The Dumbest Assignment Ever?

commentary by Karin Klein, Los Angeles Times, 7/17/14

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

This past April, the Rialto (CA) school district asked eighth-grade students to read a few sources on the Holocaust and write about whether it really happened….

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 just let the matter rest with whatever latest press release came from the school district [which claimed at the time that none of the students who completed the assignment questioned or denied the Holocaust]. The Sun requested all of the essays written by the students, which were provided with the names redacted. The paper’s reporters then combed through them all, finding more than 50 that concluded 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….

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?….

Karin Klein is a Los Angeles Times commentator.

More details from Beau Yarbrough, education writer for The San Bernadino Sun, 7/11/14:

In some cases, students earned high marks for arguing the Holocaust never occurred, with teachers praising their well-reasoned arguments…. The argument-style writing assignment was developed by district English Language Arts teachers and was coordinated by staff at the district headquarters level. It was linked to students reading The Diary of Anne Frank…. To write the in-class essay, students were given given documents from,, and the Holocaust denial site

The Assignment Prompt:

Rialto (California) Unified School District                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Grade 8 English Language Arts: Argumentative Writing/Research (April 2014)                                                                                                                                        Student Directions:

“When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence. For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain. You will read and discuss multiple, credible articles on this issue, and write an argumentative essay, based upon cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe the Holocaust was an actual event in history or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth.”

See the complete assignment:

See excerpts from student essays: – disqus_thread

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