July 23, 2010

A more realistic view of standards

This week I've been spending most of each day in a workshop on the Spanish Civil War for area history teachers. In it, teachers learn about the war in general and also the involvement of American volunteers for both medical services and fighting on the Republican side (what's now known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigades). We've given them a number of books and other resources. They've had a chance to hear from and ask questions of an author of several books on the war and the aftermath (Peter Carroll), read both books and a wide sampling of primary sources, and yesterday they visited Ybor City's Centro Asturiano and listened to some older Tampa residents who had both direct and vicarious experiences of the war (such as that of Aida Gonzalez). Today they worked on developing specific lessons or assignments based on what they've been learning, such as DBQ exercises for Advanced Placement classes.

For those who have run or participated in such summer workshops, this is probably familiar (with the exception of hearing from eyewitnesses or participants, in the case of workshops on the Civil War, ancient civilizations, and the like). We've had some wonderful classroom teachers as participants in the two years I've been involved, and they tell us they appreciate both the chance to learn about a subject in depth and our treatment of them as adults. I just get to tag along, except for the bit about standards. And since there's an ongoing discussion of whether the common core standards in math and reading adopted by a majority of states mean much, maybe a practical discussion might help.

I'm not a "social studies methods" specialist, but when we were planning last summer's workshop, I knew what was missing: a connection for teachers between what they were learning in the week and the new state social studies standards in high school. I think this is all that justified my presence in the workshop because when I write, "we were planning," I am using "we" in the social convention form, not in the "I earned a significant chunk of the plaudits" form. Most of the credit for this goes to Peter Carroll, the USF history chair Fraser Ottanelli, and a former area teacher who is an adjunct at USF, Robert Alicea. I see the beautiful plans (okay, they were somewhat fuzzy until things fell into place in a practical schedule) and think, "Ah! They're missing the help-the-teachers-with-bureaucracy part. I can do that." And occasionally chime in to expand discussion.

Keep in mind that the participants in the workshop were already high school history teachers, the vast majority with experience in AP classes or in an International Baccalaureate program. We don't need to tell them how to plan a year, and we'd have been a fifth wheel had we done so. Especially in AP courses (and most especially for the drink-from-the-firehose AP world history course), teachers have to manage the coverage issue very carefully, and in many cases teachers explicitly used the materials for 1-3 days last year. (One teacher regularly has after-school enrichment opportunities, where he walked students through the James Lardner papers as an extended exercise in primary sources that tell a story.) So why hand out standards lists?

Last year, there were two reasons for me to sort through the new standards, identify which ones were related to the Spanish Civil War, and then sort those by some obvious themes (the narrative within Spanish history, world context, American involvement, art and popular media use, and historical skills). First, the state had approved the standards in 2008, but there had been almost no professional development, and this was an opportunity to show teachers what they were written like in a context when it has some use and it's not just a verbiage dump on teachers. (Teachers will know what I mean by that.) Second and most immediately, I reorganized the benchmarks so that they would help teachers generate ideas for lessons, assignments, or other ways to use the materials. In reality, I suspect I didn't need to do that much, since the primary sources and talking with eyewitnesses to history are far better inspiration than standards. Third, showing teachers how to tie a specific lesson to official state standards lets them justify doing what they think is professionally appropriate. In a large high school, an assistant principal for curriculum isn't going to push anything like a pacing calendar on teachers in most subjects, but some of them will ask what standards are met by a lesson, assignment, unit plan, etc. Giving teachers standards gives them something to put at the top of their plans as an official stamp of approval on lessons. (Well, it does if the standards make sense: the benchmarks mentioning Franco, the lead-up to World War 2, the Spanish-American War,* or the social movements coming out of the Great Depression are going to make more sense here than a benchmark on early federal history.)

This year we have some middle-school teachers, something I didn't know until Monday. So I felt horribly guilty when I realized my organized handout for high-school teachers was useless for them, except as an illustration of what high school teachers would expect from students. On top of that, the middle-school curriculum is up in the air with a legislative mandate to teach civics in seventh grade. That doesn't change anything about the middle-school standards, because civics is always going to be somewhere in social-studies standards (and is prominent in the middle-school benchmarks). But it does mean that many districts don't yet know how they're going to organize the middle-school curriculum into specific courses, though the standards provide some clear direction and emphasis on history and civics (ancient civilizations in sixth grade, U.S. history through 1877 in eighth grade, and now obviously civics in seventh grade). So teachers who had been focusing quite a bit on geography? They'll have to retool, and for now a great deal of their own initiative may seem like a waste if they'll be moving in different directions in a year or two. Yes, I've gone through the middle-school standards this week and identified a few dozen with clear connections to the Spanish Civil War, ironically more in social sciences than in history because of the topics selection for middle-grades standards. (Example: map use. Military maps in the war, historical maps as secondary sources, socially generated maps such as the map of mass grave sites and other war-related sites in Spain.) But the dynamics of "the curriculum is up in the air" are still prominent.

This is a commonplace about life on the ground with curriculum. The abstract talk about standards and alignment ignores the multiple layers that shape the taught curriculum, from idiosyncratic course expectations (e.g., the more deterministic nature of AP classes) to legislative mandates, textbook choices, the item specifications on state assessments, and the program du jour of the district that gobbles up curriculum either directly (Hillsborough county bought into the Springboard program several years ago, a decision that diverts a day or three each quarter for its mandates, if within the curriculum) or by absorbing time (by adding a tangential curricular module such as anti-drug education and forcing administrators to stuff it in some class). Curriculum mandates and pressures metastasize.

As a result of these multiple mandates and pressures, I am less persuaded than others either by the argument in favor of a common core curriculum or the philosophical or political arguments against a common core curriculum. First, the idea that something is truly a "core" that will only take up a small part of the year is pure bunkum; given the other structures of school, anything called a "core" will inevitably become "pretty close to all." And even then, there will be much slop between the formal expectation and what happens in a classroom and also what's assessed. Yet I am also unpersuaded by the argument that teachers should not have a structured curriculum, or that somehow a set of curriculum standards is evil. As I've written before, the first round of state curriculum standards was generally awful, but I don't think you could have expected them to be good, so that doesn't tell you what standards might look like, and there are now some reasonable examples of the right balance between generality and specificity. (My historical cynicism is out in force this morning.) Yes, standards advocates make a weak argument with the international comparison rationale (the claim that our chief international competitors have national standards, so we must, too), but that's not the central argument for curriculum structure. The most important arguments for some curriculum structure are (a) requiring teachers to design curriculum from scratch is cruel and unusual punishment; and (b) there are some overlapping content areas that most students would find fairly practical to get under their belt.

Why do I believe that requiring teachers to design curriculum from scratch is abusive? I'm a Ph.D., with more specialized expertise than the bulk of the American population, and I would find it extraordinarily challenging to design all of my classes from scratch every semester. I don't; and I would view it as an exploitation of junior faculty to ask a new assistant professor at a research university to prepare an entire curriculum from scratch at the same time she or he has to gin up a research program. There's one college I know that talks about creating new courses on a regular basis, Evergreen State College, but even there the courses (or "programs," as they're called at Evergreen) regularly reappear so a faculty member isn't completely designing things from scratch. And most of the faculty there are veteran teachers, and the programs are commonly cotaught by at least two faculty. For K-12? Let's just say we're putting in a whole week so teachers can design a single lesson or assignment each (and then share the fruits of the work). It is one thing to point out that many veteran teachers can design a class; it is another thing entirely to suggest that all teachers have to.

In addition, there is a legitimate argument that some overlapping content is important for students. It is an easier argument to suggest common material for a field such as math or U.S. history than in areas such as world history or English literature, which is why I'm using the term overlapping. But the point still exists that high school students are meeting some common expectations when they can correctly manipulate an algebraic expression, explain how evolution complicates medical treatment, and talk intelligently about the historical struggles of Americans to get the country to fulfill its ideals. (And for those who are wondering why I think algebra is a sensible expectation, it's less important for someone to be able to solve word problems about westbound trains from Chicago than understanding what Paul Krugman means by lower bounds for effective interest-rate policy.)

As I stated above, I'm a bit cynical about structural school reform, and I do not believe there is One True Way of constructing standards. To take U.S. history as an example, generally most state standards (and the effort by Crabtree and Nash) use a fairly common approach to periodization and important questions, and one that starts from the centrality of the nation-state. One could imagine equally legitimate approaches that focus on international context, and you can find such syllabi for college classes. But you have to construct a course around something, preferably something coherent, and the most common approach is not evil just by its being common. The practical question is how much of an overlap we truly need, understanding that every time we say X needs to be a common part of the curriculum, we're squeezing out something else.

* The U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War eliminated the bulk of the remaining Spanish empire, leaving a social and structural problem for the Spanish army at the beginning of the 20th century, stuffed as it was with a high proportion of officers and a much shrunken set of territories to control.

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Posted in Education policy on July 23, 2010 9:49 PM | Submit