Monday, November 16, 2009

Ed Hirsch Jr. and a couple of detours

Ed Hirsch JR.

Merrow also has a very informative interview with Ed Hirsch Jr., author of The Knowledge Deficit, The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them, and Cultural Literacy.

Since we have just had a partial inservice day devoted to curriculum mapping, I thought I would listen to the podcast again as a motivational tool. I tend to get bogged down in all of this talk of alignment with standards and raising test scores. Especially after having a serious talk with my College Comp students in which they – almost to a student – told me point blank that they don’t care about the tests and they don’t particularly try on them.

What does make them care and try hard? Well, according to the Zoomerang survey I had them take, it came down to teachers. The more passionate and interesting the better. Plus, if a teacher can prove to the students that what the information and skills are learning is relevant and important – and, best of all, - if teachers can do it in a hands-on or real world setting – that is what will get students to achieve at the highest levels.

At least, that is what the survey and our discussions revealed.

I’ll give you two examples that the students talked on and on about at length in their evaluations. The two things that really engaged the students in their time here at LHS were a business class assignment called “Show Me The Money” and our Community Action Program.

First, “Show Me The Money,” was a brilliant assignment in which each class member was given $5.00. They were challenged to make as much money off that five dollars in a week that they possibly could. So, for example, a student could buy 24 bottles of Dasani. Then they could turn around and sell them at school during lunch for, say, 75 cents (undercutting the machines and our cafeteria which sell them for a buck). If they sell out their first day, they have netted 13 dollars. And that’s just the first day. Brilliant. And talk about motivating students and hands-on activities and real world skills.

And there’s not a damn NWEA or MAC that will ever test any of that.

Next, the students raved about the CAP where students volunteer in various real world settings, such as retirement or nursing homes, elementary schools, and other areas. Every single student who chose to discuss their experiences in CAP said that it challenged them and totally engaged them. They liked this best because they got immediate feedback from the people they were serving. One student wrote how she will never forget walking into an elementary school and seeing the kids’ faces light up. Again and again, the students mentioned how they went above and beyond in this class because they enjoyed helping others so much.

Again, there’s not one damn test that will test any ofn that. But they are better human beings for the experience.
Needless to say, maybe one student said anything about a class I taught. Obviously, I have not been challenging and engaging them as I had hoped or thought. Now, maybe the students saw this as a chance to all complain and blast the high-stakes tests. That might account for the discussions where this was clearly the case. But the survey was anonymous and they took it individually, and they still voiced the same concerns. I guess the only way to prove if what they say is really true – especially about their lack of effort on the tests – is to actually look at how they did on those high stakes test. But that’s another issue.

So last week when I sat down to work on my curriculum maps and align what I do with the standards, I was a little bummed out.

I looked at the standards from the state department and then later looked at the packet our Language Arts Committee did such a good job putting together, but I couldn’t help but think, does this matter?

It was even more disheartening when I saw a couple of handouts discussing some of Marzno’s ideas on improving student learning. This at first glance was excellent. There’s plenty on there I need to get better at. But what was disheartening was to see the little stats at the bottom of each idea that stated if the teacher implemented each skill or practice just how much each specific skill would raise a student’s test score.

Is this what we have sunk to? Thinking and teaching in terms of percentile points instead of individual students? Schmoker stated as much at in inservice prior to the year.

I can align with ever standard and cover every thing that’s going to be on the damned tests, but if the students haven’t been engaged or motivated or inspired, will it make a difference?

I’ll be the first to warn that while I think secondary school teachers do a great job trying to incorporate technology and various activities to reach students and their multiple intelligences, but what about when we turn them loose to go to university?

Just now I’m in constant contact with about half a dozen former College Comp students who are scattered across Minnesota and North Dakota. They tell me to a student that 95% of what they have to endure for classes is lecture, lecture, and more lecture.

Yet, we are told that the best educational research says that the teacher is NOT to be sage on stage but the guide on the side.

And, yet, when they get to college . . . what happens?

Again, don’t get me wrong – I had some phenomenal college classes that were not all lecture. But many were. And even then I still enjoyed them. But what about those who don’t? And that would be quite a few judging from how many students leave higher ed without degrees.

So I turned to good old ED Hirsch Jr., for a pick me up.

Well, I don’t know if it was a pick me up. But the podcast gave me plenty to think about.

First, I do like what Hirsch has to say about prepping for tests: If a school has a rich curriculum – and what that is exactly is anybody’s guess – classes would do nothing as the test approaches because they will have already prepped the kids for the test with their rich curriculum.

Now, this sounds wonderful in theory. But in practice? I don’t know. Again, I recall how many of my students said they just don’t care about the tests.

On one side, I suppose, you could argue that if you have the mythical ‘rich’ curriculum, then you will be challenging and responding to students – and hopefully through this – engaging them, that their inner love for learning will grow. Thus, when they take those tests they will do well just because they want to show what they have learned.

On the other side, come on man, that’s a load of crap! And this is where I tend to fall.

If the tests don’t directly affect the students or their grades, then they just don’t care. And I’m not saying this is just the students’ faults. I think it’s human nature. I mean how many of us recycle? It doesn’t directly benefit me. In fact, it’s a pain in the ass, actually, having it pile up and then having to haul it across town. There’s no immediate feedback. I don’t save money. I don’t earn any money. But I do recycle. But if the city gave us a break on our garbage pick up fee or paid us for recycling, wouldn’t we all start to chip in more?

When a student takes a test that doesn’t directly affect them (if you are like me, you’re absolutely terrified that the state is basing funding off of these tests!)– what else do we think could possibly happen? I think it’s damn amazing our students have done as well as they have.

But imagine what they would do if the test affected them in some direct way.

I know, I know, I know . . . they have to pass those BSTs to graduate. But the writing BST is administered in their freshman year. What freshman is even thinking about graduating? Zero. So there really is no direct effect there.

I think it’s a testament to the wonderful job our Comp 9 teachers have done and a compliment to the writing the students were exposed to in elementary and middle school.

And what happens if they don’t pass? They are given numerous chances to take the test again until they do pass. Again, there is no direct effect for the student.

Again, it’s marvelous how well we have done given this fact.

And to recall what the students clamored for again and again on the survey and in our discussion, “teach us what we will need to know or use in the real world.”

Where in the ‘real world’ will you ever have to take just one test – all alone and on a computer screen, nonetheless – that decides whether or not you get hired or a promotion?

Now, Hirsch does offer a worthwhile thought on the high-stakes tests – all of this frustration and resentment might be caused because we are in a bit of transition here. For so long those state administered tests have been low-stakes. So how else, Hirsch wonders, should educators act?

One negative result of this is cramming for these tests. He warns, though, not to panic. Once this transition is over, teachers and administrators will adapt and focus more on making their curriculums rich and thorough. Thus, there will be no cramming.

But we’ll see if this happens.

I do like what Hirsch had to say about prescribe/one-size-fits-all curriculum: it can’t possible be optimal.

Hirsch gets it: our curriculum is not something extranl; it’s internal and dependent about the students in our classes. And those are always different.

He offers a humorous example from his own teaching, stating that when he taught three classes (and granted – and here is the humorous part – the classes were at Yale), they were all the same class, but he had to teach them all differently because they all contained different students.

If some administrators (Michelle Rhee and Paul Vallas) and politicians (Arnie Duncan) have their way teachers will be shown the door because of low test scores.

I will never argue this point: any teacher worth their salt will get their students to learn. They should be able to get every student in their class to improve. They might not all make it to the same level, but they all should leave my class with more than they entered.

But does this translate accurately and consistently to a standardized test that they take some time (usually) after they have had my class and a test they don’t even take in my room but in some computer lab.

So what can be done?

There’s no easy answer.

I’ll give you an example of the danger inherent in this system.

Rhee has talked several times at length about visiting an elementary school in her district where a teacher was giving an excellent lesson on Greek mythology. Rhee saw the kids engaged and learning and discussing and doing everything they needed to. She said it was an excellent class and an example of excellent teaching.


But, I have to ask, what happens if those same kids take a high-stakes test three months after that class and don’t score well? Is it that teacher’s fault? Is it the student’s fault? Or is it the systems’ fault that puts some much emphasis on tests that students don’t care about?

No comments: