Saturday, January 25, 2014

To Learn or Not to Learn: The Wilmot Proviso vs. "Here's Looking at You Kid"

There is new attention being given to the idea of extending the school day and school year, and to me that debate raises a similar issue of "what" is listed as required content in our Core Content Curriculum Standards.

First a word on the above debate. In the previous post I laid out arguments against both ideas, but I would like to make additional comment. One of the arguments I made is that the real issue with retaining information over the summer is the poor way that the content was taught in the first place. To me this is a direct consequence of teachers that are poorly trained and supervised in the art of assessment AND the onerous and "out of touch" demands on time imposed by the CCCS. Extending the school year does not address this endemic problem. Building on this, and on the issue of extending the school day, I want to point out that a body of research shows that the high school day should start much later and then end later, as the teenage brain does not "click on" until later in the morning. A more proper schedule would have elementary school starting earlier and high school later.

I also pointed out that research in countries we apparently want to emulate, such as China and Norway, shows that we do not use time effectively; teachers need more professional development time and less time in the classroom. If we are to be honest with ourselves we need to move in this direction. This will however, impact what we require kids to learn, which is the main focus of this post.

As I've mentioned on more than one occasion, we require educators to teach way too much content, and so we need to completely reassess curriculum to focus not on what we want kids to learn, but what they MUST learn to be well informed and independent citizens upon graduation. As far as I'm concerned, our CCCS are completely off base, not just too broad and deep but off base in terms of the subject matter. Adding to this mockery is the fact that the HSPA only tests students in math and Language Arts, so there is no accountability for the content in the first place.

I would radically change what we identify as the content students MUST learn, and I would redesign the HSPA to test in all of these areas. This gets me to the title of this post. American history is of course a crucial part of a teenager's learning, but as we know history is a huge subject requiring a great deal of winnowing down. Political history (Wilmot Proviso) and cultural history ("Here's Looking at You Kid") are two elements of that history. Currently, we require the first but not the second. I would not require either, but if I had to choose I frankly would rather they learned about Casablanca and Bogart. Cultural history provides essential connections among generations, preserving elements of our language and experiences that should be enduring.

Now to tie this into the issue of extending learning and improving retention, my point is that if we give teachers greater intellectual freedom to create their own unique curriculum, curriculum that draws on their knowledge and passion, while concomitantly reducing what students MUST learn, we will greatly improve chances that knowledge will be retained because this will naturally improve the quality of their instruction and assessment.

If we teach less, teach better, and teach what is meaningful, we will conquer the problems of student learning and retention. Our current CCCS are devoid of reality and designed with college in mind, not the real world. Its time we leave it to students, working with parents and guidance counselors, to insure they are learning what they will need for college. It's also time to realize that it is skill development, and not content beyond those "MUSTS," that should be the focus of a student's education.

Let me leave you with this thought about curriculum. New Jersey has always been at the forefront of progressive change in education, and I would love to see the State do the same with our content standards. Let's rethink these standards, and if we do might I suggest the following as areas that all students be required to learn; believe me there is quite alot more that I would personally WANT students to learn, but the issue here is what they MUST learn:

American History (emphasis on culture, global engagement, key events and "movements," great leaders)
Declaration and Constitution (emphasis on Bill of Rights and historical underpinnings)
Politics and Citizenship (legislative process, rights and duties, NPOs, interest group politics)
Street Law (emphasis on contracts, liability issues, consumer rights)
Science (emphasis on biology, neuroscience, the environment, basic physics, engineering)
Computer Science and Technology(using productivity software, how "things" work)
Health (nutrition, fitness, healthy lifestyles, preventive health care)
Economics (financial literacy, entrepreneurship, basic micro and macro concepts)
Humanities (comparative religion, historically significant figures and their work in art and music)

I'm leaving out Math and Language Arts because I consider anything to be required in these areas to essentially be skills based. 
All of this content provides a great foundation for developing the reading, writing, verbal, and interpersonal skills- as outlined in the national  Core Curriculum movement- that all high school graduates need to be well prepared for life after high school, regardless of career path. There are quite a few subject areas, but a limited amount of content in each. This gives teachers responsible for required coursework the time to properly assess and insure competency/mastery, and also provides time to design curriculum that empowers students to pursue work independently within the curriculum.

Let's not kid ourselves that extending the day and year will cure what ails public education. The majority of schools are doing fine; our focus should always be the inner cities, where this issue will do nothing more than let policy makers feel good about themselves that they are doing "something," even if that something is tantamount to doing nothing.

We need innovators, iconoclasts, and risk takers, not political leaders and their palliatives. This will require policy makers and politicians to relinquish their stranglehold on education, but unfortunately I feel the grip tightening.

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