Fractured Skills

by Robert Pondiscio
February 24th, 2011

Fascinating post — and responses — over at Common Core’s blog.  The organization, which advocates for content-rich curriculum and teaching has found a mole and invited her to blog about her experience teaching at a New Tech High School, a hotbed of the 21st Century skills movement.

With 62 schools in 14 states, New Tech’s mission is to help students gain both ”the knowledge and skills they need” but teacher  Emma Bryant says don’t be fooled, it’s really all about the skills.   “We practice project based learning, utilize the latest technology, and hold to a mission of helping our students acquire ’21st century skills,’” she writes.”  And what does that look like, exactly? 

“Roughly once a month we present students with a new project which must result in a “product.” According to our model the more “real world” the product, the better. Real world, meaning the product mirrors what could reasonably be demanded in a corporate setting — from a redesigned company logo and slogan to a promotional video or a press release. Students work in small teams to complete projects, with each team member receiving the same grade at the end. After all, it’s not about what individual students learn but the final product. Students are assessed on a handful of learning outcomes — collaboration, communication, innovation, work ethic, technological literacy, information literacy and content. Content usually makes up between 15 and 30 percent of a student’s grade.”

Content, as she describes it, takes a backseat to the student work product.  Emma’s students “might work a quote from a short story into a reworded company slogan,” for example. ”Or perhaps they might work with Photoshop to create a company logo depicting an event from European history.”

“Apart from being grafted onto ‘real world’ products, content is rarely discussed in the classroom. Instead, students deal with content in teams or individually, with little to no scaffolding from the teacher. Dialogue, questions, critical thinking, and debate surrounding content are low on the list of things you will see in a 21st century classroom. And so students end up with convoluted ideas about history, a cursory understanding of and appreciation for literature, and a shaky foundation in math and science.

Just as fascinating as Emma’s post is the comments it has engendered on Common Core’s blog.  Several New Tech teachers have complained strenuously–some  earnestly, others sarcastically.  All take issue with the idea that the schools are giving short shrift to academic content.   “If Ms. Bryant feels that content is pushed aside in her classroom, perhaps she should turn her critical eye toward the curriculum she creates and how it is implemented in her classroom,” writes one. 

But it’s worth asking why teachers are creating curriculum at all, and whether this doesn’t bolster Emma’s claim that content is fungible and skills non-negotiable.  If you view a subject–any subject–as a body of knowledge to be studied and mastered, then “coverage” (a dirty word among progressive and skill-driven educators) leading to deep appreciation and understanding matters.  A curriculum–a coherent grade-by-grade overview of all the topics within a discipline that students are expected to know– becomes very important.  It’s not something teachers are expected to create, but rather to use their creativity and skills to deliver.  The students’ ability to produce a “product” become a means to demonstrate mastery.  Put the emphasis on the skills and products, however, and the content becomes merely a delivery mechanism–something the product is “about.”   If teachers are creating their own curriculum, then is it not perfectly obvious that they view the content as unimportant or secondary to the skills being taught?

I have written previously my belief that this is not some nefarious scheme to devalue content.  Rather, I tend to think that 21st century skills advocates are genuinely perplexed by the criticism that they do not value content.  After all all of those products produced by project-based learning are about something.  And that’s content, right?  Not exactly.  The disconnect comes down to coherence.  Critical thinking, language development, vocabulary growth and many of the most desirable ends of education are “domain specific.”  You cannot be an all-purpose critical thinker or problem solver.  These “skills” are largely a function of the depth of your knowledge of a particular subject or domain and do not readily translate from one domain to another.  Thus any attempt to privilege or emphasize skills at the expense of coherence or rigor is doomed to produce less than complete understanding–and less than compelling “products.” 

As always, the issue is not content vs. skills as an either/or proposition.  Both are essential and desirable.  It’s a question of which is the horse and which is the cart–and which is most likely to succeed in producing the desired results we all want for kids.

Update:  Joanne Jacobs joins the fray.

Tattoo U

by Robert Pondiscio
February 24th, 2011

Teachers who really want to optimize student outcomes should consider getting tattoos.  An unusual research study had college undergraduates’ look at pictures of the same instructor, with and without visible tattoos.  The inked up instructor (a 29 year old woman) was associated with “positive changes in ratings: students’ motivation, being imaginative about assignments, and how likely students were to recommend her as an instructor.”

Hey, it’s all about putting the interests of kids first.

The End of the Rock Star Teacher

by Robert Pondiscio
February 15th, 2011

Note: A version of this post appears today on the website of Education Next, which recently asked me to review Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion and Steve Farr’s Teaching as Leadership.   The review of the Lemov will run in the upcoming issue of Ed Next, but is on the magazine’s website today.  A blog post about the Farr book appears here.   — rp.

The first five words of Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion, are “Great teaching is an art.”  This is not a promising start. 

Well over three million women and men stand in front of classrooms every day in the U.S.  It is too much to hope for, and always will be, that more than a small percentage of them will be artists, great, bad or mediocre.  The degree to which we pin our hopes for large scale school improvement on attracting artists and rock stars to the classroom is the degree to which we plan to fail.  With an average salary of $52,000—an income level on par with electricians, probation officers, and funeral directors – teachers will not be recruited exclusively from the top ranks of college graduates. 

All is not lost.  After dispensing with those five poorly chosen words, Lemov spends the next 300 pages of his remarkable book completely contradicting his opening sentence, demonstrating in convincing detail that teaching is not an art at all, but a craft—a series of techniques that can be identified, learned, practiced and perfected.  In doing so, he has produced what may be the most important education book in a generation.  His focused, obsessively practical study of what makes teachers effective could—and should—shift the terms of our increasingly vitriolic national debate from “teacher quality to “quality teaching.”  This is no mere semantic distinction.  The difference is not who is in the front of the room. The difference is what that person does.  Lemov’s achievement is to examine effective teaching at the molecular level.   By doing so, he may have rescued education reform from its implicit dependence on classroom saints and superheroes.   It is an indispensible shift.  If teaching effectively is something for the best and the brightest, rather than the merely dedicated and diligent, education reform is finished, now and forever. Read the rest of this entry »

It Could Always Be Worse

by Robert Pondiscio
February 10th, 2011

At This Week in Education, Alexander Russo had an epiphany.  “I am finally realizing that one of the main things that divides the reformy types from career educators is the thought that reform could make things worse rather than better,” Russo wrote.

“This possibility might seem hard to believe for reformers, many of whom can’t imagine things being any worse. But for those with a longer perspective (historical, personal, professional) the possibility of things going from bad to worse is real; they’ve seen good but wrong-headed ideas take root before, sucking energy away and wasting a lot of time, and they know that there’s no guarantee that the current status is a baseline below which nothing worse can happen. It’s simply where we are now. I’ve been writing about the reform/education divide for four or five years now and it’s only now that I’m finally getting this. I’m sure many others figured it out long ago.”

A-Rus’s post no doubt had many career educators and reform resisters yelling “Yes! Yes!!” in a rough approximation of Meg Ryan’s diner scene in When Harry Met Sally.   His point is precisely right.  It’s not mere intransigence that prompts resistance.  And smug rhetoric about putting the interest of adults ahead of children or favoring the status quo doesn’t help (neither does impugning the motives of those who back charters, choice, testing, etc.)

Personally, I’ve always applied the “The Tiffany Test” (after a favorite former student of mine) to all reform ideas:  Will this make it more likely or less likely that Tiffany will get the kind of complete, rich, and robust education that will enable her to reach her full potential academically?  It’s surprising how rarely the answer is in the affirmative.

Update:  Nancy Flanagan weighs in with a far better, more thoughtful post than mine.

CCSS a Death Knell for Literature?

by Robert Pondiscio
February 7th, 2011

Julia Steiny worries that Common Core State Standards “will require students to read considerably less fiction.”  The education columnist for the Providence Journal tells of being assigned James Agee’s  novel A Death in the Family by a 9th grade English teacher who wanted to expose her students to difficult experiences including grief.   ”In her opinion, now mine,”  Steiny writes, ”one of the great virtues of fiction is that it gives us the benefit of someone else’s experience, at the remove of fiction.”

“Fiction keeps seeming to me like such a powerful twofer: literacy skills inextricably combined with stories that broaden our understanding of how and why different people, in different circumstances, make decisions, mistakes, sacrifices.  Ah but, silly me. The new Common Core standards that most states are adopting, thanks to pressure by the Race to the Top grant, will require students to read considerably less fiction. Presumably today’s children need preparation for harsh economic realities, not character building. So they need exposure to so-called ‘informational texts,’ more like those they’ll meet in the work world. And who cares about literary icons today, anyway?”

I’m deeply sympatheic to Steiny’s take on the value of literature, but laying this body in the dooryard of Common Core State Standards overlooks two important points: First, CCSS is something of a market correction.  Fiction and poetry have long dominated English instruction nearly to the exclusion of all other genres.  Secondly, there’s already precious little classic literature being assigned in schools that worship at the altar of student engagement and a steady diet of student-selected books, and that was the case long before CCSS.  Steiny acknowledges as much, pointing out that A Death in the Family “would never be assigned today. It was far more challenging than most of what high schools now ask of their kids.”

“Researcher Sandra Stotsky was a member of the Common Core Validation Committee but ultimately refused to endorse the standards, in part because they promote the shift away from challenging fiction. As it is, she notes, most of what high-schoolers commonly read now is right about at middle-school level. In her recent paper, “Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey,” she discusses a survey of hundreds of high school teachers reporting which literary works they were assigning. It’s a depressing list chock full of Harry Potter and Stephenie Meyer’s books, which include the title at the tippy top of the list: “Twilight.”

In short, CCSS is an odd strawman if one wishes to bemoan the loss of iconic iterature from English class.  The damage was done years before; broadening student reading habits beyond the vapid popular novels Steiny rightly decries to include non-fiction is a long overdue step in the right direction.  And Steiny’s 9th grade English teacher, if she’s still in the classroom, might now consider asking her students to read Elisabeth Kübler-Ross‘ 1969 book, On Death and Dying.

Star Mangled Banner

by Robert Pondiscio
February 7th, 2011

Chrysler hired Eminem. Best Buy went with Justin Bieber.  Core Knowledge got its ad for free on last night’s Super Bowl telecast, with Christina Aguilera’s off-Key rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.

Aguilera last night apologized for botching the words to the national anthem.  Still no apology for Burlesque.

Common Sense Comes to Cambridge

by Robert Pondiscio
February 3rd, 2011

If only 30 percent of America’s young adults manage to obtain a college degree, and if most new jobs do not require a bachelor’s, does it make sense to push college for all students in our K-12 system?  A new report from Harvard’s “Pathways to Prosperity Project“ argues it does not.  “The United States is expected to create 47 million jobs in the 10-year period ending in 2018,” the report notes, however ”only a third of these jobs will require a bachelor’s or higher degree.”

“We are the only developed nation that depends so exclusively on its higher education system as the sole institutional vehicle to help young people transition from secondary school to careers, and from adolescence to adulthood,” says the Harvard school of education’s Robert Schwartz, who lead the project. “Unless we are willing to provide more flexibility and choice in the last two years of high school, and more opportunities for students to pursue program options that link work and learning, we will continue to lose far too many young people along the path to graduation.”

 The report calls for a broadening “the range of high-quality pathways that we offer young adults” including ”far more emphasis on career counseling and high-quality career education, as well as apprenticeship programs and community colleges as viable routes to well-paying jobs.”  The report also calls for “a new social compact between society and our young people.”

“The compact’s central goal would be that by the time they reach their mid-20s, every young adult will be equipped with the education and experience he or she needs to lead a successful life as an adult. Achieving this goal would require far bigger contributions from the nation’s employers and governments.”

College for all is powerful moral argument, but it’s still a means to an end. The biggest picture goal of American education is to uphold the grand promise of upward mobility.  It is perfectly obvious–at least to most teachers–that watered down standards and phony credit recovery schemes to boost graduation rates have done little to increase the number of truly college ready students produced by our K-12 system.  It’s the education equivalent of kicking the can down the road.  Also, we almost certainly lose far more low-SES students who do not see school as a means to any worthwhile end in their lives and quit the system completely.

Then too, there’s the fact that student loan debt now outpaces credit card debt in the U.S.  In essence, we make the following bargain with too many young people: We’re insisting on pushing you through high school, taking classes for which you may be academically unprepared, and lowering the bar so you can pass (or use phony credit recovery schemes to say you passed). Then we’ll force you to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt for the privilege of failing in school, and getting frustrated in your attempt to get the kind of job we’re not creating in the first place. 

Not everyone is happy with the report.  “Every single time we create multiple tracks, we always send disproportionate numbers of poor kids and kids of color down the lesser one,” Ed Trust’s Kati Haycock tells Education Week. ”Until we can find a way not to do that, then people like me will object.” 

What’s condemning young people to poverty, Joanne Jacobs observes, is not the lack of a degree, but the failure to learn reading, writing and math and dropping out of high school.  “I think many low achievers could be motivated to learn academic skills in order to train for a job,” she writes.  ”If the only motivation is the chance to spend more years in a classroom — almost certainly a remedial classroom — with a better job as a vague hope for the distant future . . .  Maybe a few kids will catch college fever and go all the way to a bachelor’s degree. But not very many.”

Whittling While Rome Burns

by Robert Pondiscio
February 3rd, 2011

Concerned that other nations are outeducating us?  If all else fails, you can send your kids to a $40,000 a year “global school“ and let them take classes in China or India.

School as Gated Community

by Robert Pondiscio
February 1st, 2011

In the midst of all the rhetorical overkill about the Ohio mother who lied about her address to get her kids into a better school, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli reminds us that nearly 3,000 schools nationwide function as de facto gated communities. 

Petrilli and Janie Scull issued a report about a year ago on “America’s Private Public Schools,” which found that in some metropolitan areas, “as many as one in six public-school students — and one in four white youngsters — attends such schools,” which exclude practically all low-income kids.  That’s a whole lot of “Rosa Parks moments.”

“Before you throw stones at Copley-Fairlawn, be sure that your own neighborhood school isn’t one of the excluders,” Petrilli writes.