Archives for category: Curriculum

Bill Gates was on the treadmill one day, watched a video about history that he liked, and invited the professor to meet with him to talk about growing his approach into something that everyone could see. Now as this story in the New York Times explains, Bill Gates’ favorite way of teaching world history has been turned into a course that is being marketed to high schools across the country.

“As Gates was working his way through the series, he stumbled upon a set of DVDs titled “Big History” — an unusual college course taught by a jovial, gesticulating professor from Australia named David Christian. Unlike the previous DVDs, “Big History” did not confine itself to any particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth. Standing inside a small “Mr. Rogers”-style set, flanked by an imitation ivy-covered brick wall, Christian explained to the camera that he was influenced by the Annales School, a group of early-20th-century French historians who insisted that history be explored on multiple scales of time and space. Christian had subsequently divided the history of the world into eight separate “thresholds,” beginning with the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago (Threshold 1), moving through to the origin of Homo sapiens (Threshold 6), the appearance of agriculture (Threshold 7) and, finally, the forces that gave birth to our modern world (Threshold 8).”

This is my favorite line in the article: “As Gates sweated away on his treadmill, he found himself marveling at the class’s ability to connect complex concepts. “I just loved it,” he said. “It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!”

Yes, if Gates loved it, why shouldn’t everybody “watch this thing!”

Now, let me say up front that the course may indeed be wonderful, engaging, provocative, and informative. I have not seen “Big History” and cannot judge its quality.

But there is something unseemly about a history course sponsored by the richest man in America. This is akin to research on cigarettes and cancer sponsored by tobacco company.

I am quoted in the article asking whether the course will discuss or even mention the robber barons or the problem of income inequality. How will it treat the rise–and decline–of labor unions? I can think of many topics that would make the sponsor uncomfortable.

Please read the comments, especially the readers’ picks. Many share my concerns.

On this point, read Mercedes Schneider’s latest post, wherein she reports that the Gates Foundation funds mainstream media outlets and Gates himself regularly meets with representatives of the media he gives money to. I don’t know, it doesn’t sound right to me. If he is giving millions to major news outlets, won’t that affect their coverage of the Gates Foundation and Gates himself. Will they dare criticize their sponsor? This has a bad smell.

Many years ago, in the 1990s and the early years of this century, I was a vigorous participant in what was known as “the reading wars.” I supported phonics and opposed whole language. I was influenced by the work of Jeanne Chall at Harvard, who described the ebb and flow of reading philosophies. I wrote many articles explaining why phonics was crucial and why whole language was deficient. In my book, “Left Back” (2000), I wrote an overview of the reading wars and showed the deficiencies of whole language.

In 1997, Congress created the National Reading Panel, composed of literacy experts who mostly supported phonics. Its report in 2000 strongly endorsed explicit phonics instruction. In 2001, No Child Left Behind included a program called Reading First, which gave large sums to districts that gave preference to phonics. Phonics was winning, for sure. Proponents of whole language (which valued meaning over the mechanics or reading) began calling their program “balanced literacy” to remove the implication that they opposed phonics.

By 2001, it seemed clear that phonics had won the war. But in 2006, the Reading First program blew up; not only were the evaluations unimpressive, but there were allegations of self-dealing and conflicts of interest as some phonics promoters were pushing their own textbooks. And the “war” itself lost steam.

As for me, I no longer think this “war” is a worthy cause. Reading teachers understand that students need both phonics and meaning. They know that children need to be able to sound out words but that it is boring to do that for weeks on end. Children need meaning. They get it when their teachers read to them, and they get it when they learn to read by themselves.

I am no reading expert, but I can see good sense in both approaches. I have seen balanced literacy classes where children were enjoying reading. I understand the importance of phonics as a tool to help children get off to a strong start. Wise teachers know when and how to use the literacy approach they need. Children’s needs are different. Good teachers know that and don’t need to be told by legislators how to teach. (And for older children, I love grammar, spelling, and diagramming sentences).

I read recently that NYC Chancellor Carmen Farina was reviving balanced literacy in the New York City schools, and some of my old allies wrote to ask if I was outraged. No, I was not. Balanced literacy can co-exist with phonics. Children need both decoding and meaning. Most important, they need to learn the joy of reading. It unlocks the door to the storehouse of knowledge.

I am no longer a combatant in the reading wars. What matters most today is the survival of public education. We must stop nonsensical curriculum wars and stand together for equitable funding, stable staffing, and community support for community schools.

Robert Berkman, who has been teaching math for thirty years, takes issue with the article by Elizabeth Green in the New York Times magazine called Why Americans Stink at Math. While he has great admiration for Green’s writing skills, he thinks she is an American who is not good at math.

He writes:

“The first place where Green goes wrong is when she cites “national test results” about mathematics achievement in the U.S.. First, I wonder which “test results” Green is referencing here (you have to be suspicious when, in the days of the omnipresent interweb, a link is not included to the data supporting this point.) It may be significant that 2/3 of all 4th and 8th graders are not “proficient” in math, but again, this is a national standard, not an international standard, so this only points to the fact that U.S. children are not achieving according to some standard that was created where, in some dark cave where Dick Cheney and his family reside?

“Green goes on to state that half the 4th and 8th graders taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress could not read a thermometer, or that 3/4 of the test takers could not translate a simple word problem into an algebraic expression. Note that this is the National Assessment of Educational Progress – it doesn’t say anything about whether U.S. children are better or worse than anybody else around the globe; for all we know, 7/8 of the children in Helsinki and 11/13 of the children in Ibaraki couldn’t successfully answer these questions either. Look, I’m not the sharpest pencil in the box, but even I know these numbers are insignificant without a context.”

If I may interject my view, NAEP proficient is a very high standard of academic proficiency, not a benchmark for what all students should know. Michelle Rhee constantly makes this mistake. It is like complaining that not all students are A students.

Berkman then chastises Green for comparing Massachusetts, a state, with Shanghai, a city (which excludes a significant number of students from the tests because their parents are migrants).

I confess I am tired of the constant barrage of articles and books about how terrible the U.S. is and how our public schools are the reason that we fail at this, that, or everything. I think this is a wonderful country, and I hope that one day soon we can take control back from the oligarchs that want to turn our children into standardized widgets (but not their own).

I like Elizabeth Green. I have known her for several years. I hope her next book will celebrate the success of American public schools in accepting all children and unleashing the genius of our best thinkers and creators, despite the contempt of the uber-rich and the war on the teaching profession. There is a reason that teachers say they work “in the trenches.” It’s time to celebrate their perseverance in the face of budget cuts and stupid federal policy.

The fabulously wealthy Koch brothers have developed a plan to teach their libertarian ideas to high school students. It is sort of like tobacco companies teaching students that smoking is good for you.

They have used their vast resources to identify like-minded teachers, to train them and to supply course materials. Their program, called Young Entrepreneurs, is growing in Kansas, Missouri, and other states.

What do they teach? “Lesson plans and class materials obtained by The Huffington Post make the course’s message clear: The minimum wage hurts workers and slows economic growth. Low taxes and less regulation allow people to prosper. Public assistance harms the poor. Government, in short, is the enemy of liberty.”

The course didn’t take hold at an elite private school but public schools seem eager for the support and resources.

Another way to sum it up: Greed is good. Look out only for yourself.

Russ Walsh has been teaching about literacy for 45 years. He started blogging to share his thoughts.

But then he discovered that his views about literacy did not exist in isolation. They were part of a great national debate that involved the Common Core, education reform, charters, and other aspects corporate education reform. He read other bloggers and found that he was engaged as a. Teacher,a reader, a writer, and a thinker. These were not stages of development but a process of thinking, writing, and acting.

Now he too is part of the national debate.

Robert Berkman, a veteran math teacher, writes a blog called “Better Living Through Mathematics, where he regularly skewers nonsense.

In this article, he looks closely at a chart that purportedly demonstrates how pathetic is the performance of U.S. adults, compared to many other nations.

Berkman says this may be the “stupidest article about Common Core math program” that he has ever read.

To begin with, the graph does not identify the highest possible score, making it impossible to draw conclusions or comparisons. So one conclusion from the graph, Berkman says, is: “whatever sample of US adults took this test did 88% as well as the adults in the top scoring nation, Japan. I think that’s pretty damned good, considering the United States is second to the world in poverty, leaving Japan in the dust by over 10 percentage points (and I’m sure Japan uses a much higher economic benchmark for poverty than we do here in the US.) Of course, we all know that poverty is the single greatest predictor of poor school performance.”

[Note to Robert Berkman: that "second in the world in poverty" is nonsense, despite the authoritative source. It is a comparison not of all nations, but of the most economically developed nations, and the U.S. is supposedly second to Romania. This is an absurd comparison because Romania doesn't belong in this group of nations. Romania is an Eastern European nation whose economy was mismanaged and impiverished by central planning for decades. Oh, well, I may never get this error corrected, but I keep trying. The fact is that we have the highest level of child poverty of any advanced nation in the world.]

After pointing out other errors, Berkman writes:

“Finally, this article is yet another example of the “waking up on third base” phenomena, which posits that everything that you see in a Common Core math curriculum is the direct result of the implementation of the Standards. Nothing could be further from the truth: all of the items described on in the article have been documented, published and taught since the NCTM published its curriculum standards a quarter of a century ago. If you’ve been teaching math using a textbook that was published in the last 20 years, you’ve probably seen all this stuff before including, with all deference to Mr. Colbert, the infamous description of a “number sentence.” Telegram for Mr. Colbert: 1989 is writing to tell you to “LOL!”

He notes with dismay that “NCTM actually tweeted the link to this worthless piece of codswallum, and smelling something rotten, I just had to follow the scent.”

Gary Rubinstein, a math teacher, plays the role of the heretic and wonders whether students need more than 5th or 6th grade math unless they plan to be math majors.

His answers: no, maybe, no.

He writes:

“‘No’ because as a Math teacher and a Math lover, I do think that the ‘importance’ of Math is overstated. Like Music and Art, Mathematics is one of the most amazing creations (discoveries?) of mankind and, yes, there are aspects of it — even aspects of the horrible curriculum that has evolved in this country over the past 200 years — which truly expand the mind the way any great piece of Music or Art would.

“But ‘No,’ it isn’t really that ‘important’ in the sense that people could get by in life very well with only knowing up to around 5th grade Math. Come on. Am I the kid who doesn’t know it’s taboo to point out the obvious when the Emperor has no clothes?

“Even for future engineers and even Mathematicians, I think that people who truly love math and who demonstrate an aptitude for it, they should be offered higher math as electives in middle and high school and they would be in great shape to pursue it in college if it were needed for their degree or career.

“But knowing Math, like Algebra, for example, isn’t really something anyone ‘needs’ for college the way that people would ‘need’ to be able to read.”

Or do they?

Watch as Gary debates himself on a matter of great importance.

If you ever watch The Food Network or something similar, you have probably seen Chef Bobby Flay and his “throw down” with a competing chef. Sometimes Bobby goes into a little known neighborhood and challenges a local chef who is famous for a regional dish, sometimes he takes on another famous chef. And you never know who will win.

In this post, Peter Greeene, Pennsylvania high school English teacher, has a throw down with an unnamed Other. That Other is E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Hirsch has argued in several well-known books that there are certain facts, ideas, and concepts that every American must know. He calls it cultural literacy. Others might call it background knowledge. In general, I agree with Hirsch’s idea that we need to accumulate background knowledge so as to have a conversation about the past, the present, and the future.

Peter Greene, however, has lost faith in the idea that there are certain things all educated persons must know. He explains why here.

He thinks there might be some things we should all know, but his list is short, and he is conflicted.

He writes:

“I think any person would be better off knowing some Shakespeare. I think every person would benefit from being able to express him/her-self as clearly as possible in writing and speaking. I think there’s a giant cargo-ship-load of literature that has important and useful things to say to various people at various points in their journey through life.

“But this is a fuzzy, individual thing. Think of it as food, the intellectual equivalent of food. Are there foods that everybody would benefit from eating? Wellll…. I would really enjoy a steak, but my wife the vegan would not. And given my physical condition, it might not be the best choice for me. On the other hand, if I haven’t had any protein in a while, it might be great. And a salad might be nice, unless I already had a salad today, because eating a lot of salad has some unpleasant consequences for me. Oh, and I do enjoy a lobster, which is fairly healthy, unless I’m have to eat while I’m traveling– lobster makes very bad road food in the car. You see our problem. We can agree that everybody should eat. I’m not sure we can pick a menu and declare that every single human being would benefit from eating exactly that food at exactly the same time.

“Ditto for The List. I mean, I think everybody should learn stuff. Personally, I’m a generalist, so I think everybody would benefit from learning everything from Hamlet to quantum physics. But then, I know some people who have made the world a better place by being hard core specialists who know nothing about anything outside their field.

“So if you ask me, can I name a list of skills and knowledge areas that every single solitary American must learn, I start to have trouble. Every mechanic, welder, astronaut, teacher, concert flautist, librarian, physicist, neurosurgeon, truck driver, airplane pilot, grocery clerk, elephant trainer, beer brewer, housewife, househusband, politician, dog catcher, cobbler, retail manager, tailor, dentist– what exactly does every single one of those people have to know?”

Maybe we could get gather if we talk about the principles of government. Shouldn’t we all know about the Constitution and Bill of Rights? Aren’t there signal events in American and old history that we should all know about?

Maybe it is just a difference in fields, but I think that history might be less arbitrary than English. Or is it?

Michael S. Teitelbaum, author of a new book called “Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent,” writes in the Los Angeles Times that claims of a shortage of scientists and engineers are exaggerated.

He reminds us that there have been at least five cycles of hand-wringing since the end of World War II about our alleged technological decline. The reality, he argues, is that the STEM fields are not suffering shortages:

“Nearly all of the independent scholars and analysts who have examined the claims of widespread shortages have found little or no evidence to support them. Salaries in these occupations are generally flat, and unemployment rates are about the same or higher than in others requiring advanced education.

“Science and engineering occupations are indeed crucial to modern economies, but they account for only a small part — about 5% — of the workforce. There is some evidence of too few professionals in certain fields that currently are hot, such as social media and petroleum engineering, or in localized hot spots such as Silicon Valley.

“But in a wide range of other science and engineering fields, and in most parts of the country, the supply appears ample and sometimes excessive. In the large field of biomedical research, for example, talented young PhDs are facing daunting career challenges, with only about 1 in 5 likely to find the tenure-track academic posts to which most of them aspire.”

He urges that we continue to strengthen math and science education in K-12, because educated citizens should have an understanding and knowledge of math and science, not because there will be lucrative careers awaiting them. There will be for some, but not for all or even most.

He writes:

“U.S. schools currently produce large numbers of high-performing science and math students (about one-third of the world’s total in science) but also very large numbers of students with low test scores that partly explain the less-than-stellar U.S. rankings in international comparisons. This is a reflection of educational and economic inequalities that need to be addressed energetically, but it is not a reason to urge every American student to pursue a STEM degree.

“Students with talent and enthusiasm for science and engineering should be strongly encouraged to pursue their interest in such careers, and informed that most do offer higher earnings than in many humanities and arts fields. Yet they also need to know about large differences in career prospects among science and engineering specialties, and to understand that conditions can and do change dramatically over time, sometimes even during the period it takes to pursue a degree.

“Given such uncertainties, students who major in science and engineering must recognize that employers value not only strong specialized skills but also broader knowledge and capabilities. They want employees who can communicate clearly with non-specialists, work effectively in multi-specialty teams and understand the basics of business and management.
Radical changes in K-12 education cannot be justified on the basis of pervasive but largely unfounded claims of widespread shortages of scientists and engineers.”

The lesson: We should increase our efforts to educate the lowest-performing students in STEM subjects in K-12, those in the bottom 25%, because these subjects are valuable for success in almost every kind of career and for informed citizenship, not because of false alarms by politicians.,0,120851.story#ixzz2zWcJB8az,0,120851.story#ixzz2zWbH5yoO

Professor Jack Hassard of Georgia State University concludes, after reviewing Tom Loveless’s report for Brookings, that the Common Core Standards have had little or no effect on NAEP math scores, as Loveles predicted a few years ago.


The states most aligned with CCSS had the smallest gains.


Overall, eighth grade math scores show very little improvement since the Common Core was rolled out in 2010.


He writes:


Between 1990 – 2013 there was a 22 point increase in 8th grade math. Over the 23 years this amounts to about a 1 point increase per year. However, the average score increase from 2009 – 2013, the years the Common Core has been used, has only increased 0.30 points per year, much less than before the roll out of the Common Core.


Well, four years is too soon to see the radical improvements that Bill Gates and others have promised. Maybe we will have to wait a full decade to know whether the billions spent on CCSS were well spent.




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