Thursday, March 24, 2016

Meanwhile, back in the ancestral homeland...

Kylie Hawn:

A heated argument over free expression versus racial intimidation regarding the Confederate flag took place at an emergency public meeting called by administrators of the Southern Huntingdon County Middle/High School Wednesday evening.

Superintendent Mike Zinobile said the meeting was called Wednesday afternoon when unrest started brewing in the community after nine students were suspended for displaying the Confederate flag on their vehicles.

He explained to the approximately 60 parents, students, board members and community members who attended the meeting, at which state police were present, the suspension stemmed from more than just students displaying the flag.

“We had a recent issue that was reported in the Police Log of The Daily News,” said Zinobile. “A couple of weeks ago, a student constructed a noose while he was on a district bus and hung it on the ceiling. While that was done, there were also racial slurs and comments directed at two minority students indicating they should be hanged.

OBE -> SBE -> CBE -> ?BE

I mostly agree with Peter Greene's on the malign take on what we now call "competency-based assessment." He sees it more as the return of "outcome based assessment" 20 years later, whereas I see the standards-based era as a continuous evolutionary thread of the the same theme, with slight rebranding.

The underlying problem is that there is no real theory underpinning the action. I mean, people have probably written some theory about the nature of standards, competencies, etc., but it is not cited or used in K-12 education. Nobody actually refers to it. You can never definitively say that someone's competency list is incorrectly designed, for example, because there is no recognized authority on the question of competency design.

Beyond that, there's not much alternative theory. That is, nobody really wants to defend assessing learning by Carnegie units instead of directly tracking student learning, although one can probably empirically show that it works well enough in various high performing systems around the world, despite its apparent logical flaws.

Put another way, when has anyone decided not to send their child to an elite prep school because it tracked graduation requirements by course credit, not competency?

When it comes to the administration of justice, I am in favor of legal systems based on written law, with the caveat that the efficacy of the system is entirely dependent on the quality and fairness of the laws, not to mention the many details of their implementation. Being generically in favor of outcome/standards/competency/skill-based education is equivalent to being in favor of a law-based justice system. Yes, of course! But if you don't have a good set of laws, based on a foundation of legal theory and scholarship, it doesn't get you far, and even then, the success of the system is entirely dependent on administration and implementation. In this metaphor, we're trying to write "laws," or competencies, without a constitution, law library, legal scholars or firm theory of law.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Ethnic studies and revising PPSD's history curriculum

I wrote a long piece on the Providence Student Union's campaign for the PPSD to offer ethnic studies courses in the February Common Ground (en EspaƱol).

Going a bit beyond what I could fit in the article, the PPSD history curriculum just strikes me as a universally unsatisfying document. Here's the basic breakdown, grades 6-12:

  • Grade 6: World History: early hominids -> 300 CE;
  • Grade 7: US History: Pre-columbian world -> 1790's;
  • Grade 8: US History: US Constitution -> 1900;
  • Grade 9: World History: 300 CE -> 1750;
  • Grade 10: World History: 1750 -> today;
  • Grade 11: US History: 1900 -> today.

This curriculum was put together rather quickly after the arrival of Tom Brady as superintendent of the PPSD circa 2008. At the time the Dana Center was doing a lot of consulting with the district, and they helped coordinate the process, despite their core competence in math, not history. It is closely aligned to world history standards, and follows the chronology of the Pearson textbooks the district bought at the same time. The curriculum is very standards-driven, despite the relative unimportance of history and social studies standards, compared to reading and mathematics standards.

One thing that it is important to understand is that it is not, by design, a particularly Western or Euro-centric curriculum. I don't think it is very good, and it is hard to say how different the taught curriculum is than the written curriculum, but look -- there is no Western Civ., and the world history standards are, you know, meant to reflect a global perspective, whether or not that is perfectly implemented at all times.

In fact, traditionalists or conservatives should hate this curriculum. In addition to having no Western Civ., there is no American history prior to 1900 in high school at all, no civics, no study of our foundational documents outside of English class, as required by the Common Core ELA standards.

If you try do do world history chronologically, it is going to seem rushed no matter what. There is a lot to cover! You're pretty much focusing on global trends, at a cultural or imperial level, entire nations just step in for cameos as they rise and fall. It is probably one reason kids feel like "their" history isn't in there. Hispaniola has a supporting role to Columbus, but you're not going to hear much about Germany before WWI either, except as "barbarians" vis a vis Rome. Regions like Southeast Asia are inevitably going to be described in terms of the waxing and waning influence of global empires, if at all. It is the nature of the beast.

Despite the rush, there are a few glaring redundancies in the high school curriculum. Many of the tent-poles of 20th century American history (11th grade) are also global events (10th grade), meaning the whole WWI, Great Depression, WWII, Cold War sequence is repeated in consecutive years. 19th century America is fairly interesting, but I'm not sure why it rates taking up all of 8th grade.

In short, it is hard to imagine anybody coming up with or liking this curriculum who wasn't preoccupied with meeting a standards alignment rubric. It should be re-written from scratch, yet the overall emphasis on world history should be acceptable to multi-cultural minded critics, including the PSU.

This process would be complicated by the fact that the PPSD does not have anyone in charge of History/Social Studies with a History/Social Studies background. As I recall, the same person -- with a literacy background -- is now in charge of history and ELA/Literacy, but I can't figure out who this person is from looking at the new PPSD website.

Here is a rough outline of a new curriculum:

  • A serious one or two semester ethnic studies course for all 8th or 9th graders (one or the other). This needs to be framed as an intervention that is going to help students understand their identity and place in the context of the world, America, Providence, and their school.
  • A one semester civics and government course in high school. This should be active, relevant, and participatory.
  • The world history sequence has to be reorganized and redesigned to connect to Providence's students. Arranging the whole thing chronologically does not seem to be working. A thematic, "less is more" approach could be a big improvement, particularly if it gives students and teachers more flexibility to explore a given theme in a geographic or cultural context that is more relevant to the students on hand.
  • US history needs new textbooks -- or no textbooks -- and a stronger and more varied set of instructional resources.

Monday, March 14, 2016

I need a publicist

My wife would never blog because it seems too self-aggrandizing. I've never had that problem, but I can't take it one step further and cross-promote my own writing.

As you may know, one (of several) reasons my blogging has finally nearly stopped here is because I've been editing -- and writing most of -- Common Ground, a monthly free labor paper here in Rhode Island. It is mostly distributed through union halls and more or less random (and inconsistent) drop-offs at shops, restaurants, etc.

Since this pays as a very part time job, it has taken me about a year to find the time, energy and motivation to get the website into what I would consider a usable state.

So... have a look at the new Common Ground website at