Fall 2010 undergraduate history of education take-home essay questions

This semester I split my final exam for the undergraduate history of education class, with an in-class (relatively short) part and then a choice of three essay questions that my students had 60 hours to respond to (after picking one). I am now reading their essays, and if you want to try your hand, feel free (but don't ask me to grade it!):

  • How has the American debate over equal educational opportunity changed over time? Focus on three eras separated by at least 50 years (i.e., a total time span of at least 150 years) and use a specific conflict in each era to explain continuity and change in our expectations of what schools must make available to students. 
  • Why have school reforms been more successful at changing the structure of school systems than changing instruction in classrooms? Focus on two reform movements separated by at least 50 years.
  • In 1700, a child in North America would spend the vast majority of childhood outside formal schooling. Today, a child in the U.S. will still spend the majority of her or his waking hours outside formal schooling, yet schooling dominates childhood today in public debate, in how parents organize childrearing, and in public policy. Why? Focus on details from three different centuries to explain the changing role of schools. 

At least for this semester, I gave students big-history questions to answer. To some extent this balances the nature of the major paper, which was to provide historical perspectives on a contemporary issue they chose from 2010 news sources. At least thus far in my reading, the majority of the students who have answered the first essay question above has picked (or fallen into) a gradualism narrative. That surprises me given what they learn in the semester and is sometimes at odds with the details they present, but it's closer to the grand triumphal narrative (and pluralist explanation) of U.S. history they've been fed most of their lives. To answer the obvious question, no student of mine is going to fail an essay because he or she falls into a common historiographical trap, especially when they were given only a few days and instructed not to discuss their essay with anyone while writing it. But it will make me ponder what to tweak in the spring.

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