I haven't looked seriously at high-school curricula in a long time, but back when I was a student – and, indeed, when I was a teacher in a high-quality Massachusetts school – few history classes made it to World War II. Even today I remain appalled that when, near the end of the 1972 school year, I mentioned to a fellow teacher that I was into the postwar era, she timidly inquired, "About World War II; we did win, didn't we?"
She taught Spanish and was of Portuguese heritage, so I excused her cluelessness partly on the basis of the pusillanimous records of those two nations, which quietly supported Hitler and Mussolini. But she probably wasn't the only vapid teacher in my well-funded school: I suspect that some of those who were hired more to coach a sport than to teach a subject might have been almost as ignorant of twentieth-century history.
I trust that it is better today, mostly because, from kindergarten through college, educational specialists have insisted that courses have specific outlines by week. This forces the curriculum to move forward and not get bogged down in distractions – which students love. All too many well-intended teachers cooperate because they want to be responsive. And so it was that, back in the 1980s, our teenage daughter taught herself much of the history she knew.
Her best source for the modern era was the comic, "Doonesbury." I was reminded of that last Sunday, when the weekly strip featured B.D., the former football coach who was enlightened by his experience in Vietnam, and Zonker, the wide-eyed innocent who never graduates from college nor is expelled. The first three frames are silent, showing a couple of hard hats tearing down a wall. In the last frame, a glorious sun shines and reveals the White House that had been behind the wall. Looking at the drawing, Zonker says, "Wait… won't people think we're lazy?" BD replies, "No, no, EVERYONE'S exhausted!"
SPEAKING OF SCHOOLS
I'm exhausted too, but not so much that I can't carry on with longtime goals when they come up for discussion. One thing that is making state news prior to our legislative session is equalizing the standards for public schools and their publicly-funded competitors, charter schools. In case you are new to Florida, charter schools function under the broad aegis of our elected county school boards and use our taxpayer money – but they often aren't required to meet the standards that public schools must meet, especially in standardized testing. After some scandals with charter schools that took the money and ran, the legislature again is delving into this complex issue.
While most legislators, especially Republicans, demand data-driven results in everything else, some are willing to look away when it comes to charter schools. For decades, Tallahassee decision-makers have insisted on testing and retesting kids at public schools, while charter-school kids have been exempted. I'm not advocating that we insist on measuring differing kids by the same standards, but because we have insisted on testing in public schools, the same should apply to charters. In fact, the same should be required of any institution that receives taxpayer money in any amount, whether that be federal or state or local.
Bias against equal application of nationally-normed data is especially common in private online degree mills and self-labeled conservative campuses. Just one example is Liberty "University." Founded by disgraced preacher Jerry Falwell, its advertisements that pop up on my computer emphasize upfront that no standardized tests are required. It's an easy way to cash tuition checks, evade peer comparisons, and bring smiles to both lazy students and their enabling parents.
SPEAKING MORE OF SCHOOLS
The New York Times ran a big supplement Sunday on how schools are coping with the pandemic. Reporters delved deeply into eight districts across the nation, ranging from Los Angeles County, with its population of more than a million, to Wausau, Wisconsin, with 38,600 residents. It listed the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in each place, but did not bother to do percentages on that. I also was disappointed that there was no information on budgets, much less on per-pupil spending. The National Education Association could have given them those stats in a heartbeat, but instead the focus was on quotes from kids and their moms. Not that moms and kids aren't important, but their opinion almost necessarily is personal.
The Times also missed a huge point by failing to compare how school districts are governed. It makes a tremendous difference, and here in Florida, we owe a great debt to those who equalized the system. (Big shout-out here to Tampa veterans of that legislative war, especially Kathy Betancourt, lobbyist for the Classroom Teachers Association.) While most of the nation's school districts are organized by town or city, ours have the same borders as our 67 counties. Countywide elections, with literally millions of voters in some, means that board members can't favor their own neighborhoods, as has been the sad case for too many kids across the country.
Kathy would add here that we also developed a statewide equalization formula so that "property poor, pupil rich" counties such as Hillsborough are not at a funding disadvantage compared with "pupil poor, property rich" counties such as Palm Beach. To their credit, teachers in the wealthy counties joined with the Florida Education Association's crusade for equality – and FEA continues to fight for that and other student-oriented goals today. If you ever are in doubt about your vote, just look at their endorsements. They take this very seriously; Hubby spent countless hours with other educators vetting candidates.
Here's how NOT to do school governance: the way they do it in New York City, Chicago, LA, and other old urban areas. I thought of this as I watched NYC Mayor Bill Blasio struggle with his city's huge COVID rate and whether or not to reopen schools. Even in the best of times, a mayor has enough on her plate: whether in an epidemic or not, that person should not also be in charge of education. I'm sure Tampa Mayor Jane would not at all want that added to her load.
Florida has done something exceptionally smart in enlarging and empowering its school boards. A few small counties still elect their school superintendent, but most of us elect a school board that hires the CEO. I think that is best, but I do often wonder how many newcomers understand this sort of thing. Variations between state governments are very real, and no one really tries to explain to new voters how things differ here from what they were in Colorado or Carolina, Minnesota or Maine. After COVID, we could fund libraries to do that. When you can get a driver's license, you get a library card with programs for newcomers. Why not?
HOW TO GET FROM JANUARY TO DECEMBER
This will be my last column for January, so of course I have to write about a book titled How to Get from January to December. It probably wouldn't see print these days, when publishers insist that manuscripts fit into a fixed genre, but back at mid-century – especially if you lived in New York – things were easier for eccentrics. The author, Will Cuppy, certainly was eccentric, but also very well informed. Living in a Jones Beach shack during summer and in a tiny Greenwich Village apartment in winter, he explored ideas that literally ran the alphabet from astronomy to zoology.
When Cuppy died in 1949, his friends found hundreds of boxes of index cards on a multitude of subjects, often with caustic comments. They edited and published some of them, with the first book issued as The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (1950). The second one is arranged by date, with a few paragraphs for the 365 days of the year. Cuppy's comments are only loosely – if at all – connected to the book's chronology, but this entry for July 2 is a good sample of the weird stuff I learned. Talking about time and calendars and Latin numerical usage, he said:
"July isn't called Quintilis any more, as it was among the old Romans. Seems that in 44 BC, Mark Antony had the bright idea of changing it to Julius, or July, in honor of Julius Caesar… The Romans considered odd numbers lucky, so Julius Caesar got a lucky month and two years later, he was assassinated. You never can tell how those things will work out…
"Not to be outdone, Augustus Caesar, successor to Julius, changed the name of Sextillis to August, adding a couple of days so that he would have as many days in his month as Julius had. I forget what happened to Augustus. He probably died in his bed, as he was that sort of person. The Emperor Nero afterwards tried to name the month of April after himself, but no one paid the slightest attention and April is still April. What we need now is new names for September, October, November, and December."
Hardly our most pressing need, but I do think that a global calendar revision is worth considering. And yes, Caesar Augustus – he of the biblical census – did die in his bed, at age 75. His last words were reputed to be: "Did I play the part well?"