Struggles Teaching History

I spent the last week at a conference at Stanford University for history teachers and researchers. The program focused on incorporating primary sources and worthwhile inquiry into our education system, something the Stanford History Project has been pushing for years now. Only now that schools across the country attempt to implement the Common Core has their sensible program of student questioning of sources (in tandem with a close reading of said documents) gained newfound popularity.

When I hear criticism of the Common Core curriculum, its clear that most of those standing in opposition to it know very little about what it actually asks of students and teachers. I have encountered more than a few individuals who deem the entire project a centralized governmental conspiracy to push homosexuality and anti-Americanism in the classroom. Activists and shock-jocks that either parrot these claims or are entirely uniformed on the actual specifics have fueled these sentiments, and motivated parents to oppose the shared standards on completely fabricated grounds. When critics are not creating their own facts, they are confusing different programs with the Common Core (for example, California schools are required to teach students about the contributions of gay and transgendered citizens, but this is not related to the federal Common Core curriculum).

As a whole, the Common Core focus on worthwhile inquiry is a positive thing for students studying history. I can recall my high school history class vividly. While my teachers cared about the curriculum, it often involved rote memorization of specific figures, facts, and battles that was then forgotten as we pushed forward into the next unit. We covered a great deal of history, but the curriculum was shallow in its depth. The textbook was used exclusively as the medium to engage with history, and we never debated the merits of narratives provided. While I continued to love history, I could see why many of my classmates learned to hate the subject.

Yet, there are pitfalls to implementing open-ended inquiry in a middle and high school environment. A middle school in Rialto, a Los Angeles suburb, found itself in hot water a few years ago for a prompt and inquiry created by its history department. Students were asked to support or challenge the existence of the Holocaust, and whether Jews and Israel use it for political gain. The LA Times wrote:

What started as an eighth-grade critical-thinking writing assignment has become a source of relentless controversy for Rialto school officials, who apologized profusely and publicly this week for asking that students consider whether the Holocaust was created for political gain or didn’t happen at all.

The assignment, developed by a group of teachers and the district’s educational services division, prompted widespread outcry and criticism from such groups as the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which called it “grotesque.”

The district said the assignment was meant to satisfy Common Core standards for critical thinking, but quickly pulled it and promised revisions. A spokeswoman called it a “bad mark” on the district’s record.”

Understandably, this assignment received universal condemnation. Anti-public school activists could attack the Common Core and further their claim that public school teachers were dimwits actively trying to undermine American values and corrupt its youth. After hearing this story, I looked a bit deeper into the documents and sources provided to students to answer this incendiary question. The teachers included documents from the Institute for Historical Review, a group well known for Holocaust denial. Not only had these educators come up with a poor guiding question, they stacked the deck in favor of denying the holocaust as an event. It was no surprise to see student essays arguing that the Holocaust was made up by the Jews to further their political aims.

Perhaps understandably, opponents of the Common Core used this case to argue that the curriculum, and student led inquiry in general, would turn history classrooms on their head. Rather than learning about our governing documents and principles, students would be force-feed revisionism and gradate decrying the very foundation of America. As a defender of the Common Core, I don’t take these arguments lightly. This case in Rialto demonstrates just how difficult teaching history can be if an educator is not well versed in the content area or proficient in sound pedagogy.

While I can’t say for certain, I imagine the teachers involved in creating this assignment had good intentions at heart. They wanted to have their students engage in a topic that was interesting, controversial, and required that they examine multiple perspectives. I teach a number of controversial topics in my classroom, and I definitely do not want to see history classrooms turned into environments were students are not allowed to question prevailing narratives. With that in mind, not all historical topics and debates are suited for a primary or high school classroom. Teaching students to think like historians is important, but you can give your students a false sense of understanding by selecting 3 or 4 documents and then asking them to support or justify events on such limited evidence. There will always be exclusion when it comes to teaching history; each and every project I create with my compatriots has us decide what will be included in our inquiry and what will be excluded. There is only so much time and calories a student can dedicate to a project, so something is always left out. Yet, when the Institute for Historical Review is given equal footing in your document selection, something has gone terribly wrong. Chances are, the teachers were not familiar with the organization, and simply wanted students to ponder “the other side” of a debate without considering the historical worthiness of those documents.

The reality is that not all topics of inquiry are appropriate for a classroom. It should go without saying, but teachers have to be conscious of the fact that a middle or high school classroom is not the same as a graduate studies program. Getting students to analyze multiple perspectives and challenge the authority of a source is important, but we should not create a learning environment where students feel they can pass judgment on major historical events through a brief selected reading of documents.

The teachers in Rialto who had students question the existence of the Holocaust created a piss-poor and unacceptable inquiry for middle school students. I am baffled that no one questioned this project during the planning stages. However, this case should not condemn student-led inquiry or controversial topics in our public schools.

I will be returning to this subject in subsequent posts, explaining what I think a well-reasoned inquiry looks like in a middle school classroom, and how I balance teaching student skills and historical knowledge in my classroom. I also want to touch on the “controversial” topics addressed in my class, and why liberal and conservative parents have supported said projects.

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52 thoughts on “Struggles Teaching History

  1. We have talked about this on OT in the past when the original story broke but it is good to see that is being taken seriously.

    I think teaching critical thinking is a good thing. I think that 8th grade is generally old enough to learn how to weigh sources of evidence. The issue here is that you don’t do it with something like the Holocaust and as far as I can tell the kids were just sort of thrown into the river and told to swim. There did not seem to be lessons before the examination of “You can’t trust everything you read and people can put out a lot of misleading and incorrect information out there to advance their agendas and their agendas might be bigoted and based on hatred and prejudice.” This is a lesson that requires a lot of hand holding and time.

    What is interesting to me about the Common Core is that it is hated by the left and the right. Probably for different reasons. A lot of my liberal friends who are parenting hate the common core because they think it takes the joy and fun out of learning. They write on social media that their kids are becoming stressed out in elementary school about always being in test mode. I know a lot of people who were part of the opt out of testing protest in the Northeast.

    If schools are really moving from test to test and only teaching the test, they don’t have the time to do the hand holding required about weighing evidence on sensitive subjects.

    FWIW as a Jewish-person, we tend to congregate in certain areas because of our small numbers. There are only about 14-15 million Jews in the World. The majority are split between the United States and Israel. There are around 6.2 million Jews in Israel and anywhere between 5.4 to 6.8 million Jews in the United States. The next biggest Jewish population is in France and that is 478,000 thousand according to Wikipedia. The fourth biggest Jewish population is in Canada at 380,000.

    This causes Jewish people to concentrate (safety in numbers). So you have large swaths of the United States and world without many Jews. California has the second highest Jewish population out of the NYC-Metro area but we tend to be concentrated here as well. The students at the school you mention probably did not have much contact with Jews. They might not know any Jews.

    I grew up in an NYC suburb that was heavily Jewish and went to grad school in NYC. The NYC school system and the school system of surrounding areas does not hold classes on the Jewish High Holidays because so many students, teachers, and admins would take off work during those days anyway. My grad school was a private university but did not hold classes on the Jewish high holidays because of the same reasoning. A good chunk of the students, admin, and professors were Jewish. A classmate of mine from a not very Jewish area could not understand why there were no classes on the Jewish High Holidays.

    The SF-Bay Area is not as Jewish as it once was (228,000-450,000 in the entire Bay Area of 7 million people) but the SF-Bay Area is too lovingly liberal to make the mistake that the other CA school district did. The SF-Bay Area also has a long Jewish history with people like Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis (inventor of America’s favorite pants) , Adolph Sutro, Koret, Diane Feinstein, Harvey Milk, Cyril Magnin, and now many tech giants being important to the Bay Area.

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    • Excellent points , and I will probably pick your brain later about your Jewish upbringing in the context of education, as it relates to some of the research I am doing

      You wrote: “What is interesting to me about the Common Core is that it is hated by the left and the right. Probably for different reasons. A lot of my liberal friends who are parenting hate the common core because they think it takes the joy and fun out of learning.”

      I hear this as well from my left leaning friends and it confuses me a great deal. If anything, what I see happening in history classrooms is exactly the opposite. The math portion seems to be confusing (and a lot of cart before horse in my opinion), but the humanities should be what the Left has championed for some time. I get the feeling that a lot of parents and students just want to see the same thing they have done in the past as it is familiar and easy to master. Thankfully, we are moving away from the “find and answer” approach fostered by the testing of the last 2 decades.

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      • Well the big fight among liberals if you are a Rheeist or not. I don’t consider the charter school movement to be a good thing necessarily and a lot of liberals don’t either. So maybe the Common Core is seen as being Rheeist as gets damned that way or is damned by association with NCLIB and constant testing which goes against liberal pedagogical preferences.

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      • The math portion seems to be confusing (and a lot of cart before horse in my opinion

        Math would very likely look wrong to an adult. Children don’t learn like adults do, and especially the K-7 stuff is often so fundamental that you, as an adult, never think about it. Don’t have to. You actually learning this stuff was decades ago.

        How often do you think about the fundamentals of subtraction? What it really means? You don’t have to. You know, like you know the sky is blue.

        One compliant I’ve seen aired plenty is over teaching addition and subtraction using number lines (and teaching number lines at all at that point) and the weird homework. I’ve seen adults get confused by it, and throw up their hands and decide it’s “New Math” and obviously the wrong way to teach kids.

        Except, well…it’s not confusing to kids who are taught it. And it teaches them subtraction and addition in a useful, foundational way. It confuses adults because it’s a lot of number theory they know instinctively at this point. It’s overly complicated for the way an adult thinks.

        For a kid, it’s visualization and concrete, manipulable concepts. It’s easier for them to learn and internalize.

        Kids don’t learn like adults. Whenever you look at K-12 education, you need to keep that in mind. Kids are not miniature adults lacking knowledge. Their brains don’t work the way adults do, they don’t even have all the parts working yet.

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        • One of the viral backlashes was about a homework assignment that utilized an approach to addition/subtraction known as the shopkeeper method. Why is it called that? Because it is regularly employed by shopkeepers when making change. If you regularly make cash transactions, you’ve probably seen it done.

          Imagine you bought something for $24.50 and only had a $50 bill to pay. The casher would take your $50 and count out change as follows:

          “$24.50 and .50 make $25. $25 and 5 make $30. $30 and $10 make $40. $40 and $10 make $50.” Or something similar at least. Now… the shopkeeper never determines that you are owed $25.50. So, technically, he never arrives at the answer. But when kids are taught this method, they then add up the different steps they took. .50 + $5 + $10 + $10 = $25.50 Voila! Done without having to memorize a meaningless algorithm or doing the dreaded borrowing method which, even folks who can apply it properly still don’t often know what they’re doing. But with the shopkeeper method, the children are actually engaging with the numbers themselves and making sense of the problem (even if it doesn’t involve currency). And they’re using a method used the world over because of how intuitive it ultimately is.

          But, hey, it didn’t look like what folks grew up with so naturally it got bashed. Sigh…

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          • @morat20 – Having had ever-so-slight kindergarten experience with Common Core/so-called “New Math”, I can say you guys aren’t far off – there have been times when I have looked at the way they are teaching the kids, and been able to grok what they are going for, and thought “huh, that’s probably a better way to learn it”. There are definitely times when I do find it confusing, but then again, I did learn a very different way, a long time ago (and, I pretty much hate/suck at math anyway).

            I think it runs up against not just the “This isn’t the way *I* learned it, and I find it confusing” problem – but also, IMO, kids are being assigned too much damned homework to begin with. My kid (again, in kindergarten) was doing anywhere from 1/2 hr to an hour plus, per night – this is ALREADY frustrating to a busy parent and seems like overkill, and now you are going to throw a tired, overworked parent some math to help their kid with that looks (to the parent) nonsensical and “wrong”?

            I get that the newer ways may be better ways – but if they are so much better, they should frankly be able to mostly handle it *at school*, and it’s completely unsurprising to get a backlash from parents, who are the old dogs being expected to learn new tricks.

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            • IOW, the so-called “new maths” place, essentially, a language barrier between children, and their parents who are trying to help them with their homework. This, predictably, frustrates parents on multiple levels – one, they are g-d tired and didn’t feel like doing homework anyway, but they will, to help their kids – and now, they can’t (easily), so they feel stupid, and powerless to help their kids, who may also be struggling.

              It seems like a no-brainer that to minimize backlash and get parental buy-in here would be to A.) minimize the amount of homework required (that is, if you want to teach the new methods, then teach them at school, instead of expecting old people who learned a completely different method to somehow teach it later), and B.) send home some sort of pamphlet to parents that illustrates to them how the “new” maths translate to the “old” ones, and what the aim of the new ones is. Getting parents to understand, and feel like they are able to help their kids, would defuse a lot of unnecessary anger.

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              • I am firmly and decidedly anti-homework for young students and firmly and decided less/different homework for older students. So, you are preaching to the choir here about the amount given.

                However… that really has nothing to do with Common Core and is all about how it is being adopted at the state and/or local level.

                I was actually just explaining this to a friend recently and he summed it up nicely: “So CC is the destination and states design their own maps and routes.”

                Now, if CC is setting standards that are impossible to reach without a ton of homework, then, yes, we can push some (most?) of that particular strand of criticism up the latter. But I don’t know if we can make that determination yet.

                Back to homework… for young learners, the purpose of homework should be to give them an opportunity for practice and review. It really should require very little parental involvement… in part because if the student struggles with it, the failed homework assignment will provide valuable assessment data to the teacher. If the homework comes back mostly/all correct but with heavy support from a parent, then the teacher will assume the child understands something that they probably don’t.

                Unfortunately, homework is increasingly being used as an additional teaching time. “Here are some problems you’ve never seen before. Try to figure out how to solve them using what we learned in class.” Blegh. No. Kids struggle, parents stress out, everyone fails.

                At least, that is *MY* theory. Or, rather, a theory supported by many teachers (self included) but unfortunately far from universal.

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              • My older kid will be going into second grade this fall. The math homework I have seen is definitely different from how I learned it, but once I looked at it, it made perfect sense, both mathematically and as pedagogy.

                I suspect the problem, contra Morat20, is not that the parents have internalized a bunch of number theory, and seeing it exposed seems weird. My guess is that most parents have successfully mastered an algorithm without having the faintest clue why it works. Anything other than following the steps they memorized seems offputting. If they actually understood what was going on behind that algorithm, it would be pretty easy to understand their kids’ homework.

                Speaking of which, I thought that the kid’s amount of homework in first grade was not unreasonable, stipulating that any at all can in principle be reasonable. I am open to the argument that she should be getting any at this age, but if she is going to get it, what she got made sense.

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                • once I looked at it, it made perfect sense, both mathematically and as pedagogy….If they actually understood what was going on behind that algorithm, it would be pretty easy to understand their kids’ homework.

                  I don’t disagree, and like I said, there are times when I look at it and think “yeah, this is probably a better way to teach it.” But I get frustrated with the swipes at parents, as though they are being simply all mindless YAARRRRGGGGHH THIS ISN’T HOW I LEARNED IT. There are real costs and consequences for radically changing the approach between generations, especially when one of those generations is expected to “co-teach” the new approach at home, yet has been given no background in it.

                  This transition could, at least at my school IMO, be handled much better, by better preparing parents, and making explicit the relationship of how the kids are doing it now, to how we did it then, and showing why the new way is better pedagogy.

                  Remember that math is “eternally true” in a way that, say, history or science (or English or etc.) isn’t – parents expect that the history they learned won’t be the same as what their kids learn, but BY GOD how is that math has changed?

                  (And again, I realize, it HASN’T, just the methods for imparting the concepts – heck – they are trying to ILLUMINATE the *concepts*, as opposed to the “rote memorization” route we got – but you get my drift.)

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                  • This does reflect on the school more than CC. If schools want more parental involvement, they have to do more than just whine about it. They have to make sure the parents are prepared to be involved.

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                    • Yeah, but if most schools in the district, or most schools in the state, are having the same problem, then it should probably reflect on the district or state, not the individual school.

                      Second grade teachers, it should be noted, did not typically chose their profession because of their love for conceptual mathematics. Many of them are in the exact same position at the parents when it comes to looking at the homework and asking “WTF does this mean?”

                      If more of the resources for implementation went to funding teacher training and less went to paying for slightly-revised textbooks and shiny new iPads, a lot of schools would be in better shape vis a vis Common Core implementation.

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                      • Second grade teachers, it should be noted, did not typically chose their profession because of their love for conceptual mathematics. Many of them are in the exact same position at the parents when it comes to looking at the homework and asking “WTF does this mean?”
                        I doubt that seriously, except in the rare cases where a school district has been taken over (usually at the behest of the school board) by some crazy consultant or method.

                        First off, you have to be certed to teach elementary school. Your basic education degree covers exactly this sort of math (Not kidding. There are special, educator math classes in college designed to talk about math theory like this and how to teach it. If you have a different degree and alt-certified, it’s covered in your certification).

                        I know that the number line stuff, for instance, is covered because I remember my wife using it as a specific example of the information covered.

                        I’m married to a teacher and related to many more, and in my experience a teacher claiming they don’t understand the material is in one of three boats (arranged in order of liklihood):

                        1. They don’t want to change what they’ve been doing, but they’re being made to. So they complain it’s all too complex to understand. Either because they don’t want to bother thinking about it, or because parents often make this complaint and by echoing it they’re more likely to get parents to gripe to administrators and maybe get to go back to their comfortable methods.
                        2. Their administrative staff can’t find it’s butt with both hands, and has thoroughly failed to vet teachers for basic qualifications, ensure their certs are up to date, and perform basic training.
                        3. The district has been taken over by Crazy Consultants pushing Crazy Methods which has jack-all to do with Common Core and more to do with how really, really, really easy it is to bedazzle whomever got elected to the local school board with 200 votes in an election nobody knew about.

                        Maybe I’m missing some math complaints, but the stuff I’ve heard about is all stuff that’s taught in college classes designed for educators, is entirely mainstream pedagogy, and is not what the average 40-year old non-educator thinks of as “obvious”.

                        That’s because the average 40-year old is not 8, and also does not teach 8 year olds, does not think about math the way an 8 year old does, and whose mental model of 8 year olds is limited to the very specific one they’ve observed over eight years.

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                        • I know that education majors and multi-subject credential holders have specific training in elementary math pedagogy.

                          I’m just a bit skeptical that it sticks. This is based specifically on my own experience taking my introductory credential classes alongside multi-subject credential candidates, and on discussions I’ve had with a credentialed math teacher whose undergraduate degree was in elementary education.

                          I do think there’s a lot of truth in your #1 point. But I also think more teacher-focused preparation would have also done more to get the teachers in line, even where the problem was more one of stubbornness than ignorance.

                          When the teacher-focused aspect of your common core transition is “Let’s spend the two days before class that we usually use to discuss anti-bullying initiatives to instead learn about the common core”, you’re going to have problems.

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                  • These are good points, . When my school transitioned to a new math program (not because of CC), we had some parent education events in order to bring them into the fold on what would be different, what would be the same, and what they could expect. I would say that they wouldn’t even qualify as ‘crash courses’ but insofar as they let parents known that the math was going to look different — both from what it was the year prior and from what they were used to — it helped build a bridge of goodwill and showed parents we anticipated some of the bumps in the road and wanted to partner with them on navigating it.

                    Then again, we are an independent school and charge folks $20K+/year so we have to be better about service… though even this was beyond our typical efforts which were usually piss poor and poorly thought out.

                    So while I am troubled by the notion of enlisting parents as co-teachers (beyond just encouraging them to read to/with their kids and creating an environment that is conducive to growing as a learner), if schools ARE going to do that, you are right that they would be best served to honor the “co-” part of that relationship and work with parents to address the gap.

                    This is a really, really excellent point the further I reflect on it. I’m tucking it away in the back of my mind so I can think of other areas of my practice where this type of proactive parental engagement might be worthwhile. Gracias, good sir!

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                    • Most parents don’t bother with school stuff unless there’s a problem or an event. “Come learn how we’re teaching math now” is, generally, going to draw the parents who already googled it and figured it out.

                      Private schools where you’re dropping serious money? You want to monitor your investment.

                      Public schools? Parents generally show up when they have a complaint. And yes “This isn’t taught how I’d teach it, and so I don’t like it” is a regular complaint.

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          • Oh, the discourse around the shopkeeper method pisses me off.

            Because while I’m in the midst of a career transition toward Math Teacher, I’ve also spent the last several years as shopkeeper.

            And, to the extent that I ever needed to do subtraction rather than rely on the faster-and-more-accurate computer in my cash register, I use the standard algorithm (aka the way we were taught in schools). When I count change, I count up from zero rather than using the shopkeeper method.

            And boy, does that make some folks upset. They know there’s a “right way” of doing math at the store, and that I’m doing it the wrong way. I can’t shake the suspicion that these are the exact same people who would demand a classroom use the method they attack at the store, and are aghast to see students employing the method they demand from me.

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            • My superpower is the ability to do addition and subtraction in my head. This mostly manifests itself to my handing store clerks a collection of bills and coins that results in very elegant change back. Clerks routinely find this astonishing, and declare that I must be some sort of genius. In my stints in retail in a previous life this ability manifested itself as my simply handing the customer back his correct change, without actually looking at the register.

              (Yes, this is bragging. On the other hand, if I had my choice of superpowers, there are any number of better ones I would have picked: salesmanship, for example.)

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              • As far as cashiering superpowers go, the most useful is simple division. I’m pretty solid at mental subtraction, but I’m still not better at it than my cash register.

                But the look of astonishment I get when I tell three people struggling to collectively pay for $23.67 worth of groceries “I can just charge each credit card $7.89” alternately makes me delight at my own arithmetic skills or despair at everyone else’s. And that’s not really something cash registers are set up to do for you.

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            • That is VERY interesting. Ultimately, I am of the mindset that folks should use the method that makes sense to them. So if counting up from zero works for you, by all means, rock it. The problem is, for a lot of people, the algorithm “makes sense” in so far as they can usually employ it successfully, but it doesn’t mean they actually possess a conceptual understanding of what they’ve done. So when it comes to teaching math, I’m on board with any program that gives kids a variety of strategies all of which are built upon a solid conceptual understanding and ultimately allows them to choose (or develop!) their own method.

              Like , I can do computations pretty quickly in my head. Some of this is just memorized or, really “memorized” in that I have all the rules in my head and can quickly apply them in sequence.

              I’m not going to argue that the shopkeeper method is the absolute best one… only that the immediate rejection of it by some folks showed a real lack of conceptual understanding of subtraction and made those people who were so quick to call it dumb look like the real dummies.

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    • “What is interesting to me about the Common Core is that it is hated by the left and the right.”

      Well… given that most people have no clue what the Common Core is/does, it becomes really easy to find some misguided “analysis” of it and glom on the hateworthy parts and then spread a viral pic from some comedian about how stupid the whole thing is.

      The Common Core isn’t beyond criticism. But people really, REALLY need to look into what it is and isn’t, what it does and doesn’t do, and how many things that are worthy of criticism are really part of how states are attempting to meet Common Core standards as oppose to Common Core itself.

      Thanks, Roland, for helping set the record straight. I know Conor has done some great work as well on the topic, though not here in a long while.

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      • As an aside the teachers I know hate common core. The reasoning being that they don’t feel that they are in control of the classroom anymore. At least that is the reason they give me, but I am not a teacher, so they could just be telling me that with the public face they put on.

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        • That’s not really common-core. That’s state government in general.

          The basics behind common core — a common, unified multi-state curriculum and testing standards isn’t a bad one.

          But people quickly confuse Common Core and state testing regimes, which is pretty useful to the idiots who keep pushing for more tests because it means they can blame scary-sounding “Common Core” and not themselves.

          I know plenty of teachers. They’ve got nothing against the notion of Common Core. They’re just petrified that the idiots in the State Leg will decide it means it’s time for even MORE standardized tests. And somehow their pay will be tied to them, even if they teach third grade music and have jack-all to do with the third grade English results.

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        • Different teachers feel differently about a loss of autonomy in the classroom, though a good chunk (perhaps even most) abhor it. One of the reasons I teach in independent schools is the great autonomy I do have over what I teach and how.

          However, even THAT criticism is still not about Common Core itself. Not really, at least. Common Core is not a road map. It is a set of standards. It says, “Students finishing X grade should have A skills and B content knowledge.” States then decide how they want to implement it… with varying degrees of success and varying degrees of teacher autonomy.

          But even if teachers hate the implementation (or the standards themselves), that doesn’t necessarily mean it is bad. While it would be hard to get the best results with teachers who hate it, it is still possible that a much loathed (by teachers) program could still yield greater student outcomes, which might be better still with a different crop of teachers who more willingly embrace.

          tl;dr: I don’t doubt that many teachers hate the loss of autonomy that comes with implementing programs aimed at meeting the Common Core standards. But that tells us little of the programs’ efficacy.

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          • Teachers should be used to it. Maybe living in Texas has distorted my views, but most of the curricula and standards is set by the state anyways. I doubt Texas is that much of an outlier.

            I mean that’s the whole point of Common Core. States already SET all that curricula. It’s just 30-something states agreeing on the same thing.

            Unless some otherwise very lax state is signing on, I can’t see how it’s going to be different. State still sets the overall curriculum, state still tells schools what and when to test, State is still a PITA.

            Hey, at least with Common Core you’re more likely to have had actual educators involved at some point. Watching the highly unqualified idiots on the Texas State School Board work is painful.

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          • Like I said, that is just what is relayed to me. I have no problem with CC, but I am for all education reform. And you are right, the teachers grips don’t really tell us about wheather it is a good program or not, just that they don’t like it.

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            • And I didn’t mean to disagree or undermine what’s been reported to you. I’d be shocked to learn that that wasn’t a massive complaint. Hell, I don’t want ANYONE coming in my room… let alone the state!

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                • Should you ever want to more fully parse that out in the education world, you are welcome to stop by my classroom. Much can be learned from peaking behind the curtain of a world that one doesn’t understand… for both the visitor and the host!

                  Just don’t you DARE try to tell me what’s what about what I’m doing!

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        • For most of the teachers I’ve spoken to in California, that loss of autonomy has been something they’ve dealt with since at least the implementation of NCLB and likely before. The prevailing attitude about Common Core is “since they’re going to tell me what to do anyway, I’m glad this is the sort of stuff they’re telling me to do”.

          I’ve only spoken to one local teacher who was firmly opposed the the Common Core, and she had the unpleasant distinction of being the worst teacher I have ever observed in a classroom setting. She had zero respect for her students, and that was reflected in every interaction with her students I observed. I saw students who were happy and engaged in other classes come into her classroom and shut down or act out. Her beliefs about the Common Core were driven by her larger attitude–what she told me was something like “This might be okay for Honors kids, but my students are too stupid to think for themselves”.

          I also had one teacher who is actually a good teacher and whose opinions I respect make an important point about the common core, though his views were much more mixed than negative: He said that the CC and its increased emphasis on assessing higher-order skills was a barrier to students who were still learning to speak English.

          His English-Language Learner students, though they understood the science concepts he was trying to teach them, didn’t have the writing skills to make that understanding clear on standardized tests. While they’d do great on the multiple choice sections, many would just leave the essay sections completely blank.

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          • “He said that the CC and its increased emphasis on assessing higher-order skills was a barrier to students who were still learning to speak English.”

            I agree. We have very few EL students at y current school, but my previous site found your point to be daunting. Having said that, EL students struggled to meet “proficient” and “advanced” under the previous standards as well. Minimally, CC should allow schools to design curriculum that connects to their EL students more effectively than the previous formulaic standards. It comes down to schools that are willing to serve the needs of those students, recognizing that a different approach and pacing is necessary. Most schools will just look for a silver-bullet approach to testing however, and not recognize that their EL populations are not going to test well with just a few tweaks and tricks in the classroom.

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            • He taught in Santa Maria, where there’s a huge population of immigrant and first-generation students–and the schools there are pretty cognizant of the needs of EL students. His school actually just switched from block schedule to 6-period days, largely because the block schedule wasn’t good for language development.

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        • Building off @kazzy’s point, I think this also has to do with teachers confusing the Common Core with yet another outside body overseeing/supervising/implementing what is going on in their classroom.

          I teach at a high-performing public school in California. The administrators basically just tell us “as long as things are going well, you can do what you want in your classroom.” A lot is expected of us, but I find the CC to be rather liberating from a teaching perspective, assuming you have administrators who understand that it is not another set of details to drill into a students head for standardized test.

          As for the yearly benchmark exams students take, there is still a lot wrong with them (the fact that the program provided by the state was still buggy after all these years says something about government…), but the tests are superior to the previous STAR exam in that it better assess what a student can do.

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          • Like I said, I can only relay what is being presented to me by the teachers I know. Also these teachers mostly work in areas with strong immigrant communities, which as both of you point out presents additional challenges with CC. I, a non-teacher, may not be picking up the subtleties inherent as an outsider listening and talking to an in-group. What might be getting lost on me or not being expressed as it is felt it is implicate is the issues that the teachers might be having with admin and its implementation of CC.

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      • Thanks , and I hope to talk more about this in the near future. So many folks have unfortunately bought into the idea that the public sector, and public schools in general, are out to get their children. Being a rather conservative-minded teacher, and a married father, I find this mindset to be rather confusing. It’s like I am working in an alternate universe than the one being discussed in public discourse.

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        • This is where I think there is room for an interesting conversation about teachers unions (Disclaimer: I have not ever been in a union or taught in a public school professionally).

          Complaints about teachers unions have always irked me. “They’re just looking out for teachers’ jobs!” “They’re just trying to get more money and better benefits!” Well, isn’t that sort of the point of a union? It isn’t the union’s job to protect the company or the product. It is the union’s job to advocate on behalf of those they represent. Now, it’d be irresponsible of a union to take such advocacy to a point where it destroys the company and leaves the employees jobless. So, there is a bit of a natural balance at play. This incentive is shifted somewhat in the public sector as it will more or less always exist.

          But no one faults auto workers unions or plumbers unions from protecting their employees’ interests first and foremost. They don’t get criticized for not caring enough about cars or elbow joints. But teachers do get criticized for putting their interests above the students, with a hefty dose of guilt and, “Aren’t you doing this for the love of your students?” thrown in. And, don’t get me wrong, most teachers DO love their students… but loving your job doesn’t put food on the table.

          Sorry, I’m getting a bit ranty here. My point is that you have teachers unions (rightfully) looking out for the teachers’ best interests and administrators charged with overseeing the system at a macro level with a long time horizon and elected officials trying to serve multiple constituencies and no official advocate for the students themselves. And that assumes all the major players are on the up and up!

          So, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for parents to look at the public school and think, “Well, the union is pushing for more teacher prep time. The principal wants metal detectors at the door. The board wants to cut the music program because of budget shortfalls. Who the fish is looking out for my kid?” Are they right? No. Not entirely, at least. But from an outside perspective there is no obvious, empowered decision maker whose sole responsibility is to advocate on behalf of the students.

          Which is not to say that individual cogs in the system — most often the teachers! — don’t do this. It’s just that there isn’t a public face for that work and effort and therefore it goes ignored.

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          • **Disclaimer: I am the child of a public school teacher and the product of public schools. I was raised to be very pro-public schools and pro-union**

            (1)

            It is the union’s job to advocate on behalf of those they represent.

            Yes, but it can really be a case of rising tides lifting all boats: if the company does well, the union members can participate in the windfall. Obviously, a good union wants the company to succeed, since a failed company puts everyone out of a job. The key for the union is to make sure that its members benefit from the increased success of the company.

            (2)

            But no one faults auto workers unions or plumbers unions from protecting their employees’ interests first and foremost. They don’t get criticized for not caring enough about cars or elbow joints.

            Well obviously, there is a big difference between elbow joints and children. But teachers’ unions usually counter this argument with their own: of course they care about kids- what’s best for the kids is to have well-paid, engaged teachers who don’t have to worry about capricious administrators or constantly moving targets. It’s an easy sell (ha ha, to *me*, anyway), because the vast majority of teachers do care about kids, and so the union can advocate for their members and for the students with no conflict of interest. (Your example of more prep time: that is expressly for the benefit of students. And though it’s sad, the principal probably wants that metal detector because he thinks it will make the students safer, and the board is cutting Music to avoid cutting English, which they see as better for the students [which is a whole different discussion].)

            (3)

            “Who the fish is looking out for my kid?”

            Well, as I said above, the teachers (and their representatives), the administration, and the board are. But also YOU (the hypothetical parent) are. That’s one of your jobs as a parent, and the good news is that you’ll have a lot of support in the schools, keeping in mind that the school has to balance the needs of all its students, which means sometimes compromises are made.

            (4)

            “Aren’t you doing this for the love of your students?”

            Ah, teaching as a vocation. Most teachers I know would teach whether they got paid or not, but very few of them would do it in the current system. Just like I wouldn’t do my exact job for free, although you’d still probably catch me engineering things.

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            • I am pro public school (at least in theory) and generally pro union. I home my comments didn’t come across as anti-union. They were intended to be just the opposite: recognizing the unique criticisms levied at teachers unions that are really unfair.

              Yes, I recognize that the various groups likely are looking out for kids’ best interests. It’s just that that isn’t always apparent to outsiders. So there is a perception issue at work.

              As for a rising tide lifting all boats, this is one area where being in the public sector creates unique issues for unions. A stellar public school isn’t going to experience a financial windfall that can trickle down to teachers. That just isn’t how it works. Yes, there may be grant money that comes available or other benefits that arise, but it isn’t quite the same as a for-profit company.

              I think teachers unions get unfairly shat on. At the same time, they sometimes cause their own problems. This is why I had some weak support for Rhee’s plan to allow teachers to opt out of the union and subject themselves to higher standards but also stronger incentives. I work in independent schools for a number of reasons, but among them are the opportunity to stand on my own two feet and reap the rewards of my own success. When I kick ass in the classroom, I can leverage that for a better salary, more responsibility, or other fruits of my labor. That’d be much harder if I was in a union. At the same time, I can be fired with very little recourse. But I’m willing to accept that risk.

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              • I think you are right on this one. I think the one thing that hurts the image of the unions is the fact that it is so damn hard to get rid of some bad teachers. It makes sense that if you have job protections in place it will inevitably provide a shield for some not-so-good teachers, but if the unions were seen as actively trying to work with administrators to solve this problem, people might view them in a more positive light. It is in their best interest to ensure that they represent the best of their profession.

                I say all this as someone who is very pro-union and very pro-public school. I am not sure if the problem I describe is a public perception problem, or a true problem as I really only have a few anecdotes as background and no real hard data.

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                • I agree , in some schools it is difficult to get rid of a bad teacher after they have been around a few years. Its not impossible however, but the admin has to go through the process. I have found that many principles just don’t have the interest/energy in going through said process.

                  As for the school I am at, they get rid of teachers quite often. We had a math teacher fired a month into the school year simply because they didn’t think he was making the cut. Now, my school is a high-performing one in an affluent Bay Area city, but it isn’t like its impossible to ditch dead weight.

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                • I think the role of unions in keeping bad teachers at schools is a bit overblown.

                  That teacher i talk about above, the one who is the worst teacher I’ve ever seen, and I think deserves to lose her job immediately?

                  She’s not keeping her job because of a union. She’s keeping her job because nobody else wants it very much.

                  If the administration of that school fired her, there’s no guarantee her replacement would be much better, and even if they hired a decent teacher, the gains in student performance (as measured by standardized tests) would be marginal and/or inconsistent.

                  And I suspect she’s a pretty typical example of a “grossly ineffective” teacher. I think the problem can be different, and more related to the bureaucracy (including union-imposed bureaucracy) in places like the LAUSD–but the LAUSD is an extremely atypical example of a school district, and extrapolating from their troubles to the troubles of school districts generally is a mistake.

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  2. Sounds like every single class I had, with the exception of ethics, up to grad school. The teachers didn’t want to teach critical thinking, they wanted to indoctrinate. The students knew the deal. Keep your mouth shut and regurgitate the “correct” answers on the test so you can get a decent grade and move on to the classes in your major.

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    • That must suck, especially at a university level. I have had my own challenges dealing with the group think at universities, but I can honestly say that I was always given a “true” grade, even if I challenged the dominate ideology of the professor. I assume its why I could never get on the side of conservative activists that complain about being pressured to say and write specific points.

      I will address some of my experiences working in the University of California system later, and it would be interesting to get your take on your college experience.

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      • My recollection, and it was back in the second half of the 80s, was that the more “science-y” guys were less political/ideological, but the history/lit and related areas were dominated by ideologues. I recall reading “a modest proposal” and during the class discussion commenting on how funny the story was. Our instructor was not amused, choosing to read selected passages to emphasize her views. As a 17 year old, I felt a tiny bit of discomfort. I’ve learned since not to give a damn what other people think.

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  3. I am baffled that no one questioned this project during the planning stages.

    I suspect an unhealthy work culture: that a group was sitting in the back at that meeting, rolling their eyes at each other but saying nothing because they knew they would be shouted down for being negative. There are any number of people who will look at a closely reasoned and factually supported demonstration of why an idea will inevitably turn out badly and respond that we need to give it a chance.

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  4. Two quick thoughts…

    1. Great post, Roland.

    2. I never quite grokked the conservative pushback against Common Core. Much of what I’ve heard from conservatives over the past 30 years is that all of the liberal arts — including and especially history — is leftist propaganda something something Ivory Tower. If I had been a betting man a decade ago, I would put at least a Jackson on them quickly embracing a student-inquiry based model over a “here’s the truth we government officials are telling you to believe” model.

    That they are pushing so hard against it feels weird.

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  5. Pingback: Struggles Teaching History | in hope and darkness

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