Tag Archives: education reform

Making the case for Parochial Schools in the NCLB age

NunNewBedfordGeographyYes, Sister Mary Margaret, there is a place for you and the rest of the “penguins.”

It’s just difficult to see against the tests, the balance sheets, and the armada of charter and magnet schools competing in your home waters.

As much as our public schools take a beating, few institutions have take as severe a scourging as the Catholic Church in the US.

I’m not referring to the sex abuse scandals, which deserve pages of analysis.  The system of Catholic primary and secondary schools in the United States is on an unprecedented retreat.

At the height of the baby boom in the 1960s, roughly 5.2 million students were enrolled at Catholic schools in communities across the country, according to a recent City Journal article by Sean Kennedy, a scholar at the Lexington Institute and co-author of a study on Catholic education.  Today, less than half attend a Catholic institution, only 2 million.  Running without government dollars, per-pupil costs skyrocketed between 1998 and 2010, from $5,600 to $10,800.  Average tuition for incoming ninth graders at Catholic high schools has more than doubled, from $4,300 to $8,800.

The result is a massive pandemic of building closure: between 2000 and 2012, 1,942 schools were either closed or consolidated (combined with other schools).  167 closed or consolidated in 2012 alone.  A recent report by the Archdiocese of New York stated at least 24 local schools will close, affecting over 4,000 students in the area.

How did it happen?  How did arguably the greatest private school system in America take such a beating?

Catholic schools, in a way, are a victim of their own success.

The Catholic parochial school system began in the mid-1800s as a response to the rising public school movement in America.  Early public school systems, in cities and towns, stressed preparation for adult life as farmers and workers—a preparation that included religious instruction.  Public schools encouraged Bible study, particularly the King James Bible used in Protestant churches.  Thus, public education was seen as a vehicle for evangelizing Protestant religious values.

The sea of Catholic immigrants in the mid-1800s, from Ireland and Germany, needed schools that reflected their own values.  Either through the diocese or independently, parochial schools of all levels would spring up right next door to local public schools.  The parochial system would grow to essentially become a mirror of the public school system, with elementary and secondary schools local to each city and town, as well as Catholic schools of higher learning (Boston College, Notre Dame, Holy Cross, Georgetown, etc.) that served as centers of university training for Catholics who still felt discriminated at the Puritan, Presbyterian and Anglican campuses of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia.

Over time, Catholic schools developed a reputation for discipline, spiritual nourishment and academic excellence.  Without government money, these schools provided high-quality, low-cost education for immigrants and their children.  Clergy acting as the faculty kept costs low while instilling rigorous standards of discipline and academic achievement.

When new theories or fads would ravage American public education starting in the 1960’s, Catholic schools were a haven of stability, providing excellence the old-fashioned way: discipline and hard work.

Parochial school would become the true vehicle of upward mobility: many who rose from poverty to positions of power attribute their success to the values and rigor instilled in a Catholic education.

By the 1990’s, however, Catholic schools obtained a serious rival—a rival funded by public dollars.

The rise of No Child Left Behind was parallel to the rise of the charter school movement, schools funded by public monies but operating independently of the public school system.  When parents couldn’t afford rising costs of Catholic school, the charter school became a less-costly alternative.  Many of these charters have adopted norms and values long cultivated in the Catholic school system: high academic expectations, rigorous discipline, school uniforms.

The result is a hemorrhaging of enrollment at an unprecedented scale.  2012 marked the first year that charter school enrollment is higher than in Catholic schools, surging past the 2 million mark.  Currently they account for about 5% of children in public schools, and their numbers continue to rise.

Does this mean the slow death of the Catholic school, though?  Not necessarily.

Competition from charter schools has crippled a longstanding tradition of American education.  The question now is: should it be this way?  Is there a way for Catholic schools to regain lost ground?

Part of the problem is financial.  Catholic schools are playing on an uneven field: charters can, and often do, get continuous funding from public coffers, whilst the local parochial school is kept up largely by the parishioners and the local diocese.  This is a disparity that cannot really be leveled without massive government spending in religious schools—a controversial move on many levels.

Dioceses across America are learning to make do with less—a painful lesson in efficiency that will probably be helpful in the end.  Though the closures are painful, the Catholic system as a whole can still be main sustainable for at least the immediate future.

Yet fiscal discipline is only part of the solution.  To really re-establish its foothold on American schooling, the parochial school needs to emphasize those things that charters often get so wrong, and that St. Mary’s and St. Bernard’s get so right.

In terms of morals and ethics, it’s a no-brainer.  Recent scandals aside, at least on paper, the parochial school is a model for moral education, at least through the lens of Catholicism.  Catholic schools have long opened their doors to non-Catholics, as long as they take classes in religion and sit through the obligatory exercises.  Through this osmosis, many non-Catholics can’t help but develop ethically in this environment.  Historically, this deep moral education has also been coupled with a thorough civic education.  Catholic students also tended to be proud American citizens—which upends completely the discriminating notions of a century ago that equated Catholicism with anti-Americanism.

More importantly, though, parochial schools never mess with what works in education.  It’s a lesson we all know too well.

Charter schools, especially the well-known ones, often pride themselves on being up-to-date with the latest educational trends and theories.  Basically, they tie themselves to a philosophy or theoretical framework, drill their teachers and students to death in it, and if it doesn’t work, they find another theory or fad and start the process all over again.

Catholic schools never had to worry about Danielson frameworks, Bloom’s taxonomy, Understanding by Design, Lucy Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell, or any other fly-by-night notions that catch an administrator’s eye like a shiny toy.  They understood long ago that as long as a dedicated staff is backed up by an administration hellbent on discipline and hard work, no theory was really necessary.

Unlike the twits that dictate education policy today, Catholic schools knew for a long time that the school environment matters a whole lot more than any newfangled theory.

Does that mean parochial schools can’t do a better job with English Language Learners or children with special needs?  Absolutely not.  In fact, many of the ding-dong theories we disparage can work for them on a limited basis.  Yet the majority of kids being sent to Catholic school are not being sent there because of Wiggins or Calkins or Fountas & Pinnell—they’re being sent because Sister Mary Margaret will conjure the fires of Hell if little Johnny doesn’t do his work.

In a way, the strict discipline and focus on work in the Catholic school is a lot more nurturing than even the most liberal-minded charters—places where the chanting, the slogans, and the high fives seem so…antiseptic…artificial…

…dare I say…fascist?

Catholic schools have a role as a viable alternative to the public school system.  They provide a discipline and focus that no charter can dream of providing, combined with a moral compass that makes KIPP look like a Dickensian workhouse.

Once they can get their financial house in order, America’s Catholic schools need to focus on how to compete effectively with charters and stake their ground in the 21st century education landscape.

After all, they do answer to a higher power.

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The Return to the Neighborhood – Mr. D is back!

I'm Back by popular demand!It took quite a while, but the Neighborhood is back in business!

To be honest, I was really expecting to post at least once a week when I started my new position.  However, this year I learned of a new kind of exhaustion.

My new school, in all fairness, is such a refreshing change from my old situation that my exhaustion was barely noticed.  It’s a charmed life: a K-8 neighborhood school in a Bronx neighborhood reminiscent of my ancestral haunts in Brooklyn, with incredible colleagues and administrators that really back me up to the hilt.  Few teachers nowadays get that kind of treatment anymore.

Yet the Neighborhood had to take a back seat to a cruel mistress-two of them, in fact.  Ancient history was less demanding.  Sixth grade science, on the other hand, has had me doing tricks that would make a Flying Wallenda soil his tights.  Its been rough creating basically a whole new curriculum on the fly, especially in two subject areas.  History was simply a refresher: it was nothing some pyramids, a Hammurabi Code and some gladiators couldn’t fix.

Science…well…let’s just say for years we’ve had an understanding.  We usually stay out of each other’s way.

Yet when the principal asked if I could teach science during my interview, of course I nodded.  I could teach anything.  A superteacher like me only needs a stopwatch and some dry-erase markers to make kids recite Herodotus in the original Greek or do long division while explaining word problems in perfect iambic pentameter.

In other words, I lied.  Sort of.  Hey, I wanted the gig.

So between physics formulas, ancient artifacts and suffering through a broken Smartboard and a stack of paperwork I never had to do before, my life has been pretty much exhausted to the point that the Neighborhood was neglected.

Well, no more.

The Neighborhood will be back to give the usually refreshing, mostly irreverent, oftentimes crass and always honest commentary on American and world history, history education and education in general.

So to start…how about a teaching tool designed by yours truly?

One thing I really needed at the beginning of the year was a good comprehensive, all-inclusive introduction to the ancient history curriculum.  Since I’m known to knock around a decent PowerPoint or two, I created this introductory presentation as a jumping off point for lesson planning, assessments, projects, whatever you need.  It starts with a world map where you click on individual areas and it shows information about the “Big Four” civilizations usually studied (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome).  Each section has maps, pictures, short bios of important people and key contributions of each people.

It isn’t a silver bullet, but the presentation is a good way to get students to think about deeper exploration of various themes.  The link is below:

Introduction to Ancient Civilizations

PS – It has my real name on it…as if it were a big secret LOL.  Enjoy.

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Petition to keep the Global History and Geography Regents as a Graduation Requirement

World map - Produced in Amsterdam First editio...

World map – Produced in Amsterdam First edition : 1689. Original size : 48.3 x 56.0 cm. Produced using copper engraving. Extremely rare set of maps, only known in one other example in the Amsterdam University. No copies in American libraries. In original hand color. Français : Carte du monde – Créée à Amsterdam Première édition : 1689. Taille originale : 48,3 x 56,0 cm. Eau forte. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m so late to this party that it isn’t fashionable anymore.Yet some parties are so important it’s just as important to just show up.

As it broke in April, The New York State Board of Regents is considering a measure to make the Global History and Geography Regents examination optional for graduation with a state-endorsed diploma.  Instead, students would opt to take another math or science course or another vocational course.

However, you still have to take the global history course…because it makes so much sense to take a class but not the final exam (cough, cough).

Never mind the obvious age-old agendas of gutting social studies to create automatons proficient enough in math, science and literacy to be submissive cogs in the corporate machine, yet ignorant of the workings of government, history, economics and geography so that they will be ill-equipped to participate fully in American democracy.

The motives for this one are both sinister and silly.

It is done under the guise of offering more educational options—more options at the expense of the hardest exam in the Regents system.  The Global exam had a passing rate of about 60%, the lowest in the state.

So the move is less about well-rounded educational options and more about artificially boosting graduation rates.

Even more incredible, the test is mostly a test of reading comprehension, and less of a trivia contest.  The low passing rates have little to do with the content.  It has everything to do with students with subpar reading skills—often at or below 6th grade level for 10th graders.

The irresponsibility, deviousness and outright stupidity of this move is so self evident, I won’t waste any more words on it.

Below is a petition from Change.org to try to reverse the decision.  The Board of Regents will make their final decision at their June meeting, so it’s important to sign soon.

The link is here.  Make sure your voice is heard.   Also, be sure to read Alan Singer’s column on the matter in the Huffington Post.

It’s bad enough our kids can’t find where they live on a map.  Let’s at least teach them where the rest of the world is located.

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Ready for Inspection! The Problem with “Quality Reviews”

“No matter how nitpicky, how fastidious a reviewer can be, he (she)’ll never, ever come close to what you actually do in your classroom.”

Some time ago, an acquaintance I knew from the Department of Education, a science specialist, told me this when I was complaining about State Quality Reviews (SQRs).

As true as this is (and he should know—he actually does SQRs for the district), it still doesn’t explain how a two-day beauty pageant defines years worth of expertise and academic achievement.

In New York State, that’s exactly what an SQR does.

For those in the Neighborhood living outside New York, you may have something similar. They come under various names: reflections, reviews, audits, analyses. Here in the Empire State, these inspections are known as Quality Reviews, with the appropriate air of a Dickensian workhouse.

These official reviews are masked as “learning experiences” meant to provide “reflective feedback” on our practice. After you choke a little bit on your own vomit, you’ll realize their true purpose: to make sure schools do exactly what they’re supposed to do in the manner expected from the state education department—or at least to the whims of the pack of inspectors sent to your school.

The reviews come in multiple levels. The peer review, a less invasive but no less insidious device, involves groups of teachers and administrators rating each other. The educational equivalent of a gladiatorial contest, the peer review is usually less intense since fellow teachers and admins rarely want to crap on their own brethren.

The State Quality Review, or SQR, involves a pack of reviewers from a mix of different places, from the district to the DOE offices in Tweed to the state offices in Albany. A two-day affair, the SQR usually is triggered if a school suffers a drop in their rating or is rated a School in Need of Improvement according to No Child Left Behind.

Even this level of review comes in different degrees. For example, if your school dropped in ranking due to poor test scores in targeted areas, such as English Language Learners (ELLs) or Special Education Students, the review will most likely focus on the school’s work in that area. Otherwise, in case of a monumental screw-up, the entire school apparatus is put under the microscope.

My school recently had the former: a review based on our supposed lack of progress in ELLs and Special Education. Even so, the entire school was mobilized. Reams of assessment reports, data reports, student diagnostic reports, spreadsheets, graphs, charts, lesson plans, rubrics, student work, teacher evaluations, curriculum maps—all of it gets collected into a series of massive binders. These binders are designed for a dual purpose: to provide adequate evidence that we’re doing our job even without making educational targets; or to overwhelm the reviewer with work to the point that they just assume the school’s doing a thorough job without cracking open these three-ring behemoths.

Rarely does the review not go past the binder stage.

After a day of sifting through numbers and charts, day two features the classroom visits. In theory, the visits are supposed to be “random.” Therefore, every class is spruced up, cleaned up, papered with new charts and new student work (with appropriate rubrics and task cards). In practice, however, since the visits target certain populations, it is often the classes with said populations that get visited—and are often prepped ahead of time.

The result is a series of visits into model classrooms in the vein of Disney World’s World of Tomorrow rides. Bulletin boards stand as monuments, replete with student work, carefully labeled with comments, a rubric and task card (never mind the mind-numbing hours spent preparing these works ahead of time). The charts around the room carefully detail every minute movement in the academic process (usually after re-doing and sprucing up charts the teacher has used for years).

Even the procedures need procedures—such is apparently a “well developed” classroom. I’m surprised there are no charts detailing how to effectively utilize the lavatory (Lord knows they can use it).

The children sit in their seats (the more impossible ones are either conveniently absent or not-so-subtly convinced/cajoled/threatened to behave) and stage a performance worthy of Broadway. While they are listless, lethargic or outright defiant most of the year, the SQR somehow summons articulate, well-mannered, enthused children gleefully engaging in one of your “A” lessons (a little coaching certainly helps.)

All the while, the reviewers (some blasé, some meticulous, and even a few true-believers with Nazi brutality) ask the teachers and children questions about their learning, mostly to figure out if the little whelps are actually paying attention. It’s a scream when they go off-script. One year, a boy was asked his favorite subject. He replied, “Home.”

Some of the questions teachers get can be downright insulting. One teacher was asked to show her lesson for that day. She was asked to show the lesson’s objective (which is clearly marked on most lesson plan books, which seemed to go above the head of this reviewer). After pointing to the lesson objective in her plan, she was then asked, “Why is that the objective?”

Hmmm…how about because that’s what the phony-baloney curriculum map they had to make (and could barely read) says to do.

Even the tone of that question—and I wasn’t present to hear it—would suggest that the reviewer was not among academic professionals but rather a pack of chimps that still needed Jane Goodall to teach them how to poke at anthills with a stick.

In the end, the review usually comes with a long checklist of positive points and things to work on (NEVER negative points, because the word “negative” doesn’t exist in a well-developed classroom *vomit*). The negatives rarely carry much substance, but rather focus on how to create MORE useless paperwork to make the appearance of learning.

Sometimes, they even suggest to return to methods and theories that were discarded during the LAST quality review.

After coming out of the subsequent scotch fog, I had some serious questions about the SQR process. Why the reams of paperwork? Why collect data that often says little and means even less? Why ask children for answers who are notoriously honest—even in the best schools?

Most importantly…how does a quality review help children learn more?

I’m looking really hard, and I haven’t the foggiest.

The window dressing, the bulletin boards, the charts—they are only as effective as the teacher behind them. Any trained animal can clean up well enough to perform a show.

The “evidence” question doesn’t wash with me. Most of a teacher’s best work is done without a ream of paperwork or forms to complete. Effective professionals know what data works and what data is simply filler for a spreadsheet. More data doesn’t necessarily mean improvement.

Thus, if reviewers are really looking for reams of evidence, are they viewing teachers as professionals? Or are teachers more like Goodall’s chimps, according to the state?

Therefore, maybe that’s how the education reform crowd, the NCLB nancies and TFA fops, views all of us who chose education as a calling: a pack of trained animals that can’t be trusted to make intelligent decisions and need a zookeeper to collect the feces.

Which leads back to the earlier quote. My friend was absolutely right. The quality review can’t scratch the surface of what a teacher does in the classroom. Yet the very existence of such a review undermines the status of professionals whose talents and achievements far exceed any binder of data.

So if the state continues to treat me like a chimp…well, let’s just say chimps are marksmen with their bowel movements.

 

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Where Does Journalism End…and Bullying Begin? Teacher Data Reports and the Media

العربية: صورة التطقت عام 2008 لمقر إدارة تعليم...

Tweed Courthouse, headquarters of the NYC Department of Education. Image via Wikipedia

On November 16, 1801, a group of New York politicians led by Alexander Hamilton began a political broadsheet that would eventually become one of the most influential publications in the metro area.

Recently, it decided to cease being a newspaper…and become a tool of propaganda instead.

On Friday, February 24, after a lengthy court battle, the New York City Department of Education was forced to comply with a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request filed by the New York Post, the aforementioned tabloid founded over 210 years ago.  The DOE released the infamous Teacher Data Reports (TDRs)—the rankings of supposed teacher effectiveness based on standardized test scores in English Language Arts and mathematics.

In the days that followed, each of the city’s major media outlets released the teacher scores (with names attached) in varying formats.  Some ranked teachers from highest to lowest percentile.  Others released searchable databases by district, borough and school.  Still others, such as the New York Times, published the data with lengthy addenda explaining that the scores shouldn’t be used to rate or rank teachers, since it was a single indicator based on outdated, faulty data with a ridiculously wide margin of error.

(These explanations, by the way, were provided by the DOE itself, along with a recommendation that the media treat the data fairly as it was intended.)

However, the New York Post, the paper that initiated the FOIL request, didn’t stop at a mere spreadsheet of names and numbers.

After releasing its own version of the teacher data—with language so editorialized it hardly passed as hard news—the Post released a story about the alleged parent uproar over a Queens teacher who received the lowest scores in the city.

The story’s lead paragraph read: “The city’s worst teacher has parents at her Queens school looking for a different classroom for their children.”

In that one sentence, the Post lost the last vestige of journalistic integrity.

The controversy over the TDRs embroils teachers, administrators, parents and political leaders.  The arguments range from the valid to the ludicrous.

The data was flawed. 

It’s impossible to rate teachers based on only one indicator in each subject.

The data doesn’t take into account the myriad of extenuating circumstances.

The DOE secretly wanted the scores released. 

The DOE supposedly encouraged media outlets in their FOIL requests and even expedited the process. 

The DOE got into a devil’s compact with the UFT leadership, the mayor, Fox News, the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the Freemasons, Jesuits, the Vatican, the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderburg Group to publicly tear out the entrails of “ineffective” teachers…

(Okay, that last one was far-fetched—but you get the point.)

The actual release of the data is a moot point.  Until a new law or federal court ruling decides otherwise, the scores are out, and will probably be released again in the future (even if the DOE itself stopped collecting such scores).

The real issue, one that has an even farther-reaching implication than the classroom, is how media outlets use that data.  While it is true that the First Amendment gives newspapers quite a bit of leeway, there are definite boundaries that journalists cannot cross.

When a newspaper publishes a story based on a flawed, incorrect and unsubstantiated source, it crosses that boundary.

When a newspaper uses false data to publicly shame an individual, it is not only unethical.  It is slanderous.

The inaccuracy of the TDRs was acknowledged by teachers, administrators, and even the DOE itself.  All parties agreed that the data was imperfect.  What’s more, the data has such a wide margin of error that any percentile derived from it is akin to throwing a dart at a dartboard blindfolded.

Thus, the TDRs are a flawed, inaccurate, and therefore non-credible source—by open admission from the powers that be.

The papers can print the data, as long as their stories about them have multiple sources discussing the data.  So far, all the newspapers covered this base (in the Post’s case, just barely.)

Yet the labeling of teachers in superlatives, as “best” or “worst”, based on TDR data does not pass the journalistic smell test.  Along the same vein as the Queens teacher’s article, the Post also published a piece about teachers with the highest percentiles.  The following was the lead to the story:

“The city’s top-performing teachers have one thing in common: They’re almost all women.”

Not only does this statement say absolutely nothing (considering the vast majority of teachers in the city are women anyway), but it makes a dangerous classification—the same kind of classifying that drove that Queens teacher to a virtual lynch mob by ill-informed parents.

When news stories throw around a value judgment based on one singular measure—a measure that is so ridiculously flawed even its authors disavow it—the journalists behind these stories used what amounts to false, unsubstantiated information. 

It is, in effect, mocking (or exalting) people based on a probable lie.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is the textbook example of slander and libel.

The New York Post’s editorial pages have attacked teachers’ union and teachers for years now.  Yet this frenzied hatred never hit the news headlines as hard as it did this weekend. 

They have used unsubstantiated, inaccurate data to shame teachers, using the unfortunate quotes of ill-informed parents in the process as they whip up support for their negativity.

Worst of all, they have the gall to couch this journalistic lynching as hard news.

The New York Post should stop calling itself a newspaper.  It is now no better than a common propaganda pamphlet that panders to the lowest common denominator.  At times I even agreed with the Post politically—but their tactics disgust me.

Finally, for those whose reputations have been ruined by this pseudo-journalism, there is a weapon far more powerful than any ordnance.  It usually has a suit, a briefcase, and an avalanche of legal motions.

See you in court, Rupert.

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The FY’2013 Federal Budget Proposal–and its Implications for Social Studies

It seems the one truly bipartisan agenda in Washington today is duping the American public.

The bailout, the modest job increases, the upswing in the NASDAQ and the Dow Jones, even the rebound in the mortgage bond market are all spun to make it seem that things are actually getting better for average Americans.

The same is true for American education, and no more so than social studies—the sacrificial lamb to the altar of “interdisciplinary” or “integrative” studies.

Back in 2011, the federal budget for the fiscal year 2012 saw hatchet-like slashes across federal agencies, cracking off limbs where pruning would suffice.   In education, the ax fell on programs that were needed for its stated mission of a literate citizenry by 2014.  Suffice to say the boughs that needed most attention were left untouched (boughs with branches in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example).

The Teaching American History (TAH) Grant program, of which I am a big fan, lost its funding for FY 2012, signaling to one and all Washington’s contempt for a quality education for our citizens.  In the 2013 budget released on February 13, the program’s woes would continue—the lost funds would not return.

Furthermore, most of the 2012 cuts have remained in place for 2013.  Although the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) would receive a modest $8.2 million boost, most agencies saw a leveling off or a reduction in funding. 

The real insult, however, is how the Obama administration’s Department of Education views the role of social studies in future national plans.

Once again, the DOE proposes to scrap traditional K-12 history education and fold it into this new educational Leviathan named “Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education.”  According to the National Coalition for History, the program aims to:

“support competitive grants to States, high-need LEAs, and nonprofit partners to develop and expand innovative practices to improve teaching and learning of the arts, foreign languages, history, government, economics and financial literacy, environmental education, physical education, health education, and other subjects. There would be no dedicated funding for any of the disciplines.”

To add insult to injury, this boondoggle has also felt the sharp edge of Obama’s ax: from $246 million in FY’12 to an astounding $90 million in this current budget.  Even the Administration has lost faith in their own proposal, to the tune of an over 63% reduction in funding.

If the federal government doesn’t even believe in this idea, why should educators buy into it?

In this endeavor, social studies educators should be joined with science faculty, teachers in foreign languages, physical education teachers, athletic coaches and others in common cause.  As much as integration is a valuable tool in the classroom, it is not a silver bullet for the ills of education—any teacher will tell you that. 

There are certain skills, concepts and facts that require the concentration, focus and expertise of a dedicated subject.  Thus, funding should also reflect the continued necessity of subjects/content areas by allocating monies to science, foreign languages, the arts and especially the social studies.

This program is dependent on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which governs K-12 education.  Since it’s an election year, and the ESEA is mired in Congressional deadlock, then nothing much can be done on this in the coming session.  Yet that gives that much more time to express our opinions on the matter.

Now, I’ve never been a huge fan of collective action—too much of the Beltway cynic in me.  However, this can be driven in the right direction given the right buttons are pushed. 

Here is the link to the members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.  Also included is the members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (phew, that’s a mouthful).  Take a little time to let them know that “Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education” is nothing but a front to destroy our educational system.  It will make a mockery of our system, dragging us even farther behind other countries in every category.

Furthermore, even the Administration has shown its reluctance by slashing its funding—so Congress should devote those funds to more worthy educational endeavors.

Please contact your local Congressman, at any rate…and as usual, make sure to let him/know the Neighborhood sent you.

House Committee on Education and the Workforce

John Kline, Minnesota
(Chairman)
Thomas E. Petri, Wisconsin
Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California
Judy Biggert, Illinois
Todd Russell Platts, Pennsylvania
Joe Wilson, South Carolina
Virginia Foxx, North Carolina
Bob Goodlatte, Virginia
Duncan Hunter, California
David P. Roe, Tennessee
Glenn Thompson, Pennsylvania
Tim Walberg, Michigan
Scott DesJarlais, Tennessee
Richard L. Hanna, New York
Todd Rokita, Indiana
Larry Bucshon, Indiana
Trey Gowdy, South Carolina
Lou Barletta, Pennsylvania
Kristi L. Noem, South Dakota
Martha Roby, Alabama
Joseph J. Heck, Nevada
Dennis A. Ross, Florida
Mike Kelly, Pennsylvania

George Miller, California
(Senior Democratic Member)
Dale E. Kildee, Michigan
Donald M. Payne, New Jersey
Robert E. Andrews, New Jersey
Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, Virginia
Lynn C. Woolsey, California
Rubén Hinojosa, Texas
Carolyn McCarthy, New York
John F. Tierney, Massachusetts
Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio
Rush D. Holt, New Jersey
Susan A. Davis, California
Raúl M. Grijalva, Arizona
Timothy H. Bishop, New York
David Loebsack, Iowa
Mazie K. Hirono, Hawaii
Jason Altmire, Pennsylvania

Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Tom Harkin (IA) – Chair
Barbara A. Mikulski (MD)
Jeff Bingaman (NM)
Patty Murray (WA)
Bernard Sanders (I) (VT)
Robert P. Casey, Jr. (PA)
Kay R. Hagan (NC)
Jeff Merkley (OR)
Al Franken (MN)
Michael F. Bennet (CO)
Sheldon Whitehouse (RI)
Richard Blumenthal (CT)

Michael B. Enzi (WY) -Ranking Republican Senator
Lamar Alexander (TN)
Richard Burr (NC)
Johnny Isakson (GA)
Rand Paul (KY)
Orrin G. Hatch (UT)
John McCain (AZ)
Pat Roberts (KS)
Lisa Murkowski (AK)
Mark Kirk (IL)

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Slaves, Oranges and Arithmetic: The Dangers of Too Much Content Integration

In that ever-growing list of educational untouchables, the enslavement of African Americans is among the most sensitive and nerve-rattling.

So why in Hell would a teacher build a set of math problems based on slavery? The misguided belief that social studies can—and should—be integrated into everything.

One of the offending questions, courtesy of ABC News

If ever there was proof that social studies deserves to remain a separate and distinct subject, it is the recent “slave math” controversy. Luis Rivera, a third grade teacher in the Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett County, Georgia resigned when he assigned math homework that included problems involving slavery and beatings. Samples of the controversial work include:

“Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?”

“If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”

The story made headlines across all the news outlets and provided prime fodder for the early morning gabfests. Many clearly found the incident offensive, and others thought one careless act shouldn’t mar an entire career in education…and so on, and so on.

Bullshit. The guy should’ve known better: both as a tolerant American and as a teacher of sound pedagogical practice. Rivera gets an “F” on both accounts.

The use of such a sensitive topic is appalling in it of itself. As a teacher, however, it is the casual, even careless use of history that is most repulsive. The teacher claimed they were attempting a “cross-curricular” activity, supposedly integrating social studies and math.

If this is what passes for “integration” or “multidisciplinary”, then here come the division problems using cattle cars and European Jews (prepare to use high numbers), probability questions involving Christians thrown to lions (advantage: lions), and fractions involving Crusaders slaughtering Muslims in the Holy Land (i.e. “What fraction of a merchant in Jerusalem is left after Sir Godfrey cleaves him to pieces with a broadsword?”).

Not only are these examples equally disgusting, but teach absolutely nothing about the content being used.

As much as it twists in my gut like a rusty bayonet, districts will still be pushing for integrating social studies and science into reading and mathematics. Understandably, each content area fits better with a certain skill set: social studies is basically just focused reading and writing, scientific analysis rarely doesn’t involve at least basic math skills.

Yet when the subjects are reversed, the integration can be a little tricky—and no more so than with social studies and math. The Georgia example, to be honest, was more of an example of lazy, slipshod integration than any real malice. It was probably based on the notion that the content itself doesn’t matter so long as the skills taught are understood.

Thus, in Rivera’s mind, the slaves being beaten and picking cotton and oranges could have been anything and anyone, so long as the math algorithms were internalized.

This in not integration. It is the hijacking of one subject to further another.

If true integration is the goal, the student materials, assessments and lessons should:

1. Align with content material or units that are either being taught at the time or previously covered. According to the Georgia Performance Standards in Social studies for 3rd Grade, students should be covering the impact of various important Americans. Even if the American in question was a slave (i.e. Frederick Douglass) the content was inappropriate and didn’t really tie into the curriculum at all. The content you use has to make sense to the students in some way; otherwise both your math and your social studies objectives will be lost.

2. Utilize settings, actors and scenarios appropriate to the historical period or unit. This sounds a lot easier than it is. Many times, problems are created that in no way resemble the reality of the time. Even amongst the offending problems, the second one makes no historical sense: if Frederick needed two beatings a day in order to work, he would have probably been sold. A little research into primary sources can go a long way in justifying your use of historical content.

3. Enhance understanding of BOTH the skills/standards and the content area. Okay teachers and administrators, I’ll say it: social studies and science are not your personal call girls designed to fleece students for their respective pimps, reading and math. If you create a division problem involving the supplies of a pioneer family, students should learn a thing or two about the hardships of frontier life in the process. That reading assignment about volcanoes should not only enforce main idea, author’s purpose, etc. but also the scientific concepts of volcanic eruption and its role in land formation on Earth.

Since the remorseless monolith of integration is with us for the foreseeable future, educators have to learn to effective join content and skills together for mutual benefit. With so much time in the school day devoted to reading and math—plus that ever-growing period of test prep—many find it hard-pressed to even find time for social studies and science. Thus, integration often becomes the only way content is taught in many classrooms.

The best way to find great material for integrating social studies content into your lessons is to amass a vast library of primary source materials. Many of the websites featured here have incredible databases and clearinghouses of newspapers, diaries, account books, ledgers, captains’ logs, ship manifests—all with enough numerical data to torture your students for months.

Use common sense, fit them into your lesson plans where appropriate, and if you’re in any doubt as to whether you’ve crossed the “Rivera Line”, as we’ll now call it, ask a colleague.

Ideally, these subjects should stand alone. Certain things can only be taught in the isolation of a period devoted to social studies or science. Yet the NCLB monster squeezes the day to the point that integration has become a necessary evil in our everyday lessons.

Just use your head, unlike poor Luis Rivera. The only job he’ll be doing now is picking oranges and cotton for slave wages.

(…pun was completely intended.)

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