Teachers hate Mark Robinson’s idea to end science and history classes in elementary school

Teachers hate Mark Robinson’s idea to end science and history classes in elementary school

Mark Robinson at a rally for former President Donald Trump in Wilmington, North Carolina in 2022. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

By Michael McElroy

January 29, 2024

Depriving students of these subjects at this age would leave them unprepared for high school and college, the teachers said, and rob them of opportunities to develop their own interests. 

In his 2022 memoir, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson wrote that if he was in charge of education policy in North Carolina, students wouldn’t learn science or social studies until after the fifth grade. 

Teachers in these grades would focus only on reading, writing, and math, he wrote, to improve the state’s low testing scores in those subjects. 

“This is what elementary kids want and need, and it is all that they truly need,” wrote Robinson, who is likely to be the Republican nominee for governor in 2024. “In those grades, we don’t need to be teaching social studies. We don’t need to be teaching science.” 

But what would it really mean to delay science and social studies until the fifth grade? Would it actually help improve reading and math scores? What would students lose?

We asked several North Carolina science and social studies teachers what they thought about Robinson’s idea.

It is, they all agreed, a terrible idea. 

‘It’s absurd.’

Science and social studies in elementary school are foundational subjects that don’t at all take away from reading, writing, and math, the teachers said: They give them purpose.

Depriving students of these subjects at this age would leave them unprepared for high school and college, the teachers said, dilute their creativity, and rob them of opportunities to develop their own interests. 

“It’s absurd,” Lee Quinn, a high school history teacher at Broughton High School in Raleigh, said. “Kids are not just empty vessels into which we can pour information like Neo learning kung fu in [the movie] ‘The Matrix.’ That’s not how learning works at any age, especially not at the younger elementary ages.”

And, he said, it’s a mistake to see science and social studies as separate ideas from reading, writing, and math.

“Science is often an application of mathematics, and much of what we need to understand in literacy and reading and writing has to do with how we understand civics and history and the disciplines of social studies,” Quinn said. 

“Being prepared to understand how the scientific method works and understand how to participate in your community and understand the history of where you live in your world are just as important and just as basic as mathematics and reading.”

‘It’s going to be boring’

Robinson’s idea may be absurd, the teachers said, but it reflects a real danger in public education.

The emphasis on standardized testing has accelerated over the last 30 years to push reading, writing, and math far ahead of science and social studies as priorities, said John de ville, a high school history teacher at Franklin High School in Macon County.

“There is this fallacy, that if we focus strictly on quote ‘reading comprehension’ and we shove science and social studies to the side, that students will become more proficient readers,” he said.

A 2020 study of K-5th graders by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy organization, showed that simply giving students more literacy instruction did not make them better readers. But students who spent more hours in social studies classes did show measurable improvement. Other studies show the same result.

That’s because kids best learn to read by reading things that matter to them, John Davis, a fourth-grade teacher at Club Boulevard Elementary School in Durham, said. 

“A lot of students don’t do well in reading because they’re not motivated to read because they don’t read things that are interesting to them,” Davis said.

And science can spark wonder and creativity in students who otherwise struggle to read, he added.

If a kid loves frogs, Davis said, he gives them books about frogs.

“You want to look as a teacher for a place where a kid can find confidence, and the more topics we have, the better shot you have to find something that kid is good at,” he said.

“I mean, how do you just give kids a year’s worth of reading and have no science or social studies content?” Davis asked. 

“What are you going to tell ’em to read about? It’s going to be boring.”

‘A developmentally fundamental time.’

Quinn, who runs Broughton’s International Baccalaureate program and once won a game of Jeopardy! in the Alex Trebek years, said that if students didn’t start learning science or social studies until the 6th grade, they would be unprepared for high school, where chemistry, physics, and earth science are not just topics, they’re graduation requirements.

“If we want to talk about our systems and schools being competitive, then how competitive is a student who has been deprived of science and humanities education until they’re 12 years old, who is expected to start from scratch?” Quinn said. 

“This is a developmentally fundamental time.”

He added: “The repercussions are, you come into ninth grade and you’re expected to know how the scientific method works? You’re expected to know how to analyze historical documents and participate in a community? Without that basis, it’s going to be really hard for most students to get to where they need to be to encounter complex and challenging topics in high school.”

Is it even possible to jump-start science and social studies education in the sixth grade?

“No,” Davis said.

Both science and history are “major field[s] of study at any level,” he said, “and to prepare students for future study, if they’re interested in those fields, they need to build vocabulary and basic concepts from a young age.”

If letting students read what interests them makes them better readers, then limiting what they read puts them at a disadvantage, de ville said. 

“If Billy doesn’t understand the word Congress or Supreme Court or community or law or all the other metaphors and concepts that are in the pantheon of civic and historical literacy, then the student is, out of necessity, crippled in the area of reading comprehension,” he said. 

‘It’s a dog whistle’ ’

Robinson’s other education priorities, both in his book and in public appearances, are nearly identical to those of the Republican-controlled legislature. He praised new laws that increase the amount of public school funding spent on private schools to help wealthy families pay their private school bills.

Teachers have been highly critical of these ideas, which are already negatively affecting school districts statewide, especially in rural areas.

But Robinson, who says climate change is a hoax and has denied the Holocaust, repeats another common, and meritless, charge in his book: That teachers are indoctrinating students.

Social studies lessons on the civil rights movement or science classes about climate change or evolution are big targets for Robinson and many far-right Republicans.

“Students often learn a distorted version of history,” Robinson wrote, and “are being indoctrinated with principles derived from socialist dogma.”

When asked about the accusations of indoctrination, all the teachers agreed: They don’t have that kind of power.

“I think if I can indoctrinate my students, if I had that magical power, I’d indoctrinate them to do their homework,” Quinn said.

De ville made a similar point: “If we had the power to indoctrinate, we wouldn’t have a problem with cell phones,” he said.

The accusations of indoctrination are based in politics, not evidence, Quinn said.

“It’s a dog whistle,” he said. “It’s part of the larger playbook that Mark Robinson’s reading from that seeks to demean and privatize public education and vilify teachers.”

‘A wonderful time’

Robinson has since seemed to realize the flaws in his original idea and has denied ever writing the words he most certainly wrote. 

“Now I’ve been accused of saying … I want to get rid of science, history in elementary school. That’s not true. Science and history certainly should be part of elementary school,” Robinson said at a public event in August. 

But if he needs further persuasion,  he should take a quick tour of Greensboro, his hometown.

The Guilford County winners of the 2024 regional science fair include third-through–fifth graders who found ways to detect peanut allergens in food, discovered the worst drinks for healthy teeth, and sought answers to questions like how humankind could best improve popcorn, slime, and paper airplanes.

Robinson’s plan would have deprived those and other children of the chance to have their minds blown by some really cool ideas.

“Early childhood is a wonderful time in science,” Davis said. “Younger kids are more curious than older kids are.” 

That curiosity is everything, de ville said.

“A classroom has to be curious,” de ville said. “If there’s no sense of wonder, if there’s no sense of surprise … then it’s just no new solutions, no new ideas.”

He added: “You have to look at a classroom almost as animate object, as an organic entity. And so to take out the humanities and to take out science is to gut the soul of a classroom.”

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

CATEGORIES: EDUCATION
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