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Notebook Education

World History Archive/Newscom

(World History Archive/Newscom)

  • Rex Features via AP Images

    Rex Features via AP Images

  • Associated Press/Photo by Ray Chua

    Associated Press/Photo by Ray Chua


Blasting the past

New AP framework presents a relentlessly negative view of U.S. history

Larry Krieger knew the U.S. history classes advanced students take in 12,176 high schools were changing, but the Pennsylvanian was surprised to find how much. Advanced Placement teachers had previously received a five-page outline of topics to cover. The new “framework” was 98 pages.

Krieger started reading it and became worried. Despite the expansion, the framework omits key historical figures and battles, such as James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Valley Forge, and D-Day. Because Krieger has instructed AP students for decades, he knew the omitted events and persons had previously appeared on exams.

There’s more. “The framework presents a relentlessly negative view of American history that emphasizes conflict, oppression, and exploitation while totally ignoring the innovators, entrepreneurs, and dreamers who built our country,” Krieger said.

In response, Texas state school board member Ken Mercer plans to introduce a resolution rejecting the new curriculum and its exams, for which students often earn college credit.

The College Board, which runs AP classes and tests, said its revisions reflect what college students encounter in freshman history classes. That may be the problem, wrote Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, in an analysis of the changes: “American history as it is currently taught in many colleges and universities has been twisted … into a platform for political advocacy and for animus against traditional American values.”

Safely scared

Although school violence has dropped significantly since 1992, parents and schools are snatching up bulletproof blankets, backpacks, and whiteboards, and a Delaware bill would require new schools to place “bullet resistant white boards in each classroom.”

Federal data currently does not include 2012, the year of the widely publicized Newtown, Conn., school shooting. But it says 57 youngsters were killed at school in 1992-93, a number that steadily declined to 31 school deaths in 2010-11. School violence of all types has also declined.

That hasn’t stopped some parents who buy everything from $100 Kevlar backpack inserts to $1,000 bulletproof blankets. After Newtown, where 20 children and six teachers died, one protective backpack maker saw sales multiply by 10, a company representative told The Washington Post. One thousand people ordered bullet resistant blankets the day they became available, their manufacturer said.

But U.S. childhood is safer than ever, noted Lenore Skenazy, a New York City mom who runs the blog Free-Range Kids: “When I was born, four times more kids died before kindergarten than do now. … What we have is a really distorted perspective that children in school are in danger of being killed by a madman.” —J.P.

Cut the clutter

A new study suggests the typical brightly decorated walls of elementary classrooms distract students from learning.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University gave 24 kindergarteners a lesson in two different classrooms. One was studded with artwork and educational posters. The other was unadorned. In the busy room, the children had a hard time concentrating, and scored worse on tests. The researchers say children might get used to busy walls and start tuning them out.

Or they might not. When she worked as a special-education teacher, “we often found that learning and behavior deteriorated in rooms with overzealous decorations,” said Cheryl Swope, author of Simply Classical: A Beautiful Education for Any Child. “Years later, when teaching my own special-needs son at home, I noticed he completed work more quickly and more accurately in his own study carrel.”

The findings don’t mean classrooms should be dull, researchers said. Swope agreed, suggesting that teachers post selected “visual displays that assist instruction, such as an alphabet chart when learning to read.” —J.P.

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Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Bill Gates (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

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  • Handout

    Sarah Fowler


What billions buy

Bill Gates is reshaping American education with his pocketbook

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the world’s largest philanthropy, and one with increasing influence on American K-12 education. It has heavily funded the Common Core, a national initiative that is reshaping textbooks, replacing most state tests, overhauling teacher training and effectiveness measurements, and creating national data repositories for student grades and behavior.

Gates jump-started the Core by giving $10 million to the Chief Council of State School Officers to write the education standards that 46 states have now adopted. Gates gave the group another $10 million to support the Core, and $475,000 to help develop corresponding national tests. Gates has paid Georgia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Albuquerque, New York, and Louisiana departments of education to revise teaching, curriculum, and tests to fit the Common Core. It is funding books, games, videos, and other instructional materials that thousands of children will use, and research on ways to make educational data easier to share among schools, governments, and companies. Of the $163 million Gates has spent on Common Core, $125.5 million went to persuading politicians, teachers, and business leaders to support it.

“The Gates Foundation completely orchestrated the Common Core,” said Jay Greene, who directs the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas. Gates hasn’t been as effective in promoting other policies, like tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, Greene said. 

Choices grow

State legislatures get busy in the spring, and nearly half are considering legislation that would expand school choice. From Texas to Wisconsin, and South Carolina to Nevada, at least 15 states are considering new or bigger voucher programs, and another six the same with charter schools. 

Perhaps the most-watched state is Texas, where no voucher program exists and about 100,000 students sit on charter school wait lists. Senate Education Committee chair Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has introduced legislation to lift the state’s limit on charter schools (now 215) and has promised to propose vouchers for poor children.

Parents across the country are also examining their education options. In Milwaukee, GreatSchools helps some 17,000 families each year find a school that fits them in a city with vouchers, online, magnet, and charter schools. Sometimes the decision is easy, but that’s not the case for one mother, Mindy Hansen, with nine children, six adopted and several with special needs. They attend four different schools.

Hansen started adopting kids she mothered in foster care. Several whizzed through elementary-school math and are now taking geometry online. Another cannot focus in large groups, so she moved him to a smaller school. “She’s practically a professional bus driver,” said Jodi Goldberg, a friend. —J.P.

Young reformer

Ohio homeschool graduate Sarah Fowler, 24, wasn’t planning to run for elected office last summer. Then she discovered the man running for her region’s state school board seat only supported traditional public schools. She thought someone who favored voucher programs and charter schools would be better, so last August—92 days before the election—she announced her candidacy.

Fowler has an entrepreneurial spirit: At age 11 she began an egg-selling business. She campaigned hard on a platform in favor of parental rights, shifting education funding from property taxes, and reviewing the history curriculum for accuracy. After appearing at some 80 events and distributing 30,000 fliers, she beat out a lawyer and a heavily degreed scientist, with 60 percent of the vote. 

Fowler hoped her first state school board meeting “would be a transition time,” but “that did not happen.” 

At her first meeting, Fowler voted on Ohio’s student restraint and seclusion policies. She now reads hundreds of pages of documents on state policies between meetings. 

Attending trade shows, doing graphic design for the family farm, and learning independently have helped her acclimate, Fowler said: “These things were not huge hurdles because I’ve done them almost all of my life.” —J.P.

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Paige Clark/

Erin Tuttle (Paige Clark/

  • Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber

    IN THE GAME: Virginia homeschoolers listen to testimony during a meeting of the House Education Committee
    Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber

  • Associated Press/Photo by Matt Cilley

    Associated Press/Photo by Matt Cilley


Mom brigade

The Common Core doesn’t add up, and grassroots activists are fighting it in the states

Indianapolis mom Erin Tuttle has begun buying packs of freezer lasagna. She’s stopped folding the laundry after it’s clean. Tuttle has been too busy with another project: Getting Indiana to withdraw from the Common Core. 

The Common Core lists what K-12 students should know in math and English in each grade. Forty-five states signed on in 2010, and corresponding national tests will replace state tests in 2014. 

Tuttle first heard about it when her third-grader came home from Catholic school with a new math textbook. It challenged him less than his older brother’s third-grade math in the same school, but confused the family far more: The new book ditched traditional sequences that explain the simplest way to solve problems first, and instead focused on process and “conceptual understanding.” The school shifted because state tests, the ACT, and SAT will soon expect kids to know the newer math. 

Tuttle testified to Indiana’s Senate education committee in January: The Common Core “radically changes what and how teachers teach, and I know this because my child lived it.” Legislators are considering a bill to return to previous state standards. 

Grassroots activists in other states—mostly moms—have prompted similar anti-Core measures in Georgia, South Carolina, Utah, Missouri, and Colorado.

Sporting chance

Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein almost emulated Tim Tebow as a homeschool graduate/ Heisman Trophy winner. Klein, a Christian who saved his first kiss for his wedding day, placed third in this season’s Heisman voting. If state Sen. Tom Garrett gets his way, Virginia may cultivate more Tebows and Kleins.

Garrett has revived a bill to let homeschool students play public school sports. The bill failed by one vote in Virginia’s Senate last year, and the state’s superintendents association and teachers union have opposed similar bills introduced since 2005. They say homeschoolers can’t prove their classes and grades are credible, and homeschooled athletes therefore don’t meet the same academic standards as public school athletes. 

The Garrett bill requires homeschoolers to meet their public school team’s academic requirements for two years before they can join. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is for the bill: Spokesman Jeff Caldwell said, “Homeschool families are members of the community and pay the same taxes as families who send their children to public schools.”

Tebow grew up playing in Florida and Klein in Colorado. Those are two of 18 states that currently allow homeschoolers to try out for public school teams. —J.P.

Online opportunities

Angelika Weiss’ family “technically can’t afford” online Latin classes for their sixth grader and for all four kids to attend a Christian school in their southern Minnesota town, “but we’re making it a priority,” the pastor’s wife said. “Online high school is a lot cheaper than private school.”

Their Christian online school offers classes local public schools don’t, she said, such as Latin, logic, and challenging history classes. Many Christian families are also choosing tax-sponsored online education because it costs less than private schools without undermining their beliefs.

Last school year, 275,000 students enrolled in online K-12 programs, more than five times the enrollment a decade ago, according to the Evergreen Education Group. Currently, 31 states and the District of Columbia offer online public schools.

Weiss says she feels more confident enrolling her son in online classes than attempting to homeschool, especially for high-school work. She and her son both appreciate online education’s flexibility. 

“With online education, there is so much time not wasted in the classroom,” she said. “My son can be out in the community volunteering or working. Let’s face it: The inside of a classroom isn’t the real world.” —J.P.

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