jasonbwatson

November 1, 2016

The Prophetic George Washington (Part 2)

After addressing the dangers of political parties and factions George Washington makes a clear and unmistakable shift in focus, beginning with this statement: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

I think anyone would be hard pressed today to find any evidence to refute this statement. Political prosperity is not something that the United States is enjoying today by almost any means of measurement–and the “indispensable supports” of religion and morality have been increasingly seen as dispensable over the past fifty or sixty years. Notice, by the way, that Washington did not say that religion and morality were helpful or beneficial or even advantageous; rather, he said they are indispensable. Much like fuel for an automobile, in other words; without it, the car is not going anywhere. Similarly, in Washington’s mind, there cannot be political prosperity without morality and religion.

Washington went on, though, in order to ensure that there was no misunderstanding the point he was making. First, he said it was contradictory to claim to be patriotic while also opposing or undermining morality and religion. Second, he said that without religion and morality property, life and reputation were all tenuous at best. Third, he said,

And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of the refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Morality is all about right verses wrong–specifically the principles of right conduct. Washington knew, without a doubt, that if religion is removed, or even significantly diminished, that morality would crumble. That is because without religion–specifically, a belief that there is a God and that He created earth and humans and is sovereign–there is no basis for right and wrong. When God is removed from the equation it all boils down to survival of the fittest, might makes right, he who has the most toys wins, or fill in the blank with any other self-centered, power-based worldview.

It matters not at all, Washington said, if there is a wonderful educational system. That is because if the supports of religion are removed, what is being taught is all without foundation. It is tenuous, it is temporary, it will shift with the whims of the people or the preferences of those in power. “Who that is a sincere friend to it [a free government] can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?” Washington asked. And, that by way, was a rhetorical question, assuming the answer of “no one.” That is because, in Washington’s mind–and based on his experience–the two were mutually exclusive.

So, when we find ourselves looking at the mess our country is in, wondering how the best two candidates “we the people” could come up with for the highest office in the land–if not the world–are a serial liar and serial adulterer, someone with no regard for the law and another with no regard for common decency–we need look no further than Washington’s Farewell Address. We have systematically removed religion from the public sphere and even done our best to minimize it in the private sphere–or at least to keep in private–and the result has been a collapse or morality, an embrace of that which has served only to “shake the foundation of the fabric” of our country. We have bid adieu to religious principle; we cannot now be surprised that national morality has followed it out the door.

August 31, 2016

In Defense of Homework

You have probably seen the story buzzing around the internet about a Texas second grade teacher who sent a note home with her students to start the school year in which she informed parents that she would not be assigning any homework this year. The teacher, Brandy Young, wrote that she reached this decision after much research. “Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance,” Young wrote. “Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early.”

Those four suggestions Young gives in lieu of homework are wonderful. I wholeheartedly agree that parents should strive to do all four with the children and I strive to do so with my own two. I have addressed the importance of families eating together numerous times in this space. I have also addressed the importance of reading. Children who are read to and who read are always going to do better in school than those students who do not fit in that category. And getting children in bed early is—despite their own protests and the confusion with which you may be greeted by family, friends and the children themselves—essential for their own health and success.

Still, I do not at all agree with the notion that eliminating homework is in the best interest of any child. Should homework be assigned every day? No. Should homework be assigned just for the sake of assigning homework? No. But there are legitimate reasons for using homework and homework appropriate assigned and used does indeed contribute to student success.

First of all, when homework is eliminated and formal learning is therefore confined to the schoolhouse, there is a disconnect that develops. Students begin to think that they learn at school and they just have fun at home. Parents begin to see educating their children as something that the teachers do between the bells and they are not responsible for or involved in in any way. Parents who still want to be involved with their children—want to look over their work, review their spelling words with them, and so on—will be placed in the position of asking students to do something that their teacher told them they do not need to do. This will, inevitably, lead to a student saying, “But Mrs. Young said I don’t have to do any school work at home,” which will be answered by the parent saying, “I am your parent and I said this is what we are going to do. Now get out your spelling words.” Now we suddenly have parent and teacher in opposition rather than working together for the success of the child. Additionally, parents are better able to keep up with what their students are doing in school when their child is working on homework. Even if it is nothing more than a brief conversation, seeing a child with his or her book open and paper out will open the door for an update—and “what are you working on?” is just about guaranteed to get a more concrete response than “what did you do in school today?”

Second, Young’s note said that the only work that students will take home will be work they did not finish during the school day. It stands to reason, from the tenor of the note, that Young does not intend this to be a regular occurrence or even something that will happen for every student. It does not take a great imagination, though, to picture what happens when little Alfred gets home with work to do. “Why didn’t you get this finished in school?” is the logical question to be asked by mom or dad. Any number of options exist for how Al will respond, but none of them end well or contribute to an effective teacher-parent partnership. If Al says he did not have time, the parents will want to know why Mrs. Young assigned more work than the class could finish at school in the first place. If Al says it was too hard and he could not finish it, the folks will want to know why Mrs. Young is giving work to Alfred that he cannot understand or handle. Why isn’t she giving him the help and instruction he needs, for crying out loud? If, after Parents of Alfred get in touch with Mrs. Young they find out that Al was the only one who did not finish his work and it was because he was not using his class time wisely they will no doubt follow up with questions demanding to know why Mrs. Young allowed him to fritter away his precious minutes at school and did not hold him accountable for doing his work when he was supposed to do so. Are you getting the idea that this is not going to end well no matter how Alfred responds or which route the conversations take?

Third, homework—again, when used properly—is designed to reinforce what was taught at school through practice and repetition and/or to allow students to work with that information to develop their understanding and application of the material. When I have my students answer questions over assigned reading, for example, it allows me to see whether or not they understood the reading and grasped the key points. On August 29 Alexandra Pannoni posted on the web site of U.S. News & World Report an article entitled “3 Questions for High School Teachers to Ask Before Ditching Homework.”  In it, she included this important reason to think carefully—especially in high school—about eliminating homework:

High schoolers need some homework because they need to learn how to study independently, says Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and author of “The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents.”

When they go to college, they’ll spend less time in class and more time studying on their own.

This is absolutely imperative to understand. Students who become accustomed to the idea that they will be given adequate in-class time to complete whatever is necessary to accomplish the education they are pursuing will be in serious trouble when they get to the college campus.

In October 2010 the Alberta Teachers’ Association released findings entitled “Does homework improve student achievement?” Here’s what they stated:

In 2009, the Canadian Council on Learning analyzed 18 studies to update Harris Cooper’s 2006 research on this contentious topic. These studies suggest that some homework does help students to achieve but (1) only in the case of some children, (2) only for a reasonable period of time and (3) only if the homework is meaningful and engaging and if it requires active thinking and learning.

Those caveats are all logical. To the first point, nothing works for every student. By and large, though, homework will benefit students when points two and three are enforced.

On his website AlfieKohn.org, Kohn includes a chapter of the book entitled The Homework Myth. After sharing a number of studies and comments, he concludes the chapter this way:

I’ve been arguing that any gains we might conceivably identify are both minimal and far from universal, limited to certain ages and to certain (dubious) outcome measures.  What’s more, even studies that seem to show an overall benefit don’t prove that more homework – or any homework, for that matter — has such an effect for most students.  Put differently, the research offers no reason to believe that students in high-quality classrooms whose teachers give little or no homework would be at a disadvantage as regards any meaningful kind of learning.

Yet, he asserts that conclusion after stating, in the previous paragraph, “It’s true that we don’t have clear evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that homework doesn’t help students to learn.” At the beginning of the chapter Kohn quotes findings published in the Journal of Educational Psychology:

The conclusions of more than a dozen reviews of the homework literature conducted between 1960 and 1989 varied greatly.  Their assessments ranged from homework having positive effects, no effects, or complex effects to the suggestion that the research was too sparse or poorly conducted to allow trustworthy conclusions.

In other words, none of the studies suggested that homework had a negative impact on students. And even those studies that found that homework had no effect surely did not suggest that homework had no effect on any student. Just as the article quoted above indicated that homework helped some students achieve, I dare say there is no study which has ever suggested that homework has no positive impact on any student. That means homework, even in studies which do not conclude that it is beneficial, does provide benefit for some students. Show me anything—any method, pedagogy, technology, style, etc.—that benefits every student and you will quickly become a multimillionaire, I assure you. There simply is no such thing. Instead, educators use those strategies that are most effective for the most students.

In February 2007 the Center for Public Education posted a lengthy article on the homework question, too. One of their observations was this: “Although the overall effects of homework on student achievement are inconclusive, studies involving students at different grade levels suggest that homework may be more effective for older students than for younger ones.” That is why effective educators tailor homework based on the age of the students. I do not know anyone who would suggest that ninety minutes a day of homework would be appropriate for a first grader, but that is a generally-accepted rule of thumb for ninth graders. Here is that article’s conclusion:

The central lesson of this body of research is that homework is not a strategy that works for all children. Because of its possible negative effects of decreasing students’ motivation and interest, thereby indirectly impairing performance, homework should be assigned judiciously and moderately. Heavy homework loads should not be used as a main strategy for improving home-school relations or student achievement.

There are three sentences in this conclusion. To the first, let’s simply acknowledge that it is a redundant point we have already addressed here. To the second, we have also already addressed the importance of assigning meaningful homework that is age-appropriate. Effective homework should serve to enhance student understanding even if it does not increase their motivation or interest, but it is possible to develop and assign homework that will in fact increase student interest. It involves being creative, thinking outside the box, and probably not giving the same assignment to every student, but it can be done. To the third sentence, the most tempting thing to say is “duh.” I find it rather mindboggling that a professional organization would find it necessary to state that “heavy homework loads” are not likely to improve “home-school relations.” Again, though, the key word in that sentence is “heavy.” And on that note, see points one and two.

In the March 2007 issue of Educational Leadership Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering took on this question about the value to homework. Their article summarized the arguments made in a book entitled The End of Homework like this:

[H]omework contributes to a corporate-style, competitive U.S. culture that overvalues work to the detriment of personal and familial well-being. The authors focused particularly on the harm to economically disadvantaged students, who are unintentionally penalized because their environments often make it almost impossible to complete assignments at home. The authors called for people to unite against homework and to lobby for an extended school day instead.

My own sphere of relationships is, admittedly, limited. But I have to tell you that I do not know anyone in education who desires to damage familial well-being. In fact, if there is any conclusive evidence out there about anything involving student achievement it is that familial well-being contributes to student learning and success. But, I will say again, effectively designed and used homework will not interfere with familial well-being. Is it true that students from economically disadvantaged homes are likely to have a more difficult time completing assignments at home? Yes. Whether it be because the student is also serving as caretaker, because there is no safe and/or quiet enough place at home to do homework or the resources necessary to get the help needed to complete the assignment necessary are not available, it is entirely possible that some students will have legitimate reasons for not being able to get their homework done. Eliminating homework, however, is not even a remotely logical response to that problem. That would be like suggesting that because economically disadvantaged students do not have access to quality health care we should eliminate the health care system. Or because economically disadvantaged students are not likely to frequent bookstores we should close them all. Extending the school day is not a logical response either. There may well be good reasons to offer extended school days or after-school programs for students who need it, but to say that because some students live in areas not conducive to completing homework means all students should stay at school longer is an argument that both does serve to harm familial well-being (by keeping all students away from home longer) and expands government control and influence over the family.

Marzano and Pickering make the same acknowledgement I have here, writing, “Certainly, inappropriate homework may produce little or no benefit—it may even decrease student achievement.” Their ultimate conclusion though? “Teachers should not abandon homework. Instead, they should improve its instructional quality.” I agree.

Most of the studies I have references here report that there is simply not sufficient research and evidence to prove that homework is beneficial to students. That may well be. As we have also seen, though, neither is there sufficient research or evidence to prove that homework is not effective for students. And I suspect there never will be sufficient research and evidence to prove either. That is precisely because children—and teachers—are human beings are we are all designed differently. There will never be anything that works every time for everyone. I will suggest however that it would not take long after the elimination of homework to provide research and evidence proving that barring homework does not benefit many—if any—students.

One last thought. Call it a P.S. if you want. Do those who think students should be able to do all their learning, practicing and application within the hours of the school day think that teachers should be able to do the same? I mean, if students need not do anything outside of the classroom, why should teachers? I can imagine many people jumping to tell me that’s ridiculous, and it is. But why would we think it is reasonable to expect teachers to spend hours outside of the instructional hours preparing lessons and grading assignments if we think it is unreasonable to ask students to do a little work outside of the classroom? Doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.

March 31, 2015

No expiration date on truth

Earlier this month there was a bit of an uproar within the National Baptist Convention in general and around American Baptist College in particular. American Baptist College was founded in 1924 for the purpose of training African-American ministers. Located in Nashville, the school has a rich connection to civil rights issues. It is a historically black college and has an all-black faculty. But none of that really has anything to do with the uproar mentioned above.

The problem arose when the college invited a married, lesbian bishop to speak at the school. Some conservative black preachers called on the school to withdraw the invitation because the Bible makes it clear that homosexuality is a sin. The bishop in question, Yvette Flunder, was not scheduled to address anything associated with homosexuality. Instead, she was to speak at the school’s annual Garnett Nabrit Lecture Series “about her work advocating for the rights and needs of people suffering from HIV and AIDS,” according to The Tennessean.

The Tennessean went on to report that the National Baptist Fellowship of Concerned Pastors stated the following in a news release calling for the invitation to be rescinded: “For a Baptist college president to invite a lesbian bishop legally married to a woman, to be a guest speaker and worship leader on a Baptist college campus is irresponsible, scandalous, non-biblical, and certainly displeasing to God.”

In response, American Baptist College President Forrest Harris said, “I think they have misappropriated the theology of the National Baptist Convention which says that churches and individuals can hold their own theological beliefs about what they think is right and wrong. It’s tragic these conservative pastors are in opposition to what education ought to be about, to expose students to critical moral thinkers and a broad education.” Harris may have been able to make a legitimate claim for the second part of the statement, because students do need to be exposed to critical moral thinkers. Still, there are plenty of critical moral thinkers who are not practicing homosexuals, and the invitation clearly implies an acceptance of Flunder’s lifestyle choice. Far more troubling is the assertion that the National Baptist Convention says that churches and individuals can “hold their own theological beliefs about what they think is right and wrong.” I do not know if the NBC teaches that or not, but if it does, it is a heretical organization. no where does the Bible allow churches or individuals to decide what they believe is right or wrong. Are there areas on which the Bible is not explicitly clear and about which individuals and even churches can decide they hold certain convictions? Absolutely. But the Bible is explicitly clear about what is right and wrong in many areas, and when the Bible is explicitly clear there is no other alternative.

That Harris is not much concerned about what the Bible has to say about the matter is clear in another statement he made, which has been reported in a variety of news outlets. “It’s sad that people use religion and idolatry of the Bible to demoralize same-gender-loving people,” Harris said. He then said “idolatry of the Bible” occurs “when people say (the Bible) is synonymous with God and the truth.” He continued, “We can’t be guided and dictated by a first-century world view.”

I beg your pardon, Mr. Harris, but saying that the Bible is synonymous with God and with truth is not idolatry; it is exactly what the Bible says it is. I am certainly not advocating a first-century worldview. Rather, I am advocating a biblical worldview. That the New Testament was written in the first century does not at all mean that it delivers a first-century worldview. All that means is that the first century is when God chose, in His sovereignty, to reveal His Word.

John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” I am not sure how Mr. Harris could miss it, but I believe it would be an accurate paraphrase to say that John 1:1 says the Bible is synonymous with God. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that all Scripture is breathed out by God. I am not sure how Mr. Harris could miss it, but I believe it would be an accurate paraphrase to say that the Bible is synonymous with God and truth. Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” I am not sure Mr. Harris could miss it, but I believe it would be an accurate paraphrase to say that if it was true in the first century it is still true today; there is no expiration date on biblical truth. Romans 8:14 says that all those who are led by the Spirit of God are the Sons of God. That same Spirit of God inspired the authors of Scripture way back in the first century. I am not sure how Mr. Harris could miss it, but I believe it would be an accurate paraphrase to say that we must be guided by that worldview.

May we never be ashamed of holding fast to the Word of God!

October 24, 2014

A fourth view

In the October 2014 issue of its magazine, Christianity Today asked three individuals to answer the question, “Do the Common Core education standards endanger religious freedom?” with the subtitle to the Open Question column reading, “Why a nationwide standard for classrooms may cause concern.” While I think that Kevin Theriot, Karen Swallow Prior and Kristen Blair each offer some valuable insight and perspective, I think that Theriot and Blair are wrong in answering the question in the affirmative—especially since they are reaching to do so.

Theriot, a senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, writes that while the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will have only an indirect effect on religious liberty “at least initially,” the CCSS create “another tool for big government (judges, legislators and education policymakers) to control the beliefs and actions of parents and their students.” This is a bit of a stretch. The case in question, Parker v. Hurley, ruled that once parents decide what school their children will attend, they have no constitutional right to dictate what their children will be taught in that school. While neither you nor I may like the fact that in this specific case the material being objected to was sexual material in kindergarten and first grade classrooms, the ruling is otherwise consistent with what we would expect and hold to in a private school. The decision of parents to enroll their student(s) in a private school does not entitle them to dictate the school’s curriculum or to pick and choose which elements of the school’s chosen curriculum their student will learn, so why would it in a public school setting? While the à la carte approach to education may seem desirable, the result would be to significantly impair the ability of a school or a teacher to prepare for instruction and grade student learning.

Theriot suggest that the CCSS will “creep into parochial schools and even homeschooling,” with the result being that students will necessarily be taught material that is inconsistent with their religious convictions. Since the CCSS are being reflected in college entrance exams and the GED, Theriot thinks that homeschooling parents may “feel pressure to align with Common Core.” While I think that is an alarmist argument, it also ignores the fact that the CCSS is not a curriculum. Any teacher—whether in public, private or home school—could use any curriculum he or she chose (within the confines of the district or school curriculum decisions in the first two instances) to satisfy the CCSS. In other words, there is nothing within the CCSS that would—or even could—require anyone to teach their student material inconsistent with their religious convictions even if they want to align with the CCSS.

Theriot further argues that “allowing the federal government to make decisions historically left to local school boards necessarily weakens the individual parent’s ability to influence those decisions.” That is no doubt true. The use of that argument in this context, however, assumes facts not in evidence. Actually, it assumes facts that are not facts. The federal government has not, and cannot under current law, make decisions about what state or local school boards will adopt for standards, curriculum, testing, etc. The CCSS was not developed by the federal government and it has not been forced on any state by the federal government. Every state that has adopted the CCSS has done so within the guidelines existing for that state. Yes, the federal government has incentivized the adoption of the CCSS by tying Race to the Top funds to the adoption of the CCSS or equally rigorous standards, but there are two huge facts ignored by most even acknowledging that fact. First, the federal government incentivizes all kinds of things by tying its desired result to dollars. If “we the people” do not like that then there are ways to change it, but that is a problem entirely separate from the CCSS. Second, the option to develop equally rigorous standards and still tap into Race to the Top funds is one that few states have chosen to pursue, though several are doing so now that they have received an outcry of opposition over the adoption of the CCSS. Standards development is difficult and time consuming and many states chose to simply adopt the “off the shelf” standards that are the CCSS rather than invest the time, effort and money into developing their own. Too, foregoing the federal dollars is an option no state is likely to pursue, though it is a legitimate option.

Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and she is alone among the three respondents in CT to answer the question in the negative. Prior correctly states, “So many myths and misunderstandings have proliferated about Common Core that some of its critics seem not to know that Common Core is limited solely to these two foundational subjects: math and language arts.” I have read and even heard teachers from other schools suggest that the CCSS is dictating the teaching of sex education in their schools. This is absurd; there is nothing in the CCSS that addresses sex education or requires it in any form.

Prior also writes, “Common Core is merely the foundation upon which those states and private schools that adopt the standards can construct a building of their own choosing.” She goes on to elaborate on what I stated above—that there seems to be considerable confusion, whether innocent or intentional—over the fact that standards and curriculum are two different things. Writes Prior, “standards are the goal; curriculum is a means of accomplishing the goal; testing is the measure of success in meeting the goal. Common Core consists only of standards (or goals). Curriculum and testing are up to schools to adopt.” Any school could teach toward meeting the goals of the CCSS without ever changing its curriculum. The CCSS involves very little of what is taught or learned and focuses much more on how students learn. The intention of the CCSS is to ensure that students are equipped with the skills needed in order to enter the workplace or pursue higher education. That, I would suggest, should be the goal of every school in the world; if any school did not have the adequate preparation of students for success in adulthood as a goal I would question the purpose for the school’s existence. I have said for years that the ultimate purpose of education should be teaching students how to think. This is no small part of the goal of the CCSS—to equip students to learn information, facts and skills but also to learn why those things are and how they can be used, applied and developed in the real world.

Prior makes an excellent point that few so focused on screaming about the government take-over of education seem to be paying any attention to, and that is that Christian schools should be among the most well-equipped to achieve the goals of the CCSS and to provide curricular resources that assist teachers in meeting those goals. “Christians are particularly equipped to create and provide back-to-basics, skills-based curricula aligned with these strong educational standards. Not taking advantage of this opening for cultural influence would be to squander a unique opportunity.”

Prior also writes, “Fears about Common Core’s potential to infringe upon religious liberty stem from broad concerns about governmental overreach.” She is correct in that assessment but, again, this is an unfounded concern because (1) the CCSS does dictate the teaching of any curriculum, and (2) the government is not dictating or requiring the adoption of the CCSS anyway. To the point about religious liberty, Prior concludes, “Equipping the students who are the future of our nation with the most basic intellectual and life skills will help religious liberty to flourish,” and I agree with her wholeheartedly on that point.

The final perspective in the CT piece is provided by Kristen Blair, an education writer and author. She begins her response by writing that the CCSS has pushed to “the forefront of fierce national debate” the question of who decides how and what children learn. While this assertion is accurate, it does ignore the fact that the CCSS do not dictate or prescribe what children learn. (In case you are wondering, I am well aware that I sound like broken record as I keep saying that, but the alternative is so widely declared by CCSS opponents that I have little alternative). The CCSS does address how children learn, and if the national debate were solely about that I would suggest that would be a good thing. Do we want our students to memorize math facts or do we want them to memorize math facts and understand why they are facts? Do we want students to be able to name the titles and authors of classic literature only, or do we want them to be able to do that as well as understand the positions and arguments made within those works of literature while also learning how to read, understand, interpret and utilize informational and technical texts? I know where I stand, but those are legitimate debates to have.

From there, however, Blair strays. She writes, “the [CCSS] over time will likely diminish local choice.” Her support for that position is that the CCSS were developed “without significant input from parents or the public.” This is debatable too, but even if granted this has nothing to do with diminishing local choice. The adoption of the CCSS is local choice (if you define local broadly enough to include the state government) and the implementation of the CCSS—including curricular choices—is truly local choice (since most public schools have procedures for the adoption of curricular materials at the local district level).

Blair continues with yet another of the wide-spread assertions that the CCSS has been “divested of much classic literature.” This is simply not true. The CCSS text exemplars (and again, these are recommendations– they are not mandated) include a healthy variety of “classic literature” in addition to the “informational texts” that some think are replacing literature. Grades 9-10, for example, include recommendations for stories, drama, poetry and informational texts. Homer’s The Odyessey, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Poe’s “The Raven,” Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73,” and Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” are but some of the recommended reading for high school freshmen and sophomores.

What are informational texts recommended for grades 9-10? Speeches by Patrick Henry, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ronald Reagan are listed for Language Arts. The History/Social Studies information texts include works on Custer, art, fish, African Americans in the Civil War and great composers. Science, math and technical subject recommendations include Euclid’s Elements as well as works on stars, the circumference of the earth and a government document on recommended levels of insulation. Not only do the fiction recommendations exceed the nonfiction recommendations, there is nothing wrong or detrimental about the nonfiction recommendations. The fact is, there simply is not sufficient time for students to read, study and learn all of the text exemplars included in the CCSS and it would be difficult for anyone to argue that are insufficient options contained with the standards. In other words, even if these were prescriptive titles and not simply suggestions, there is plenty of “classic literature” included. The fact is, though, they are not prescriptive. Blair seems to think that they are, writing, “They are no longer open for discussion,” and suggesting that the CCSS are “muting parents’ voices.” At the risk of being blunt, that’s a lie.

To her credit, Blair acknowledges that the CCSS is not a curriculum, but she also suggests that it does not matter. Differentiating between standards, curriculum and testing is “disingenuous” she says, because “standards, curricula and tests form a trifecta: standards drive curricula and testing.” To a certain extent that is true; who would intentionally test students over information they have not been taught? For the CCSS to dictate curriculum, however, the standards would have to include student knowledge about specific texts, and that expectation is simply not there. The closest that the CCSS come to addressing specific authors or titles in grades
11-12 are as follows:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7
Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9
Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.

If having standards that expect high school seniors to read at least one Shakespeare play and one play by an American writer, or to be able to show how two texts from the same period of American literature treat similar themes or topics is overly prescriptive than I cannot imagine any standards that would be considered acceptable.

The bottom line is this: whether you like the CCSS or not—and that could certainly be a legitimate debate—they do not endanger religious freedom. Religious freedom is under attack and endangered on many fronts in America today but the CCSS is simply not one of them. Effective countering of the attacks on religious freedom could be far more wisely directed at the judicial requirements that states accept same sex marriage, at the legislatures and educational organizations trying to grant “civil rights” to transgender individuals, at government attempts to coerce privately held organizations to provide abortifacients to their employees, or at judges penalizing individuals for refusing to provide services for homosexual marriages. If you want to argue about the merits of the CCSS please feel free to do so…but do so from a position of truth and an accurate presentation of the facts.

September 19, 2014

(Re)Defining Education

I do not like to “attack” fellow laborers in the field of Christian education. We get enough attacks from outside of Christian ed; no need to go after each other. At the same time, though, there is a need to identify and confront error when it exists, whether in Christian education, within the church or anywhere else within the realm of Christendom. Much to my dismay, yesterday I read an article in a Christian education publication that requires such confrontation. Adding to my dismay is the fact that this article was written by the dean of the School of Education at one of the leading Christian universities in the United States, which causes me no small amount of concern about what the education majors at this university are being taught.

The article begins with the question, “What should Christian education look like in the twenty-first century?” The author then states that in order to answer this question it is necessary to “consider how the twenty-first century child learns.” As part of his answer to that, he writes, “Watch a middle childhood student multitask by playing a video game, texting a friend on her phone, video chatting on her computer, and working on her homework.” The implication is that she is doing all of these things at the same time. And right there, not even a paragraph into the article, my hackles are raised. There is no reason for a “middle childhood student” to have the technology available to be doing all of these things at once. She certainly does not need all of this technology of her own. (Frankly, I do not even know what “middle childhood” means, because I do not think it is a term I have ever heard before. Since the article also references elementary students and young adolescents, I am assuming “middle childhood” must encompass ages 10-12 or so). Thus, the initial concern with this individual’s recommendations is that we are granting the notion of children having almost free reign over various and sundry digital devices, and that is a notion I think we should be challenging, not granting.

The writer goes on to state this: “These twenty-first century learners are comfortable with instant communication with anyone anywhere in the world; quick access to vast, accurate (or not) information; and the immediate ability to produce creative multisensory projects with only access to the Internet. These students interact with content and each other in a different way than students did just a decade ago” (emphasis his). Again, though, I challenge the notion that because students are comfortable with this that we therefore should educate them this way. Just because students are comfortable with something–anything–does not mean it should be incorporated into a classroom setting. Students are no doubt comfortable wearing shorts and t-shirts, lounging on their sofa and munching on snacks while they do all the various things described in the paragraph above. By no means does that mean that we should allow them to behave that way in classrooms.

Notice, as well, in the above quote, the repeated use of words that refer to instant gratification–“instant communication,” “quick access” and “immediate ability.” We live in a world that is all about doing things faster, so it is no surprise that students are used to this pace. Frankly, that is all the more reason why we should avoid automatically engaging them that way in classrooms. The attention span of many students today is shorter than this sentence. That is a problem, not an opportunity. That means teaching styles that do not conform to their “give it to me now” preferences will take them some getting used to, may even make them uncomfortable. That’s good. It is not good because I think being mean to students is fun. Rather, it is good because learning necessarily entails becoming uncomfortable. Unless I become uncomfortable with the fact that there are things I do not know there will be absolutely zero motivation for me strive to know them. While being able to learn in familiar and comfortable methods can be a valuable part of education, learning how to learn in new and unfamiliar ways is also an important part of education. I am well aware of the fact that technology is moving and developing at breakneck speed. Though students find it hard to believe when I tell them this, can remember television commercials when I was in elementary school that had the tag line “Computers are coming your way!” I can remember the first computer we ever had in a classroom and I can remember when my elementary school got a computer lab. This was big news–literally. A reporter and camera from a local news affiliate showed up to record the story! So things have changed, and are changing, and that is not going to change. But classroom instruction does need to mirror or follow every technological advancement–certainly not in toto.

On this point the author of the article I am critiquing and I clearly disagree. He writes, “It is essential to synch today’s classroom with the twenty-first century student’s way of learning.” This is simply not true. Neither is it necessarily wise. Yes, the use of technology is an important component of teaching, and teachers should take advantage of the many things that technology can enable them to do that truly enhance their instruction, but that should be one tool in their toolbox. Oddly enough, the author states as much when he writes, “A teacher’s toolbox of instructional models, methods, and strategies should contain a plethora of ways to engage students in the academic content to motivate them to learn.” That is odd for this reason–synching classrooms with the student’s way of learning is contradictory to using a plethora of ways to engage students. The implication of the first statement, and indeed of much of the article, is that classrooms need to adapt to students’ preferred and comfortable styles period.

Another erroneous premise of the article is that the utilization of all of the bells, whistles and wonders of the latest technology is necessary for effective learning. The author writes, “The educator must purposefully plan to create multiple memories for each concept. This current understanding of how the brain works best aligns with a nontraditional, student-centered approach to teaching, which is compatible for the twenty-first century learner.” Unless I am missing something or misunderstanding something, these coupling is absurd. Yes, the multiple memory idea is valid. However, it can be utilized in addition to a traditional approach; it does not have to be used instead of it. Furthermore, the implication is that traditional instruction does not (cannot?) create multiple memory pathways, and that implication is simply false; it is entirely possible to create multiple memories without utilizing technology.

While there are several additional points I could make here, I am endeavoring to keep my critique of the article shorter than the article itself, so let me jump to this statement made close to the article’s conclusion. “Unfortunately, too many Christian school classrooms are based on the traditional model of instruction in which the teacher is the giver of all information, forcing the learner to be passive and absorb factual-based information.” I would challenge both the use of the word “all” in that sentence and the idea that learners are necessarily passive in traditional instruction. Neither is automatically true.

This author states that utilizing individualized instructional models that conform to students’ interests will “increase the probability that the student will become successful.” Frankly, I disagree. I think what it will do is increase the probability that the student will become self-centered and unprepared for the realities of life. Are we really serving students, or adequately preparing them for “the real world,” by making everything focused on them? By tailoring, or allowing them to tailor, everything to their own likes, styles and preferences? I would answer with a hearty no. That the dean of the school of education of one of America’s leading evangelical universities thinks yes–and thus, no doubt, ensures that education students at his university are taught yes–does not bode well for the future of Christian education. This is not a defining of twenty-first century education, it is a redefining of education for the twenty-first century.

January 21, 2014

Too broad a brush

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. According to WORLD Magazine Editor-in-Chief she is “best known for her notable–and controversial–books about feminism and American culture.” The December 28, 2013 issue of WORLD includes excerpts of Olasky’s interview with Sommers on the topic of education and, specifically, the impact of today’s classrooms on the academic performance of boys.

Sommers makes a few debatable assertions in the interview, including the statement that boys are building “critical social skills” with their running around and mock fighting accompanied by sound effects. Now I do not have a problem with boys playing army or cops and robbers or superheroes or whatever else they may play; I did plenty of that as a youngster and my son does plenty of it now. Try as you might, there simply is an innate tendency among boys to enjoy shooting things, even in play! I am not quite sure that is a critical social skill, though.

What really bugs me about Sommers’ assertion though is that she goes on to suggest that schools have, in some instances, gone way overboard in suspending or otherwise disciplining boys for such activities, even, sometimes, drawings of such activities. I would tend to agree with her there. But then she states, “If the earliest experience a little boy has is disapproval, we threaten his social development and make him unhappy with school. This may be in part an explanation of why boys are so far behind in reading and writing.” To that, I would say, baloney! This sounds far too much like the position of those who advocate letting children do whatever they want and argue that the self esteem of young children is as fragile as an egg shell. “We must not discipline them!” these folks tell us. “If we tell them they are wrong, we will destroy them. An entire life of trauma and antisocial behavior will result!” Far from threatening his social development, parents and teachers alike will go a long way in helping to appropriately shape his social development in a healthy way when they do indeed express disapproval when appropriate. I am not suggesting that should be every time boys run around or pretend to be shooting each other, mind you, but Sommers is using much too broad a brush in her approach.

Sommers goes on to say that schools would be much different than they are today if teachers recognized these differences between boys and girls and were prepared to handle them differently. Specifically, she says, “teachers would learn in teachers’ colleges what they’re not learning today, that girls are readier for school.” I do not agree with this assertion, either. Sommers suggests that five-year-old girls are more mature than five-year-old boys and it is very difficult for a young boy to sit still. Difficult? Maybe. Impossible? Not even close. The problem is not in the gender of the child, in most instances, though, but in the parenting that child has received. Parents who teach their children how to behave–which includes how to sit still when necessary, to listen, to–dare I say it–obey, will have children, whether boys or girls, who are ready for school. And the fact that boys are “so far behind in reading and writing,” I might add, has very little to do with boys being told to stop running around. It, again, has far more to do with whether or not a love for and habit of reading is taught and modeled by the child’s parents. I have seen plenty of boys who love to read and plenty of girls who do not.

Sommers suggests that if teachers were aware of these gender differences and took them into consideration in their classrooms the result would be, “Lots of recess. Different classroom settings, not just one style that is sedentary, competition-free and risk-averse.” I would agree that different classroom styles are appropriate for any age group, and I am all for healthy competition and risk. Let’s not get too carried away with the “lots of recess” thing, though. Recess is indeed important, especially for younger children and perhaps most especially for boys, but when taken too far “lots of recess” looks a lot more like daycare than school.

Toward the end of the interview Sommers begins talking about the fact that more women than men go to college and that graduate degrees are awarded almost 2-to-1 to females. She uses that to support her assertion that high schools should be offering career and technical training course options, that high schools “should be partly career training that offers pathways into good jobs.” She will get no qualm from me there, either, but I do not see the correlation between boys running around as young children and the need for career and technical education courses in high school. First, it suggests that boys are incapable of pursuing more academic paths of study and careers, and that is simply false. Second, it suggests that the little boys who cannot sit still in kindergarten never grow out of that and therefore need a high school version of “lots of recess.” That’s false, too. The fact that high schools need to offer as diverse a selection of courses as possible, including traditional academic courses as well as fine arts, industrial arts, agriculture, home economics and more has far more to do with offering a well-rounded education and the opportunity for students to pursue areas of interest and skill (not to mention the opportunity to be exposed to new areas and skills) than it does with innate gender differences.

Sommers makes some good and points, but I am afraid too many people will swallow her whole approach because of the legitimately good points she makes. Be careful that you do not, though, because there are justifiable and legitimate reasons to tell little boys “no.”

January 14, 2014

Pro-exploration is not anti-science

I know I really should not be surprised anymore, but for some reason it never ceases to amaze me how many people who claim that they believe in and stand for tolerance demonstrate anything but when someone on the other side of a position to which they hold suggests allowing for more open debate. The latest example is a proposed bill in Virginia that would allow students to explore “scientific controversies.”

Richard Bell, a Republican, represents Virginia’s 20th legislative district, and has introduced a bill calling for an amendment to Virginia’s science education policy. According to the bill, “[Faculty members] shall create an environment in public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific controversies in science classes.” Anyone who claims to value tolerance and open discussion and the free exploration of ideas should welcome such a bill, right? Sadly, no. Evolutionists are already crying foul, claiming that the bill is a thinly-veiled attempt to introduce creationism into the public school.

While the bill includes language stating that these scientific discussions are not to promote or discriminate against any religious beliefs, the bill also states, “[Faculty shall not] prohibit any public elementary or secondary school teacher from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in science classes.” That means that teachers could freely discuss with students the merits of all scientific controversies–which would, of course, include evolution versus creation.

Dr. Jerry Coyne is a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and the author of the blog Why Evolution is True. He took to his site to explain why the bill is all wrong and why the bill is really just an attack on evolution and “anthropogenic climate change” (that’s a fancy word meaning caused by humans). In the title of his entry Coyne calls the bill the “first antiscience bill of the year.” Tell me, though–how in the world can “encourag[ing] students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific controversies in science classes” be anti-science? Is not this critical thinking and exploration of ideas and theories exactly what Coyne and others claim to want in schools and colleges?

Coyne goes on to state that while the bill makes it clear that “creationism and climate denialism” are to be “treated respectfully” because they are “differences of opinion,” “neither evolution nor anthropogenic climate change are ‘differences of opinion.’ They are scientific conclusions, and if teachers pretend that they’re merely ‘opinions,’ they’re sorely misleading the students.” Coyne says that the only acceptable response to the suggestion of creationism is to tell the offending student that creationism and anthropogenic climate change (he insists on linking the two) are facts, not opinions. Furthermore, he says, “if necessary, one can explain why the opposing opinions aren’t supported by science. But there should be no ‘respect’ implying that creationism and climate-change denialism are credible views.”

Interesting… Coyne thinks it is fine to explain the data, theory and so-called facts supporting macroevolution to any student who has the audacity to question it. This seems to be exactly what Bell’s bill has in mind when it states, in Section C, that teachers are tasked with “helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.” If evolution and anthropogenic climate change are the scientific facts that Coyne claims they are he should welcome the discussion and encourage it in classrooms. However, apparently he is comfortable only with presenting the support for evolution and anthropogenic climate change, and anyone stupid enough to question or challenge it does not even need to be treated with respect.

Bell, on the other hand, in an article on the Christian News Network, says, “[W]e’re not asking everyone to believe the same thing; we’re asking for teachers to be protected when they allow discussions about different opinions to take place.”

When someone has facts on his side he does not fear the questions or arguments of the other side. If Coyne is so confident that evolution is established scientific fact he should have no problem allowing the kinds of conversations Bell’s bill is encouraging. The reality is that Coyne is hiding fear behind his guise of scientific certainty; quite simply, he does not want students and teachers to be allowed to critique evolution because under examination it tends to crumble. Imagine if there were a group of people who insisted that two plus two was five. I cannot imagine any math teacher or professor, or even any politician, insisting that math teachers not be allowed to consider that argument in the classroom or to evaluate its merits. Any real mathematician would welcome the discussion, because there are so many ways to prove that two plus two is four that it would be a very short and lopsided conversation. The conversation about evolution goes quite differently because, despite Coyne’s assertion, evolution is not a scientific conclusion.

Coyne ends his blog post with this: “Shame on you, Virginia. If they wanted teachers to simply teach accepted science, they wouldn’t need to pass bills like this.” I would, with all due respect, counter with this…

Shame on you, Dr. Coyne. If you were truly interested in real education and in the testing of theories and hypotheses (as scientists are supposed to be) you would support, encourage and welcome the discussions this bill would protect.

November 15, 2013

What About Common Core? (part 5)

I hate to do this. Really, I do. Quite frankly, I am irritated that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have taken up so much of my time and attention recently–especially when I am not (1) required to follow them at the school where I serve, and (2) even all that interested in defending the standards themselves! What bugs me is the misinformation and the manipulation of the facts that is so prevalent surrounding the CCSS. I wrote at length on these standards last week and then decided after four posts that I was done. I intended to walk away from the issue and leave it alone. Then I got today’s mail…

In today’s mail I received a letter from Concerned Women for America (CWA) which was accompanied by a pamphlet entitled “Stop Common Core ‘State’ Standards.” The pamphlet included a picture of an elementary school child wearing a safety patrol vest, holding a stop sign. At the top of the cover was this statement: “An Unconstitutional Experiment on Our Children.” The lower part of the cover says, “An experiment destined for failure, loss of local control, loss of parental rights, loss of privacy, high costs and more.” Now, I respect CWA and much of what they do. However, I cannot ignore the inaccuracies and spin of their propaganda piece. The only way to have healthy and meaningful debate is to stick to the facts, and conservative organizations need to hold themselves to that standard–particularly organizations that are also Christian.

The inside front page of the pamphlet provides this explanation in response to the headline, “What is the Common Core?”

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is a set of national K-12 standards in math and English language arts currently being implemented in 45 states and Washington, D.C. The CCSS were developed behind closed doors by a left-leaning Washington, D.C.-based non-profit group. Supporters of the CCSS claim that the development of the standards was a “state-led” effort, but that simply is not true. Neither state boards of education, state legislators nor local education officials, school leaders, nor parents were included in the development, evaluation, and adoption of CCSS.

That paragraph includes reference to an end note after the comment about the “left-leaning” non-profit group, and that end note directs readers to a report by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc., entitled “Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education.” Interestingly, that report was published in 2008, and the CCSS were not even copyrighted until 2010. The suggestion, though, is that Achieve, Inc. is a “left-leaning” non-profit group responsible for drafting the CCSS. The report in question was outlining the arguments in favor of developing such standards. However, Achieve, Inc. (1) is a bipartisan organization that includes both Republican and Democratic governors on its board of directors, and (2) is not cited at all in the final CCSS.

Furthermore, that CWA paragraph states that there were no state boards of education, elected officials or local education officials involved in the “behind close doors” development of the CCSS. However, the CCSS were developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The CCSSO is “a nonpartisan, nationwide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and five U.S. extra-state jurisdictions.” The CCSSO board of directors has as its president Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education. The president-elect is Terry Holliday, the Commissioner of Education for Kentucky. The past president is Thomas Luna, the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Idaho. The board includes education heads from six other states. These individuals serve as the executive officers for their state departments of education and, in many states, also serve as secretary or ex-officio members of the state boards of education. It would therefore be difficult to suggest that neither state boards of education nor school leaders were involved in the development of the CCSS. Furthermore, the suggestion that teachers were not involved in the development of the CCSS is not true. There were teachers involved all along the way, and the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) are among the groups that were involved. PolitiFact.com rates the assertion that teachers were not involved in the development of the standards as “false” on their truth-o-meter, and even identifies and quotes teachers who were involved in the CCSS development (see the article here).

The CWA pamphlet also states that many states agreed to adopt the CCSS and the accompanying assessments “sight unseen.” That may be true. Even if it is, though, that is a problem with the elected officials in those states, not with the CCSS. No state could adopt the CCSS without the approval of elected officials. It simply is not possible.

The CWA pamphlet also states that the CCSS violate the Constitution, specifically the Tenth Amendment. I addressed in a previous post the fact that the federal government did not impose the CCSS on the states because it cannot do so. It can incentivize the adoption of the standards, and it did do that, but that is not unconstitutional.

The pamphlet goes on to suggest that there are three federal statutes which “prohibit the federal government from guiding the educational curriculum of the states.” The first of those statutes is the General Education Provisions Act. This act reads as follows:

No provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, or over the selection of library resources, textbooks, or other printed or published instructional materials by any educational institution or school system, or to require the assignment or transportation of students or teachers in order to overcome racial imbalance.

The problem with the CWA assertion, though, is that the individual states that are adopting CCSS have made their own decision to do so. When a state voluntarily adopts the CCSS it is the state, not the federal government, that is subjecting itself to the CCSS guidelines.

The second law referenced is the Department of Education Organization Act. This 1979 law creating the Department of Education contains basically the same language as the law quoted above. Section 103(b) reads…

No provision of a program administered by the Secretary or by any other officer of the Department shall be construed to authorize the Secretary or any such officer to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, over any accrediting agency or association, or over the selection or content of library resources, textbooks, or other instructional materials by any educational institution or school system, except to the extent authorized by law.

The reasons why CCSS does not violate this law are already outlined above.

Finally, the CWA pamphlet references the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Now, the full act is some 600 pages. If you want to read it all, help yourself–it is public record and not hard to find. However, this act actually does more to support CCSS than to hinder it. After all, Section 1001 (1) states that the law’s purpose is to “ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education” by “ensuring that high-quality academic assessments, accountability systems, teacher preparation and training, curriculum, and instructional materials are aligned with challenging State academic standards so that students, teachers, parents, and administrators can measure progress against common expectations for student academic achievement….” And again, any suggestion that the CCSS violate the law is negated by the fact that the individual states have opted in to CCSS; they have not had it forced upon them.

The CWA pamphlet goes on to state that “local control of education is best, whereby parents, teachers and taxpayers have a voice.” I agree wholeheartedly, and I am on record as advocating the abolition of the Department of Education completely. Again, though, this is a separate issue from the CCSS.

CWA also suggests that the CCSS actually lower education standards. I think this is a real stretch. It would take quite a while to go through and address, standard by standard, why I disagree with this assertion, so I am not going to do it. But I will touch briefly on one specific assertion made by the CWA pamphlet regarding literature. The pamphlet states that the CCSS has a “prominence of nonfiction ‘informational texts’ such as technical manuals, government documents, brochures and menus rather than highly regarded classic literature.” This argument is really a nonstarter for me. First of all, a well-rounded education needs to include “informational texts” as well as classic literature. Informational texts are certainly going to be more practical for most students than classic literature. Second, though, the assertion is inaccurate.

The CCSS text exemplars (and again, these are recommendations– they are not mandated) include a healthy variety of both. Grades 9-10, for example, include recommendations for stories, drama, poetry and informational texts. Homer’s The Odyessey, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Poe’s “The Raven,” Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73,” and Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” are but some of the recommended reading for high school freshmen and sophomores. (One of the more bizarre rumors surrounding the CCSS, by the way, is that The Grapes of Wrath is recommended for second grade. Not true.)

What are informational texts recommended for grades 9-10? Speeches by Patrick Henry, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ronald Reagan are listed for Language Arts. The History/Social Studies information texts include works on Custer, art, fish, African Americans in the Civil War and great composers. Science, math and technical subject recommendations include Euclid’s Elements as well as works on stars, the circumference of the earth and a government document on recommended levels of insulation. Not only do the fiction recommendations exceed the nonfiction recommendations, there is nothing wrong or detrimental about the nonfiction recommendations!

So, to repeat my mantra yet again, please do not believe everything you hear or read about the CCSS. This topic has become quite the political hot potato and folks on both sides are using half truths and spin to support their arguments. Do the research and find the facts for yourself…and insist on candor and honesty from those who are arguing about these standards.

November 8, 2013

What About Common Core? (part 4)

Filed under: Biblical Worldview,Politics/Current Events — jbwatson @ 4:22 pm
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I have spent more than enough time and space on the topic of the Common Core State Standards now, and the bottom line is that the debate is not going to go away. As I mentioned earlier, the debate is good. If nothing else, the CCSS have awakened some people to the importance of being informed and involved in education. I could spend more time and space talking about whether or not Bill and Melinda Gates are performing the role of the man behind the curtain in the development of CCSS, I could explore whether or not the federal government is violating its constitutional role by providing incentive funds for states adopting the CCSS, I could go standard by standard, state by state and evaluate whether the CCSS are an improvement or not…in short I could make studying and addressing the CCSS my full time job for the foreseeable future if I wanted to do so. I do not want to do so, and I am guessing my readers do not want me to, either.

In conclusion, then, I would like to share a few final thoughts…

First, the strength of any school will always be its teachers, not its textbooks nor its standards. That raises another topic altogether, of course, given the contracts some teachers unions have negotiated for public educators in this day and age. Ask Michelle Rhee how easy it is to get rid of poorly performing educators….

Second, regarding Glenn Beck and others of his ilk… Mr. Beck is certainly entertaining, and he does, at times, bring a needed and insightful approach to some of the topics he may choose to address, but let us also not forget that he thrives on controversy and alarmism in order to perpetuate his audience. Unfortunately, not everything that Mr. Beck has reported or stated regarding the CCSS is accurate. There is nothing in the CCSS that will strip local schools of their control of their curricular choices any more than there was in previously existing state standards. The CCSS is just one more in a long line of outcome-based education models, concerned almost exclusively with whether or not the skills enumerated are achieved by the students as evidenced through their performance on standardized tests.

Finally, the Common Core State Standards are here to stay—at least until the next movement comes along. The reality is that there will always be debate and conflict over what exactly constitutes a quality education. There will never be unanimous agreement over what students should learn and when they should learn it, over which is more important—facts or skills, and over a myriad of other educational topics.

At the end of the day, it is the right and responsibility of each parent to ensure that their child(ren) receive a quality education. The beauty of it is that different parents will define that in different ways. I have definite opinions about what a quality education looks like, and I am not shy about sharing my opinions. Anyone who has read this space at length knows that in my mind the movement known as “unschooling” does not qualify. Other parents think that that is exactly what their children need in order to have a quality education. I respect their prerogative to think that and to raise their children accordingly.

As a Christian, I believe wholeheartedly that what matters most is how well we measure up against God’s standard. The Bible does not clearly state where children are to go to school, for how long, or with whom, but it does provide clear instruction in plenty of other particulars that will provide clear direction in making decisions regarding the education of children. To those who are all worked up about CCSS I say “bravo for you.” I hope that your new-found passion for ensuring that your local school system operates the way it should and provides the education that it should will not diminish. Whether through CCSS, some other nationwide set of standards, or a multitude of locally-developed standards, the best way to ensure that American children are getting a quality education is to ensure that American parents are informed, involved, and holding educators accountable for the education being provided.

November 5, 2013

What About Common Core?

Unless you live under a rock or pay no attention to the news you have undoubtedly heard of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), most often referred to simply as the Common Core. It would be silly for me to spend multiple entries here addressing the state of education in America today and not address Common Core. In reality, I may even need more than one entry to do it justice, so bear with me.

The odds are probably good that you have heard about Common Core mostly by way of hearing complaints about it, hearing or reading why it so terrible. Now, this may surprise you if you have read the other posts on education, but I am not convinced that the CCSS are as horrible as many people, groups and talking heads have made them out to be. Are they flawless? Of course not. What is? For starters, though, let’s look at what exactly the CCSS are…

First, I should acknowledge that whatever the flaws of the CCSS may be—and I will address that issue shortly—the motivation behind the CCSS is a noble one. The Common Core State Standards Initiative has as its slogan, “Preparing America’s Students for College and Career.” Though certainly not a complete overview, that is what every school strives to do for its students. Furthermore, it is difficult to find something in the CCSS Mission Statement with which to disagree:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

That the mission of the CCSS is one on which just about everyone can agree is evident in the fact that the CCSS have been adopted by forty-five states, the District of Columbia and four territories. At the same time, it is certainly not necessarily true that something is good just because it is popular, and I am not suggesting that, either.

To date, CCSS have been developed for Mathematics and English/Language Arts. Please note that the standards themselves serve only to outline a basic level of knowledge and understanding that students in the United States should have. In other words, the CCSS is not a curriculum.

At the same time, it is important to remember that these new standards are likely going to indicate in many areas—particularly in many public schools—that students are not achieving the level of success that the many groups endorsing the CCSS want them to achieve; indeed, that they should achieve. For example, Kentucky was the first state in the nation specifically tied to the CCSS, having adopted the math and English standards in 2010. When the assessment results for the 2011-12 school year were released, “the share of students scoring ‘proficient’ or better in reading and math dropped by roughly a third or more in both elementary and middle school the first year the tests were given,” according to an article in Education Week.

It is important for anyone considering the CCSS debate to keep in mind a very important distinction between adoption and alignment. Any good school adopts its curriculum, textbooks and materials based on the quality of the content and (at least for Christian schools) the worldview of the text, always aiming to adopt the textbooks and supporting materials that will most effectively meet the needs of its students. It is the responsibility of the school to carefully consider each textbook selection and to choose those curricular materials that will best meet the needs of its students.

Contrary to what Glenn Beck and others may say, there is nothing in the CCSS that will strip local schools of their control of their curricular choices any more than there was in previously existing state standards. The CCSS is just one more in a long line of outcome-based education models, concerned almost exclusively with whether or not the skills enumerated are achieved by the students as evidenced through their performance on standardized tests.

Now, make sure you come back for the next post, because I do not want you to go away thinking I am an unabashed defender of the CCSS. There is still more to the story….

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