Squishiness Watch

by Robert Pondiscio
October 22nd, 2012

A “draft framework” for common social studies standards is scheduled for release next month.  If a report by Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz is any indication, they might be so devoid of curricular content as to be functionally meaningless.

“Social studies specialists have been working with state department of education officials and others to create standards in that subject,” Gewertz notes.  That means expert guidance on the history and geography subject matter children should learn in each grade–the seven continents and oceans of the world in kindergarten; Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt in first grade; the U.S. Constitution in second grade–right?  I mean that is the point of this exercise, isn’t it?   Gewertz’s blog post indicates those looking for specificity might be disappointed.

“Early signs suggest that you shouldn’t expect something that prescribes the specific issues, trends, or events that students should study, but rather describes the structure, tools, and habits of mind they need in order to undertake an exploration of the discipline, and offers states a frame for the content they choose.”

Just asking: If the “framework” for social studies takes a pass on detailing what’s worth knowing and contents itself instead with a squishy and unsatisfying description of the “structure, tools and habits of mind,” how–how exactly, please–will that be anything than redundant with the CCSS ELA standards?

The ELA standards strike a hammer blow for a content-rich vision of literacy in U.S. classrooms without detailing the content.  It’s a step in the wrong direction if social studies specialists are unwilling to begin to detail at least some of what that content should include.

Perhaps the authors of the draft framework would like to help themselves to the Core Knowledge Sequence for Pre-K to 8th grade.  It’s free for your downloading.  Take it.  Steal it.  Call it your own.


Teaching to CCSS: Making Bricks Without Straw?

by Robert Pondiscio
October 17th, 2012

The following post originally appeared on Schoolbook, the education blog of WNYC, New York City’s public radio station.  It appears here with the permission of the author.  – rp

Bricks Without Straw
By Matthew Levey

A decade into the education reform movement in New York, we have doubled our school budget to $24 billion. We’ve focused on teacher quality, and how to measure it. We’ve created many new, often smaller, schools.  Unfortunately our students’ scores on the key tests like the SAT and NAEP haven’t budged.

Frustrated reformers have pinned their hopes on new Common Core State Standards (CCSS ) that make explicit what a college-ready student should be able to do in math, reading and writing. The CCSS say content matters, but the authors didn’t dictate which content to teach or how to deliver it.

Under CCSS, third graders “develop an understanding of fractions, beginning with unit fractions” but the CCSS do not say how. Eighth graders should be able to “produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience” but the CCSS don’t pick the topic.

How we implement the CCSS will determine whether we improve student outcomes or not.. What I have observed so far, as a parent of three children in public schools and the husband of a teacher, suggests our approach to implementing the CCSS is not off to a great start. In selecting content and teaching children how to respond thoughtfully to it, we seem to think whatever we were doing before was good enough to meet the new standards.  Our schools, and our teachers, need to invest meaningfully in training and curriculum redesign; on the front lines that doesn’t appear to be happening.

Where’s the Content?

Non-fiction matters more than ever before, according to the CCSS. So how does my tested-above-proficient 8th grader come to believe that the Confederacy was winning the Civil War prior to the Battle of Gettysburg?  Perhaps it starts with history textbook with too many empty graphics, organized around themes rather than time. Maybe it starts by asking them to write about the battle before they were assigned the right chapters in the book? If content is king children don’t seem to be getting enough.

When my 5th grader’s teacher told us about the social studies curriculum, she practically apologized that she had to teach about government for two months, “because the kids find it boring.” The good news, she said, was that she too was learning a lot about the topic as she prepared her lessons. When a parent asked whether the current election campaign would be incorporated into the unit, the teacher said, “Oh that’s a good idea, maybe we could have them make ads for a candidate.”

Structure Matters too

Getting the content right is just part of the challenge.  Our children also need much more explicit instruction in how to put that content in context.

My daughter’s first written assignment this year was to imagine herself as a delegate in 1787, and explain whether she would vote for the Constitution if the Bill or Rights wasn’t included. Since my daughter hadn’t learned anything about the small states vs. big states debate, or any of the other big ideas that roiled Philadelphia that summer, all she could express was her feelings.  Like a true New York City resident, she didn’t feel the 2nd amendment made a lot of sense, but it was hard to say why.

Asked to write about the inevitability (or not) of the Civil War, my son struggled.  He knew about slavery and industrialization, but years of the Teacher’s College writing model used in our local schools left him ill-prepared to organize his knowledge effectively. Judith Hochman, whose program is credited, in part, for helping save New Dorp High School correctly observes that  “much writing instruction prior to ninth grade … is based around journals, free writing, memoirs, poems and fiction.”

The result, Hochman notes, is that students don’t know “how to communicate effectively to an audience. Students are given little or no preparation for the types of expository writing required in high school, college, and the workplace.”

Following her advice I pushed my son to think about using words like “although,” “unless” and ‘if” to build more complex thoughts. After a few hours of work, he turned to me and asked, “Why don’t they teach this in my school?”

In Exodus, when the Israelites asked to leave Egypt, Pharaoh forced them to make the same quantity of bricks, but without straw.  This ancient story has become a metaphor for an absurdly hard task.

Parents rightly expect our schools will improve if we use higher standards. But to do so, district and school leaders must look closely at the content they’ve selected and how it is delivered. Repurposing our existing approach and declaring it ‘new and improved’ simply will not do. It’s like asking schools to make bricks without straw, and that’s a recipe for trouble.  Just ask the Pharaoh.

Matthew Levey is the father of three New York City public school students. He is the co-founder of Bright Track, an educational advisory service, and a former Community Education Council president.

Reading is Believing (And That’s a Problem)

by Robert Pondiscio
August 30th, 2012

When planning class read-alouds as a teacher, I was an unabashed fan of historical fiction.  Christopher Paul Curtis’ Depression-era novel, Bud, Not Buddy; Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, set in Nazi-occupied Denmark; and the 19th century frontier novel Sarah, Plain and Tall were among the books that allowed me to weave history and geography—sorely needed by my inner city 5th graders– into the literacy block.

With Common Core State Standards calling for more non-fiction in literacy instruction, mixing more academic content into ELA instruction is becoming standard practice.  But not everyone is eager to see fiction and literature loosen its grip on language arts.  Dan Willingham’s science and education blog asks, can’t kids learn about the world through fiction?

They can and do.

“The advantage of fiction is that the narrative can engage students, transport them into the story. The fear is that readers will assume that information in fiction is true, whereas fiction may well contain inaccuracies. We don’t expect fiction to be vetted for accuracy the way a non-fiction source would be. (Certainly Hollywood movies are notorious for playing fast-and-loose with the truth.)”

Research shows inaccuracies in fiction can indeed later be remembered by students as true.  Willingham describes an experiment designed to test whether exposure to accurate or inaccurate information in a fictional story influenced how students responded to a later test about that information.  Exposure to correct information “makes it more likely you’ll get the answer correct on the test,” Willingham writes. “Reading the misleading information makes it less likely you’ll get it correct and more likely you’ll get it wrong.”

Sounds obvious, but there’s more.  “Prior knowledge is not protective. In other words, the misleading information has an impact even for stuff that most of the students knew before the experiment started,” (emphasis added) Willingham observes.   Encountering inaccuracies in fiction, in other words, can override what students knew before they read it.  But all is not lost: alerting students to the specific inaccuracies or misinformation in a story, Dan notes, “is very effective in preventing subjects from absorbing the inaccuracy.”

The takeaway for teachers?  Use fiction to engage and bring history, science and other subjects to life.  But you’ve got know your stuff so you can flag instances of literary license to your kids.

Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor. And Free Beer!!

by Robert Pondiscio
August 21st, 2012

“It strikes me as funny that we call our political organizations ‘parties,” writes Ann Beeson. “Elections and political parties are the antithesis of fun. It’s no wonder that many young people avoid them.”

A lecturer at the University of Texas and former national associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Beeson observes in a New York Times op-ed that young people “are some of the most active and committed people I know” yet stay away from the polls in droves.  “Three causes are worth exploring,” she writes.

“First of all, many young people just don’t see the connection between voting and their commitment to improve their communities, advocate for a cause, or change the world. Secondly, there are very real grounds for political cynicism. And finally, let’s face it, civic engagement can be a snore.”

Civic engagement, Beeson writes, lacks “the fun factor.”  It conjures up “images of neighborhood meetings that plod along in rooms with stained carpets, cheap paneling and fluorescent lighting.”

Bummer, dude.

Sure, Beeson want young people “scared straight into voting” by emphasizing the price of their inaction.  But most of all, she says, “it should be terrific fun to vote and to stay involved after election day.”

“What if the average civic gathering – whether it’s a political rally, grassroots group, school task force, or city council – involved cook-offs, improv or gaming? What if we devised clever ways to scale up what’s working, instead of whining for a living? What if we banned Robert’s Rules of Order and actually got to know one another?”

We’ve heard this before in education.  If we want kids to care, we have to make it fun and engaging.  And while I agree with the impulse, there’s something to be said—both in education and in civic engagement—for also acknowledging the idea that we owe a debt to ourselves and history to stir ourselves from the couch and embrace mature responsibility.

“Has the nation become so self-indulgent that we are no longer motivated to act for the greater good or are the issues just less significant and less motivating than in the past?” a friend asked me this morning after reading Beeson’s piece.  It’s a good question.   I don’t have the answer, but I’m reasonably sure that a better grasp of our nation’s history wouldn’t hurt.  If we don’t understand and value the price that has been paid over generations to found, protect, and ensure the viability of our democracy, we can hardly be surprised if our children take its continuance as a given.

Cook-offs, improv and gaming?   The Freedom Riders were not lured onto luxury coaches with DVD players and giddy shouts of “road trip!”  The Greatest Generation won WWII and faced down communism.  D-Day was not, I suspect, positioned as a great way to meet French girls. Unless I’m very much mistaken, the Declaration of Independence did not include the Founders’ pledge to each other of “our Lives, our Fortunes, our sacred Honor…and free beer!”

I’m being churlish, I know.  Forgive me.  But if making voting and civic engagement “fun” is what it takes to stir young people to take act in their own self-interest, perhaps we will be no poorer if we let grownups decide things.

When Reading Tests Attack (Content)

by Guest Blogger
August 3rd, 2011

By Rachel Levy

During  my first year of full-time teaching ESOL and Social Studies at an inner-city Washington, DC, high school, my principal approached me and told me that my students had come to her saying how much they were enjoying history class. I explained to her my intent to teach content but with a reading and writing intensive emphasis, to build those skills which were quite low among our school’s students. She was enthusiastic and I was thrilled.

A few weeks later, she attended our Social Studies department meeting where she explained to us that since there were no standardized tests in Social Studies, from that point forward, we were required to spend one-fifth of our class time teaching the Stanford-9 Reading Test.  For each of my students, I had to make charts based on testing data showing the skill (for example “context clues”) and how they did on that skill.  Then I was supposed to target my lesson plans to teach and remedy each student’s individual weaknesses. This didn’t seem right, but there was no protesting this: I wanted to help my students, she was my boss, and she was telling me what to do. Furthermore, such instruction and data collection had to be documented in our lesson plan books and during classroom observations.

This is where and how NCLB-applied pressure and high-stakes testing cause poor practices. Some counter, “The testing itself doesn’t cause teaching to the test in an ineffective way. Why don’t teachers simply adopt effective practices, like Core Knowledge?” While testing shouldn’t (in principle) encourage poor practice, unfortunately, my experiences in the classroom and now as a parent shows that national policy incentives mandating high stakes testing change classroom teaching for the worse. Ground-level feedback can help us to see how to fix accountability better than philosophical debates about the nature of testing.

I agree that it’s completely logical, obvious even, as Andrei Radulescu-banu put it on Robert’s recent post, that A=>B (Please read  his comment in its entirety). Certainly, test scores will gradually rise if a well-rounded and knowledge-rich curriculum is implemented. However, many educators are hindered in following this logic by performance pressure and by belief.

There were vague and all-encompassing standards (think horoscopes), however there was no social studies curriculum in DCPS at the time (there still isn’t).  By collaborating with my colleagues and relying on my own education and knowledge of social studies topics I came up with unit and lesson plans pretty easily. However, I really struggled to come up with lesson plans for teaching the Stanford-9 Reading Test.  I thought at the time that it was because I didn’t have much background in reading instruction, that I was missing something. Eventually I figured out that it wasn’t that I was missing something, it was because “teaching” the Stanford-9 Reading Test made absolutely no sense (and Tim Shanahan explains here that such an approach doesn’t work). So I taught history and geography as much as I could and I taught what I imagined “teaching the Stanford-9 Reading Test” was only when I had to, and made sure I had passable documentation in my lesson plan book.

In my second year, I got braver. In faculty meetings when we talked in small groups about how to get our test scores up, I voiced my opinion that the way to get test scores up was via an implicit route—to teach content and have students read and write as much as possible. I stated my skepticism that one could teach the Stanford-9 Reading Test or that students could learn the Stanford-9 test, but except in private asides, I had no supporters. And this was before Michelle Rhee came to town, mind you. Before NCLB, teaching content to struggling students was unappreciated; now, it’s practically an act of subversion.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have little tolerance for the secondary teachers who say their job isn’t to help struggling readers. Yes, kids should be reading well by the time they get to middle and high school. But for whatever reason (and it’s probably a good idea to try and figure out that reason), many aren’t. Accept it and adjust your practice accordingly. If you’re not prepared to teach and help struggling readers or even non-readers, you have no business teaching in most American public school classrooms. But this does not mean giving a student reading on a first grade level a tenth grade textbook and telling her to read it. Rather it means finding content-relevant materials appropriate to students’ age and maturity and books on their level, scaffolding, and building up.

I also don’t blame my principal. Downtown was breathing down her neck, judging her on reading and math scores.  Rather than fight a losing battle that could cost her her position (while she was ambitious for herself, she also cared deeply about the students in her charge and about the school she had built from scratch), she embraced it all, including putting on Stanford-9 pep rallies. I am not making that up; these pep rallies happen.

In addition to what I describe above and the bankrupty of the content of the tests themselves, described by Diana Senechal here, another fundamental problem is that many of the advocates of reforms centered on testing-based accountability actually believe that kids who can’t read (decode) at all well should not be learning content, that they have to learn reading first and then they can learn content, that teaching a content-based curriculum is useless if kids can’t read. “Let’s focus on teaching reading and get the reading scores up and then we can worry about content.” And let’s be honest, even many teachers and educators who are opposed to testing-based accountability believe this. I encounter this all the time, as a teacher in both inner city and high-performing suburban districts, as a parent in my children’s high-performing district, and in my interactions with readers as an education blogger and writer.

I encountered this attitude, that language proficiency is a prerequisite to learning content frequently as an ESOL teacher. People insisted that English Language Learners should master English first before learning content. However, a very effective way to teach the English language is through the “sheltered content” model, where the content is a vehicle to teach the language. Of course, both English Language Learners and struggling readers need intensive and explicit language and reading instruction, but not beyond its utility and not without pairing it with content.

In the vast majority of cases, the “belief” that students have to learn to read before they can learn content is not a result of dysfunction, laziness, or poor intentions. Quite the contrary–this belief is based on the proven correlation between strong literacy skills and academic success and on the understandable urgency to get kids to master such skills. Unfortunately, it is also based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how people learn and of how such literacy skills develop. Some are celebrating NCLB’s increasing poor and minority students’ ability to read the tests they’re taking, but just because they can read the tests doesn’t mean they actually have a grasp of the content or that they know more. Being able to read the road signs is well and good, but it won’t get you very far if you don’t know how to drive or where to go.

Rachel Levy is a writer and a former (and likely future) ESOL and Social Studies teacher who lives in Ashland, Virginia, with her husband and three children. She blogs about education at All Things Education.

Et tu, Yglesias?

by Robert Pondiscio
June 16th, 2011

Oh no he didn’t!

American Progress pundit Matthew Yglesias commits the unpardonable sin of repeating what has to be to most wrong-headed idea in all of education: that teaching kids content can wait until they’ve learned the “skill” of reading.  He wraps up a column on the just-released NAEP history scores with this jaw-dropper:

“What we’re seeing, in particular, is that trying to teach history to kids who can’t read is a fool’s errand. Focusing more clearly on making sure that kids aren’t falling behind in their core skills is helping the worst-off kids do better across the board even at history.”

Teacher/blogger Rachel Levy sets Yglesias straight, so I don’t have to.

Our Love/Hate Relationship With “Mere Facts”

by Robert Pondiscio
March 22nd, 2011

The Daily Beast serves up that hardiest perennial of “tsk, tsk” journalism: a poll highlighting our collective lack of history and civic knowledge.   The U.S. citizenship test is comprised of 100 questions about American government, systems of government, rights and responsibilities, American history and civics, notes the Beast.  “Ten questions from the 100 are chosen randomly for the test-taker.  To pass, one must get at least six right.”  About four in ten Americans can’t clear the bar we set for would-be naturalized citizens.

Tsk, tsk. 

The essential conundrum.  We in education blithely dismiss background knowledge as trivia and “mere facts,” but we (and more importantly, the broader world) continue to judge harshly those not in possession of facts we take for granted.  Take the test yourself.  The questions are of the kind every school child used to know back when school kids used to know things.  And to be fair, some of the questions are trivia.  The ability to name the authors of the Federalist Papers, for example, is probably not as important as understanding something about the role of the papers in the ratification of the Constitution.  But the unspoken question to ask yourself is whether it would impact your opinion about a friend, neighbor or colleague if they couldn’t answer the questions.

Perhaps we should change the immigration test to a DBQ format.  Or perhaps insist on naturalization by portfolio assessment. 

(H/T Joanne Jacobs)

In Praise of The Concord Review

by Robert Pondiscio
January 10th, 2011

“Most kids don’t know how to write, don’t know any history, and that’s a disgrace,” says the redoubtable Will Fitzhugh. “Writing is the most dumbed-down subject in our schools.” 

He should know.  Since 1987, Fitzhugh has published The Concord Review, the only academic journal to publish history papers written by high school students:  924 of them penned by teenagers from 44 states and 39 nations, according to the New York Times, which gives Fitzhugh a long-overdue star turn.  But as the Times points out, Fitzhugh’s labor of love is falling on hard times.  The Review’s reputation, writes Sam Dillon, has always been bigger than its revenues.

Last year, income from 1,400 subscriptions plus charitable donations totaled $131,000 — about $5,400 short of total expenses, even though Mr. Fitzhugh paid himself only $18,000. This year, with donors less generous in the recession, Mr. Fitzhugh had to stop printing hard copies of the review, publishing its most recent issues only online, at tcr.org.

Fitzhugh tells the story of a history department chair at one school who no longer assigns research papers, but has students do PowerPoint presentations instead.  “Researching a history paper, Fitzhugh observes, “is not just about accumulating facts, but about developing a sense of historical context, synthesizing findings into new ideas, and wrestling with how to communicate them clearly — a challenge for many students, now that many schools do not require students to write more than five-paragraph essays.”

Fitzhugh is clearly on to something.  There is broad agreement that one of the competencies crucial for college success is the academic writing.  So if the ability to produce a good research paper is so important, why does The Concord Review struggle to keep its head above the water?  The Times suggests Fitzhugh’s “cantankerous” personality is an issue.  Or perhaps some educators see it as a showcase only for an elite.

“All but four of the 22 essays published in the two most recent issues, for example, were by private school students.  But it was not always so. In the review’s first decade, more than a third of the essays were from public school students. Mr. Fitzhugh said he would love to publish more from public school students, but does not get many exemplary submissions.

“It’s not my fault,” Fitzhugh said. “They’re not doing the work.”

You call that cantakerous?  If so, give us more cantankerous educators.  Lots more.

Separation of Church and Sense

by Robert Pondiscio
January 4th, 2011

You may have missed it in the hours before Christmas, but Andy “Eduwonk” Rotherham delivered an important column at TIME on “The Real War on Christmas.”  It’s not the push to secularize Christmas in public schools, as annually portrayed by fevered cable TV news hosts that should trouble us, Rotherham notes.  The larger problem, he points out, is that public schools are skittish about teaching much of anything about religion at all. 

“Although there is little hard data, the consensus among those who study the issue is that to the extent world religions are taught, they are treated superficially, usually with the help of just a few textbook pages that have been heavily sanitized to avoid even the hint of controversy. And that’s not good news if you believe a working knowledge of the world’s religions and their history is an important aspect of a well-rounded education.”

Or a “well-informed citizen,” he might also have added.

Andy is on the money with this.  School teachers are notoriously gunshy about talking about religion, which leaves students ill-prepared for the globalized world, poorly equipped to understand basics of history and geography, and lacking critical background knowledge to make sense of current events at home and abroad.  “It’s hard to understand many contemporary issues without knowing religious history and the tenets of the world’s major faiths,” Rotherham observes.

That said, it’s not hard to see how some schools and teachers might come honestly by their reluctance to teach religion, when some are quick to confuse proselytizing and learning about religion. In the comments section following Andy’s piece, the husband of a kindergarten teacher describes the reaction of parents of her students who were upset with her teaching Kwanzaa, “which they said is a made up holiday…That family decided to send in pictures of Jesus for their daughter to color while the rest of the class was learning about other world holidays.”  Teachers’ own knowledge of religion—or lack thereof—is another pitfall.  Too many are ill-equipped to teach much of value about the world’s major religions, even at an elementary level. 

As a driving force in shaping civilizations and cultures, knowledge of world religions is essential and indispensable.

Spanish Armada Please, and a Pitcher of Sangria

by Robert Pondiscio
October 28th, 2010

Surveys revealing how ill-informed U.S. schoolkids are on basic facts of history are the hardiest of perennials.  Well, take heart, America.  British kids are no better informed than ours.  The U.K.’s Daily Mail reports British kids fared miserably on a survey about their island nation’s maritime heritage.  Some kids think the Spanish Armada is a tapas-style dish, while others confuse Captain Cook with Captain Kirk. 

“The report found six in ten youngsters didn’t know the Battle of Waterloo was fought in Belgium, with one in six opting instead for the London’s railway station….And a worrying one in ten said Horatio Nelson was the captain of the French national football team in the Nineties  and the same number said Christopher Columbus discovered gravity.”

On the other hand, six in ten know Blackbeard was a pirate.  But ten percent think he’s the character played by Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. 

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1322149/British-children-think-Spanish-Armada-dish-Sir-Walter-Raleigh-invented-bicycles.html#ixzz13ehDF5ct

Spanish Armada is a national dish, Walter Raleigh invented the bicycle and 18th Century explorer Captain Cook was the helm of Starship Enterprise, according to research released today .

Frighteningly, a new survey also reveals that  many also think that the Battle of Waterloo was fought at the London rail terminal, Horatio Nelson captained the French football team in the Nineties… and  that thousands have never set foot in the sea.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1322149/British-children-think-Spanish-Armada-dish-Sir-Walter-Raleigh-invented-bicycles.html#ixzz13egCQA6U