Am I a geek or a nerd?

standards schmandards, or why teachers and leadership matter more

I have a colleague (a super crazy bright kind of colleague) who is currently doing some work with a School Improvement Grant recipient district. The district turn around agent has asked to her to review the social studies curriculum with teachers, observe these teachers implementing the curriculum, and provide PD to help teachers meet the standards outlined by the curriculum.


The teachers have been a bit hostile toward her and the process, and told her to observe them first period if she really wanted to see what’s what. (She would describe the teachers are mixed bag of dedicated high fliers and folks who couldn’t hired elsewhere.)


So she did. And she shared the pictures with me. Of course, I’m not sharing them here, but I will describe what she saw and heard. The bell rang for first period in the class she selected to observe. Four students were present. She took a picture. After several minutes she went into the hallway. Dozens and dozens of students in the hallways, mingling with the security staff, talking at their lockers, none moving toward a classroom and no one asking them to. She took several more pictures. Back in the classroom, students begin to arrive. All have a yellow pass in their hands. This pass is from the office, it shows that you checked in late and the teachers must admit you and provide your missed work. She asked a student about the pass. The student said you just tell the office staff you need one and they give you one. No hassle, no guff, no repercussions.


What’s a curriculum specialist to do? Well, she wrote up her daily report and included pictures and quotes and sent it to the principal and the superintendent. She also pointed out that all the PD on curriculum wasn’t going to do a damn thing if students didn’t attend class. I’ll give you one guess what the principal said.


“who authorized you to take pictures”




This is just more proof of what the Brookings Institution found in their recent report about standards:

States have had curricular standards for schools within their own borders for many years. Data on the effects of those standards are analyzed to produce three findings. 1) The quality of state standards, as indicated by the well-known ratings from the Fordham Foundation, is not related to state achievement. 2) The rigor of state standards, as measured by how high states place the cut point for students to be deemed proficient, is also unrelated to achievement… 3) The ability of standards to reduce variation in achievement, in other words to reduce differences in achievement, is also weak.


Having standards means nothing if teachers don’t teach to them and students aren’t present or able to master them. Consider my relationship with my triathlon coach. Since having a baby we are starting from scratch with my training and I’m not even a little bit close to being the athlete I was. I tried to train without a coach; I’d spent years training, you’d think I’d have learned something. But my efforts were poorly planned and poorly executed as I tried to reach a standard I’d previously held. My coach understands that I can’t hit those targets right now; she gives me an attainable plan and we measure improvement based on where I started during this round, not on where I was 2 years ago (Team USA anyone?).  But I need to show up. I have to complete the workouts. All the standards in the world won’t matter if the student isn’t present or prepared.


The superintendent has a much bigger hurdle than curriculum and PD for teachers; he needs to change the culture of the schools (and possibly his high school principal).


The History Channel in The Classroom
February 2, 2012, 9:37 pm
Filed under: curriculum | Tags: ,

I think they are just called History now, not the History Channel, but I’m pretty sure we all still call it by the latter rather than the former. But that’s neither here nor there.

I have a long running beef with History Channel, stemming from work they did on Star Spangled Banner preservation education materials in the late 1990s. I worked on the original version of that website (WOW! It’s so much better now!) on some resources and ideas for classroom use. One of the Smithsonian historians’ goals was to dispel the Betsy Ross myth regarding the first American flag; it’s not that she didn’t make flags, it’s that no one really knows who made the first one. Its kind of like Washington and the cherry tree, Lincoln and the log cabin…Betsy Ross and her flag. In any case, the History Channel education folks created some materials for elementary schools with this very Betsy Ross looking figure on the front, kind of defeating some of the efforts of the Smithsonian folks to get kids to move beyond the myths. No biggie, it was annoying at the time, and there are certainly plenty of resources from that I would use.

I also take issue with the broadcast selection on the History Channel. Pawn Stars? Swamp People? American Pickers? I’m not sure how these are history but I can see that they make money for the network and ideally allow historians to produce the kind of stuff I hope to see on their cable stations and website.

So. Last week I’m editing/proofing/reviewing the latest 5th grade unit (Road to Revolution) for the Michigan Citizenship Collaborative Curriculum and, per a discussion with the writer and another reviewer, looked for a video that might enhance the unit. Enter I found a brief clip that would be great for 5th grade: short, clear, repeated use of words like ‘repeal’ both aurally and visually, boiled down the content without dumbing it down too. AttheB, Carol and I agreed it would work well in introducing students to some of the taxes/acts that led colonists down the road to revolution in lesson 3. We also decided to revisit the clip in lesson 6, once students have done a more complete study of the causes of revolution, to have students address what the video left out as a review (formative assessment, anyone?). All is well, the unit is done. Except. Some teachers point out that the video will be blocked by school filters. What? It’s, not youtube! I went there on purpose! And its short, so now crazy download times. What!!

Because the video clip leads in with a commercial. When I first found it the ad was for Turbo Tax. Today its for Susan G. Komen (another can of worms there…). 15 second ads. I thought the point of Pawn Stars and Swamp People was to make the money to make these educational clips available. How much are you getting from Turbo Tax? Should Susan G. Komen even pay for ad time? What?

Okay. Not that big a deal. Annoying to me, probably not to anyone else. In any case, I told the teacher to use to download the video and all would be fine.

What Administrators Don’t Know
January 13, 2011, 11:39 am
Filed under: curriculum, professional development | Tags:

I’ve spent the last two days meeting with different groups of elementary, middle school and high school principals about what to look for in social studies teaching and how to help their teachers based on our observations of them.

I started these meetings the same way I’ve started lots of my teacher meetings; with a blank k-12 sequence for social studies. The participants are asked to jot down the content or course title for each grade of social studies. I didn’t always do this. AtotheB and I first tried this at a NCSS workshop, figuring that since it was a national conference it was a quick way to see similarities and differences in social studies among the participating schools/states. Turns out almost no one in that NCSS workshop could tell us what is taught in all 12 grades of social studies, even in states that require it through graduation. I started to wonder if our teachers could do it. They couldn’t either.

Finding this out was eye-opening. We stress ideas of progressions of learning and continuous growth of our students and our teachers (and these were teachers who were actively trying to improve–they paid to attend NCSS and our local workshops!!) don’t know where their students are coming from or where they are heading to! Most could name the course immediately preceding and immediately following the one they teach. Or if a teacher had been assigned to a variety of grade levels through their career we found a good sense of progressions. Or if you had kids in particular grades you likely know what they are learning. In general, though, teachers seemed to know only their own course and grade level.

So I pulled this blank document out and fully expected the building principals to know what we are required to teach at each grade level they supervise. Really, I thought this would just be the lead in to the news that while admin knows this, teachers don’t. Imagine my surprise when principals couldnt’ do this either. Most could summarize the grades in their building (some couldnt’ even do that) but not one could complete the prior or subsequent grades.

So what did I do? I pulled up the stuff we use with teachers, showing progressions of learning from grades k-8. I had them compare the Foundational Expectations listed in our high school documents (the stuff that’s supposed to be review of middle school learning) to what the state actually requires in middle school (hint: it doesn’t match up very well). We discussed the importance of having teacher meet as multi-grade level teams to examine instruction and assessment data. They examined the implications of teachers writing curriculum without the benefit of knowing what students had learned in the past 5 years or what they would be expected to learn in the next 5.

What will they do with this information? I have no idea. I expected them to know how important it is to understand the sequence of content/skills but was stunned to see that while they recognize its importance they didn’t actually do anything to make it happen. I wish I was continuing to consult in this county, I wish that I hadn’t learned this about the admin while nearing the end of my contract, I wish that I could attack this problem in my remaining time here. Is 48 hours enough?

Teachers aren’t experts!
January 3, 2011, 2:35 pm
Filed under: curriculum

They aren’t. It’s not a judgement or criticism, it’s a fact. Most teachers are not experts in the subject matter they are teaching. Four years of liberal arts and two more for a master’s degree qualifies you to be a teacher, but doesn’t bring you close to being an expert. Certainly, some teachers have greater knowledge of subject matter particulars than others, but on the whole, they aren’t experts. I taught US History for 10 years; the amount I don’t know could fill the Grand Canyon.  So why are teachers asked to write curriculum standards? Or to evaluate the soundness of textbooks?

Take for example, Virginia. Teachers serve on state level committees to review and approve texts for use in Virginia classrooms. Unfortunately, few teachers have the knowledge and expertise to review texts to ensure they are factually accurate and generally sound. They aren’t given the time to fact check each statement, nor do they have the broad scope of knowledge to determine if the texts are creating a clear and accurate picture.  What you end up with is this:

In the version of history being taught in some Virginia classrooms, New Orleans began the 1800s as a bustling U.S. harbor (instead of as a Spanish colonial one). The Confederacy included 12 states (instead of 11). And the United States entered World War I in 1916 (instead of in 1917).

Historians brought in after the Washington Post reported this found pages of errors in one particular book, some of them simply factual errors of date, but others significant enough to alter a student’s perception of history.  As a follow-up, the Post published a history quiz that included some errors from the text in question. Unfortunately, the quiz doesn’t function in all browsers and when it does function it reports in accurate scores, but more interesting to me is the trend found in the comments; that facts are boring and don’t matter and shouldn’t be the subject of tests.

Many commenters were dead on with their criticism of tests that ask these sorts of questions and of teachers who focus solely on the ‘boring’ dates. But they missed the point of the quiz and the related stories: schools are using materials with glaringly factual errors! No one is suggesting that students should memorize the list of dates, or that teachers should focus on this limited set of facts. However, if the main resource for students (and the text is the main resource for most) has factual errors, how can we ask students to defend their interpretations of historical events accurately, use facts to support assertions made in analysis, or even double-check their work?

The adoption of this book is not the fault of the teachers; they were charged with a task they are unqualified to complete. Sure, they can tell you how useful something might be in their classroom, if kids can read the material as presented, and if it fits into their requirements, but they don’t know everything. The real culprits are those who failed to require a content expert to review materials.

As time-consuming as vetting is, those of us working on the Michigan Citizenship Collaborative Curriculum understand the value of both the expert and teacher opinion. Every thing we produce is first reviewed by a university level content expert for content accuracy and then reviewed by the teachers who might use it in their classrooms. What we find is that sometimes we’ve screwed up the facts (ex. in simplifying the economic concept of scarcity for fourth graders, we used incorrect examples) and sometimes we’ve screwed up the expectation of grade (ex. third grade teachers letting us know that most student could not read the included material). It takes a long time. It can be humiliating. It can force us back to the drawing board. But it means that our teachers have high quality and accurate material with which to teach Social Studies in a way that doesn’t focus on dates and places but on trends and ideas.

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