The Slippery Slope of Curriculum Mandates
Indiana Writers Group column for March 7 and thereafter
By Andrea Neal
The Indiana House has forwarded to the Senate a bill requiring that Indiana public schools “include a study of the Holocaust in each high school United States history course.”
As curriculum mandates go, this one isn’t too onerous. Any history teacher worth his salt is already teaching the Holocaust as part of an even cursory study of World War II. Most U.S. History textbooks contain a section if not a chapter on the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a required topic listed in Indiana’s social studies standards for both U.S. History and World History. The U.S. History standards cover “Hitler’s final solution policy and the Allies’ responses to the Holocaust.” The World History standards ensure students study “the antecedents, causes, major events and global consequences of World War II, including the Holocaust.”
The Holocaust mandate does little more than emphasize an academic requirement already on the books. No controversy there. The worry is that one good mandate will lead to another and, before we know it, public school teachers will be micromandated to death. Teachers have plenty to do already trying to follow Indiana’s “Academic Standards,” which dictate what students should know and be able to do in every single subject area.
If too many mandates become law, they will crowd out essential areas of study. Remember the federal law passed in 2004 requiring the teaching of the Constitution on Constitution Day every September in schools that receive federal funds? Yes, every school should teach the Constitution, but only as it fits into its curriculum calendar, not because it’s Sept. 15 and certainly not because congressmen in Washington say so.
The National School Boards Association has this to say about mandates: “Discrete requirements like this frequently sound perfectly reasonable when each is considered in isolation. But the whole litany is foisted on schools by politicians, think tanks, lobbyists and advocacy groups who never, ever have any responsibility for making the system work as a whole. The next thing you know, our schools are buried in an avalanche of mandates, many of which are important but bear only a tangential relation to academic achievement. And inevitably, we wind up hearing some of these very same people blustering about school budgets that are increasing faster than test scores.”
One look at all the Illinois social studies mandates illustrates the problem. Here’s what lawmakers have required there: instruction in “proper use and display of the flag,” “a unit of instruction studying the events of black history,” “a study of the role of labor unions and their interaction with government in achieving the goals of a mixed free enterprise system,” “a unit of instruction studying the events of the history of women in America.”
This year, lawmakers proposed three other mandates for Indiana curriculum in addition to Holocaust instruction, although thankfully they appear to be dead for the session. Sen. Jeff Drozda, R-Westfield, wanted to mandate instruction regarding human fetal development as part of high school health education curriculum. Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, wanted to require a three-hour class for Grade 12 students about the value of voting. Rep. Matt Bell, R-Avilla, wanted to mandate instruction in personal financial responsibility to students in Grades 9-12.
The Rogers and Bells proposals are sound in terms of content. In fact, there’s a study of mandated personal finance curriculum that indicates compelling social benefits. Students who take such a course not only manage money better, but are more likely to accumulate savings as adults than students who do not receive such a class. But where do we draw the line? This mandate slope is a slippery one and the state’s Core 40 curriculum is already loaded with little opportunity for students to take elective courses that really get them excited.
I can think of dozens of things that should be taught all students before they graduate, for example: proper use of pronouns. I’ll go berserk if I hear one more allegedly educated person on TV begin a sentence with “Me and my friend.” Or how about mandating driver’s education? Just last week, I almost got reamed by a teen driver talking on a cell phone.
Indiana teachers can’t take any more mandates. It is virtually impossible now to cover all the standards mandated by the Department of Education. Lawmakers need to refrain from playing school board, no matter how worthy the cause.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.