Teaching the Common Core

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Tonight on PBS, Learning Matters looks at how teaching has changed to meet Common Core standards in two eighth-grade classrooms.

Tomorrow night Part 2 will look at testing the Common Core.

It’s time to debate ‘mainstreaming’

It’s time to debate whether debate whether mainstreaming special-education students is fair to all students, argues attorney Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, author of Fixing Special Education, in a Wall Street Journal commentary.

When teachers focus on students who need more attention, other children get less attention, writes Freedman. Yet parents of regular-education students rarely challenge policies that place high-need children in mainstream classrooms.

The special-education system in the U.S. is highly regulated by law, expensive, and sometimes marked by litigiousness. Those working to reform the system are almost exclusively people with a direct stake in it—including school representatives, parents of students with disabilities, advocates, lawyers, special educators, academics and government officials.

Fourteen percent of students are in special education today: 70 to 80 percent have mild or moderate disabilities, including learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, social and emotional disabilities, ADHD, etc. While federal regulations govern special ed, 80 percent of funding comes from states.

Students with disabilities have the right to be in the “least restrictive environment” to the maximum extent “appropriate,” with added resources such as computers, large-print or recorded books, and personal aides, if needed.

Look into the research on inclusion and you will find that this policy is generally based on notions of civil rights and social justice, not on “best education practices” for all students. The effectiveness of inclusion for students with disabilities varies—some groups and individual students benefit; others don’t. This is one reason why inclusion remains controversial in some segments of the disability community.

Very little work has been done to establish how inclusion affects regular students—whether they are average, English-language learners, advanced, poor or homeless. Studies seem to support the social benefits of mainstreaming for children with disabilities and possibly for regular-education students, but what about the effect on their academic progress?

Teachers may tell you (privately) that inclusion often leads them to slow down and simplify classroom teaching. Yet the system is entrenched and politically correct.

Educators and parents should join a “robust, inclusive and frank national discussion” on how to fix a broken special education system, Freedman concludes.

I’d be very interested in what teachers really think about inclusion. How many are getting the supports they need to do it well?

Teacher training programs need a reboot

Teacher training programs should be designed on the medical model, writes Jane Dimyan-Ehrenfeld in the Washington Post.

I went to a highly ranked liberal arts college and graduated with a special major in sociology, anthropology and education as well as an elementary teaching certificate. I immediately found a job teaching breathtakingly underprivileged students in a persistently failing elementary school in Prince George’s County. I wasn’t prepared to teach my students how to tie their shoes, much less to make up for years of institutional neglect, hunger, poverty, family transience, isolation and other ills. My first year was a nightmarish blur; my second was only slightly less awful. My third had its highlights but was still a daily struggle.

She enrolled in a one-year master’s program at Teachers College, Columbia to learn how to teach special-needs students. She learned a lot about Lev Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development, but nothing of practical use.

We can’t decide whether teaching is a “craft or a profession,” Arthur Levine said in the Post‘s story on National Council on Teacher Quality‘s report criticizing teacher education. “Do you need a lot of education as you would in a profession, or do you need a little bit and then learn on the job, like a craft?” asked Levine.

It’s a false dichotomy, writes Dimyan-Ehrenfeld. Medical students combine highly specialized education with clinical rotations, “learning the craft of patient care through observation and guided practice.” They also take “rigorous licensing exams that test their theoretical and practical knowledge.” Then comes on-the-job learning under master practitioners and more tests.

Why not adopt this model for education? Educators could be required to complete a period of schooling in which they learn the theories and ideas that will be most valuable to them as teachers and hone their skills at thinking and talking about education from an intellectual standpoint. Then, perhaps, one to two years of guided practice under the supervision of master teachers could be required, with lots of coaching and meaningful feedback. We could even throw in some rigorous exams.

If it took years of education, training and testing to become a full-fledged teacher, would we have enough teachers?

Dimyan-Ehrenfeld taught for eight years in Maryland and Boston public schools. She now practices education and civil rights law in Washington.

Critics hit remedial ed reforms

States are trying to prevent, accelerate or limit remedial education to boost graduation rates. But some say remedial reforms will doom many college students to failure.

Instructors are trying to increase the rigor of developmental classes so students will be prepared to succeed in credit-bearing classes.

Flexibility, low pay for online adjuncts

Job satisfaction is high for online adjunct instructors at Arizona’s Rio Salado College, despite low pay and no benefits, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Flexible work hours and effective training in online teaching are the key.

Online courses provided the flexibility Richard Bradbury needed to complete the first two years of college while working in Afghanistan as a contractor. Once he was “seven or eight questions” in to a timed test in macroeconomics when a rocket attack began. He grabbed his computer, ran to the bunker and finished the test.

To be employable, study philosophy

Would-be journalists (and others) who want to be employable should avoid journalism programs and study philosophy, advises Shannon Rupp, a Canadian journalist, in Salon. She majored in political science and English, but also took philosophy classes that taught “something applicable to any and every job: clarity of thought.”

While “vague, trendy subjects” go out of fashion, philosophy stays relevant, writes Rupp. The University of Windsor is closing its Centre for Studies in Social Justice, possibly because “no one can actually define ‘social justice’.”

. . .  the importance of defining terms to ensure we all mean the same thing when we’re talking is one of those skills I picked up in philosophy.

I spent a semester defining ordinary things. Hats. Chairs. It’s harder than it looks. And I remember a classmate’s resistance to it. He kept ranting that it was stupid — everyone knows what a chair is! — before dropping out.

Of course, everyone only thinks she knows what a chair is. Or social justice, for that matter. Politicians, CEOs of questionable ethics, and all PR people count on exactly that. They will say something vague — I find the buzzwords du jour all seem to have some reference to “social” in them — and leave us to fill in the blanks with whatever pleases us.

Voila: we hear whatever we want and they get away with whatever they want.

Epistemology — the study of what we can know — teaches how to distinguish beliefs from facts, Rupp writes. Many people confuse the two.

The philosophy of science teaches about objectivity, which journalists often confuse with “being fair or denying personal bias.”

As newspapers began introducing advertorial copy and advertiser-driven sections, they retrained their staff to talk about “balance” instead of objectivity. As if printing opposing opinions somehow makes up for running half-truths.

What objectivity really means is to test for accuracy — regardless of what you suspect (or hope) might be true. In science they test knowledge by trying to poke holes in each other’s research. News reporters were taught a variation summed up by the cliché, “If someone tells you it’s raining, look out the window.”

The version I’ve heard is: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

Teaching “critical thinking” (as opposed to uncritical thinking?) is all the rage these days. Should K-12 teachers study philosophy?

Teaching Trayvon

Common Core standards drafters want inner-city students to reach high standards, but don’t want teachers to “link literature to our students’ strengths,” writes John Thompson in the Huffington Post. That doesn’t show respect for students, he believes.

If he was back in the classroom, Thompson would be playing Bruce Springsteen’s American Skin:

41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school
She says now on these streets Charles
You got to understand the rules
Promise me if an officer stops you’ll always be polite
Never ever run away and promise mama you’ll keep your hands in sight

The song always sparked discussion, Thompson writes.

In the first verse, Springsteen wrote from the perspective of the white New York City cops who shot a Nigerian immigrant, Amadou Diallo, 41 times thinking he had a gun, even though it was his wallet. “Forty-one shots, and we’ll take this ride, cross the bloody river, to the other side.”

The second verse was from the perspective of a black mother warning her son in case he was racially profiled. The third verse was from a universal perspective as we are “baptized in each others’ blood,” and a crucial change is made in the chorus, “Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it in your heart? Is it in your sight?”

Asked the source of Springsteen’s image of “the river,” a girl replied, “Langston Hughes!”

“Great,” I answered, throwing a copy of Hughes’ poems to her, “Support your answer.”

Kesha read, “I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers….”

When “curriculum alignment became the district’s gospel,” Thompson played the song during orientation to illustrate issues that would be studied in Government and help English teachers teach “repetition, point of view and metaphor.” A high level administrator objected. “Our kids don’t have time for Bruce Springsteen.”

What works for high-need students

Stanford Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond talked about educational equity and what works for disadvantaged students with as part of Education Sector’s Redefining Equity Up series.

Confused? Your computer can sense it

Computers can monitor students’ facial expressions and evaluate their engagement or frustration, according to North Carolina State researchers. That could help teachers track students’ understanding in real time, notes MIT Technology Review.

Perhaps it could even help massively open online courses (or MOOCs), which can involve many thousands of students working remotely, to be more attuned to students’ needs.

It also hints at what could prove to be a broader revolution in the application of emotion-sensing technology. Computers and other devices that identify and respond to emotion—a field of research known as “affective computing”—are starting to emerge from academia. They sense emotion in various ways; some measure skin conductance, while others assess voice tone or facial expressions.

The NC State experiment involved college students who were using JavaTutor software to learn to write code. The monitoring software’s conclusions about students’ state of mind matched their self reports closely.

“Udacity and Coursera have on the order of a million students, and I imagine some fraction of them could be persuaded to turn their webcams on,” says Jacob Whitehill, who works at Emotient, a startup exploring commercial uses of affective computing. “I think you would learn a lot about what parts of a lecture are working and what parts are not, and where students are getting confused.”

Is Huck Finn too hard?

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is too difficult for high schoolers, argues Kent Oswald in Education Week Teacher. He fears it will ruin “teens’ potential interest in serious reading.”

. . . during and after their two-chapter-a-night, test-in-three-weeks slog through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, few high schoolers gain any sense of why Twain is revered, understand what the book is even about, or have their thinking changed by absorbing how differing contexts have made the tale controversial from its time through today. . . . Potential barriers for teen readers include Twain’s use of highly colloquial period-speech and subtle subversion of the religious and slaveholding conventions of his contemporaries, not to mention some highly dense sections. So where is the rationale for forcing teens to read a book whose story is more or less simple but whose context is more complex than most of them are prepared for?

Twain wrote more accessible books and short stories, writes Oswald, who is described as a freelance writer with a master’s in teaching who works (doing what?) “in the White Plains, N.Y., school system.”

In the comments, several teachers say their students enjoy Huck Finn and the discussions it fosters about race.

Yes, I was a precocious reader, but I first read Huckleberry Finn in elementary school. When Huck thinks he’s sinned by helping Jim and decides he’ll willing to go to hell for it . . . I got it. I can’t believe high school students –with a teacher’s help — can’t understand it. At the end, Tom Sawyer says nobody was killed in a steamship accident, then says a slave died. That shocked me. But I got it.