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.

Everything I could say about RTTT in NY has been said…almost.
January 26, 2012, 9:41 pm
Filed under: assessment, education law | Tags: , , , ,


God bless the New York Times, this article sums up all of my questions and concerns better than I ever could. That said, I have something to add. The author questions the role of State Ed in determining how well 700 school districts are assessing students for growth in non-state tested subjects given the budget cuts at the state level and the number of students and teachers and assessments that would need independent review.


I think I know what’s going to happen. The assessment/evaluation police aren’t going to show up. In fact, its likely that no one will ever look closely at how districts meet the mandate. Experience tells me this. While working in Michigan as a Social Studies Consultant the state adopted k-12 Social Studies expectations where there had previously been very little required, but the state also had just one Social Studies Supervisor for the entire state and when she retired she was not replaced. State Ed funding and personnel were dramatically reduced. No one checked what you were teaching, or if you had created a curriculum that was freely available to parents, or if you were assessing students on the new expectations. Some schools even refused to align their grade level subjects to those required by the state. Because, really, what was the limbless state ed going to do about it?


I suspect RTTT in NYS will result in similar behavior in schools; do enough to make it look like you’re doing what they want, create a paper trail, but don’t really change much of anything in the end.





How Do I Know I’m Doing My Job Well?
November 12, 2010, 2:26 pm
Filed under: assessment, Geek | Tags: , , ,

I’m a Social Studies Consultant for an intermediate school district in Michigan. That means I provide professional development services to our local school districts. Most people still don’t know what that means. What do I do all day? How do I know I’m doing it well? That I have trouble answering that concerns me.


Education Week has recently been working on a series on Professional Development for teachers and its effectiveness, generally finding that not only is effectiveness not often measured, but that there are very few standards for what constitutes PD. EW suggests that PD needs to be targeted toward student weaknesses and how teachers can attend to those weaknesses. I agree, but I think there is more to PD as well.

Some of  my job includes attending to specific requests of districts. I assume when a department head or administrator asks me to assist their teachers with something specific it is because there is a known shortcoming. Mostly this is true, but sometimes it isn’t, and as I don’t work with one building, one department, or one district I’m often at a loss to determine what teachers really need. For example, many administrators called me to assist with Social Studies data analysis of last year’s state exams but clearly were not aware that we should not and could not do this. Should not because the exams were slated to address different standards this years, so knowing how we performed on standards no longer in place wouldn’t assist us in preparing students for the next assessment. Could not because the state no longer releases specific social studies items; we can’t see more than the content strand of each question. Without specific question language the percentages and scores provided by the state are as deep as we can go. Now had they asked me to help teachers create assessments and then analyze that data we would have been on our way to some good PD.

Another portion of my job is creating PD opportunities based on what I know many teachers and districts are struggling with. For example, I know that county-wide our students struggle with supporting their assertions in writing. I’ve put together workshop series to address this idea specifically in Social Studies. Do I know if it works? No. I don’t get to observe teachers and I’m fairly confident that the people doing the observing don’t know what PD teachers have attended. I also don’t know if the teacher who attend are those who most need this PD.

A third part of what I do is awareness. When the state adopted new content standards I did some PD about how to read them and adapt to them. I’ve since been part of a project to create a comprehensive k-12 SS curriculum based on these new standards; there has been a tremendous amount of PD for teachers to learn the progressions of learning, the units of instruction, and the various ways to implement lessons. None of this is specifically targeting weaknesses among our teachers, but it is necessary information for them to do their jobs.

On one hand I would like to know that any PD I conduct results in improved instruction and student performance, I’m also aware that some PD doesn’t manifest itself this way. Learning about changes in state requirements, for example, has less to do with improving student performance and more to do with learning the minimum requirements of your job. If I were locked into provided only services that could be measured by student test results I wouldn’t be providing very broad or rich PD.

Michigan Council for Social Studies Annual Conference
November 8, 2010, 9:57 am
Filed under: Nerd | Tags: , ,

Here in lovely downtown Kalamazoo (yes, there really is a Kalamazoo) for the MCSS annual conference. Yesterday we (the Michigan Citizenship Collaborative Curriculum partners) held a user group pre-conference session that was not well attended but considering its our first crack at it, a success in terms of discussion topics, questions answered and connections made.

I just left a workshop put on by Chippewa Valley teachers about integrating technology into Economics classes. Their webpage has links, lesson, examples–everything you need. I plan to steal it all…

Why do we bother?
May 22, 2010, 11:43 am
Filed under: Geek | Tags:

I just read this article ( in Ed Week and am wondering why the MC3 group bothers to create curriculum. The common core folks are trying to figure out how to best create useful curriculm for teachers that integrates the core standards. Who do you think they mention first? You got it, the companies selling stuff.

Here’s a thought: how about using the people who are paid to assist classroom teachers, like, oh, say, the curriculum consultants? I know not every state has the same structure as Michigan, but all states/districts employ people who are assigned the task of assisting teachers through curriculum, professional development, and observation. And we aren’t motivated by any profit agenda–it’s our JOB!!

For three years I’ve been paid to help social studies teachers; MC3 has been the result. And schools don’t pay for it. But don’t let me stop you from turning over taxpayer dollars to the best salesman.

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