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07 May 2014


In Fourth Grade, I think, our history textbook covered "The War Between the States." ("Social Studies" was still a new descriptor. My father, a History major, thought the term an abomination.) I took my textbook home and my father corrected the teacher: It was the Civil War. The use of "War Between the States" in my assigned text was an "inaccurate Texan intrusion on history." Texas was the largest textbook market and had an undue influence on textbooks at the time and Texas didn't admit we'd fought a civil war. My father also assured me, contrary to what 
my teacher had told me, that the slaves in the Antebellum South were not better off than northern factory workers in the mid-nineteenth century—the factory workers could choose to leave. The lives of the poor are never easy, but slavery… 

What I learned in school wasn't always accurate, but I had parents eager and able to provide an alternative view. 

  •  Columbus did not discover America. 

  •  He knew the world was round and so did, for example, most every fishing culture that ever left sight of land.

   • Columbus was not even the first European to arrive here.

   • There were already people here. They didn't need to be "discovered."

I learned from my parents that history is not merely battlefields, the way assigned textbooks seemed to say, and that even "historical fact" can be shaped and bent to reflect a narrow agenda. 

Many of my teachers in an outstanding public school district knew this too. They went out of their way to teach truth, to supplement or even replace the material in assigned textbooks. 
I was ripe for World History when I got to high school. I already understood the validity of different points of view that one or two of my elementary teachers could not consider.

I learned from my high school teachers that social movements and philosophy and art and architecture are vivid manifestations of evolving society. There is more to life than competition and sport and military might. Sometimes art and architecture and philosophy outlive all the rest. 

I learned history in a public school system that was answerable to no CCSS. My teachers did not limit their instruction to the material approved by the state of Texas. I learned history from historians. You might read that the influence of Texas may be softening. Before you get too excited about that, you'd have to understand just how disastrous that Texan influence has been for more than half a century

Are you familiar with Thomas Paine? Every American in the period of the Revolution was familiar with his Common Sense:

Common Sense is a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1775–76 that inspired people in the Thirteen Colonies to declare and fight for independence from Great Britain in the summer of 1776. In clear, simple language it explained the advantages of and the need for immediate independence. It was published anonymously on January 10, 1776, at the beginning of the American Revolution and became an immediate sensation. It was sold and distributed widely and read aloud at taverns and meeting places. Washington had it read to all his troops, which at the time had surrounded the British army in Boston. In proportion to the population of the colonies at that time (2.5 million), it had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history.—Wikipedia

Today not one of my students has ever heard of him. Texas disapproves. 

Here's another example. I learned formal outlining and the use of notecards to organize papers in grade school. It wasn't a process I enjoyed. But I had to do it, and by the time I was in the 6th grade, it was automatic to think it terms of major headings followed by subsidiary headings, supporting details, and details of those details: I, A, 1, a… You might have learned that system in school. It is a structure basic to developing logical and linear understanding of the relative importance of information—as is necessary to writing an essay, for example. I am not a linear thinker, but even I understand that this is essential. It used to be part of the curriculum. Both my sons learned to outline.

These days, students in my school district have never learned outlining before they get to my room, something I only learned this term. I will add it to my curriculum next year. Chris Gilde used to require a formal outline for the Senior Research Paper. It was like pulling teeth after a while. No wonder. No one is teaching organization like this in the lower grades.

They are too busy learning out of a box—what is called "scripted" education. We are all too busy teaching what we're told, when we're told to teach it, on a narrow track and regardless, sometimes, of when the material is age-appropriate for students or for individuals or what must be left out in order to include the mechanical series of steps mandated in scripted curriculum. 

This may help explain my "knee-jerk" suspicion of the CCSS. 

As part of my acceptance of school reform, I was recently told to review the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to see where each goal should be emphasized in each grade level, when to teach each particular skill, how to develop and reinforce the skills defined in the new Standards. (And I don't know: Is Thomas Paine in the CCSS? Do the CCSS require formal outlining as part of the process of learning to write?)

But, of course, this is not really up to me and mine. None of this is up to me. The CCSS will be tested and those tests will define for me when knowledge and skills must be learned, and when they will be tested. The SBAC test will drive instruction and I will inevitably teach to that test. I have no choice. It will determine more than any other single aspect of their education which of my students will graduate and which may not. I want my students to thrive, and I will include what I can to ensure that will happen, so yes, I must teach to the test. Why pretend otherwise? 

Support from the side can allow students to soar. Point them up and then help them get there. Do we need rigorous and challenging goals? Of course. But what is our goal? And "is our children learning?" Can all students succeed if we are simply more highly motivated to do better? And will these hours of yearly exams prove that our students have achieved a better education? Will we do a better job as teachers? Will our students do a better job as learners? The answers are complicated, and our goals are not clear. 

As a result of school reform I would hope my students would become more skillful readers, writers, thinkers, reasoners; more knowledgable about their world and how to make their way through it; more capable consumers, voters, and citizens; more open to truth and value and kindness and compassion; capable of persistence and routine as well as independent investigation, thought, and exploration; and achieve wisdom, skill, and hope for their own future. 

I have little faith or hope that this is the direction we are going. 

Education has an enormous capacity to make our lives better if we are taught to explore and think.

Or will my students manage merely to learn to pass a new multiple choice test? 

Can I help them do this? Some of them might even prefer not being asked to think.

But I cannot, not yet, since the SBAC, which by law every student in my junior classes must take next spring, isn't done yet. What will the test look like? How much time will it require? What will be the cut score (passing)? There are no answers. No one knows enough details to satisfy teachers. My students must take the test in the last six weeks of next year but there is no provision in the school schedule to provide time for this testing so I am not sure when it will happen. The computers we use for the current Oaks tests sometimes shut down, sometimes fail. I don't know that we have the more sophisticated equipment required for the new tests. I'm not sure anyone knows. The companies that design the texts and tests stand to gain billions of tax dollars. I know that much. 

I also know that while all students are required to take the SBAC, we have a four-year window where the existing standards may still be substituted for the SBAC in meeting the state-manadted standards for graduation. The best guess is that in my area, the new tests for reading and writing will be harder. We assume most students will depend on work samples to meet the State graduation requirements for these skills. I have designed work samples for both reading and writing, but I would have hoped that since historically the state has seen no more than 60% of students pass the writing assessment, they would understand that something might be wrong with the assessment. For Oaks, student writing is scored twice: by a briefly trained teacher (not necessarily a reading or writing teacher) working over vacation and by a machine. Sometimes I look at student writing scores and it's clear one scorer "liked" the work and the other didn't. I assume that machine is the villain in this scenario, but perhaps it is the under-trained human scorer who fails to recognize skill? 

In any event, this is merely a test and tests are inherently flawed. 

A century of research and test development proves that a classroom grade is more accurate than any multiple choice exam, but my curriculum matters little when set against what those non-educators have chosen for me to teach, and when. The century-old SAT is still a poor substitute for a classroom assessment, though they keep hoping it will improve with time.

The textbooks of my youth neglected to tell me what was true, but instead presented of version of our past preferred by one powerful minority. What our students learn while we are in the midst of misguided school reform may also have less to do with truth than a narrow agenda devised by non-educators for other people's children, not their own. 

The principle of individualism is very powerful in our nation. But when people who do not know us, who did not attend public schools and usually do not send their own children to public schools, presume to dictate what should be taught and when, we have entered a dark time indeed. 

As I say, I have little choice in the matter. You can be sure I will not teach that Columbus discovered America. 

ABOVE: Thank you, Darlene Sherrick for flying buttresses. Texas would not have approved of all that time spent on the philosophes and flying buttresses. They were no part of anyone's assigned curriculum, but she used no textbook at all. Sherrick assigned primary source readings about the way people thought about the world, encouraged frequent lively class debates, and shared hundreds of slides of architecture, photographed in the days when travel was considered inherently educational and many teachers traveled every summer. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm proud to say that I did learn who Thomas Paine was in elementary school and still remember. What I learned a lot later, however, was that my 5th grade social studies teacher made an executive decision to teach out of a book written by a true historian who wasn't at all affected by the shitty Texas curriculum. I just wonder how many other teachers in the system are willing to take similar measures and not feel too pressured by the national standards. Thank you so much for doing your best to fight and speak out against all of this ridiculous injustice.


Thank you!

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