“Fact-checking attacks on Common Core school standards”

This article was written by Cara Fitzpatrick, Amy Sherman, Jeffrey S. Solochek and originally published on Monday, October 21st, 2013 at 6:01 a.m. on PolitiFact.

It seems many people know about what Common Core is and isn’t. However, many people have not actually explored some of these claims, simply reiterated something they heard, adding their own two cents or interpretation. Unfortunately, this has led to a game of telephone.

As states surge toward full implementation of Common Core State Standards for public schools, the din is rising from some fronts to pull back.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, whose tea party base offers perhaps the most strident opposition, is listening. In open forums Scott requested last week, people stepped forward to give their views. Criticism ranged from what’s taught in English class all the way to conspiracy theories involving iris scans.

PolitiFact Florida reviewed comments from the hearings and found that several of the most dramatic criticisms aren’t backed up by the facts. Here is a brief review of some of their findings. (See individual reports for more details.)

Common Core refers to a set of national education standards adopted by 45 states, including Florida. They came out of years of discussion between private nonprofit groups and state education departments.

The goal: to better prepare students for college and careers and ensure that students in different states learn the same academic concepts.

The Obama administration has used its education grant process, Race to the Top, to encourage states to use the new standards, but no state is required to adhere to Common Core.

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One frequent complaint at the hearings is that teachers were not involved in developing the standards.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, the official group that organizes the standards, says that’s not the case.

We wanted more evidence, so we talked to teachers who actually participated in the process.

Becky Pittard, a Volusia County elementary math teacher, served on a team that developed math standards. She said she was puzzled by any suggestion that teachers were left out.

“I can tell you the equal sign standard is there because I insisted,” she said, referring to a first-grade guideline on understanding the meaning of the symbol. “There was impact.”

Many states assembled teams of teachers to review the new standards, including Florida. Deputy chancellor Mary Jane Tappen sent an email to selected teachers in November 2009 expressly for that purpose.

“You are receiving this email because you are a trusted and respected expert in your field,” Tappen wrote. “Florida must provide input on this very first drafty draft of the Common Core National Standards by December 4. … I will be collecting and compiling all our work into one Florida response.”

PolitiFact Florida rated the claim that teachers weren’t involved in creating the standards as False.

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Another claim: Common Core standards will dramatically increase the amount of personal information the federal government collects.

“There are over 300 data elements the government is going to be collecting about your children and about you,” Tim Curtis, an activist with the tea party group 9/12, said in Tampa.

His claim has a kernel of truth: Florida requires school districts to keep student information. Some of it is required by the state, while other elements are optional, or only kept at the local level, such as bus stop numbers. The list includes students’ race, test scores, attendance and many more factors.

But those requirements have existed for decades — long before Common Core came along. States collect the data to help them make decisions.

The U.S. Department of Education has routine access to some data, but that data is aggregated and stripped of personally identifiable information.

In fact, laws predating Common Core prohibit a federal database of personally identifiable information on students.

“Florida has no plans to change the data it collects that is linked to Common Core,” said Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters.

We told Curtis that multiple educational experts said Common Core doesn’t require new data collection.

“I can shoot that claim down with a single explanation,” Curtis said. “The Polk County school district began to do iris screening on school children and they did so without notifying their parents. They did so as a result of the beginning of the implementation of Common Core.”

According to the Florida Department of Education, the screening was intended to route children onto the proper bus and wasn’t related to Common Core.

We rated the claim that Common Core means 300 points of data being collected as Mostly False.

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Another criticism of Common Core is that it will reduce the reading of fiction and literature.

“Common Core expects English teachers to spend at least half of their reading instructional time at every grade level on informational texts,” said Sandra Stotsky, an education professor at the University of Arkansas and staunch critic of the Common Core. Stotsky didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Common Core standards do emphasize informational texts, particularly in history, social studies, science, and other technical subjects.

And news reports suggest that English teachers are using more informational texts in their classrooms as they move to the Common Core. An Oct. 15 story in The Hechinger Report found one teacher replaced the novel The Great Gatsby, with a memoir, The Glass Castle.

However, the idea that English teachers must spend half their time on informational texts misreads the standards.

Common Core follows a framework that spells out percentages of literary versus informational texts by grade level. It calls for a 50 percent/50 percent split in grade four, with an increasing emphasis on informational texts in later grades. In grade 12, the split is 30 percent/70 percent.

But those percentages are meant to reflect the sum of student reading, not just in English.

To meet the 30 percent threshold for literary reading at grade 12, an English teacher would have to focus on stories, novels and plays, said Timothy Shanahan, a retired education professor and a member of the English Language Arts Work Team for the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

PolitiFact Florida rated the claim that English teachers must spend half their time on informational texts as False.

•••

One of the most dramatic claims we found against Common Core came from published materials from the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition. The standards aim “to instill federally determined attitudes and mindsets in students including political and religious beliefs,” states a report on the group’s website.

We found nothing in the standards that suggested any level of government was telling students what political or religious beliefs they should personally hold.

So what evidence do the critics have for saying the Common Core will instill political and religious beliefs?

The coalition’s report zeroes in on lists of hundreds of data elements a school district might keep on its students. The report linked to a screen grab it created of data elements from the National Education Data Model.

The list shown includes “voting status” and “religious consideration” and “religious affiliation.”

But this is not a required list of data for all states or school districts to collect.

So why are the fields on voting and religion even there?

We interviewed Alexander Jackl, chief architect of Choice Solutions, Inc., an education data software company. He’s also one of the original authors of the National Education Data Model.

The data fields are all optional, and the fields for religion are useful for private, religious schools, he said.

We contacted several Florida school districts to ask if they collect data on voting status, political affiliation or religious affiliations, or if they plan to start doing that with Common Core. They all said no.

The Florida Department of Education does not require school districts to ask about those subjects and has no plan to do so under Common Core, Etters said.

So the evidence — a computer model that has a data field for voting status or religion, typically used by a private school — is a far cry from the federal government attempting to instill particular religious or political beliefs. We rate this Pants on Fire!

The Intricacies of the Common Core

The origin of the Common Core State Standards as well as who produces the assessments, who handles the data, and the true motivation behind their implementation is rather foggy. It is rather intricate and not altruistic.

After viewing the video, I am struck by the intricacies of the Common Core and that seeing this entire web actually made a lot of sense. I am not surprised there are a lot of hands in the “Common Core pot”. It is complicated and I am no fool to think only one company was responsible for it all.

The Bigger Picture: It seems to me that there is so much dissonance in the United States government and country because we refuse to negotiate. Congressmen (and Congresswoman) must win, and if the person someone is speaking to will not support them, then they will find someone who will for a better price. In order to hide the fact that altruism is dead, an intricate web of puzzle pieces is created so that each piece can claim altruistic motives, and the web is too complicated for the average person to understand and/or untangle.

“Indoctrination in Common Core ELA textbooks”

A few weeks ago I saw a video on Facebook titled “Indoctrination in Common Core ELA textbooks”.  It was posted on June 15 by Aliēnātus: the truth is out there.  The goal was to open people’s minds to what was in the Common Core curriculum and that the curriculum is horrible because it “indoctrinates” students starting in the 1st grade.  According to the commentators in the video, the book(s) shown have been approved by the state of Utah.

I was outraged, but not by the curriculum, rather by the ignorance of the commentators in the video and by the comments on the video.  It still outrages me, thus, I have decided to embedded the video and share my thoughts.

My Issues with Statements Made in This Video

The commentators have no authority on the subject matter.  The commentators who are evaluating the curriculum have no stated background in teaching, curriculum planning/design, or education.  One commentator claims he has a 6-year-old (1st grader).  This does NOT make him an expert on what is taught or should be taught but isn’t being taught in the 1st grade.  It is apparent that he has not seen the entire K-12 system as a whole, its successes and its failures, from the standpoint of an educator.  He is a parent.  He may be an expert on the interests of his child, but that does not translate into the expertise of the educational goals for that grade.

The commentators’ narrow focus on the title, “Literature and Writing” ignores the benefits of working with content in different contexts.  Since the commentators are not well-versed in educational issues, they do not understand that one of the major problems of the American school system is that we pulled apart our content and put each one into different boxes called grade level and subject matter from which we were told to never deviate into another subject or grade level.  In other words, the 1st grade English teacher taught 1st grade English, which included reading, spelling, writing, and literature.  Students were not taught reading in 2nd grade science class because “that’s the 1st grade English teacher’s job.”  We now know this chunking to be very problematic and the term “cross-curricular” has entered the educational vocabulary.  Encouraging students to write about advocacy in a “literature and writing” class highlights that you don’t just write papers in an English class and talk about society in social studies, you can mix them!

It’s also important to note that writing is not just about the motor skills of writing letters and sentence structure.  Why should we waste students’ precious time writing about insignificant things like, “The sky is blue.  I like puppies,” when they are capable of so much more?  Many students have already grasped these basic verbal concepts by the 1st grade, thus, we are wasting their time by re-teaching the same concept with only adding the motor skill of writing.  We end up hindering the grow of their mental skills; and when their brain isn’t stimulated, students get bored, which can directly lead to learning, “nothing” all day and hating school.

The commentators project their adult understanding and definition of “advocacy” and cannot fathom that a 6-year-old can advocate for anything.  The concept of “advocacy” can be complicated or boiled down to a very simple basic element: standing up for what you think is right.  Isn’t that the exact same message behind the anti-bullying campaigns in elementary schools right now?  The commentators laugh and one says sarcastically, “Yeah, my six-year-old does that all the time.  She looks at what is wrong in the world and says how do I organize my people and my community to fix these social problems?”  By six years old, kids are able to identify things that are right and wrong as well as come up with ideas on how to change the status quo.  Why tell a six-year-old, “no, you’re only six, you have nothing positive to contribute to your family/house, neighborhood, your school, or your city”?  We’re not talking about six-year-olds organizing and starting a national revolution, but they can see that there are people who are starving and that creating a community garden and donating the food to a local food bank can help.  It’s also fathomable that 1st graders could organize a school-wide blanket drive to donate blankets to the American Red Cross for the upcoming winter.

The commentators ignore the intended audience of the curriculum guidebook that they mock.  The guidebook is written for a college-educated educator.  The voice and style of the paragraphs is written such that it will not be an insult to the intelligence of an elementary school teacher.  The educator is able to translate the broad concept of “call to action” into simpler words that each individual student will understand.  The concept of “call to action” really isn’t difficult to understand at all.  A six-year old definitely understands, “the sentence that says ‘I want you to clean your room.’ is a call to action because ‘clean’ is a verb, and a verb is an action, right?”  Why are we insulting the intelligence of six-year-olds?  If they are capable of understanding the concept, willing to learn it, and desiring more out of their education, then we should be teaching them.  It is the role of an educated, effective teacher to translate concepts from complex to simple.  Teacher guidebooks are written for the teacher, not the student.

The commentators have ignored the basic principles of persuasion: logos, ethos, and pathos.  Logos ethos, and pathos are Greek words that used to describe the three types of appeal that are used to convince people in an argument.  They are essentially logical appeal, credibility appeal, and emotional appeal.  These are very complex subjects that are repeatedly studied throughout middle school, high school, and college.  However, the commentators do not understand that the fundamental understanding of these complex concepts must begin early.  Since the commentators do not seem to have an education background, they have not experienced the problems that occur later when this ground work is not laid.  An effective elementary teacher is able to teach a very basic understanding of these concepts.

The commentators have ignored the value of recognizing how someone is manipulating you in favor of focusing on the fact that we are equipping 1st graders with tools to manipulate.  A six-year-old has already experienced manipulation using all three types of appeal: in video and/or print advertisements, in overhearing an argument between their parents or other adults, or by engaging in an argument themselves.  It is imperative that students begin to understand how peer pressure works (usually a combination of all three, but typically lots of logical and emotional appeal) and how to avoid failing prey to it.

The commentators take issue with the example of arguing with their parents.  My gut instinct is that the reason parents were chosen is that they were looking for an authority figure that a child may feel comfortable arguing with, and it’s pretty safe to assume that each child has at least one parent (or guardian).  But I think the bigger problem is if you are worried that we are teaching six-year-olds how to argue back to their parents instead of simply obeying and doing as their told without incident…perhaps you need to re-evaluate your parenting style.  I mean..if you can be outsmarted or outargued by a six-year-old…then you probably have not taught your kids WHY you want them to do something, which is just as important as the WHAT.  Why don’t we want to equip our children as early as we can with the weapon of words instead of the weapon of fists?  Why do we want to enforce blind obedience, but then wonder why kids aren’t thinking for themselves?

The commentators fall victim to the exact “problems” they criticize in the teacher’s guidebook.  The commentators emphasize and pause on certain words to elicit an emotional response from the viewer.  They are trying to convince the viewers that this guidebook is indoctrinating students by using their “authority” as a parent of a six year old, emphasizing emotional words, and trying to insert sarcastic commentary as part of their emotional appeal.  The end goal of this video was not to objectively review the Common Core approved, curriculum guidebook for 1st grade in the state of Utah, but it was to stir up emotions and fuel rage-filled comments.

“Inquiry Learning vs. Standardized Content: Can They Coexist?”

On my lunch break today, which was sandwiched somewhere in between covering for various teachers who were attending Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings, I read an article through my Flipboard on MindShift by Thom Markham titled, “Inquiry Learning vs. Standardized Content: Can They Coexist?”

The short answer to the headlining question? Yes.  My only question?  Why is this even being debated?

Ok..stay with me, here…Let me explain why I don’t see a reason for debate.  My complete sentence answer is, “They not only can they coexist, but they must coexist.”  And I really think most teachers and parents would agree with the statement if we set the record straight on some terminology.

First, the words “standards” and ” formulaic” are NOT interchangeable.  I frequently here “standards” and Common Core being described as formulaic restrictions that will suffocate learning.  Standards are not prescriptive.  They do not tell the teacher to teach commas on Monday and prepositions on Tuesday.  They are the common foundation in which a teacher can build anything upon.  Standards are “the basics”.

Why do we need standards?  There needs to be a common foundation for teachers, other students, parents, and students to know what is minimally expected for them to know.  There should be some content standards.  For instance, by the end of the 1st grade a student in America should know the significance of the year 1776 to the United States of America.  Another reason: certain facts do not need to be cited in a paper because they are considered to be “common knowledge”.  This “common knowledge” should be defined somewhere.

There are various reasons basic content standards should be outlined.  It gives parents, educators, and tutors who teach privately (“homeschool”) to ensure the same common knowledge is being learned so that if in 5 years a switch must occur, from one district to another, from private to public education, etc., the new educator does not need to spend time “remaking” the common foundation.  This ensures that students who change education styles do not feel like they need to skip grades or be put in remedial classes because they are ahead or behind “grade-level”.

We know we need to teach skills.  We know we need to use a project-based learning environment.  We need to keep the individual accountable yet learn to work effectively in collaboration.  However, without this foundation, the content-based standards, we cannot reach the higher-order thinking required for project-based learning.

How can one create a new type of solar cell without a good grasp of mathematics or knowledge of what the suns rays are composed of?  How will student be able to solve problems if they don’t have the background knowledge to identify what the problem even is?  How will that person submit a research paper for publication in a journal or write a grant to produce a prototype if he can’t write a proper sentence?

Let’s look at standards in another way.  If we don’t have standards to minimally define the objectives of high school, then why do we even have high school altogether?  Think about the educational goals and objectives of high school.  How are they different from middle school or even elementary school? If we cannot even define the objectives we want students to accomplish in high school, there is a much larger problem than curriculum/methods of presentation.  How much of compulsory learning is actually “essential” to being a productive member of society and what is superfluous?

There are quite a few rhetorical questions in that last paragraph.  However, we really need to think about why we need standards versus what the standards should be.

Last analogy: if I asked you (in the USA) to go to McDonald’s and get me a medium Diet Coke (please), would you know what size glass I’m asking you to get?  Now let’s exchange McDonald’s for Burger King.  If they both have a Diet Coke machine and I asked for a medium Diet, would I get essentially the same thing?  Most likely, unless they recently changed cup sizes on me.  I remember a number of years ago some of the fast food restaurants changed their glasses sizes and suddenly a medium at Burger King was previously the large and I was charged more.  Standardization is what allows you to expect cups to usually come in 8oz, 12oz, 16oz, 20oz, and 32oz.  Once in awhile you may find a 10oz.  You don’t expect to find a 13oz cup at McDonald’s.  And how did the graphic designer know what would fit on the cup?  Standardization.  All McDonald’s restaurants have the same size cups.

Education standards function the same way as the cup.  Teachers are the graphic designers.  We make the difference between the look of the cup, but it’s foundation is still a cup.

Project-based learning must coexist with content standards.  Neither will thrive without the other.  It is a symbiotic relationship (a term learned in science class, yet here it is in another “subject”).

“Are we creating scavengers or readers?”

Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of questions at the end of the chapter or even a worksheet of questions to answer as you read the selection. From a student’s perspective, they love them because they think–“Jackpot! I don’t have to read, I just have to answer the questions.” So they scan. They find the answer to the question. And even then, if they cannot find it within a couple minutes or it’s not blatantly obvious because it’s not bolded–they give up and claim, “it’s not in the book” or “I couldn’t find it in the book so I skipped it.”

I’m not sure at what point in a person’s education that the the desire to do as little as possible came to be. Perhaps, it is because schooling is legally mandated until the age of 16 (at least in the USA). Students view their education as something forced upon them rather than something they chose to do. Days, months, and even years of a student’s life is consumed with studying and memorizing information through classes upon classes that do not interest them, seem to have no connection to the real world (or more importantly, their real world) or because they are told they “have to” learn it. And when people are confronted with something they do not want to do, they will take the path of least resistance around it.

Perhaps the path of least resistance developed out of necessity. Students are overwhelmed with academic pressures, societal pressures, family obligations, and personal desires. Prioritizing is the only way students are able to (somewhat) handle all these pressures. Some people choose academics. Some choose family. Some choose society. Some choose personal desires. Once a priority ranking is established, students then try to cope with “getting through” the other pressures, rather than try to balance them. Skimming text is one such technique. And while skimming has it’s uses, students have abandoned reading for understanding in favor of skimming. They find the answer, but have no idea what’s going on.

Fred Ende recently published an article on SmartBlogs (SmartBlog on Education) titled, “Are we creating scavengers or readers?” He makes several good points about the scavenging method of reading versus reading for comprehension.

Brief Intermission: For those of you unfamiliar with the “scavenger” method of “reading,” it basically works like this:

  1. Read questions given to be answered.
  2. Seek location in informational text or literature where this answer might be located.
  3. Find keywords and/or “giveaways” in text material.
  4. Write answer down without reading for context or deeper understanding.

Notice that this approach doesn’t actually involve any “reading.” For lack of a better characterization, it’s not good.

Ende also points out that one of the Common Core’s goals is to remedy the issue of skimming versus reading for understanding by requiring students “supply evidence” from the text. However, Ende makes clear that “supplying evidence” doesn’t always yield in complete comprehension.

Seemingly, the Common Core State Standards (or Common Core Learning Standards here in New York) should address these concerns. And maybe, on some level, they do. However, when students are asked to “supply evidence from the text” on an assessment, it doesn’t necessarily mean that students will understand, or even consider, what was read. “Supplying” something is much less intensive than “explaining,” and much, much less intensive than “creating.” Yet, much of the sample and real questions I’ve seen ask students to respond to a prompt by supplying (or “using;” whatever that means) evidence from the text. Even local assessments that our districts are creating appeal to students to “find” evidence, without necessarily encouraging them to “think” about it.

“Scavenging” for information has several good uses. It is beneficial when trying to review a large amount of text to determine if it warrants further, more in-depth reading/analysis. Unfortunately, the skill of scavenging has been taught and reinforced year after year under the guise of “understanding”.

I do not know if Common Core will be the push to separate scavenging for answers and reading for comprehension. But I do know this: I will be the push to separate the two in my classroom. It may take me a few tries to word the questions correctly and to teach the difference. I will provide opportunities for students to hone both skills. I will not “produce” scavenger-only type readers. Why? Because that is the change I can make.

New: An In-Depth Look at Standards

Standards.

The word itself can just irk a teacher, a parent, a school administrator, a lawmaker, a member of the general public, or even a student.  It’s like politics and religion…it’s important and it’s there, but you want to tread lightly until you know you are in similar company of your own beliefs.

As a member of the next generation of teachers, I have opinions about standards.  I have evidence from my personal time as a student, evidence from my master’s level coursework, evidence from what I read in reputable publications, and evidence from field work.

However, I’m not going to use this blog to preach my opinions.  In the coming weeks and months, perhaps even years, I’m going to explore the concept of “standards”.  I’m not going to evaluate a standards method because, well, I don’t have enough field experience to be very authoritative on the subject.

The way I look at is this: the more precise our understanding of what we want students to know and to be capable of demonstrating (our objectives), the more precise we can be in our method to achieve those objectives.

We need to explore where education has been, where it is now, and where we want it to go.  We cannot just simply look forwards and pretend the past did not exist or look upon our past educational strategies with disgust.  Additionally, we cannot openly judge that which we do not know or understand.  How can people who do not understand the standards judge them?

Let’s get to know them.  Let’s explore why we have standards.  Let’s explore what standards mean.  Let’s explore what standards don’t mean.  Let’s give the standards one fair shot to argue their case before we become the judge, jury, and executioner of its content.

Exploring standards is part of “progressing education” and the use of technology in education.  This blog will not change focus, it will just add depth with a new category of posts.  There will still be technology reviews, infographics, articles, book reviews, guest posts, and more.

Common Core State Standards

I became a teacher because I upon reflection of any class I took I thought, “I could have taught it better.”  I had more creative ideas, more analogies that connected the material to those who didn’t understand it, and more often than not, classmates sought me out to explain the material to them.  I enjoyed tutoring my classmates.  Some times, I even preferred tutoring to the actual class, the textbook, or even the material.  Seeing that moment when the person makes the final connection, the leap between confusion to clarity, made all hours of frustration worth it.  Those moments are what drive me.

To me, learning is all about the concepts, not the content.  In fact, after a certain point in teaching English/Language Arts (about middle school), the content in an ELA class becomes irrelevant.  Why should I teach To Kill a Mockingbird instead of Diary of Anne Frank or a play by Shakespeare?  It all depends on what concept I need to teach.  Different pieces of literature highlight different concepts.  Why is a “classic” better than The Hunger Games or Harry Potter?  There are different reading levels, sure, but whichever book will help students understand the concept the best is the most important thing.  Why should I try to force Of Mice and Men or The Great Gatsby down someone’s throat if I feel there is another book that can teach the same concepts that are presented in those books?

The hard truth is that I should be teaching concepts and skills, not literature.  And this is exactly what the Common Core State Standards advocates.  I should not teach something just because I’ve taught it for the last five years.  I should teach it because it is connecting students to a concept or skill that will benefit their future.  Once students learn a concept or skill inside and out, up and down, left to right, “100 ways to Sunday”, then they can apply that conceptual knowledge or skill to standardized testing.  Standardized testing requires deduction, for example, the concept “use of source material” can be taught using numerous texts.  Understanding this concept will enable people to detect analogies or an author’s bias in other written or spoken pieces.  The concept strengthens arguments as well as fuels counterarguments.  You don’t need to memorize content, you need to fully understand concepts.  Content simply provides context and ample examples to teach concepts and skills.

We do live in an age of “Testing…K…1…2…3…” and leading students down what seems to be a narrow focus of college and careers that forces us to ask: “are we teaching citizens or automatons?”  But here’s the thing…what other option is there that is not encompassed by “college” or “career”?  Military?  Career.  Fast Food Burger Flipper?  Career.  Pre-med? College.  World traveler? College.  College and career fit well as the two choices because of the alliteration of the two words (a concept learned in English/Language Arts).

“College” just means any learning environment.  It could be a 4-year university, a community college, or a vocational trading school.  Traveling can teach you things you can’t learn in a classroom.  So can on-the-job training.  Which leads me to “career”.  Here, “career” means any type of employment.  It doesn’t need to be middle-management, CEO, doctor, or lawyer.  A job is what you do today, but a career is a series of jobs that are somewhat planned out or occurred serendipitously.  Employment or learning environment.  Education is about empowering people to learn and do something positive and productive with their life.

The (free) public school system exists based on the idea that if people pay taxes to support education now, they are investing in the future of the world.  Of course we want to set the bar high with words that empower people to greater heights than they previously thought they could achieve.

Re-vamping the education system takes time.  It will make great strides forward and a few steps back.  But as the cliché goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Revolution starts somewhere.  Education revolution starts with me.  I may not be able to change the whole system, but I will change the lives of my students.  And for me, that is exactly what I want to do.

PlanbookEdu

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Paperwork.  We’re always doing paperwork.  Teachers are, by far, no exception.  There is paperwork before and after units, as well as the day-to-day lessons.

How much time does writing out lessons in your lesson plan book take?  Hours, I bet.  PlanbookEdu has a great 21st century, web 2.0 solution to lesson plan books drudgery.

Now don’t get me wrong—PlanbookEdu won’t eliminate the need for lesson plans or aligning them with Common Core and/or State Standards.  But what it does do is cut hours off your time writing it all down.

In their own words, PlanbookEdu is “the simpler, smarter lesson planner.”  Why?  “Your lesson plans are available anywhere and are simple to create.”  How simple?  All within the word processing-like editor for each lesson you can “attach files, Common Core Standards, print, export to Word or PDF”.  You can:

Oh, and if you have re-occurring lessons or activities (i.e. reading workshop, writer’s workshop, etc), just a couple of clicks after you type in your lesson will lead being able to repeat something without having to write it over and over and over and over and over again.

There is a small caveat.  Not all of it is free.  On PlanbookEdu‘s homepage, there is comparison chart of what is available with a free account and what features are only available through the measly $25/year premium account.  At first you’re probably thinking, $25?  No thanks, I’ll pass.  Before you do, did you:

  1. Realize that $25 is per YEAR, not month
  2. Calculate how much money do you spend on a lesson plan book?  About $10/book?  So it’s about the cost of 2 books plus tax.
  3. Look at what you’re getting for $25/year…the ability to attach documents, share your plan book, collaborate with other colleagues (and have one book!), embed your plan book on your website, printing and exporting capabilities.

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    Word Processing-Like Editor

So while it is true that you have to pay for the best parts about PlanbookEdu, you can still can create your own plan books, access them from anywhere (including your iPad and iPhone), and the ability to set the class rotations (i.e. A/B days).  And just in case you were on the fence about whether or not you might use these additional features, PlanbookEdu gives you an initial, free, 14-Day trial of the premium account.  Yup, just long enough for you to get used it, fall completely eraser over pencil tip in love with the features, but not long enough for you to change your mind.  Sneaky!

I’ve only had the account one day and I’m already planning on purchasing the premium account.  As a student teacher, I love the fact that I can embed my calendar onto my website and have the University and school staff who are observing me have my whole calendar in front of them.  It’s embedded into a page on my class Weebly site (which I have changed my mind on my opinion of Weebly), and they can quickly and easily see the Common Core benchmarks I am working on that day, download any documents they may need, and not have to feel like s/he is pestering me for the documents ahead of time.

But just like all technology, some things just aren’t as private as they used to be.  There are security measures I can turn on both at PlanbookEdu and on Weebly; however, I am striving for simplicity for those who are evaluating me.  Thus, I cannot put “pop quizzes” that I plan to give on PlanbookEdu because it is open to all.  I can restrict it by email address on Weebly (but that requires a pro account and I do not feel the need to pay Weebly for that service.  I can work around it) or I can password protect my plan book on PlanbookEdu and put certain email address on an “allow” list.

So my three choices are

  1. Pay Weebly and password protect the page the plan book is embedded on
  2. Pay PlanbookEdu for a premium account, restrict access (vs. open access) to my plan book, and write down the email addresses of those who I will allow access to it.
  3. Do nothing and figure out another plan.

I have chosen Bachelor Number 3.  I have formal unit plans and lesson plans that are very detailed.  The one downfall of all of those lesson plans is that I am unable to get a “week-at-a-glance” big picture when I’m swamped down explaining every detail of every activity.  But if I combine the strengths of both PlanbookEdu and my elaborate Word document unit and lesson plans, I can get the best of both.  The premium account lets me print directly from my browser to have a “week-at-a-glance” printed out and on my desk.  I can then make some handwritten changes on it as the lessons progress and then changed them on the plan book.  Most likely, since the high school has wireless internet, I’ll be able to change the lesson right there on my iPad.

There is so much more I could explore: bumping lesson from one day to the next due to unforeseen circumstances.  Curious as to what the embedded plans look like?  Check below to see my embedded lesson plans for my student teaching.  Another option is to see what it looks like on my class Weebly site.

**Please note.  I no longer have a subscription to PlanbookEdu so my embedded plans are “invalid”.  I have left the embedded frame here to illustrate that they can be embedded.**

Do you have a shared and/or embedded plan book from PlanbookEdu?  Comment with the link and I’ll definitely check it out.  Do you use another plan book website?  Sound off your opinion in the comments!

Article Review: “Humanities, Why Such a Hard Sell?”

The origin of compulsory education was to require that all people go to school to become educated and subsequently, well-rounded and well-informed adults who can function in a positive manner and further the goals of our society.  In the last 30 years or so, the public education system of the United States of America has revolved around a curriculum model rooted in science, technology, engineering, and math  (STEM).  But, as David J. Ferrero has pointed out in his article, “The Humanities, Why Such a Hard Sell?” published in the March 2011 edition of Educational Leadership, that focus has come at a cost of the humanities curriculum.

Ferrero highlighted in his article that in democratic societies there has historically been three main purposes of schooling: personal, economic, and civic.   The personal level is essentially to learn about other subjects that you may not come in contact with every day and it is through schooling that people are able “to discover and cultivate individual interests, talents, and tastes; form good habits; and develop an understanding of what it means to lead a good life.”  The economic purpose of school is to prepare students “to contribute productively to the economy by preparing them to pursue a vocation or further study leading toward some profession.”  Lastly, and perhaps the most important reason that the United States has a free and compulsory education system, is to “[equip] students with the knowledge and skills necessary to be good citizens.”  Ferrero believes that this holistic approach to education has “atrophied”; essentially, the personal and the civic purposes have given way to the economic.

One key detail that Ferrero never clearly or directly states is the future repercussions for this unbalance.  Instead, his article focuses on persuading readers the value of the humanities and how it still can work within the confines of a STEM-focused, Common Core Standards curriculum.  If it is not apparent already, he is a supporter of STEM curriculum as well as other college and career-ready initiatives.  He openly disclosed at the end of the article that he works for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which has funded the development of the Common Core Standards.  He also added the line that the views expressed are his own and not the Foundation’s.  This open admission of his connection shows he is qualified to speak on the topic and is passionate about it, yet he is not being paid by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to write this article and therefore, eliminates bias.

It is evident in this article that Ferrero supports STEM, but just as evident is his desire for balance in the curriculum.  He fleshes out this desire more clearly in a blog post on ASCD’s In service blog, “I privately fret over the way STEM advocacy, and current reform efforts in general, inadvertently devalue the humanistic and civic dimensions of a basic education.”  By focusing so stringently on STEM, education reform has abandoned the centuries-old foundation of what it means to be educated; but even worse than that, as Ferrero points out in his article, it has taken the humanity out of education.

The abandonment of the humanities was not deliberate, according to Ferrero.  Instead, it was a byproduct of a refocused curriculum.  In order to heavily promote STEM subjects, some subjects were demoted.  Some subjects were able to prove their worth and stuck around, such as English (for communication skills).  History is having a hard time fighting for its seat at the academic table.  In fact, most subjects that are considered humanities are constantly fighting to keep their seat or to beg to be let back in.

The core question of Ferrero’s article is, “Has the study of history, literature, art, and ideas—what we commonly call the humanities—outlived its relevance?”  He, a STEM advocate, answers, “I hope not. I believe students can still learn from the humanities and that these lessons can enhance their lives— and our collective life—in a variety of ways.”  There are countless ways studying the humanities can not only enhance lives, but benefit the economic emphasis that education reform desires.  Ferrero lists three main ones: those who are exposed to a wide variety of arts are more likely to pay for arts entertainment or fully appreciate period films and TV shows; through the disciplines in the humanities we learn about human achievement and in turn, encourage innovation; and it is within the humanities that we genuinely learn and appreciate good citizenry and autonomy.  In essence, through an education we do not learn just facts and regurgitate data to be a better employee, we learn about who we were, who we are, and who we want to be.  And that, according to Ferrero, is why the Common Core Standards are so vital to education reform.

The Common Core Standards, as summarized in this article, are the best balance that has been proposed nationally thus far.  As mentioned before, Ferrero works for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which has funded the development of the standards, but he is not just peddling his own product here.  He truly believes this is the best compromise.  And from the way he has written this article, I tend to agree with him.  Ferrero points out that while the Common Core Standards are focused on competitiveness and credentials, which make the STEM-focused curriculum advocates pleased, a careful reading of the English/Language Arts requirements reveals the promotion of a multitude and variety of texts in the humanities without limiting teachers to narrowed content.  Ferrero additionally points out there is a “tool for working out these details is the set of curriculum maps developed by the coincidentally named Common Core, a nonprofit organization established in 2007 that is unrelated to the Common Core State Standards project.”  It is the organization, Common Core and their standards that have been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is Ferrero’s employer.  Although I would have preferred to understand this distinction earlier in the article, it still does not change my opinion in any way.  The distinction was important to make, but the primary objective of the article was not about himself or the Common Core standards (or the Common Core State Standards).  It was about the fact that the humanities have been abandoned in the curriculum.  In my opinion, he added this distinction at the appropriate time.  Lastly, he gave some models of schools in Colorado, Illinois, and Wisconsin that have a successful balance of STEM and humanities.

I have had firsthand experience with society’s viewpoint of students and the humanities.  I have lost count the number of times I have had to defend my choice to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in the field of writing.  The most asked question was “but what are you going to do with it?”  WRITE.  FOR MONEY.  For years throughout my schooling I was told to find out what skills I am good at, what my passions are, and to figure out how to merge those into a career.  I have bounced around from author, to journalist, to professional/business writing and back again.  I just love to write.  And I am good at it.  I do not have the capacity to memorize and regurgitate facts.  I accept that – I was not drawn to law or medicine or engineering.  I was drawn to literature, history, languages, philosophy…essentially, the humanities.  Not everyone can be a doctor, an architect, an engineer, or a something in a tech field.  Like Ferrero said, there needs to be a balance for our society to function.  I was more than happy to pursue the humanities.

Unfortunately, people kept telling me there would be no money to be made, no jobs, and I would live out of a cardboard box. Friends and I would joke in college that we may live in a cardboard box, but we would rather be happy in our cardboard box instead unhappy in a mansion.  Not everyone is as strong-willed as I am (some call it “stubborn”) and if teachers do not stand up and fight for the humanities then we are doing the next generation and the future of this country a disservice.  When more people in South Africa know more about my country and president than I do, that is a problem.  When people think the Titanic was only a movie by James Cameron and that it was not based on a true story, that is a problem.  When people can repeat song lyrics after hearing them twice but do not know “to be or not to be” is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that is a problem.  When people can solve calculus problems but cannot write a check, that is a problem.  And when I search “humanities meme” in Google Images and find nearly all the memes are negative, that is a societal perception that is hindering students from pursuing the humanities.  We are at risk of losing our humanity, and that is more than just a problem.  That is a crisis that requires immediate, serious attention.

Standards-Based Education Reform

How many people skipped grades on their pursuit of a high school diploma?  A few I knew of in my elementary school, but it was not the norm.  And those I knew were never ostracized from their peers for being a year younger.  I knew one guy who by the 9th (10th maybe) had exhausted all the districts math courses.  He works for Microsoft now, I think.  I also know a few kids who have flunked grades and were forced to repeat them.  At a young age the repeaters typically had a developmental disability that hindered their progress with kids of their own age.  So what do these stories of excellers and repeaters mean?  It means there is just cause to examine not what subject matter should be taught at what grade, but to reexamine the entire education system on a fundamental level.

Standards-based Education reform rejects the traditional system of grade levels.  Abandoning labels of 3rd grade or 6th grade and allowing students to advance based on a set standard (a test passed, for example) rather than advancing to the next grade simply because there was not enough reason to hold the child back but the kid really isn’t ready for 4th grade math and reading.  Students can be at a 4th grade reading level in the 1st grade but be at a 2nd grade level in history or math.  Mastery of subjects entitles them to move on.  A detailed explanation of standards-based education reform is available on Wikipedia.

Although there have been many failures in implementing this system in a large school district, John Covington, the superintendent of the Kansas City School District, has a plan for the 2010-2011 school year he thinks will work.  Four or five schools in the district will implement a pilot program at the start of the school year, with the intention of taking it districtwide.  Covington has seen the reform’s success in a 1,700 student district in Alaksa.  The Bering Strait School District implemented the reform eight-years ago and do not plan to go back, according to an article on KansasCity.com.

Standards-based education reform sounds great on paper and has worked well in small districts, but will it work for the larger districts?  Standards-based requires a large commitment from teachers to help students at different ages understand the material.  Add into the mix all the different ways students learn, the cost of reform may simply be a numbers issue.  Smaller classrooms with more individualized attention means more teachers per school and larger commitment from teachers would require a pay raise.  Additional classrooms for the smaller class sizes would mean renovation costs.  However, if you create and plan a new district from the start with a standard-based eduction, I believe it could succeed.  In the US, our 9 month school year was optimized for allowing students to work in the fields.  But I’ve been abroad, and in South Africa, year round school makes more sense.  Every January a new school year begins.  There are 3 trimesters and in between each is a month off of school.  The teachers and students I know prefer this schedule to the one here in the US.

Coupled with standards-based education is a standardized test required to obtain a diploma.  With high school diplomas given to a warm body who shows up only half the time and fails most of the classes, a high school completion exam testing on basic skills such as math, reading, science, history, etc should be extremely easy to pass for advanced students but may be more of a challenge for others.  It would give a high school diploma more of its strength back as bachelor’s degrees are now becoming a dime a dozen.  It feels special to the recipient, but in the workplace, nearly everyone has a bachelor’s degree, now a master’s degree helps you stand out from the crowd.

But can you really define knowledge based on a test?  SAT, ACT, AP and other standardized tests really just measure how much information you can memorize and regurgitate during the exam time.  Education and knowledge is difficult to quantify and educators do their best to create a test to quantify qualitative  subjects.  There is a need for a baseline, a minimum to meet, but how do you factor in special needs?  Exceptions can be made of course, but there comes a point when the type of assistance given to one person affects those who are not given special treatment.

Traditional education standards, access to advanced knowledge and assistance to those who need it, must be revisited every few years.  But education reform does not have to start with a drastic, district wide, “overnight” change.  Teachers should reform their classrooms, influence the lives of the students in front of them and like throwing a handful of seeds, see where the seeds fall and what grows from them.  The student you affect this year, in 10 years may build upon the lessons learned from you to make a bigger impact.