collide (e.g., conservative groups’ resistance to the federal government supposed ramming Common Core standards down states’ throats; liberal groups’ insistence that top-down policy decisions to craft higher and demanding standards is essential for students, especially low-income minority ones, to do better academically). Such value conflicts go beyond which ways of teaching and learning skills though math are better. They point to the politics of who decides about adopting Common Core math standards and putting them into practice.

Decisions about what constitutes rigorous thought and the adoption of standards are, then, political. One needs to look no further than the history, design, and adoption of Common Core standards to see how national, state, and local politics of decision-making played out at each level of schooling (see herehere, and here). That teachers, parents, and reformers continue to debate math Common Core standards is evident today as they recycle familiar arguments from earlier reforms (see hereherehere, and here).

As political decisions determine how math is taught in kindergarten, middle school, and Algebra II, so have politics come into play in teaching and learning U.S. history.

In the mid-1990s, the battle over new history standards culminated in a U.S. Senate resolution condemning these new standards. This was neither the first nor last time that political controversy over what history content students should study. For example, the swings between teaching history to cultivate loyalty to nation and civic participation and teaching history as historians practice their craft have occurred repeatedly and remains in play in 2015 (see herehere, here, and here).

Ditto for science. The more obvious political decisions that have occurred over the last century have been over the teaching of evolution and climate change (see here and here). Beneath such controversies, however, have been two distinct purposes for teaching science that have vied for attention over the past century. First, students must come to know bodies of organized scientific knowledge and, second, students must see science in their daily lives. Of the two aims, the former has dominated curricula since the late 19th century, although the latter purpose has been evident in periodic bursts of reform, especially during the past century. As with the teaching of evolution and now with climate change, policymakers have made political decisions on what’s best for students in learning science (see here and here).

The dominance of content divided into separate scientific disciplines is (and has been) obvious in most U.S. secondary schools where science lessons are taught in 45- to 50-minute periods, and where teacher-centered instruction is geared to dispensing scientific information to 25-35 students. The quest to link scientific knowledge to daily life-the second purpose-emerged strongly in the 1930s, and 1990s, occasionally penetrating classroom practice. Schools experimented with reorganizing their age-graded structures, revised schedules, and invented curriculum linkages between classrooms and daily life—“kitchen chemistry”–that differed substantially from what most secondary schools were doing. Over time, such efforts disappeared. Yet now with newly published science standards–a political decision made as competing groups vied for their version of science– there is another progressive impulse in revising curriculum toward linking how scientists work and scientific content to daily life (see herehere, and here).

Decisions on what math, history, and science get taught in schools (and why) end up being political choices that policymakers make.

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