Sunday, April 1, 2012

Learning and NJ's CCCS, An Unholy Marriage

There is a profound difference between being taught something and actually learning those items you are being taught. This is true regardless of whether the issue is some particular content or skill mandated by the curriculum. The reason I point this out is that New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards put demands on both teachers and students that are completely unrealistic, untenable, and devoid of any connection to the true needs of our students, and of society. Ironically, the requirements of the CCCS are an impediment to learning. It is my contention that the NJCCCS, in particular for high school, should be completely rewritten with the goal of identifying content that our high school students MUST learn in order to be productive in our market economy and intellectually equipped to be active, informed citizens in our participatory democracy.

In addition, once the essential content and skills have been identified and codified, the totality of the CCCS should be included into New Jersey’s HSPA, the test we use as a prerequisite for graduation from our public schools. The current HSPA only assesses preparation and proficiency in 2 of the 7 content areas identified by the State. As previously mentioned in this blog, it is time for the Department of Education to scrap the HSPA and start over, designing a test that integrates all 7 content areas and writes questions that assess student understanding of vital contemporary and historical issues in economics, law, health, science, and humanities in addition to the areas of math and language arts covered in the current test.

As I mentioned, there is a crucial difference between teaching something and learning something. When a teacher tells you that he or she “taught” something, they are indicating that information was introduced to the learner, that activities were introduced to reinforce and explore the content, that through these activities certain skills were developed, and finally that the student was subject to an assessment to give some indication of how well the student retained the information- the content and the skills- presented in the particular unit.

The idea of “teaching” is teacher centered, while the idea of “learning” is student centered. Learning is the result of effective teaching. It is somewhat easy to acknowledge when teaching takes place since the process is observable. Learning is a little more problematic, since most theories of learning suggest that learning includes things that are not only overt, observable, and measurable, but things that reside in the affective domain and include the maturation of an individual’s emotions, attitudes, and opinions. A student that truly learned something also acquires the requisite skills to act upon those learned items. I guess the point is that some learning is not as easily observable and includes thoughts and behaviors that may be deferred or may be hard to assess.

Regardless of what theory or model of learning one subscribes to, whether it be a behaviorist, humanist, or any other model, the one salient point, the one belief that is consistent throughout, is that the assessment of true learning is time consuming, going well beyond answering questions on a standard test. For a student to demonstrate that they have learned something there should be some element of social interaction and some individualized activity. A truly effective and enlightened teacher not only takes the time to design a variety of activities that integrate the desired content and skills, but he or she also empowers students to do exploration of the subject on their own, pursuing in depth some aspect of the curriculum that appeals to their personal goals or experiences.

A student that has truly learned subject matter should be able to engage others in a meaningful conversation on the topic. They should be able to write effectively and persuasively, and be able to make a formal presentation, either alone or with a team, that demonstrates their understanding of the subject and any ancillary issues raised by the subject. These assessments are time consuming and absolutely necessary if we are to create a system that properly and fairly evaluates both students and teachers.

The issue of time is critical. In the Core Content Curriculum Standards for Social Studies at the high school level, there are three content areas: US History, World History/Global Studies, and Active Citizenship in the 21st Century. Within each content area there are four “strands” that must be integrated into all course offerings: Civics, Economics, Geography, and Global Perspectives.

I took a look at one of those content areas, US History. Within each content area the curriculum is broken down into unit, in the case of US History the units are chronological. The time period is then broken down into the four strands, in essence the themes within a given time frame. Then, for each strand, are items known as “cumulative progress indicators.” Here are examples of a few from the unit “Contemporary United States (1970-today)”:

 Ø          Assess from various perspectives the effectiveness with which the United States           government addresses economic issues that affect individuals, business, and/or other countries.

Ø  Explain why natural resources continue to be a sources of conflict, and analyze how the United States and other nations have addressed issues concerning the distribution and sustainability of natural resources

Ø  Analyze the impact of American culture on other world cultures from multiple perspectives

These are three on the cumulative progress indicators in the US History standard for high schools. Each CPI is somewhat sophisticated and requires understanding of core knowledge and ancillary content. It demands higher order thinking and reasoning, and, depending on the type(s) of assessment used, there is going to be some sort of research, writing or presentation involved, whether it be an individual or group activity. Obviously class time will be devoted to the teacher’s lecture, discussion, classwork, and student questioning in addition to the class time that will necessarily be dedicated to completing the CPI in such a way that learning is demonstrated. Remember, the point is not whether or not something is taught, but whether it is learned.

In the content area of US History there are 198 cumulative progress indicators. That’s right 198. Does anyone truly believe that teachers and students have the time in two years- the current US History requirement- to assess learning in 198  areas. I refer you back to the three cpi presented above. Those of you who are familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy will immediately identify these cpi as demonstrating understanding of the highest order. This is well beyond simply “identifying” or “describing,” these are sophisticated goals requiring students to synthesize information. It is IMPOSSIBLE for teachers to properly assess learning of these cpi in the time allocated for teaching US History.

My point is this. If we are really serious about student learning, and if we are really serious about creating a system of metrics to evaluate teachers and hold them accountable for student learning, then it is absolutely necessary to rewrite the NJCCCS to identify only those items that a student MUST know, not simply those things that we would like a student to know.

 By reducing the number of cumulative progress indicators, we can liberate teachers to design innovative and exciting courses that reflect their personal knowledge and passion. And by designing a HSPA that assesses student learning in areas that really matter, like the Bill of Rights, reading a contract, and balancing a checkbook to cite just a few examples, we  can draw a better connection between the test and the “real world,” which will I believe engender greater respect and legitimacy for the test among teachers and students.

Assessing the quality of our teachers so that we can reward the exemplary and provide support for the less effective is an important goal that New Jersey is, I’m glad to see, showing a commitment to undertaking. But to do that without reevaluating the CCCS and the HSPA is doing a true disservice to not only New Jersey’s students and teacher, but to the parents, business community, and any other stakeholder with an interest in elevating the quality of learning taking place in our schools, especially our schools in the inner city where performance is far from acceptable. I hope our legislators, and our Department of Education, will see that their efforts so far are woefully inadequate.

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