It’s the best and worst time to teach

It is the best of times — and the worst of times — to be a teacher, writes Justin Reich on Education Week‘s EdTech Researcher.

In his seventh-grade U.S. History class, students had a textbook and a primary source reader with 20 documents, Reich writes.

Today, a history teacher can choose from the millions of documents archived online by thousands of libraries and archives around the world, including not just texts but images, audio recordings, film clips, and ephemera.

Students can create “multimedia performances of their understanding” and “share their work with peers and audiences around the world.”

It has never been easier for educators to connect with one another, to share best practices, to see best practices from around the country or around the globe, and to connect across schools with teachers who share our subjects, or our interests, or our peculiar circumstances. Never before has the fraternity of teachers been more connected.

Yet teacher “morale is at a 20 year nadir”  as “narrow content standards and high-stakes testing pushes ever more teachers towards an ever narrower, test-focused curriculum,” Reich writes.

Audrey Watters’ annual review of trends in education technology lamented that “technology — like schooling — is something we do TO kids.”

“So, we face a moment where technology dramatically widens the scope of educational feasibility while policy dramatically narrows the scope of classroom possibility,” concludes Reich.

It’s the students, stupid

“The main problem with our education system today is not what is taught, where it is taught, by whom it is taught or how it is taught,” writes Teresa Talbot in the Deseret News. After 24 years teaching in Utah public schools, she believes, “The main problem with education today is students who refuse to work,”

It is the students in a science class where the teacher finally stopped giving students work to complete at home because very few of them bothered to do it. Instead, she began giving students time in class to complete all assignments. Over a third of her students failed because they refused to work in class.

. . . It is the students in my math classes who, when I showed them how to work a multiple step problem, called out, “I’m not doing that; it’s too much work.” It is the students who “complete” and turn in every assignment and still score less than 30 percent on the test covering that material because they are not the ones who actually did the work they turned in.

No matter how good the teacher, the technology or the curriculum, passive, lazy students won’t learn, Talbot writes. She blames “ a society that no longer values the individual work ethic” or holds students responsible for their learning.

What’s alarming is that she teaches in Utah, the traditional values state.

On Teaching Now, Anthony Rebora asks if “schools and educators bear part of the blame for failing to reach and support disengaged students?”

Can’t read a watch? Blame algebra

Common Core‘s Lynne Munson bought watches for her preschoolers — a dinosaur wristband for her son, a Rapunzel watch with pink and purple hands for her daughter — on her way home from a math conference. The Swatch salesman was surprised she didn’t go digital, she writes in I Can’t Read My Watch! Algebra Is to Blame.

Munson wants to teach her kids to tell time. That’s a skill many watch buyers lack, said the salesman, who said he’s rarely successful in teaching customers to tell time. They just buy a digital watch.

Telling time is not doing math, but it requires knowledge of math fundamentals, Munson writes.

 You cannot tell time on a traditional clock without knowing that numbers are symbols that represent units, or without some basic grasp of estimation and ratios.  In other words, if you cannot tell time, it most likely means that you would still struggle with third and fourth-grade math concepts.

Munson thought of political scientist Andrew Hacker’s New York Times op-ed, Is Algebra Necessary?, which argued against requiring algebra because some students find it difficult. She disagrees:

With regard to mathematics, the problem is not that we are teaching too much of it—but that we are teaching math ineffectively.  The expectations and architecture of the new Common Core State Standards in Mathematics can help to remedy this.  Faithful implementation of those standards will support districts that want to adopt curricula that unfurl mathematics in a rational, coherent program and that jettison approaches that are illogically sequenced and that overuse and abuse manipulatives.

Common Core, which has created a curriculum map for English Language Arts and is working on map for math, will create New York state’s math curriculum from pre-K through 12th grade.

Curriculum is back — and Hirsch has got it

Common Core Standards’ call for a  “well-developed, content-rich curriculum” is forcing “a serious discussion about the specific subject matter that must be taught in the classroom,” writes Sol Stern in The Curriculum Reformation. “And that’s a discussion that hasn’t happened in American schools for almost half a century.”

Of course, E.D. Hirsch has been talking about content-rich curriculum for years, but nobody was listening.  His Core Knowledge curriculum, which proved itself in a New York City experiment, is “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades,” as called for by the new standards’ guidelines, Stern writes.

The Common Core train has left the station, but we don’t know yet whether that train will follow a route that leads to a restored American curriculum and a nation of literate and knowledgeable adults. Whatever differences they might have on other issues, school reformers of all stripes should monitor and comment on the standards’ implementation in the coming years. Reformers could help ensure that the curricula that state and local school-district officials select meet the Common Core’s own benchmark of “rich content knowledge.”

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, CCSS has put curriculum on the map as a reform lever, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog.

Reading ‘Hunger Games’ in high school

Few high school graduates are culturally literate, says Sandra Stotsky in an Education News interview. Her new book, The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum, comes out next week. In 2010, she surveyed a national sample of high school teachers to see what books they assign.

. . .  most students in this country experience an idiosyncratic curriculum, a fragmented curriculum whose individual titles don’t relate to each other in any way so that there is no accumulation of literary and historical knowledge of major literary traditions, movements, and periods in American, British and World Literature.

. . . what students read from grade 9 to grade 11 didn’t increase in reading difficulty. They were in essence, being pandered to, not intellectually challenged and educated.

Hunger Games is now required reading in some classes, interviewer Michael Shaughnessy observes. Teens can read the book on their own — it’s written at a fifth-grade level — without a teacher’s guidance, Stotsky replies.

Students who take honors, AP or IB courses may be prepared for “authentic college-level work,” she says. But there’s a vast middle group of students who graduate, go to college and find they can’t read well enough.

They have been shortchanged by an incoherent and intellectually flat literature curriculum reflecting idiosyncratic choices in the name of “engagement,” motivation, or relevance, or trendy ideas from the academy.

Bringing back leveled courses would provide more challenge for the top 20 percent of students and let average students read books written at the high school level in high school, she argues.

Centralization is to decentralization as Scylla is to…

In education, at least in this country, it’s treacherous to go too far toward centralization or decentralization.

Let’s consider curriculum. In the United States, a centralized national curriculum would cause far too much political turmoil. Or, rather, if such a thing could be pulled off, it would turn out bland and incoherent, after all the additions and compromises had been made. Well aware of this, policymakers have pushed for the “voluntary” nationalization of standards (not the same as curriculum) instead. Since standards usually focus on skills, they carry less threat than curriculum, at least on the surface. Hence the Common Core State Standards.

Now, it makes no sense to have common standards without common implementation. If people around the country interpret them in their own way, you might as well not have common standards at all. Thus, the standards and accompanying directives veer into curriculum and pedagogy. It’s inevitable, but that’s where the trouble begins. For instance, the standards specify the ratio of literary to informational text for each grade level. A guide for publishers (written by the main authors of the CCSS for English Language Arts) encourages close reading and discourage “pre-reading” activities; in the most recent version, the authors changed the wording to make it less prescriptive (in response to fierce criticism). The assessments based on the Common Core will likely carry even more implicit pedagogical directives and cause still more uproar.

Standards come with unofficial directives as well. District leaders pass on messages to administrators, who pass them on to teachers. Some of these get crass by the time they reach the classroom (e.g., “Only one novel per year“). Some are vague and voluminous; teachers hear that they will be expected to do all sorts of things they haven’t been doing, but it isn’t clear what. All sorts of “stuff” comes along with the standards, a great deal of it insubstantial.

In other words, nationalized standards are difficult to pull off in moderation and with discernment. They start to resemble the Scylla of education: that twelve-footed, six-necked monster that peers over the cliff and fishes for dolphins and bigger creatures.

In response, many argue that curriculum and standards should be left to local communities. This sounds like a great idea, if you live in a community that shares your view of education. Woe (or Charybdis) to you if you don’t.

Why be wary of local control? Oh, because the community’s likes, needs, and preferences might clash with yours. What’s more, they can be limiting. Some communities will try to guard their children from anything that conflicts with their religion. Others will seek curricula with immediate real-life application. Still others will want curricula that focus on their cultural heritage. Still others will focus on job skills and whatever seems to be in vogue. Others still will want anything that gives the children a competitive edge.  Others will insist on the beautiful and classical.

If education is supposed to take you into a larger perspective and larger world, then curricular decentralization, taken too far, works against this goal. Disparities will grow, and they won’t be only economic. Schools will be ingrown entities, confined to what the local communities value and know.

Now, most advocates of common standards and advocates of local curricula avoid the extremes I have described above. They keep some sort of counterbalance in mind. In education discussion, though, people tend to defend the principle they think needs defending, even if it isn’t the sum total of the truth for them. So their views may sound more extreme than they actually are.

Ultimately what makes sense is a  combination of centralized and decentralized curriculum. Getting the combination right is tricky, but it’s worth figuring out. For instance, we could have a few common texts per grade (nationwide), and leave it to districts and schools to shape the rest of their curricula. We could have institutes where teachers and principals immersed themselves in literature and other subjects, thus building a culture together. There are many more possibilities.

We need a common curricular basis of some kind, but it must not stifle initiative, limit variety, or drag down what is good. Finding the right mixture of the common and particular may be one of education’s most difficult challenges. Are we willing to undertake it? Is there a good place to begin?

Sometimes it seems that we are clinging to the fig tree, our legs dangling down, as Odysseus did in order to escape both Scylla and Charybdis. Not being Odysseus, we can’t count on such agility or fortune. Fortunately our Scylla and Charybdis aren’t quite as ferocious as the old ones. Things are bad, and plenty bad, but they aren’t quite that bad.

Seneca, “idle busyness,” and relevance

How relevant is “relevance” to good curriculum?

Earlier this term, I had my tenth-grade students read Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s letter “On the Shortness of Life” (De brevitate vitae). The letter contains the phrase desidiosa occupatio, which could be translated as “idle occupation” or “idle busyness.” The students seized on this phrase and cited it frequently.

In this letter to Paulinus (presumably his father-in-law, who oversaw Rome’s grain supply and was old enough to retire), Seneca argues against trivial occupations and for the study of philosophy. People complain that life is short, says Seneca, but it is actually long. People make it short by wasting it. He gives the example of the man getting a haircut:

Tell me, would you say that those men are at leisure who pass many hours at the barber’s while they are being stripped of whatever grew out the night before? while a solemn debate is held over each separate hair? while either disarranged locks are restored to their place or thinning ones drawn from this side and that toward the forehead? How angry they get if the barber has been a bit too careless, just as if he were shearing a real man! How they flare up if any of their mane is lopped off, if any of it lies out of order, if it does not all fall into its proper ringlets! Who of these would not rather have the state disordered than his hair? Who is not more concerned to have his head trim rather than safe? Who would not rather be well barbered than upright?

Seneca provides many more examples of “idle busyness”—leaders embroiled in battles and public affairs; men concerned with the ornamentation of their lives rather than the essence; and, worst of all, people who give themselves over to wine and lust. All of these people, in occupying themselves with many things, fail to accomplish anything of importance, as true accomplishment requires dedication and focus.

Finally, everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is busied with many things—eloquence cannot, nor the liberal studies—since the mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.

What way of life, according to Seneca, allows for dedication to the important things? The immersion in philosophical works, or works of wisdom (sapientia).

Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only. They annex ever age to their own; all the years that have gone ore them are an addition to their store. Unless we are most ungrateful, all those men, glorious fashioners of holy thoughts, were born for us; for us they have prepared a way of life. By other men’s labours we are led to the sight of things most beautiful that have been wrested from darkness and brought into light; from no age are we shut out, we have access to all ages, and if it is our wish, by greatness of mind, to pass beyond the narrow limits of human weakness, there is a great stretch of time through which we may roam.

My students said that they could relate it to their lives; they cited Facebook, TV, and other kinds of “idle busyness.” One student told me that this letter inspired her to change her priorities. Now, this sort of “relating,” while in many ways illuminating, has its drawbacks; students might overlook parts of the letter that don’t quite mesh with their understanding. Take this, for instance:

And what of those who are engaged in composing, hearing, and learning songs, while they twist the voice, whose best and simplest movement Nature designed to be straightforward, into the meanderings of some indolent tune, who are always snapping their fingers as they beat time to some song they have in their head, who are overheard humming a tune when they have been summoned to serious, often even melancholy, matters? These have not leisure, but idle occupation.

I, for one, take exception to this, and that is part of the point of reading. If Seneca’s points were exactly my own, then I would learn nothing from his letter. What is wrong with snapping your fingers to some tune, I ask, if that is what you love to do? But Seneca is not talking about what you love to do. He is not saying, “do what matters to you.” Though the letter is to one person, and therefore not framed as universal advice, Seneca unequivocally ranks some activities above others. That stumbling point (for many a modern reader) makes the letter more difficult and in some ways more interesting.

What does that say about “relevance?” Many educators insist that a curriculum should reflect the students’ own experience and cultural backgrounds, at least in part. Now, it’s easy to scoff at this, but it isn’t entirely wrong. It’s just a limited version of a truth. What’s most important is that students find meaning in subject matter (or lack of meaning, if that is its point). This meaning might not apply to their lives, at least not directly. It may not translate easily or completely into everyday language. It certainly doesn’t have to boil down to a maxim or moral. Meaning is the sense or significance of something.

Now, sometimes the meaning is immediate. You read a story and recognize the situation. You may even recognize the characters right away. The life of the story seems close to your own life. In other cases, the meaning doesn’t come for a while. You struggle a bit with the language and ideas. But eventually something comes clear, and with time, still more.

While students may enjoy “relating” to subject matter, they must learn to grapple with difficult and unfamiliar things. The relating may lead to the grappling but doesn’t do so automatically.  Nor is the former a prerequisite for the latter. The former does not require much education; the latter does. Doesn’t it follow, then, that schools should focus on taking students to meaning, not on making things immediately relevant?

It’s not just the teachers, stupid

Good instructional materials are as important for student learning as good teachers, yet there’s a “scandalous lack of information” about what schools are using and what’s most effective, concludes a new report from Brookings’ Brown Center,  Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness and the Common Core.

Students learn principally through interactions with people (teachers and peers) and instructional materials (textbooks, workbooks, instructional software, web-based content, homework, projects, quizzes, and tests). But education policymakers focus primarily on factors removed from those interactions, such as academic standards, teacher evaluation systems, and school accountability policies. It’s as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance but paid no attention to the treatments that doctors give their patients.

Choosing better instructional materials “should be relatively easy, inexpensive, and quick,” compared to improving teacher quality, write Russ Whitehurst and Matthew Chingos. They urge states, the federal government, nonprofit groups and philanthropists to fund research on effectiveness. That would start by collecting data on what instructional materials schools are using.


Brookings: Common Core won’t boost achievement

Common Core standards “will have little to no effect on student achievement,” predicts Tom Loveless, in How Well are American Students Learning?, a report by Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy. The quality or rigor of state standards doesn’t correlate with students’ reading or math performance on NAEP, Loveless concludes.

“State standards have really never been able to penetrate down to the classroom and affect teaching and learning.  Common Core advocates believe this time is different.  I’m skeptical that their project has some secret ingredient that previous standards lacked.”

Standards represent the intended curriculum, “what governments want students to learn,” Loveless writes. Then there’s the implemented curriculum, “what teachers teach.”

Two fourth-grade teachers in classrooms next door to each other may teach multiplication in vastly different ways and with different degrees of effectiveness. State policies rarely touch such differences. The attained curriculum is what students learn.

Standards peak in popularity when first proposed, then nosedive when “tests are given and consequences kick in,” Loveless writes. Common Core is already losing support.

The report also looks at achievement gaps on NAEP and the tendency to misinterpret international test scores.

Education Next is hosting a discussion on Common Core math standards today.

It’s the curriculum, stupid

Education reform has ignored curriculum, writes Beverlee Jobrack, a retired editorial director for McGraw-Hill, in Tyranny of the Textbook: An Insider Exposes How Educational Materials Undermine Reforms.

Mediocrity is the norm, according to Jobrack, writes Erik Robelen in Ed Week‘s Curriculum Matters.

• School and district committees for curriculum selection filled with teachers and others who lack the appropriate expertise, motivation, and time to make the best choices;

• State textbook adoptions focused on whether curricular materials meet state standards, line by line, with little or no attention to whether they actually are of high quality and represent a coherent and well-designed instructional approach; and

• A radically consolidated publishing industry, driven by sales and marketing tems, that has “resulted in a dearth of customer choice, a reluctance to innovate, and huge [curricular] programs that are barely distinguishable from one another.”

Graphics win favor. Innovation does not. ”A group of very experienced teachers selects the textbook that is most like what they are already doing so they don’t have to change their lesson plans or procedures,” she writes.

Common standards won’t change teaching and learning “without real and meaningful changes in the curriculum,” Jobrack believes. The industry will resist change, she says in an interview.

“They’re not changing anything in the curriculum. They are simply relabeling. … If there’s anything missing in a textbook series, the publishers will simply add a paragraph or add a lesson to address that particular standard.”

When publishers produce an incoherent, standard-stuffed curriculum, it’s not surprising that teachers cherry-pick what they want to teach and ignore the rest.