A Puzzle in the Teaching of History

In my forthcoming book, Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change, I describe teaching history and social studies in the 1960s and in 2014 in two urban high schools, one in Cleveland (Glenville High School) and one in Washington, D.C. (Cardozo High School) In the 2014 section of the book, I observed and interviewed three teachers at Cardozo who, in varying degrees of success, engaged their students in the historical approach to teaching the subject, that is, teaching students to read, think, and write like historians (see here and here). In another academically failing D.C. high school not far from Cardozo, I watched even another teacher who taught in that same tradition. Here is Kyle Greer’s  60-minute class that I observed in December 2013.

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At 8:50, 10 of the 25 enrolled students were present. By 9:40, all but two of the students were at their desks. Because many students travel cross-town to reach the high school, late-comers are the norm. The course is District of Columbia history On the whiteboard are listed the agenda for the hour-long lesson, the standard that the lessons will be addressing, and the “warm-up” exercise–all required by the district administration as criteria for an “effective” lesson. Kyle Greer (a pseudonym) is a five year veteran at this high school and serves as head of the three member department (there are just over 450 low-income, minority students in the high school).

For the lesson, Greer has the students reading and annotating a journal article from Washington History entitled “D.C.’s Dual School System, 1862-1954.” He passes around a bucket of marker pens for students to use as they closely read and take notes. He tells the students: “we will model underlining main ideas,” and taking notes. He begins reading a paragraph in the middle of the article and asks after pausing: “Can we figure out the time period?”  A few respond with words and phrases that suggest World War I and what happened at the prestigious Dunbar High School in the “colored” division of the de jure segregated school system.

Then students take turns reading paragraphs with Greer interjecting questions about what each sentence means, what should be underlined (and why), and notes that students could write in margins of the handout. One student asks Greer what does it mean that the “colored”schools had double- and triple-sessions? He tosses back the question to the rest of the students and one comes up with the answer of overcrowded “colored” schools. In some of Greer’s responses to student answers, he occasionally pushes back and asks student to support what they say with evidence from the journal article.

Toward the end of the lesson, he asks students to contrast the first-hand accounts they have read about “colored” students and teachers in the DC schools during World War I, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and World War II with this secondary source–the journal article–written by a historian in 2005. Three students offer what they recall of the primary sources they read, particularly in 1939 when the school board banned black singer Marian Anderson from  singing at all-white Central High School (which would have brought together an interracial audience); the concert was rescheduled for the Lincoln Memorial and students recalled what Anderson herself had said.

In scanning the class, I note that nearly all of the students, even latecomers, are reading the article–about one-quarter volunteer to read paragraphs–and using markers to underline and make notes in the margin of the handout. During the period, a wall-mounted speaker interrupts the lesson four times with announcements from the main office.

As the hour draws to a close, Greer asks the students: “what is the take-away from this article on nearly a century of segregated schools in DC?”  A handful of students respond, two reading from notes they had jotted down on their handout. Greer listens and then asks the rest of the class for their thoughts on these “take-aways.” Three respond, the last interrupted by the bell ending the class.

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Why did these four teachers in two academically failing high schools in the same district teach in the historical tradition? Without any evidence that the four received direct training in teaching students to read, think, and write like historians, attributing their common use of primary sources and other approaches to district professional development is a non-starter.  And since they did not know one another except in passing, they had not collaborated removing that possible explanation. It could be a rare coincidence but is highly unlikely. One possible explanation, however, is that the district’s focus on standards and the linkage between teacher evaluation and sticking to standards influenced what these four DC teachers did.

The DC schools’ IMPACT evaluation scheme laden with rewards and penalties and visits by social studies “master educators” with follow-up conferences may have tilted history teachers toward the Social Studies Standards for their D.C. high schools. These standards include many references to historical evidence, use of primary and secondary sources, critical thinking skills, etc. (See “District of Columbia Social Studies, Pre-K through Grade 12,” pp. 29 for grades 3-5, p. 48 for grades 6-8, p. 88 for grades 9-12, at: http://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/publication/attachments/DCPS-horiz-soc_studies.pdf )

When I interviewed the teachers in the two different high schools, each one mentioned the fear they felt about the multiple observations by “master educators” (all four teachers, by the way, received favorable evaluations, one of them sufficient to earn a salary hike). Three of the four expressed anger at the unfairness of the evaluation process because their students generally scored poorly on the DC test and student scores for the entire school were counted as a factor in being judged “effective.”

This is all guesswork, of course. Without further data on more DC history teachers in other high schools, what I observed in the classrooms of these four teachers in two different high schools could simply be an anomaly. Until such data become available, however, these similar lessons across two low-performing high schools remains puzzling.

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Here Again: The Old Chestnut about Technology Increasing Student Achievement

There are many reasons why school boards buy hardware and software (see here)  still the old chestnut that “students will achieve more academically with ________ (put your device or software du jour here) lingers on in the minds of enthusiasts as a sweat-filled dream. Sure, vendors and consultants paid by high-tech companies produce “white papers” or research studies that tout gains in students’ academic performance. No longer authoritative reports, “white papers” have become marketing tools. Like sponsored advertising in the media, such “white papers” want to sell readers on the merits, not the complexities of either teaching or learning in using devices. And there are reports by professional associations that cherry pick individual studies.  Yet those policymakers, superintendents, district administrators, principals, and teachers who swear that their decisions are driven by evidence and research embrace a desert mirage whenever they  cite a “white paper” or say “research shows” or the “evidence is clear” in buying the newest device or software. Over the years, I have seen fewer such claims by educators but they still exist.

Although some sellers of more technology in classrooms have retreated in their claims that students will get higher test scores if this or that is bought, a new bait-and-switch approach exists. Now, vendor claims are that tablets, for example, and the software loaded on those devices will “engage” students.

using-technology-to-increase-student-engagement-in-math1-2-638

Motivating students through new hand-held appliance, i.e., engagement, has become a code word for higher achievement. But “engaged” students may or may not learn what is intended or score higher on standardized test scores (see here). “Engaged” students is surely one ingredient but in the complexities of classroom teaching, other factors enter the equation and need to be weighed. Consider the structure of the classroom, teacher relationships with students,  varied ways of teaching, students’ individual grit,  and other factors–parents’ socioeconomic status–account for higher (or lower) academic achievement. Anyone who says publicly that student engagement triggered by new hardware and software will produce higher achievement is selling snake oil.

An earlier comprehensive review of journal articles and conference presentations on the use of tablets in schools (see here)  concluded that:

upon reviewing a large body of studies and research work, no solid evidence decisively confirms that the iPad has a positive academic effect on the learning outcomes. This is mainly due to the scarcity of pedagogy-wide and long enough research works.

Now comes another comprehensive, independent, and critical review of 33 studies that focused on tablets used in K-12 schools across the curriculum and around the world. See: Hassler_Major_Hennessy_2015._Tablet_use_in_schools_A_critical_review_of_the_evidence_for_learning_outcomes-FC4

Of the 23 studies included in the final tally covering different subjects and different grade levels:
• 16 reported positive learning outcomes;
• 5 reported no difference in learning outcomes; and
• 2 reported negative learning outcomes.

Because of the disparate nature of the studies, sample size, and other factors, the authors pessimistically concluded:

While we hypothesise how tablets can viably support children in completing a variety of
learning tasks (across a range of contexts and academic subjects), the fragmented nature of the
current knowledge base, and the scarcity of rigorous studies, make it difficult to draw firm
conclusions. The generalisability of evidence is limited and detailed explanations as to how, or why,
using tablets within certain activities can improve learning remain elusive.

Many practitioners familiar with the use of new devices in schools have said repeatedly that such studies reveal little because student academic achievement and other important student outcomes are not about gadgets but is about the teacher and how she or he uses these devices in lessons. Unfortunately, such on-the-ground wisdom seldom infiltrates policymaker decisions. The old chestnut of technology improves engagement and achievement continues to live  regardless of the evidence. For those champions of tablets and other hand-held devices with their associated software who pride themselves on using only the “best practices” anchored in research and data-driven decisions, well, they best ignore these studies in their “white papers” and find other reasons to boost new devices in schools.

 

 

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Politics In The Classroom: How Much Is Too Much? (Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy)

In an earlier post, I pointed out the obvious fact that tax-supported public schools were political institutions. Not in the partisan sense of Republican and Democrat but in serving the community politically in socializing community values in the next generation .  The following post comes from nprED showing another aspect of the political role that classroom lessons play in the U.S. 

Steve Drummond interviewed Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy on their new book on Politics in the Classroom. It was published August 6, 2015.

 

The Confederate flag. The Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. Policing minority communities. Nuclear weapons and Iran. Summer often brings a lull in the news, but not this year. And, come September, students are going to want to talk about these headlines.

But how should teachers navigate our nation’s thorny politics?

Do politics belong in the classroom at all, or should schools be safe havens from never-ending partisan battles? Can teachers use controversial issues as learning opportunities, and, if so, to teach what? And then, the really sticky question: Should teachers share with students their own political viewpoints and opinions?

In their book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy offer guidelines to these and other questions, using a study they conducted from 2005 to 2009. It involved 21 teachers in 35 schools and their 1,001 students. Hess is the dean of the school of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and McAvoy is the program director at UW-Madison’s Center for Ethics and Education.

Schools, they conclude, are and ought to be political places — but not partisan ones. I talked with them recently about how, in today’s highly polarized society, teachers can walk that very fine line.

 

Sometimes it seems there’s a belief that schools should be political … sort of. With students taking on issues – like smoking – that are political but not too political. Did you find that in your study?

Hess: You’re absolutely right, there are a number of schools that encourage students to get involved in political campaigns, but they tend to be political campaigns that really aren’t very controversial. They’ll encourage kids to form a campaign about something that everyone agrees should be done. For example, that we should clean up the litter that’s around our school, or that it’s important for people to eat healthy food…

We have evidence that kids learn a lot from doing that. It’s not necessarily a terrible thing. My view is that if you’re going to have students involved in authentic politics, then it’s really important to make sure you have issues for which there are multiple and competing views, and you don’t give students the impression that there’s a political view that they should be working toward.

McAvoy: How political do we want students to be? That’s really a question that a lot of communities struggle with and a lot of teachers struggle with. And the point of the book is to say that, in general, to be able to talk about politics is a skill that people need to learn. And it would be great if it were learned in school because these are great moments in which you bring a group of young people together who are forming their political views. They can really learn to engage across their differences and to start to see that political conflict is a normal part of democratic life.

A key point in your book is that, while teachers are teaching about the issues – immigration or same-sex marriage — they’re also teaching students how to have these discussions. They’re teaching the process of democracy.

McAvoy: Right. The “political classroom” is a classroom in which young people are learning to deliberate about political questions. It really is the process of deliberation that is the major skill being taught. And then, through deliberation, students are learning about the issues. They’re learning how to form arguments, how to weigh evidence. So there’s social studies content that is being learned in a process that is, at its heart, democratic.

Are there issues that are, or should be, completely off the table?

Hess: One of the things we talk about in the book is the distinction between issues that we called “settled issues” and issues that are “open”…

It’s a little complicated, but, in a nutshell, we suggest that there are some issues that are settled and should be taught as settled and to not do that is being dishonest with young people. For example, the question about whether climate change is occurring — that’s a settled issue. The question is, What to do about climate change? That’s an open issue.

We wouldn’t suggest that teachers engage kids in talking about whether climate change is occurring, but we strongly encourage teachers to engage in discussion about what should be done about climate change.

You mention in your book policies that might allow students to opt out [of a controversial topic or discussion]. Which raises questions about whether that’s a good thing, to just allow students to sit out.

McAvoy: The philosopher in me thinks there’s not a really good way to defend the view that students should always be able to opt out. We don’t allow students to opt out of writing essays because they don’t like writing essays.

At the same time, democracies allow us, when we’re in the public sphere, to walk out of a discussion if we don’t like what’s happening or if we’re being offended. Classrooms are unusual in that we’re compelling students to be there. Teachers do need to weigh [whether] there might be times when a particular student has a good reason for wanting to pass on a comment…

Opting out because I feel uncomfortable sharing my views or talking out loud in class is a skill that can be taught and overcome. Opting out because this discussion is really hard for me given my religious background — that might be a reason that you let a student pass on a discussion.

You note the challenges and dangers of teaching both in mixed classrooms – with students of varied racial and economic backgrounds — and homogenous classrooms. How should teachers adapt to these different scenarios?

Hess: In many ways the more difference you have within a classroom the better. We want to make sure that we have as many multiple competing views as we possibly can … So difference is a good thing, something that can be used and primed as opposed to something to be feared and quelled.

One of the challenges of lots of difference is, difference often causes high emotions and often can cause breaches of civility. So teachers who are in classrooms that have lots of naturally occurring difference often have to go to great lengths to make sure that

students understand what it looks like to participate in a civil manner…

In classes where there’s a lot of sameness, the first thing we learned is that, though it might appear that there’s a lot of sameness, there’s always some difference. So when teachers say, “Well all these kids think alike,” we’re almost sure — all the time — that the teachers are wrong, that in fact not all the kids do think alike.

That being said, there are classes that are more similar than they are different, and teachers have to use a lot of strategies to bring differences into the discussion. Those strategies might include bringing in guest speakers or making sure the materials the kids are using to prepare for discussion are full of multiple and competing ideas.

Students really seem to like this stuff – to engage in issues that are current and relevant to their own lives.

Hess: Absolutely. There are two things going on here: In many schools, students still spend most of the day listening to teachers talk. One reason we think kids like [these issues] is they finally get a chance to talk themselves. More than that, we did find that the content of these political issues was really interesting to kids. Especially when they were hearing multiple and competing views. Students would report that in discussions where there was a lot of shared opinion, those were not as interesting as in discussions where there were differing views … They were really responding to the fact that it’s quite interesting to hear what your peers think about things. And not just that they have different points of view but what they’re supporting those points of view with.

What advice do you have or does your study have for teachers considering how to talk about [breaking events such as] Baltimore or Ferguson, Missouri?

Hess: One of the problems with discussing events that just happened is that often we don’t know enough about what happened. There’s a distinction between current events … and discussions about controversial political issues where kids are preparing in advance and being deliberative. In the best-case scenario, teachers are able to take advantage of current events and use them as opportunities to get kids to talk about controversial political issues. There’s a big difference in talking about, “What do you think happened?” and talking about a policy issue like “Should police officers be required to wear video cameras?”

McAvoy: Young people need to see these as moments within their historical context – need to understand some of the history. It’s difficult to have those materials at the ready when things sort of erupt as they have in the last year or so with Baltimore and Ferguson. Good teachers start building curriculum about the history of redlining in cities or how cities become segregated. [To] put these moments within the context is much better than having young people just reacting to “What do you think about what you’re seeing on television today?” Young people really need to study these issues in depth.

OK, the big elephant in the room: the question of whether teachers should talk about their own personal beliefs to their students. Should they?

Hess: What we found is that there were teachers who were doing an excellent job who shared their own views with students, and there were teachers doing an excellent job who didn’t share their views. So we don’t believe that there is one right answer to this. And we think empirically we can show that there’s not.

That being said, we think that there are times when it’s probably better for teachers to share than other times when it’s better for them not to share. That depends in large part on the context — on who’s in their class and what their goals are.

One thing we were really intrigued by was that a lot of the teachers we interviewed talked about changing their minds on that question over time. Some of them would say, “Well, it used to be that I would never share, but now I do only in these circumstances.” Other teachers would say, “I used to be really prone to share a lot, and now I don’t and here’s why.” We think it’s all a matter of professional judgment. Teachers need to think about this very carefully…

I sometimes worry that, even though there can be really good ethical reasons for teachers to share, in a very polarized time that sharing can be misinterpreted. And if it’s misinterpreted by the public or by parents as teachers trying to get kids to adopt their beliefs, then I think we could have a big problem.

That being said, we have no evidence from the study of teachers who were actively and purposely trying to indoctrinate kids to a particular point of view…

We think that this feeling that the public seems to have that teachers by definition are trying to push their political views on students is just false.

You were critical of the notion – that teachers would do that.

Hess: What we learned from students when we interviewed and surveyed them is that they make a really clear distinction between a teacher sharing his or her own view and a teacher trying to push his or her own view. Students not surprisingly report that they don’t like being pushed.

You seem to draw a pretty firm line that teachers should not be advocating for their own beliefs.

McAvoy: What we argue in the book is that what’s most important is that teachers create a culture of fairness in the classroom. That means being fair and reasonable to all the competing views that are in the classroom and that are being represented in the public. The practice that we found most troubling, from the study, is what we referred to in the book as political seepage: teachers who make sarcastic comments, who use partisan humor. It’s these offhanded comments that are sort of biting and mean-spirited about the political climate that I think is problematic. Because it creates a climate not of fairness, but it creates a kind of insider/outsider feeling. If you get the humor that I just said or, “Do you agree with me that that politician’s a big idiot?” That invites the most divisive parts of the partisan climate into the classroom.

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Teaching History in an Academically Failing High School

In my forthcoming book, Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change, I describe how I taught history and social studies in the 1960s in two urban high schools, one in Cleveland (Glenville High School) and one in Washington, D.C. (Cardozo High School).  I returned to those very same high schools in 2014 where I observed and interviewed four history teachers at Glenville and three at Cardozo. Some of those 2014 teachers,  in varying degrees of success, engaged their students in the historical approach to teaching the subject, that is, teaching students to read, think, and write like historians (see here ). Here is oneof the three teachers at Cardozo who I observed.

 

On the front wall above the “smart board” Mike Topper (a pseudonym) had posted classroom rules on the first day of the semester for the 9th graders in his world history course:

  1. Be Respectful!
  2. Work Hard!
  3. Keep Head Up and Off Desk!
  4. Raise Hand to Speak One at a Time, and Stay on Topic!

Just to the side and below the “smart board” or interactive whiteboard (IWB) the teacher has printed out in large black letters a list of rewards and penalties for behavior. The title is “Four Token System.” The following items appear:

*Keep all of your tokens to receive daily rewards, weekly positive phone calls, and monthly prizes.

*Loosing [sic] tokens results in negative consequences as follows:

1st token lost—warning.

2nd token lost—no rewards. Written up in Discipline and Behavior Log.

3rd token lost—phone call home or home visit. Student completes Behavior Reflection.

4th token lost—Referral to administration.

Before the 90 minute period began, I asked Topper about the token system and he told me that it is really a “warning” system for misbehavior. He does not use tokens anymore.

The IWB is in daily use. For example, on the “smart board” is the “warm up,” an activity that the district expects its academic subject teachers to begin a lesson, often uses a question, puzzle, or proverb. As students enter the room, they know that they are supposed to take out paper and begin writing in their notebooks.

After the opening “warm up” activity, Topper told me that he usually moves into a 10-minute lecture. During the lecture, Topper said he often flashes slides from his laptop onto the IWB to illustrate points in lecture; he also would display text and worksheet assignments on the “smart board.” [i]

Today, however, there is no “warm up” exercise. The IWB contains announcements and an agenda for the lesson in a unit taken from the textbook called *Reunification of China:

*Test tomorrow

*Read ‘Print Invention’ on p. 249. Do 3-2-1

*Read ‘Young People in China’ section and answer the three questions on the page.

*Read p. 266 and do 3-2-1.”[ii]

To the side of the front “smart board” on a whiteboard are listed the daily lesson objectives, the world history standard under which the lesson falls, and what students will be able to know and do as a result of the lesson.[iii]

In the rear of the room on a sidewall is a large poster showing a pyramid with levels of cognitive skills drawn from Bloom’s Taxonomy.[iv] Next to it is a bulletin board displaying student work that received a score of 100%. On the floor next to the opposite wall sits a large box holding “interactive notebooks” for each of the students. When students enter they take their notebook from the carton; at the end of the period they put it back. Along the rear wall of the classroom sit five new desktop computers with chairs and desks.

The teacher has arranged the classroom furniture into rows of desks facing the front of the room. The teacher’s desk, with an open laptop is in a corner at the front of the room near the “smart board.”

Twelve 9th graders arrive before tardy bell. Topper, a thin young man about 5 feet 7inches is wearing a sport shirt with a multi-colored tie and dark pants He tells students in a crackly voice that he will lock the doors now because a “hall sweep” is occurring. Such “sweeps”—particularly in the week before a holiday—happen when security aides, uniformed and in civilian clothes, round up students in corridors after the tardy bell has rung. These aides take the late students to the cafeteria where an administrator records their name and then issues a pass to class. Being caught in sweeps repeatedly can lead a student to be suspended from school.[v]

After pointing to the IWB about the day’s lesson, Topper says: “Listen up! Still a little sick from yesterday and throat is sore, so don’t let me talk over you.” He continues: “The questions in the textbook you will answering are level 1 questions, not application or evaluation.”[vi]

He then looks at one student and says: “Mr. Washington, help me out and take off your hat.” He addresses all students “Mr.” and “Miss.” Student takes off cap. [vii]

Topper directs student attention to IWB and addresses each item on the lesson agenda including the test tomorrow. He asks if there are any questions. There are none. He reminds students that they will write in their interactive notebooks on clean pages and at the end of the period will turn in answers to the questions and 3-2-1s.

Eight students rise and get textbooks sitting on a shelf at the side of the room. The rest sit and chat. As students turn to textbook pages and begin writing in their interactive notebooks, a few yell out questions about items they will have to work on. One student calls out, “Topper, I need help.” The teacher walks over and listens to the student and then answers questions. Another student walks over to door, slips the wooden “bathroom pass” off the wall hook and exits classroom. A hum from students talking to one another rises in volume. Two of the chatting students have yet to retrieve a textbook. Topper tells them to begin on assignment. They begrudgingly get a text while whispering to each other as they return to their desks and open the books. Another chatting 9th grader balks and says to Topper: “Leave me alone.” He does. The student who took the bathroom pass earlier returns; another student takes the wooden pass from that student.

Thirty minutes after tardy bell all of the students are seemingly working on reading the text and writing the 3-2-1s. In the next 25 minutes, Topper takes a cell phone call by walking out of room into the hallway. When he is out of the room, seven students stop reading or writing and begin talking to one another. When Topper returns in two minutes, he walks around the room checking to see if students are on task, writing in their notebooks, and if there are any questions.

The bell rings for the daily homeroom period that occurs during this period. Homeroom is a 10-minute intermission in the school day for the principal, other administrators and students to pipe in announcements of the day’s activities, upcoming events, and names of students who must report to the office. As the words pour out of a wall-mounted speaker, few students pay attention to the announcements. When the PA system came on, Topper returned to his desk at the front of room and worked on his laptop.

After announcements end, Topper asks students to resume their work. He reminds the group that there will be a test tomorrow and that answering all of the questions will help them on the test. He tells them that their notebook pages will be collected before the bell rings ending the period. It is their Exit Pass, he says. [viii]

About five minutes before the bell, Topper says to the class to return the textbooks and interactive notebooks to the cartons on the floor near the sidewall. After returning to their desks, students get their backpacks and belongings together as they await the bell. When it rings, eight of the twelve hand in pages torn out of their notebooks to Topper who reminds them of the test the next day.

Since completing a semester of student teaching and graduating college in a nearby city, Mike Topper entered Cardozo as a first-year teacher of history. In the World History I syllabus, Topper wrote the following for the course:

The purpose … is to view civilizations from the Fall of Rome to the Age of Revolutions and think historically about how such civilizations impacted the development of the world. We will continually wrestle with questions that cannot be easily answered. In order to do so, we will develop a toolbox of ‘historical thinking skills’ that will be useful for everything inside the classroom and for being a powerful citizen outside of the classroom.[ix]

The three goals and objectives for the course would make any partisan of the historical approach beam with pride.

  1. Formulate (develop) historical questions and defend answers based on inquiry and interpretation.
  2. Communicate findings orally in class and in written essays.
  3. Develop skills in reading strategies, discussion, debate, and persuasive writing.

Topper specifies in the syllabus which historical thinking skills he seeks to develop in his 9th graders such as: being able to explain “historical significance,” find and use evidence, analyze primary sources, and figure out what is the “cause and consequence” of a significant event.

These are ambitious goals for a first year teacher anywhere, much less at Cardozo. He told me that he likes it at Cardozo “because expectations for academic work are higher than [the city where he did his student-teaching].” “Here,” he said, “administrators come into your classroom and observe what you are doing. Also ‘master educators’ [former teachers hired by the district to observe and evaluate other teachers] have already come by a few times. Here, you really need to work with kids.”

_________________________________________________

[1] As part of the district instructional guidance for and evaluation of teachers, called the DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework Resources Overview, there is a template for every lesson taught in a District of Columbia classroom. See here.

In the framework, the template for the “warm up” says: “Teacher hooks students to the content, activates students’ prior knowledge, and introduces the objective.” P. 13.

[ii] The text the class uses is the 1100 page World History: Modern Times (2005) written by Jackson Spielvogel. The book contains many graphics, photos, charts, and sidebars with vignettes of historical personalities. Accompanying each unit in the book is a “Primary Source Library.” There is a classroom set of the texts along one wall for students to use when the teacher assigns pages to read and questions to ask in a lesson. The 3-2-1 is an acronym for a teaching technique that gets students to summarize a reading and think about its meaning. Students were familiar with the technique and had used it for readings in the text and in primary sources. Each student would write on one sheet of paper: “Three things you learned from reading; two things you have found interesting; one question you still have.”

[iii] When I asked two other Cardozo social studies teachers (there are four in the department) why the curriculum standard, daily objective, and what teacher expects students to learn was written on all of their whiteboards, each one independently told me that the District requires these to be listed. The lesson template mentioned above states that teachers must have the curriculum standard and daily objective displayed for all students to see. When evaluators—the school principal or D.C. “master educators” entered the room—either arranged beforehand or unannounced–it is one of the items that these evaluators expect to see.

[iv] Bloom’s Taxonomy is part of the DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework (see pp. 4-6). The district expects all academic teachers to sort out the content and skills they teach and use the language of the taxonomy in stating their daily objectives.

[v] A student sitting next to me explained what the “hall sweeps” were. I confirmed this with Topper and other teachers.

[vi] Level 1 questions—factual recall of dates, events, and people—refer to Bloom’s taxonomy levels of which a poster is on a wall in the room. I assume that he has taught the levels to students earlier in the semester. Whether the students understand the clarification about the questions they are expected to answer, I do not know.

[vii] Cardozo school rules call for no cell phones during class lessons, no hats to be worn in classrooms, and students to have uniforms. Gray Polo tops and khaki pants or skirts for grades 6-8, purple Polo tops and khakis for grades 9-10, and black Polo shirts and khakis for seniors. No street clothes allowed—there are loaner shirts available to students who break rules. In the two weeks I was in the school, I noted that about half of the students wore uniforms. See Cardozo website at: http://www.cardozohs.com/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=207589&type=d&pREC_ID=408163

[viii] Exit Passes are ways that teachers can determine quickly and briefly what students know and understand in the lesson. As a form of assessment, it is often used by teachers to see whether what has been taught has been learned.

[ix] Mike Topper (pseudonym), Department of Social Studies, 9th Grade Academy, “Syllabus for World History I, 2013-2014,” p. 1. In author’s possession. I cannot give web link to syllabus because it would reveal actual name of the teacher.

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A Difficult Fact: Public Schools Are Political Institutions

By training, education, and experience school practitioners have a hard time with the simple fact that tax-supported public schools are political institutions. I have worked with teachers, principals, district administrators, superintendents, and school board members for decades and their responses to the idea that schools (and schooling) are fundamentally political has largely been negative. Although teachers and principals wince when I raise this point and give specific examples of acting politically in classrooms and schools, they remain unpersuaded. Superintendents do see that a substantial portion of their work is political–building coalitions to support policies recommended to the school board, negotiating with groups inside and outside the district to reach a satisfactory compromise to a dilemma, seeking out new resources for implementing policies, and figuring out how best to deal with obstreperous  board members. They acknowledge that these are, indeed, political actions they engage in but for many school chiefs their facial expressions and words show the dislike for what they have to do.

Why is this? My guess is that the idea of politics quickly morphs into what most educators and most Americans associate with partisan politics as engaged in by Republicans and Democrats. But no such party politics occurs in districts. What educators ignore is that the non-partisan politics occur within schools and districts all the time. School politics are concerned with the exercise of power and influence in classrooms, schools, and districts to reach desired school goals.

A second guess is that U.S. schools  knew intimately partisan politics. Between the 1870s and early 1900s, political parties saw schools as just another agency to reward loyal party members with jobs and contracts. The Progressive movement in the late-1890s through the 1920s introduced civil service reforms–you had to show that you had the credentials and experience to be government employees–and over decades removed schools from party politics. Such politics are specifically banned today. Those are my guesses as to why educators too often get sniffy over attaching the word “political” to what they do in schools.

It is foolish, however, to deny that schools are political institutions established to reach desired community goals including how to live and act in a democracy. School boards,  administrators and teachers are agents hired to achieve those community-inspired goals.  Consider that taxing property owners and levying sales taxes on everyone regardless of whether they have children or not to run public schools means that schools matter a great deal to the community. Moreover, compelling parents to send their children to school between the ages of 5-6 to 16-17 underscores how important schools are to the survival and growth of the community. When one looks carefully at those goals public schools have for children and youth, it is easy to see what community values are embedded in each and every goal from being literate to being fair.  Schools are the political tools a community (and parents) have to enact its goals.

I offer a framework for seeing this fundamental truth of schooling as a value-driven, political enterprise, one that inevitably creates and harbors conflict.

Making policy and putting policies into practice in schools and classrooms are value-driven:

Every goal in each and every district has a value buried in it. Take reducing the achievement gap for an example. Raising test scores of minority students is highly valued by parents, administrators, and the general public. No progress in reducing the test score gap is seen as failure in achieving that prized value.

Or consider the familiar district goal of increasing the number of high school graduates attending college. Getting a college degree is prized because graduates earn more over a lifetime than those earning a high school diploma.

Or note that some principals are dead-set on becoming instructional leaders in their schools—that is their personal goal often put into their professional development plan they discuss with their superintendent. These principals believe instructional leadership is good. They value it highly.

I cannot think of any formal goal for public schools, principals, and teachers that does NOT have a value in embedded in it.

Because policy-and-practice is value-driven, and values differ, conflict between groups and individuals is inevitable.

 There are many values Americans agree on and teach their children such as respect for others, fairness, and loyalty to family and group. And there are many other values taught in families derived from religious beliefs, cultural practices, and traditions that differ from one family to another.

And consider further that when it comes to tax-supported public schools where parents are compelled to send their children, yet even another set of values enter the picture. School goals include cultivating patriotism, following rules, thinking for one’s self, engaging in democratic practices, preparing for the job market, and building character. Some taxpayers and parents, for example, want schools to reinforce parental authority and keep children in line while others want schools to build independence, cooperation, and individual decision-making in their children. And then there are those who want both in the same school. Sometimes school and family values converge and sometimes they diverge. Which is when conflicts arise.

Because of value differences, parents, teachers, and students inevitably disagree on practical items such as dress codes, the Common Core standards, raising school taxes, evaluating teachers on the basis of test scores, charter schools, and dozens of other issues. Conflicts are common over the values embedded in policies and actual practices. Sometimes these value conflicts rise to the surface in public meetings and sometimes they do not. But they are there, nonetheless, because tax-supported public schools are–yep, I am going to say it again–political institutions. Educators need to accept this inexorable fact.

 

 

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Sixth Anniversary of This Blog

Dear Readers,

This post marks my sixth anniversary as a blogger. I want to thank those readers who regularly read my twice-weekly posts, those who have dipped into them occasionally, those who have subscribed to the post, and finally those who have taken the time to write thoughtful comments. Over one million viewers from around the world have clicked on to the blog since August 2009. Not exactly viral but, for me, most gratifying.

For the 720 posts I have written since 2009, I have followed three rules:

  1. Write about 800 words.
  2. Write clearly on school reform and classroom practice.
  3. Take a position and back it up with evidence.

For anyone who blogs or writes often knows that sticking to these rules has been no easy task. Yet after six years, it has been very satisfying. I remain highly motivated to write about policymakers, administrators, teachers, parents, and students–all who inhabit the policy-to-practice continuum–and all who in different ways, with varied ideas, seek to improve schooling.

To me, writing is a form of teaching and learning. The learning part comes from figuring out what I want to say on a topic, researching it, drafting a post, and then revising it more times than I would ever admit so that the post says what I want it to say. Learning also has come from the surprises and mistakes I have found in the suggestions and comments readers post—“Did I really say that?” “Oops!, Sorry, “Wow! that is an unexpected view on what I said,” or “I had never considered that point.”

The teaching part comes from putting my ideas out there in a clearly expressed logical argument, buttressed by evidence, for others who may agree or disagree about an issue I am deeply interested in. As in all teaching, planning enters the picture in how I frame the central question I want readers to consider and how I put the argument and evidence together in a clear, coherent, and crisp blog of about 800 words.

Because of my background as a high school teacher, administrator, policymaker, and historian of education I often give a question or issue its historical context. I do so, and here I put my teaching hat on, since I believe that current policy-driven reforms and their journey into schools and classrooms are deeply rooted in the past. Learning from how earlier generations of reformers coped with the complexities of improving schools and districts, I believe, can inform current reformers about the tasks they face. Contemporary reformers, equally well intentioned as their predecessors, in too many instances ignore what has occurred previously and end up stumbling and repeating errors that occurred before. These frustrated reformers then blame teachers and principals for not executing properly their reform-driven policies.

Historical context is important in understanding the cornucopia of policy-driven reforms that have spilled over public schools for over a half-century. For those unacquainted with that history, in every decade since World War II, policymakers have sought to use public schools as engines of reform to solve national and local problems.

From ending racial segregation in schools to defending the nation against the Soviet Union to ending poverty to growing a strong economy, national leaders have turned to public schools to end vexing problems. This steadfast belief in education curing national problems has trumped time and again political action to alter deep-seated economic, political, and social structures that have created and sustained many of the problems afflicting the U.S. That reluctance to look beyond public schools as the solvent for national problems is just as evident in 2015 as it was in 1950.

In subsequent posts, I will look anew and historically at the policy-to-practice continuum in my continuing effort to persuade viewers that adopted policies are merely words unless put into practice. And because too many policymakers are inattentive to what has occurred in past reform efforts and what occurs daily in classrooms, chances of successful implementation approach nil. It is that journey from making policy in suites to K-12 classrooms that has occupied me for decades. And so I continue for another year.

Again, viewers, thank you.

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Teaching is a Grind (Bill Ferriter)

This post appeared April 23, 2014 on Bill Ferriter’s blog, “The Tempered Radical.” On his blog, he describes himself as follows: “Bill Ferriter has about a dozen titles—Solution Tree author and professional development associate, noted edublogger, senior fellow of the Teacher Leaders Network—but he checks them all at the door each morning when he walks into his sixth- grade classroom” in Raleigh, North Carolina.”

Teaching is a Grind.

I’m sitting in a dirty McDonald’s restaurant right now.  It’s the same dirty McDonald’s restaurant that I’ve spent the better part of the past 15 years sitting in.  Stop by and you are almost guaranteed to find me in a booth near the back — next to the filthy bathrooms and just inside the door where the sketchy teens are chain-smoking Marlboro Reds.

I come here after school and on the weekends to crank out writing for part time projects.  Sometimes I’m blogging.  Sometimes I’m putting together #edtech or #ccss lessons that I’ll use in my classroom AND in professional development workshops that I deliver during  those legendary “vacations” that teachers get.  Sometimes I’m answering emails sent by school leaders who need a bit of advice on how to move their buildings forward.

Always I’m tired.  Finding energy AFTER a full day at school ain’t easy.  

I walk into my classroom at 6 AM every morning and spend the first two hours planning, grading and answering email.  From 8:00-1:30, I work with 140 of the most engaging eleven year olds you’ve ever met.  They are simultaneously beautiful and demanding, though.  Meeting needs, answering questions, calming worries, celebrating successes and soothing hurt feelings are all wrapped around delivering the content in my curriculum.

#whirlwind

I spend the last two hours of my day in meetings — with parents, with peers, with special educators, with principals, and with professional developers.  On good days, I might even get a few more minutes of planning before picking my daughter up from school.

As soon as my wife gets home at 4:30, however, I head to McDonald’s to start my second job.  Most nights, I work until 7:30.  Most Saturdays and Sundays, I work from 6:30 until noon.

Always, I’m worried about making ends meet because my family literally relies on my part time income to pay our bills.

Living in a state that ranks 46th in the nation for teacher pay — a full $10,000 behind the national average — means I’ve GOT to generate part time revenue in order to financially survive.  If the content that I create on nights and weekends doesn’t resonate — if I can’t convince SOMEONE to buy my ideas or my time — we’d be flat broke.

The hacks that harp on the horrors of the public education system would probably revel in this reality, wouldn’t they?  They’d argue that the stress of my poor salary has pushed me to be a better teacher. “Competition blah-blah-blah.  Pay for performance blah-blah-blah.  Cushy teaching jobs blah-blah.  Wasting our tax dollars blah-blah.”

And in a way, they’d be right:  While a part of me is constantly improving my practice because I know that improving my practice means improving the lives of my students, I’m ashamed to admit that I’m also constantly improving my practice because I’m hoping that someone will see me as an expert and hire me as a consultant so that I can cover next month’s day care bill for my four-year old daughter.

Long story short:  Teaching is a grind.  

On a good day, the grind feels like a noble sacrifice because I know that my work has made a difference for the kids in my class and the families in my community.  On a bad day, the grind feels like professional masochism.  I guess that’s the uncomfortable truth for those of us who have chosen a career that has always been undervalued and — more recently — been unappreciated.

The question is how long can I keep on grinding?

 

Six weeks later, Ferriter posted the following on his blog:

 

It’s no secret to regular Radical readers that I often get worn down by the grind of teaching.  Wrap the public criticism piled on teachers at every turn up with the crappy policies that have stripped the joy out of the public school classroom and you have a profession that leaves me wondering more and more every year.But there IS joy in teaching — and this week, it came in the form of a pile of birthday cards from my students:

Such a small thing, right?  But to me, it meant everything.  

The kids thanked me and teased me and joked about my hairline and the fact that I’m apparently older than dirt.  Some snuck the cards into my room and left them for me to discover on my desk.  Others came in groups of two or three to share creations that they had worked on together.

They worked on their cards during homeroom, during our school wide enrichment block and during their classes.  My guess is that they missed a ton of content, distracted by the simple act of celebrating one of their teachers.

I missed a ton of content, too:  At the end of the day, I ignored the four thousand email messages sitting in my inbox and smiled my way through a pile of special memories from a group of kids that I care about.

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