Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Standards, Curriculum, Outcomes, Content, etc.

E.D. Hirsch:

That principle of building coherent, cumulative content animates the most effective school systems in the world, and for good reason: The systematic development of student knowledge from earliest grades in history, literature, science, and the arts is essential to high verbal ability—which in turn is the key to social mobility and college readiness.

The words italicized above don’t define the specific historical, scientific, and other knowledge that is required for mature literacy. (If they did, no state would have adopted the CCSS, because specific content remains a local—or teacher—prerogative in the U.S.) But those words are an impetus to a brave and insightful governor or state superintendent to get down to brass tacks. In early schooling, progress cannot be made without coherence and specificity.

First, of course specific content in history, literature, science, and the arts can be and is specified by the states -- in the standards for each discipline. What makes no sense is the idea that the ELA/Literacy standards would be the proper place to address the issue. Especially since these standards are so hostile to content within the discipline of English.

Beyond that, it is deeply problematic to pretend that "standards" act the same way across all grade levels and disciplines. I'm not losing any sleep over a curriculum that teaches ancient civilizations in first grade ELA -- I'm sure it is done well some places and poorly in others -- but I think what we can all agree on is that it would be absurd for a first grader who was a fluent reader in general to fail English class and repeat the grade because they did not remember enough about the pharaohs to meet the English standard for knowledge of Egyptian history.

Sure, that's an absurd straw man scenario that nobody is proposing... I think... but all our terms in this debate are so badly defined, I'm not sure why such a scenario isn't the logical implication of a system of strict standards, content-focus and viewing knowledge as a component of "literacy."


Leroy's Mom said...

I'm gonna share how I'm doing this in elementary, and then I'm going to ask you to respond on why this won't work in secondary (I have my suspicions)...

I like the idea of doing cross discipline assessments now (this does not imply approval of CCSS, because there are other problems with the donut hole of content they've created with those standards). I give the kids a prompts with questions from both whatever ELA text we're reading, social studies, and science. I then grade all three responses separately. The social studies and science grade is based on whether they answered the question in that section, and how much detail they provided (accurate detail). The overall writing grade is an average of the scores for all the sections combined. One score goes in their writing, one in their social studies, and one in science. NOW, there are a myriad ways (e.g., changes in report card formats) that they could FUBAR my system, but it works for now.

Tom Hoffman said...

Hi Alice,

I think the strange, unspoken distinction here is between a cross - or multi-disciplinary and anti-disciplinary approach. I agree that what you're describing is fine, close enough for classroom assessment of student learning (which should be the most important kind).

The weird place we find ourselves is where there's a serious line of argument that essentially places science and social studies knowledge as subsidiary parts of "literacy."

Leroy's Mom said...

I think you hit on what's wrong with this. It works in the classroom, but is VERY difficult with multiple teachers (although some schools manage this), but impossible to create a "national" test for.
To whit, I can ask my kids questions on social studies, because I know what they've been taught. That's a lot different than throwing an unfamiliar text passage on Ancient Egypt at them, and have them answer questions. Also, we don't have national standards in the content areas, which will be MUCH more politically controversial than these "content-free" ELA standards.
Example, most states have their own state as the focus of history instruction in fourth grade. To accurately test students on social studies reading comp, you'd give them a passage about their state, and ask questions. With background knowledge from studying about their state during the year, that's not harsh. The problem, there are 50 states, with 50 different states being covered in each of the states' standards. Think about it, and it just doesn't work.

Tom Hoffman said...

I think the not very hidden subtext of all this is that the "content" people want the ELA tests to establish a de-facto history and science curriculum.