Where's China? Uhhh ...
"Rome wasn't built in a day; but, that's how much time I've got to teach it."
That was Alta High School history teacher Barry Harrington's reaction upon learning that Canyons School District would cut his world history course to a half-year option starting this school year. Canyons geography teachers also saw their courses cut.
Canyons broke no rules. The Utah State Office of Education lets districts condense all of world history into one semester and, in any case, does not monitor compliance with its published core curriculum. Some districts still require a year; others, like Canyons, chose the lower standard.
Absent state-imposed accountability, districts can even award world history graduation credit to students who took European history instead. Ultimately, students are denied the depth and breadth of knowledge required for global competence.
Gov. Gary Herbert assumes that Utah schools are training youngsters to compete in the 21st century global marketplace. He says that "[N]othing matters more than preparing our children to face the new, interdependent global economy." Yet even as the China region has grown to 27 percent of Utah's annual exports, students today can graduate having learned nothing in high school about China.
Utah entrepreneurs focus on the rising BRICS economies, but too many high school seniors can't answer basic questions about those world trade partners. Nationwide, a National Assessment of Educational Progress geography test found seniors had dropped to a 20 percent proficiency level.
How did this happen? For decades since Sputnik, powerful lobbies have pushed math-science-English agendas to the detriment of subjects not considered "core" academics. World history, foreign languages, and geography were off the radar for NCLB, ACT, Common Core, and STEM. Now, only AP and IB courses provide standardized testing for social science content. Except for Model United Nations programs, there is no concerted effort to promote global literacy in Utah high schools. STEM-focused charter schools and local initiatives like Prosperity 2020 don't provide all the global "smarts" kids will need.
This concerns Brigham Young University engineering professor Alan Parkinson, who explains why even STEM scholars need skills to navigate the arena of world cultures. To assess the markets and competition, and to avoid country-specific pitfalls, the globally competent engineer must be "familiar with the history, government and economic systems" of other countries. English, math, and science classes typically don't provide these assets.
Meanwhile, Alta teacher Harrington has little time to compare the Roman and American empires. One curriculum the Canyons semesterization team considered would give Harrington two days to cover Islam's origins, basic beliefs, Afro-Eurasian expansion, and socio-political impacts. Half a day for the Crusades, a slice of history still shaping jihadist realities.
Deprived of world historical knowledge, can students wisely plan their futures and choose the best American leaders? As the Great Games of world geopolitics evolve, young Utahns are hobbled by domestic games over education.
Teachers know that single-semester world history is a farce, but USOE's hierarchy hasn't listened. When the governor declared International Education Week in November 2011, the state superintendent and all Office of Education board members were urged to align the curriculum with the governor's rhetoric: to increase the graduation requirements for world history and geography. None ever replied, and districts like Canyons still slip below the bar.
Utah's education elites need to hear from parents who want their children to succeed on the world stage; from business leaders and taxpayers who want a workforce educated to market Utah across the globe. For too long, global competence has been subordinated in the debate over college and career readiness for the 21st century. It's your turn to speak.
Stanley Holmes taught in the Middle East and retired this year from Alta High School, where he taught world history and sociology. He lives in Salt Lake City.
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