Rialto school assignment on Holocaust ranks as one of the dumbest lessons ever

Bad sources, poor instruction lead dozens of Rialto students to conclude there probably wasn't a Holocaust

The Rialto school district, after assigning eighth-grade students to read a few sources on the Holocaust and write about whether it really happened, never did get back to the public on how many students concluded that there had not been such a Nazi atrocity. As it turns out, several dozen of them did manage to conclude that what is incontrovertible historical fact was untrue.

We know this only because the Sun newspaper in San Bernardino County didn’t let just let the matter rest with whatever latest press release came from the school district. It requested all of the papers written by the students, which were provided with the names redacted. The paper’s reporters then combed through them all, finding that more than 50 concluded that either the Holocaust had not happened or that they at least doubted it. And among those who said it existed, there were many who said claims had been exaggerated or documents falsified.

This assignment was wrong on so many levels, it’s hard to comprehend how college-educated teachers managed to muck things up so badly. We can start with the obvious: You can’t ask students to debate a fact. A fact is a fact. You can’t have them write papers about whether slavery existed or whether there was an American Revolution. It is downright frightening to think of educators who don’t know the difference between facts and issues.

Beyond this, the students were provided with limited and low-quality sources on which to base their arguments. They weren’t even given access to additional resources — such as the Internet — to check on the claims they were reading. They weren’t taught how to distinguish good sources of information from bad, or how to think logically. You can see all of this by reading the excerpts published with the Sun’s story.

F, F, F and F.

The school district has apologized and promised not to repeat the assignment, but it hasn’t done a thing to explain how such bad decision-making went on and what it is doing to bring its teachers up to at least some level of instructional quality. The Jewish Caucus in the Legislature has some plans to look into this further, which might address concerns about possible anti-Semitism but doesn’t do anything to fix plain old substandard education.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been bent on pushing more decision-making to the local level. There are valid reasons for doing this, but it’s important to understand that those decisions will then be only as good as the local people making them. In the case of Rialto schools, we know how bad that can be.

This is the point at which the state Department of Education should be stepping in and doing a full investigation. What was going on in the educators’ minds? How did they pick the resources they did? What did they actually teach the students while preparing them to write the essays? What do they know about the difference between fact and debatable issues? Who is overseeing them, and how did those people fail so badly at their jobs? What were the discussions that took place among personnel?

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson should be all over this issue. We’re talking about hatred in society, but we’re also talking about incredibly bad education under the new Common Core curriculum. The state Education Department has a lot of administrative work on its plate, but none should be bigger than the actual quality of education in the classroom. Or in this case, the utter lack of quality.

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