Monday, July 16, 2007

Experts' vision vs. reality

Back in February, I did a post about how frustrating it can be for teachers to discuss education with non-teachers. Some non-teachers took that post to be insulting, but it wasn't meant to be. As I said in the post, I wasn't arguing that non-teachers had nothing to contribute, but there are some things we, as teachers, have to deal with that non-teachers just don't understand. Elizabeth had a post recently that partially illustrates what I'm talking about. She writes about high school students who actually believed their teacher fought in the Civil War and knew Abraham Lincoln. Elizabeth understandably seemed somewhat shocked by this, but I doubt that any teacher was. We see it all the time.

Last year I wrote about a girl that I called Suzy to illustrate exactly the same type of thing. I'll shorten it up a little here, but this is the story:

Suzy was a girl that I had a couple of years ago in one of my American history classes. She was a nice girl, who made a reasonable effort in the class, but she was not the American history equivalent of a rocket scientist, so my class was difficult for her. At the end of every marking period, students in my classes have to satisfactorily complete a "Required Knowledge Test" in order to earn a passing grade. (I did a post on my Required Knowledge Test last fall.) The students have to get every item correct the first time the test is given, or demonstrate to me that they've learned any items that they've missed.

On the test at the end of the third marking period, Suzy initially got two wrong. That meant that after she got her test back, she would have to go back and learn the correct answers to the items she got wrong, and then I would quiz her orally on those and any related items.

One of the questions she got wrong was this: Who was the most important American general in Europe during World War II? The answer Suzy had given was George Washington. Ouch! When she came up to my desk to go over the two items she missed, she had no problem with the other item, but when I asked her this question again, once again she said, "George Washington." The girl was persistent.

Now, I wanted to help her through this, so I asked her three other questions that she had gotten correct on the test. "Okay, Suzy," I said, "who was America's commanding general in the Revolutionary War?"

She replied, "George Washington".

Then I said, "Okay. And when did the Revolutionary War occur?"

Suzy said, "In the 1770s."

"Okay, that's good. Now when did we fight in World War II?"

"In the 1940s."

"Okay, Suzy, you're right again. And like you just said, George Washington was our commanding general in the Revolutionary War, so who was America's most important general in Europe in World War II?"

At this point Suzy looked at me like I was an idiot who couldn't understand plain English, and said in a way to make it clear that she was running out of patience with me, "George Washington!!!"

This story did have a happy ending. Suzy eventually did learn that Dwight D. Eisenhower was our most important general in Europe in World War II, but it definitely took some help. She simply could not seem to make the connection on her own that if George Washington had been our general in a war that took place in the 1770s, it would have been a little difficult for him also to have been our general in a war that took place 170 years later. This inability to make connections is not terribly unusual for high school students. As I indicated earlier, high school teachers see things like this every day.

Suzy is a nice young woman who has since graduated from high school, and she will do fine in life. I think most high school teachers have at least a couple of Suzies in their classes every year, and it's our job to try to make our classes meaningful for them, just like it's our job to try to make our classes meaningful for kids who go on to prestigious colleges, as well as everyone who is in-between those two levels. We might not always succeed--Suzy's confusion certainly makes that point--but it's our responsibility to try.

One thing I have found is that there are very few non K-12 teachers who understand the incredible variety of kids we deal with when it comes to ability and background. This is as true for many so-called experts as it is for any layman. I recently visited a site containing E. D. Hirsch's Revised Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, and I checked out the section on American history from 1865 to present. I read Hirsch's original book on cultural literacy a year ago, and if my memory serves me correctly, he says that the items on his cultural literacy list are things that every high school graduate should know. Now, I think a lot of what Hirsch says makes great sense, but I find his belief that all high school graduates should know this stuff to be beyond pie in the sky.

I must confess that there are items on his list that I don't know--Mary McLeod Bethune, Jeanette Rankin, Stonewall Riot, Charlotte P. Gillman. (Looks like I'm a little weak on my women's activists!) That's not very many, but I teach this subject, and I feel like I know it pretty well. There are other items that I have only a vague familiarity with, and others, like Griswold vs. Connecticut, that I know only because I teach A.P. American Government. Yet, Hirsch says that any literate American should know them all. I don't think this guy has worked with too many high school kids.

In fairness to Hirsch, he doesn't pretend that his vision is the way things are now, or that it could be unless things were done much differently. His presentation of a cultural literacy dictionary is part of his push to have more content taught at earlier ages. What is intolerable is when politicians try to legislate something even more unrealistic than Hirsch's vision, and that is exactly what the Minnesota State Legislature has done with it's Academic Standards.

The Minnesota State Legislature and a bunch of ivory tower academic gurus have put together a list that my sophomore American history students are supposed to know by the end of the year that I have them. I can find any period in American history interesting, but I think it's fair to say that one of the least interesting periods to kids is the period from the end of Reconstruction (1877) up to the beginning of our involvement in World War I (1917). Here is a list of what the state of Minnesota says my kids should understand about that period:

Transcontinental railroad, Morrill Land Act, Plains Indian Wars, Dawes Act of 1887, Wounded Knee, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, White Earth Reservation, industrial mining in the southwest and midwest, the Bessemer Steel Process, barbed wire, business leaders such as James J. Hill, John Deere, J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie, impact of railroads, agricultural productivity and mechanized farming, factories, new forms of marketing and advertising, trusts, Mark Twain, Ashcan school of painting, Stephen Craine, Sears catalog, Street lights and trolley cars, the Tweed Ring, the new middle class Victorian culture, architecture and literature, Ellis Island, Angel Island, ethnic enclaves, Melting Pot idea, 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Scientific theories of race in the late 19th century, Jim Crow laws, Poll tax, literacy test, Grandfather Clause, founding of the Ku Klux Klan, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Plessey v. Ferguson; anti-Chinese movement in the west and the rise of lynching in the south, the shift from workshop to factory, Knights of Labor, Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor, Railroad Strike of 1877, Homestead, Haymarket bombing 1886, 8 hour work day, Pullman strike 1894, Monetary policy, Greenbacks, Gold Standard, Depressions of 1873-79 and 1893-97, Farmer's Alliance, Grange movement, Populist party, Omaha Platform of 1892, 1896 election, free silver, William McKinley, William Jennings Bryan, Eugene V. Debs, Frances Willard and the Women's Christian Temperance Union, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, National American Women's Suffrage Association, women's suffrage, 19th Amendment, Hawaii, Alfred Thayer Mahan's theory about the importance of controlling the seas, Cuba, Filipino insurrection, Puerto Rico, Admiral Dewey, Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, Yellow Press, William R. Hearst, intervention in the Boxer Rebellion, Jane Addams and the settlement house, Florence Kelley, Upton Sinclair and muckrakers, Ida Tarbell, Conservation, planned use and the origins of the national forest service, Preservationism, Yellowstone National Park 1890, Sierra Club 1892, Robert Lafollette, city manager system, civil service reform, initiative and referendum, Progressive Party and Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom, income tax, 16th Amendment, Sherman Anti-trust Act, direct election of senators, National Women's Suffrage Association, Carrie Chapman Catt and the winning plan, The Woman's Party, Alice Paul.

Last year we spent twelve school days on this period, including tests. Now, I suppose I can throw all this stuff at my kids, but if I do that, how interesting do you think it will be? How much of it do you think any of them will really understand? How much do you think someone like Suzy, or someone with just a little more ability than her, would understand? Do you think the geniuses who put these "standards" together, and the "statesmen" who voted to make them policy even know that kids like Suzy exist? Or maybe they just want us to leave those children behind.


Blogger Kimberly said...

I'm guessing that if you made up a test with all of those items on it, gave it to those ivory tower academes and the legislature, a large percentage of them would fail miserably - and that would be just on the basic knowledge. Ask them to take it to a higher level (say apply, synthesize, evaluate, whatever) and they would make frippering idiots of themselves.

Just saying.

7/17/2007 12:58 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Kimberly, you're "just saying," and I'm just agreeing. ;)

7/17/2007 3:26 AM  
Blogger Jeff Yearout said...

I've had the same idea here in Kansas for our dear state legislators. Give them one of our state assessments from the 7th or 8th grade exam, don't tell them what grade it is for, and see how they do. Tell them AFTERWARDS what grade the assessment was designed for.

If something doesn't change, we might become a country full of decent multiple choice test takers, but will lose what makes the USA the economic engine it has been for so long - creativity, innovation, and the desire to learn and understand more.

We need to prepare kids to be functional in LIFE, and we're busy preparing them to be functional in TESTS.

If we applied the NCLB principles to PE, we would be doing nothing but running laps all day trying to get everyone in shape. Maybe thats not a bad analogy for NCLB academically - we're running laps, getting a little better, and the ones being "run" get more and more tired of it with each lap.

7/17/2007 10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One *other* way to approach this is that we (well ... you. I'm don't live in Minnesota!) need to start teaching history earlier (maybe in Kindergarten) so that we don't need to try to cram all of this into 12 days.

I'm homeschooling and I have put together my own history outline of things that I want my child to know (and by this is mean remember, not just for a test, but for *real*) by the time he is done with 12th grade. My list isn't nearly as detailed as the one you have presented (partially because I'm trying to focus on what is important, not please lots of special interest groups). Still, it runs to 60+ pages. One key feature of my approach is that we do history every year (and most school days of each year). We have to! The list can't be covered only doing history in 3 or 4 years. Plus, cramming like this means that almost everything *will* be forgotten. On the other hand, given 12 years (and multiple passes, which one can do with 12 years to work with), I think my child *can* learn most of the outline. And remember it.

Having suggested that the intent *might* be to start history earlier, I suspect that most of this is just taking every item that anyone on the committee wanted. If I was in charge (and a total dictator), I'd probably insist that the list be limited to something like 100 entries for the whole year. This would force the committee to focus on what was important, rather than trying to keep everyone on the committee happy, while making a list that was useless (which they seem to have done).


Good luck.

-Mark Roulo

7/17/2007 5:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd also add that the list probably makes more sense if arranged thematically and chronologically. Free Silver, Greenbacks, the Gold Standard and William Jennings Bryan go together as a unit, for example. I'd teach them as a block (maybe in one day?).

The list is still not do-able in 12 days, though.

-Mark Roulo

7/17/2007 5:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And, just for fun, here is my 1877 to 1917 list (subject to change ... I'm far from done with it). Some items on my list are scored as outside the 1877-1917 range, but I'll include them anyway. Also note that my granularity is much larger as I expect *understanding* of the big items and this winds up requiring knowing more details.

1867: Granger Movement Begins
1870: John D. Rockefeller forms Standard Oil
1877: Compromise of 1877
1879: Thomas Edison and Sir Joseph Wilson Swan 'invent' the light bulb
1885: Home Insurance Building in Chicago is the world's first skyscraper
1886: American Federation of Labor founded by Samual Gompers and others
1891: First Sears-Roebuck catalogue issued
1892: Ellis Island immigration station opened
1892: Peak of Lynching in American — 230 for the year
1893: Panic of '93
1898: Spanish-American War
~1902: William Haviland Carrier invents the air conditioner
1903: US 'creates' Panama out of a part of Columbia
1903: Orville and Wilbur Wright fly an airplane
1908: Henry Ford introduces the Model T
1912: Industrial Workers of the World lead massive textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts
1913: Sixteenth Amendment to U.S. Constitution allows for federal income tax
1913: Seventeenth Amendment to U.S. Constitution, Direct Election of Senators, Ratified
1913: Federal Reserve founded
1914: Harrison Narcotics Act passes
1914-1918: World War I devastates Europe

I get 21 items. Maybe do-able in 1/2 a year? No way it can be handled in 12 days in any depth at all. Any my list is *much* shorter.

Someone needs to make a count of the items for the year (I wouldn't be surprised it if is more than 500), total up the minutes of instructional time (180x60=10,800) and point out that the legislature is allowing 20 minutes per topic (with some topics being "Plains Indian Wars", which probably require more than 20 minutes ..., as does "impact of railroads"). Assuming no time spent on taking roll call, giving tests, collecting homework, etc. Maybe down to 15 minutes per topic (or less if the list is 1000 topics, which it might be). Then ask if 15 minutes per topic is considered enough time to acquire any understanding. I'd do this in an op-ed piece.

Well, Dennis? Do you have time to make the count? It would be interesting and fun to see what the reaction to an op-ed piece would be.

-Mark Roulo

7/17/2007 5:26 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Jeff, I think your lap-taking analogy is a good one. I just read a book by Gerald Bracey, and he makes the same type of point that you do.

Mark, you raise some interesting points. You say that in order to get through any "list" it's necessary to start teaching history earlier. In fairness to Hirsch, that is exactly what he wants to do.

You also have the right idea about adding everything to the list that everybody wanted. When the list was initially compiled, the Republicans were in control of the state legislature, and it was more reasonable. It was a traditional list and it contained all those things that conservatives think kids should know. Naturally, liberals complained that there wasn't enough multicultural and feminist material, so they revised the list. What they ended up doing was simply to add everything the liberals wanted, too. That wouldn't have been so bad if they'd have taken something out for everything they added, but as you suggested, they simply ended up putting everything in that anybody wanted.

Your idea about the count might not be a bad idea. That could be a rainy day project for me.

One more thing, Mark, and I hope you don't take it the wrong way. It's actually meant as a compliment. But if I was a teacher in your district, I would really want your involvement in my school, and I would love to have your son someday in my class. Every parent's major concern has to be whatever they think is best for their own kids, and I have no doubt that that is why you are homeschooling. But as a proponent of public schools, I have to view the absence of you and your son as a real loss for us. I wish we could do a lot more to gain the confidence of people like you.

7/18/2007 3:13 AM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

Part of the problem that I'm facing is that many districts in California are cutting back on history and science in the primary grades because students are not tested on them every year. I believe science is tested in 4th and 8th grade. History is tested in 8th grade. Of course, language arts and mathematics are tested every year from 2nd to 11th grade.

When I teach history to my 6th graders, I tell them that when they are in 8th grade, they will be tested on what they have learned as 6th graders. Of course, those students who are placed in intensive curriculum are only instructed in math and language arts (sometimes for 6th and 7th grade) and are not exposed to any history at all in middle school until 8th grade. Those who are placed in the strategic strand get a semester's worth of history and science. Both groups of students are still expected to take the 8th grade history test.

I so enjoy that those who are in charge of making these decisions seem to enjoy setting both students and teachers up for failure.

7/18/2007 9:12 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Should we leave the "Suzies" behind? Yes, we should.

A high school diploma used to mean something. Now it means nothing, because schools graduate people who can't count, never mind know history. Dennis, I realize you're going to take this as further evidence that I don't understand what you go through--so be it.

I dislike questions like "who was the most important..." because this is subjective. High school students should learn facts, not subjective commentary about history. Even if the opinion is the consensus. To tell you the truth I almost said "Marshall" in response to the question, because to me the most important, or at least the best, thing that came out of WWII for Europe and the world was the Marshall Plan...and isn't that a lesson for today? Military history always bored me (and I suspect many girls) whereas everything I learned about social history, I remember. (such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Stonewall Riot).

7/18/2007 7:53 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Elizabeth, I completely disagree with you about leaving Suzy behind. I do think we should leave kids who refuse to behave and who refuse to try behind, because that's their own choice. Suzy lacked ability and she lacked background--the kind of background we discussed on your post, because social studies type issues were probably never discussed in her home or anywhere else in her life besides school. But she always made a decent effort, and there is no doubt in my mind that she will be productive in some way as an adult. I don't know what society would gain by denying her a high school diploma.

Just to clarify, I refer to Eisenhower as our most important general in Europe because, on my Required Knowledge Test, I'm trying to follow the KISS philosophy (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) "Most important general in Europe" more understandable for high school students than Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. If kids aren't sure who I'm talking about, all they have to do is ask.

7/19/2007 3:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to clarify, I refer to Eisenhower as our most important general in Europe because, on my Required Knowledge Test, I'm trying to follow the KISS philosophy

I assume you would also accept Marshall and Patton as answers if the student could explain? These seem defensible answers, too, and anyone who could explain why probably knows enough about WWII to meet your goals.

Or Not?

-Mark Roulo

7/19/2007 9:39 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mark, the answer on THIS test is Eisenhower. Yes, you could make the arguments that you refer to, but that's not the purpose of this test. If you want to see what I'm talking about, there is a link to a post on my Required Knowledge Test in the first paragraph in the story about Suzy. If you check it out, I think you'll see what I mean.

By the way, I have been trying to reply to your email at school, but our email has been down. They usually get it back up pretty quickly, though.

7/19/2007 12:59 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Why can't Suzy be a waitress, a taxi driver, a bus driver, a nightclub singer, a nanny, etc. etc. etc.? Not every job requires a high school diploma.

Or, why wasn't Suzy in special ed? It sounds like she might have had a learning disability.

7/19/2007 3:49 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

from Wikipedia:

"During World War II, Marshall was instrumental in getting the U.S. Army and Army Air Corps reorganized and ready for combat. Marshall wrote the document that would become the central strategy for all Allied operations in Europe, selected Dwight Eisenhower as Supreme Commander in Europe, and designed Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy...

Throughout the remainder of the World War II, Marshall coordinated Allied operations in Europe and the Pacific. He was characterized as the organizer of Allied victory by Winston Churchill..."

7/19/2007 6:01 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Elizabeth, Suzy was low ability, but not technically learning disabled. She's one of those kids who didn't want to be in a basic class, but probably could have benefitted from it. She struggled her way through the regular class, and did the assignments and passed most of the tests, and got through with Cs and Ds. She earned her passing grades, and hopefully there are some names and places that she recognizes from doing that. She did manage to fight her way through that Required Knowledge Test every quarter. Could she explain or analyze many historical events? I doubt it.

Believe me, I am not arguing with you about the importance of George Marshall. As you pointed out, Marshall oversaw everything--Europe and the Pacific, but unless I'm mistaken he spent most of his time in the United States. Once again, I worded the question the way I did in order to keep things as simple as possible, because I do have kids like Suzy. If I say, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, those kids might memorize the answer, but they won't even know what I'm talking about. If I say, "most important general in Europe," they understand what I'm asking.

7/20/2007 5:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a parent, I would like to ask a question to the teachers. The teachers here are having a discussion about the best or most correct answer to a test question.

What would be your advice to a parent when the child comes home and shows information from the teacher that is contrary to conventional thinking.

This happened to me. When I discussed it with the teacher I was told that it was her classroom and she has been teaching this for x amount of years.

When I took my concerns to the principal, the teacher's position was backed with the added statement that "she is the expert" and that I was "just the parent".

How does one effectively deal with this scenario?

8/10/2007 7:32 PM  

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