Curriculum & Instruction

This is getting to be an old story (see here and here), but it's an important one. Yesterday's release of a report on the three-year-old Atlanta schools test cheating scandal seems to confirm our worst fears:? it was widespread, which means it was systemic, involving 44 schools and 178 teachers. According to Kim Severson, writing in today's New York Times*, ?a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation existed in the district, which led to a conspiracy of silence.?**? Said Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, who released the report, ?There will be consequences.?

Let's hope so. No doubt, the case will fan the flames of the high-stakes testing fires. Are we putting too much pressure on teachers to ?perform?? And their administrators? Apparently, even one-time National Superintendent of the Year Beverly Hall is implicated. (As Severson reports, she just retired and? ?left Tuesday for a Hawaiian vacation.?) How do you explain systemic cheating?

As I opined last February, ?the range and depth of the problem, especially given the improbability of a conspiracy, is troubling.? Lacking a conspiracy, we are left with an explanation of?moral and ethical breakdown of epidemic proportions. And the question: how is the virus spread??

I'm not sure if the? "conspiracy of silence" proves me wrong, but there are things that can be done?including putting people in jail?and I would hope that Governor Deal is serious about consequences.

By the same token, our policymakers need to take a close look at...

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It is hard to read the Declaration of Independence without being moved by the document's plainspoken audacity, especially recalling that it wasn't then a "document," but a rather blunt call to arms.? And while we tend to focus on the sublime words?"when in the course of human events" and "self-evident" truths?of its first and second sentences, the manifesto's list of the King's ?repeated injuries and usurpations? never ceases to amaze me.? Every year I choose a different favorite complaint. This time, in part because of the aggravations seen by some in the Common Core and the ESEA reauthorization,? it is this: "He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance."

Those guys were brilliant?and brave.

The crisis now before us is that we are creating citizens who won't remember the revolutionaries and what they did, much less appreciate the reasons for the revolution. We know that only 17 percent of our eighth graders scored at or above proficient on the 2010 NAEP history test. (It is somewhat reassuring, perhaps, that 62 percent of them were able to identify the Declaration as the source of "we hold these truths to be self-evident.") But Fordham took us into the heart of darkness earlier this year with its report, The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011, documenting the sorry state of our schools' approach to the teaching of history. Wrote Checker Finn and...

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I stewed most of the week about how to respond to Deborah Meier's recent Bridging Differences post on ?college for all.?? She's against it, of course. She thinks the movement is another piece of the right-wing, high-stakes testing, corporate behemoth conspiracy.? And I had a high-brow response almost ready to go (see College for All, Please! Part 2, coming soon) ? until yesterday morning, when I picked up my New York Times and read (in the new ?Sunday Review? section) David Leonhardt's masterful KO of the silly notion that we shouldn't encourage kids to go to college: Even for Cashiers, College Pays Off. As Whitney Tilson would say Stop the Presses!!!? ?The graphics alone (compiled from the Center on Education and the Work Force at Georgetown) should take your breath away:

  • A dishwasher with a college degree earns 83% more than a dishwasher with no college
  • A cashier with a college degree, 56% more
  • A plumber, 39%

Etcetera.

Writes Leonhardt:

The most unfortunate part of the case against college is that it encourages children, parents and schools to aim low.

Why should we even be arguing about this?

Leonhardt quotes David Autor, an M.I.T. economist, saying rather bluntly, ?Sending more young Americans to college is not a panacea?. Not sending them to college would be a disaster.?

Unfortunately, that disaster, aided and abetted by smart people like Deborah Meier, is already upon us.? (Full disclosure:? Ms. Meier is a...

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There are two stories in today's New York Times that merit some consideration. One is an essay about a sperm donor and the other is a pop history quiz (sorry, test-haters, it's multiple choice). ?What the two have in common is 12th-grade.? The essay writer, one Colton Wooten, we are told, ?graduated from Leesville Road High School* this month.?? And the Times test is taken from the infamous National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) history exam that got so much press this past week (see here and here).

Start with the test. As the headline asks, ?Are You as Smart as a 12th Grader??? Well, my guess is that the average adult American is probably as smart as the average 12th-grader, considering that only 12 percent of the NAEP sample of seniors were proficient in the history test.? But the questions are not easy ? everyone remember what the Ordinance of Nullification was? ? and the test, however golden a standard,? is probably a better measure of the nation's curriculum anarchy than of student knowledge.? (See my post on the national obsession with putting the assessment cart before the curriculum horse.)

Mr. Wooten's essay illustrates a different set of challenges for our schools; most specifically, how do you teach writing?? The young man's op-ed essay is wonderfully constructed and shows a mastery of the topic and of the writing craft that is far more mature than the standard 12th-grade fare I've read.

I

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Guest Blogger

The following, by Peter Wehner, originally appeared on the Commentary Magazine blog.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released its 2010 ?report card? on the command of history our fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders have. The results are not encouraging. Over all, 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders, and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the exam. (NAEP defines three achievement levels for each test: ?basic? denotes partial mastery of a subject; ?proficient? represents solid academic performance and a demonstration of competency over challenging subject matter; and ?advanced? means superior performance.)

The tests were given last spring to a representative sample of 7,000 fourth graders, 11,800 eighth graders, and 12,400 12th graders nationwide, with history being one of eight subjects covered by NAEP (the others are math, reading, science, writing, civics, geography, and economics). The nation's eighth graders posted gains in American history achievement compared with four years ago, while at the fourth and twelfth grades, we saw no statistically significant changes since 2006.

It turns out history is the worst subject for American students (economics is the best). For examples, most fourth graders are unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure, and few high school seniors were able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean War. Diane Ravitch, an education expert, drew special attention to the low scores for high school seniors....

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This is what I don't understand about Diane Ravitch.? After several years (more or less) of fairly relentless criticisms of school reformers, she is back to her old self today, telling the New York Times that the new NAEP history? test results are ?alarming.?? ?Well, of course, they are. (Fordham has been talking about this for a long time.) As the Times reports, only 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the NAEP exam, considered the gold standard for measuring academic performance.? ?And there are lots more alarms where these came from.? But it would sure be great if Diane could come back to the reform fold and start writing again about how lousy many of our public schools are and making suggestions about how to fix them.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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The new report from the National Research Council (with its come-hither title, Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education) is sure to add fuel to the anti-accountability fires. It concludes, pretty shockingly, that all these tests haven't made kids any smarter.? Though I worry that the study will enable a system that has successfully avoided accountability for too long, those of us in the curriculum first movement should gather some welcome I told you so chits from the report, which concludes that:

Test-based incentive programs, as designed and implemented in the programs that have been carefully studied, have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries.

And:

The evidence we have reviewed suggests that high school exit exam programs, as currently implemented in the United States, decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement.

No doubt there will be much parsing and gnashing of policy teeth over the meaning of the report. Education Week's Sarah Sparks does a good job gathering some early opinions. They range from that of Jon Baron of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy -- ?It's an antidote to what has been the accepted wisdom in this country, the belief that performance-based accountability and incentive systems are the answer to improving education,? ? to a ?stunned? Eric Hanushek -- ?What we've done to date hasn't been perfect; there are lots of obvious flaws in either results or program structure to date....

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Though I am not inclined to give teachers too much autonomy until they start showing signs of it working to improve our schools, Jonathan Zimmerman raises some interesting issues in his When Teachers Talk out of School essay in this morning's Times. Citing cases of teachers censored or dismissed for making Facebook comments about students ?-- ?I hate their guts? or my students are ?rude, disengaged, lazy whiners? -- Zimmerman leads us into more tender, and interesting, territory by mentioning the case of the teacher asking students to read books banned from the school's library. Is this a freedom of speech issue? Zimmerman seems to be on the verge of seeing it as a professional conduct question:

All professionals restrict their own speech, after all, reflecting the special purposes and responsibilities of their occupations. A psychologist should not discuss his patients' darkest secrets on a crowded train, which would violate the trust and confidence they have placed in him. A lawyer should not disparage her clients publicly, because her job is to represent them to the best of her ability.

And he even admits that teachers ?have a responsibility to transmit the topics and principles of the prescribed curriculum.?

Zimmerman then gets a little squishy when he talks about the need for teachers to teach? ?democratic capacities,? including ?reason, debate and tolerance ? so that our children learn to think on their own? ? which sounds like a reasonable part of the curriculum --? but quickly falls...

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Liam Julian

Louis Menand offers opposing views of college in the latest New Yorker. On the one hand, he writes, college is basically ?a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they're sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious?no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense?those negatives will get picked up in their grades.? And at the end of it all graduates are ranked, scored. The G.P.A., in this perspective, is a really just a judgment ?that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential.?

Menand's second theory of college's purpose is not so purely practical. ?In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards,? he notes, ?people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success.? Literature and music and art, then, will go mostly ignored. A student ?will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being.? In such a world, college is the one place where such knowledge and skills can still be passed on, even to those pupils who would rather finish their business classes and get on with it. Through this process college ?socializes,? taking ?people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs? and instructing them in ?mainstream norms of reason and taste.? Thus does campus function...

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The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,

but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here

to the unfinished work which they who fought here

have thus far so nobly advanced.

--Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 1863

My father, an Army logistics officer in World War II, only told a few war stories when we were growing up in the 50s and 60s. The one about crossing Italy in the winter in a Jeep ? ?Half the time it pulled me and the other half I pulled it,? my father laughed ? made me a lifelong lover of Jeeps*.? I thought he made up the one about losing his hearing as a result of ?an enemy bullet piercing his helmet and spinning violently around on the inside, bursting ear drums and his dreams of being a lawyer ? until I found the helmet in the back of a closet one day.? I once caught my father in the bathroom, his foot hoisted into the sink, a washcloth carefully tending a set of shockingly gnarled and yellowed toes ? frostbite, he admitted, from the war. He didn't say it, but my guess was that it came from the pulling part of that winter Jeep trek across Italy. The body remembers....

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