Curriculum & Instruction

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....

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

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....

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...

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...

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....

For the last couple of years?ever since the nation's governors and state superintendents started working on common academic standards in reading and math?conservative education analysts have engaged in a spirited but polite debate about the wisdom of this development. The last month has seen the discourse turn nastier, with charges and counter-charges, name-calling, and quasi-apocalyptic warnings about federal bureaucrats wanting to ?control your children's minds.? Particularly at issue in this latest round of recriminations is Uncle Sam's role in all of this; are we witnessing a federal take-over of our schools? A push for a federally-controlled national curriculum for all public schools? [quote]

Some of these concerns are not entirely unfounded; the Obama Administration and other supporters of the move to ?common? national standards (my organization among them) have made some unforced errors that have helped to fuel the paranoia. But for conservatives worried about federal interference in our schools, this debate is mostly a sideshow. What should really keep them up at night are the myriad proposals for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act that would push Washington's hand ever deeper into the day-to-day operations of America's schools?proposals that are coming from both sides of the political aisle.

Before diving into the No Child Left Behind debate, let's mitigate some key concerns about a ?national curriculum? with a review of the facts.

The effort to get states to agree to common standards started well before the 2008 election, with the Council...

The big fuss about "national curriculum" has lately slid into an argument about whether the federal government may?and should?have anything to do with "curriculum." Actually, it's an argument?limited to the Education Department, which has in its founding legislation a specific prohibition on "controlling or directing" curriculum. (Other federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and Arts and Humanities endowments have?engaged for decades in the funding, development, evaluation, and encouragement of curricula.)

A whole bunch of folks, mainly conservative policy wonks and grumps, have spent a whole bunch of time in recent weeks declaiming that Arne Duncan is a sinner if not a lawbreaker because his Race to the Top program encouraged states to adopt the new "Common Core" academic standards and because he gave a bit of federal money to the two assessment-development consortia to help pay for instructional supports and curricular materials related to their forthcoming tests (which are, in turn, supposed to be aligned with the dreaded Common Core).

This debate?is no?longer confined to the blogosphere and think tanks, however. In the last couple of days it has drawn in Duncan himself as well as House education chairman John Kline.

I?guess people were born too late?or have short memories. Arne Duncan has plenty of precedents in both parties?and none of them were jailed, impeached, or even criticized, save perhaps for their curricular judgment. Because there have been umpteen earlier efforts by the federal Education Department to develop, foster, encourage, and evaluate?specific academic...

Liam Julian

Tennessee is determined, it seems, to sully its reputation when it comes to matters educational. The state that in the 1920s began the anti-evolution battles by bringing?teacher John Scopes to trial for allegedly?speaking of?evolution in his high-school biology class has moved the so-called ?Don't Say Gay? bill along the path from notion to law. Friday the state's Senate passed, 20-10, the legislation, which mandates that instruction at public elementary and middle schools will be ?limited exclusively to age-appropriate natural human reproduction science.? The bill originally forbade elementary and middle schools to ?provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality? but was amended after some lawmakers, according to the Associated Press, noted they were ?uncomfortable? with?such language. Nonetheless, says the legislation's sponsor, Republican Stacey Campfield, the bill's effect is undiminished because ?homosexuals don't naturally reproduce.?

One can defend Campfield by arguing that he is merely attempting to block from public-school classrooms unregulated discussion by untrained teachers of divisive topics. Parents may not be comfortable with their elementary-school-aged children learning about homosexuality at school; such parents may wish to teach their kids about the topic at home, in their own way, and in their own time, and Campfield believes that is their right.

The issue is emotional, and it is easy to castigate Campfield, to fit him for stereotypical southern-bigot clothing, but a charitable assessment of his position reveals?one that is far from ridiculous. It is, however, flawed.

Campfield seems to assume that any discussion...

One of the more interesting characteristics of the recent curriculum counter-manifesto was its lead sentence, which had this lovely turn of phrase: we ?oppose the call for a nationalized curriculum.?? Interesting, I thought, since I don't believe anyone at the Shanker Institute called for a nationalized curriculum; they called for a national or common curriculum.? Was this a distinction without a difference? Was Shanker just being "sneaky"?? Not at all ? and I'm sure the writers of the counter-manifesto understand all too well that nationalize is a verb, meaning to do something like Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez might do to oil companies or hotels.

Nice try, guys.

On the other side of the aisle, of course, is the privatization crowd.? Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier have been sharing their worries about billionaire ed reformers conspiring to kill off public schools for a long time and just about anything associated with ?business? draws hizzahs of privatizing public education.? Just the other day, Gail Collins weighed in on the Times op-ed page with a column called Reading, ?Riting and Revenues.? ?Today,? she opines, ?let's take a look at the privatization craze and the conviction that there is nothing about molding young minds that can't be improved by the profit motive.?

Though I would never be one to pooh-pooh a rhetorical flourish or two, there really are times when the language should be used to clarify not confuse.? The word "demogoguery" often comes to mind.? Words...

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