What should students know?

What should students know? Robert Pondiscio asks Deborah Meier on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences blog.

In an earlier post about the “hidden curriculum,” Meier said a good school is judged by how it  “responds to the cultural norms, conditions, language, relationships that all the constituents bring to school with them.”

What about history, math and science? asks Pondiscio.

Meier’s schools — Central Park East Secondary School (Harlem) and Mission Hill (Boston) — set very clear graduation requirements, she responds.  The schools teach history, math, physical and natural science, literature and the arts in a “more interdisciplinary manner.” The schools encourage “curiosity, debate, skepticism, and a commitment to getting at the truth about the ‘essential questions’ in each discipline.”

Students work was expected to demonstrate five intellectual habits of mind:

 What’s the evidence? Is there a pattern?  Is there an alternate perspective, explanation? What if? And who cares?

. . . Students were rated on their written and oral ability to present their views and defend them.  We thought the five “habits” met both academic and “real life” standards. (We developed a separate list of work and social/moral habits—meeting deadlines, etc.)

“Our students’ record of success” satisfied many skeptics, despite the lack of a list of “specific information” to be taught, writes Meier. 

“I want our students to be prepped for the real world, and I hope colleges do, too,” Meier concludes. Students did well in college interviews — and in college — because “they were unusually well prepared to carry on a conversation with adults in a thoughtful and lively way.”

Kindergarten demands ‘algebraic thinking’

Kindergarten is too tough for little kids these days, New York City teachers complain to the Post.

Way beyond the ABCs, crayons and building blocks, the city Department of Education now wants 4- and 5-year-olds to write “informative/explanatory reports” and demonstrate “algebraic thinking.”

Children who barely know how to write the alphabet or add 2 and 2 are expected to write topic sentences and use diagrams to illustrate math equations.

Under newly adopted Common Core State Standards, kindergarten teachers read aloud “informational texts,” such as “Garden Helpers,” a National Geographic tale about useful pests.

After three weeks, kids have to “write a book about what they’ve learned,” with a drawing and sentences explaining the topic.

In math, kindergarteners learn about the “commutative property.”  (I recall learning that in middle school.)

 The big test: “Miguel has two shelves. Miguel has six books . . . How many different ways can Miguel put books on the two shelves? Show and tell how you know.”

Teachers rate students’ performance as “novice,” “apprentice,” “practitioner” or “expert.”

An “expert” would draw a diagram with a key, show all five combinations, write number sentences for each equation, and explain his or her conclusions using math terms, the DOE says.

Cathleen Vecchione, a kindergarten teacher at PS 257 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has taught her students to count by 10s, but hasn’t started teaching addition.

Her students are expected to write simple sentences, such as “I have a pet.”

I tutor first graders in reading and I once volunteered in my daughter’s kindergarten class. Writing is very challenging for little kids. Some can’t form letters. Most can’t spell. It’s especially tough for boys. And I haven’t met many five- or six-year-olds who are ready to write equations.

In fact, I’m 60 and I’m a little puzzled by Miguel’s book options. The Post suggests there are five combinations. I get 14 ways if it’s just about how many books go on each shelf. (Zero books on Shelf A and six on Shelf B and so on, then zero books on Shelf B and six on Shelf A and so on.) But what if Miguel is putting some books on their side, and other backwards and . . . Is he organizing by subject matter? Perhaps he’s got his physics books on Shelf A and his philosophy books on Shelf B.

In Developing the Habits of Mind for Algebraic Thinking, Barry Garelick implies that fifth graders aren’t ready to write algebraic equations. “Giving students problems to solve for which they have little or no prior knowledge or mastery of algebraic skills is not likely to develop the habit of mind of algebraic thinking,” he writes.

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.