New standards, old content-lite teaching

New Common Core Standards won’t help students learn if schools stick with the same old content and teaching strategies, writes Matthew Levey, a parent of three children in public schools and the husband of a teacher.

Non-fiction matters more than ever before, according to Common Core. 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.

“Children also need much more explicit instruction” to put content into context, Levey writes.

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.

. . . 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.”

Raising standards without redesigning the curriculum and retraining teachers is doomed to fail, Levey predicts. 

Via Core Knowledge, where Robert Pondiscio has started a squishiness watch on the upcoming common social studies standards.  A draft framework will be released next month, he notes. “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.”  The new standards won’t detail issues or events students should study, Gewertz writes. Instead they’ll describe “the structure, tools and habits of mind” they should develop.

No content? Pondiscio offers the Core Knowledge Sequence for Pre-K to 8th grade as a reference.

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  1. [email protected] says:

    Hey, hey we were winning the war. Okay, Antietam, Shiloh, but before that the South was winning the major engagements.

    • @Candi,

      I suppose it only shows the biased view that I’m coming from, but since the battles were fought primarily in the South, it guess I see it as a defensive war where they were holding the Union at bay, but not able to project offensive power or defeat the naval blockade.

      But the power of having solid background knowledge is the ability to engage in a meaningful discussion about topics like this. Instead of offering superficial responses, as our children so often do.

  2. About now, E.D. Hirsch must be banging his head against the wall. These examples about the lack of background knowledge could be examples from his books.

  3. Non-fiction is NOT more important than fiction. Only someone completely devoid of teaching experience, i.e. those with CC curriculum to sell, would believe so.

  4. Non-fiction is not more important than fiction but it is equally important. In both cases, of course, unless the material is of high quality and relevant to the academic purpose, it is useless.

  5. <<<<Non-fiction is NOT more important than fiction.

    That's not the point. Broad background knowledge is essential to broad reading comprehension ability. We misconceive reading comprehension as a "skill" and a transferable skill that we can apply to any text. It's really not. You need to know a bit about the subject, and sometimes a lot about a subject, to make meaning. It doesn't take a lot of gaps and ambiguities for comprehension to break down. Thus, if an elementary school is not putting coherent subject matter (not merely random, skills-driven nonfiction) at the heart of literacy instruction, they're not teaching reading.

    Let's not start a war between fiction and nonfiction. They are not in opposition to each other. They are two sides of the same reading coin.