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Good riddance to California's 'mission project'

Good riddance to California's 'mission project'
Exterior view of San Gabriel Mission in San Gabriel, Calif. on Aug. 1, 2014. (Los Angeles Times)

Watch out, sugar industry. California's schools are about to deal you a major blow.

Not by teaching students about the terrible health problems caused by the overconsumption of your product. It would be nice to think so, but no.

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Rather, we're talking about the impending death of the fourth-grade "mission project," the assignment given to thousands of California schoolchildren over the years to construct models of the historic pre-statehood religious structures that were, in real life, built by Spanish missionaries using forced Native American sweat labor. During the models' heyday, students were expected to glue together innumerable sugar cubes to form miniature faux-adobe walls and then add popsicle-stick roofs and little fake gardens.

If ever there was an educational reform that everyone should love, this is it. The reasons for disliking the mission models run the gamut from serious concerns about the message they send and the history they glorify to the less weighty complaint that they have long been a time-wasting pain in the neck. What's more, they are of dubious educational value.

Now the new California history curriculum framework, adopted by the state in 2016 and about to go into full swing this academic year, specifically discourages the dance of the sugar-cube pediments.

"In selecting sources and directing students' investigations," the standards say, "attention should focus on the daily experience of missions rather than the building structures themselves. Building missions from sugar cubes or popsicle sticks does not help students understand the period and is offensive to many."

Tuyen Tran, assistant director of the California History Social-Science Project, explains that time squandered on model-building would be better spent teaching fourth-graders to understand the complex interactions between Native Americans and early Spanish settlers. "American Indians have likened the mission projects to projects that require students to re-create plantations in the American South or concentration camps in Germany," she wrote. The models might be justified if they taught students something of greater value about the missions, such as their impact on California Indians, but they don't.

The models were never a part of the official curriculum framework anyway. Teachers adopted them on the assumption that they made the lessons come alive for students, and somehow they became ubiquitous. Everyone overlooked the clear signs that many of the finished products — often so elaborate that they seemed to require architecture degrees to build — were mainly the handiwork of parents.

Other parents have had a longstanding hate affair with the mission models. They're messy. They take over the dining room. Many California students come from low-income families that don't have money for this kind of nonsense. For the more affluent, costly prefab mission kits with foam core walls and cardboard roofs were available for purchase.

Homework that requires substantial parent involvement is seldom a good idea. "Let this be a fun family project," the teachers' notes warble. Uh, no thanks. We did our dioramas years ago. All grown up, California parents should not be forced to repeat their fourth-grade homework.

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