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  • Where Al Shanker Stood: Disciplinary Learning

    Written on January 24, 2020

    In this column, published in the New York Times on February 5, 1995, Al Shanker argues that, although interdisciplinary units can be done well, there is value in the deep knowledge that the disciplines of history and math and science and literature can offer.

    Interdisciplinary learning is a big educational fact these days, and it's no wonder. It's a very attractive idea. The world is not divided into disciplines so why should school be? Why not integrate what kids learn -- and show them how math and biology and history fit together --­ instead of putting these things into separate boxes? A holistic approach, advocates tell us, will make learning far more engaging for students. It will also be more stimulating for teachers, who will be encouraged to make new connections and see things in new ways.

    But throwing away disciplinary learning for youngsters who have not yet mastered the disciplines creates serious problems. It constrains what teachers can teach -- and, therefore, what kids can learn -- instead of enlarging it. That's what Kathleen Roth, a science teacher and teacher educator, found when she participated in an integrated science and social studies unit (Roth 1994). The theme of the unit -- 1492 -- was a real grabber, and Roth and her colleagues planned something far more ambitious than learning the names and customs of various native American peoples and, perhaps, how to build a bark house or a canoe. They organized the year-long unit around themes of diversity, change and adaptation, and questions about how the people and land have changed since 1492 and how they might change in the next 500 years. They believed that these themes and questions would be powerful vehicles for teaching and integrating basic concepts in science and social science.

    What Roth found was something quite different. The interdisciplinary focus made it difficult for her to teach scientific concepts at all. For example, because the anchor point was 500 years in the past, the kids were pretty much limited to learning from books, and Roth was unable to give them practice in the basic scientific activities of observing things, trying to explain these things and making predictions about their behavior -- as she had done with previous classes. The interdisciplinary approach meant that her students learned less science, not more -­ some new names and facts but little if anything about how scientists raise questions and resolve them.

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  • Consent In The Digital Age: Lessons From Katie Hill

    Written on November 21, 2019

    Earlier this year RedState and Daily Mail published nude photographs of Congresswoman Katie Hill (D-CA) without her consent after her husband leaked the photos to those platforms, also without her consent. I will not minimize the serious implications of other allegations facing Hill about the ethics of a relationship with a former staff member, but I am not here to dissect every angle of this story. 

    There are many lessons to learn from Katie Hill, about gender norms, ethics, power dynamics, victim blaming, and consent. Katie Hill is the first prominent female politician to experience this nonconsensual cyber exploitation, but she won’t be the last in the digital era. The former Congresswoman has since resigned, releasing a statement to her constituents explaining her departure. After a brief digital hiatus, Hill was back on Twitter, vowing to continue the fight against revenge porn and to call attention to advocacy efforts on cyber exploitation. I would like to explore what consent in the digital age means for students because what happened to Katie Hill on the national stage can happen to youth in schools.

    We know that students engage with social media platforms every day. With ease and wide accessibility, communicating through social media and photo sharing is the norm for the so called “iGen.” The jump from digital communication to full blown “sexting” (Sex + Texting) among adolescents is overwhelming school leaders who are trying to confront sexting among high school and even middle school students. Sexting includes sending or possessing written, audio, or visual messages with explicit sexual content. Washington State schools include the act of viewing sexually explicit content in their definition of sexting found in the 2019 student conduct booklet titled “Rights and Responsibilities in the Digital Age.”

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  • A Problem Hiding In Plain Sight

    Written on October 10, 2019

    Our guest author today is Natalie Wexler, an educational journalist who is a senior contributor to forbes.com and whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and other publications. This article is excerpted, with permission, from THE KNOWLEDGE GAP: The Hidden Cost of America’s Broken Education System—And How To Fix It.

    In 1987, two researchers in Wisconsin, Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie, constructed a miniature baseball field and installed it in an empty classroom in a junior high school. They peopled it with four-inch wooden baseball players arranged to simulate the beginning of a game. Then they brought in sixty-four seventh- and eighth-grade students who had been tested both for their general reading ability and their knowledge of baseball.

    The goal was to determine to what extent a child’s ability to understand a text depended on her prior knowledge of the topic. Recht and Leslie chose baseball because they figured lots of kids in junior high school who weren’t great readers nevertheless knew a fair amount about the subject. Each student was asked to read a text describing half an inning of a fictional baseball game and move the wooden figures around the board to reenact the action described.

    Churniak swings and hits a slow bouncing ball towards the shortstop, the passage began. Haley comes in, fields it, and throws to first, but too late. Churniak is on first with a single, Johnson stayed on third. The next batter is Whitcomb, the Cougars’ left-fielder.

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  • The Early Origins Of The STEM Achievement Gap (And What Can Be Done To Help)

    Written on May 19, 2016

    Every year, like a drumbeat, more articles, studies and reports detail the reasons that a disproportionally low number of people of color are employed in the well paid science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions. One result has been a myriad of programs designing to attract, prepare, mentor, and retain secondary and college-age underrepresented students into the STEM fields. An interesting new study, however, suggests that solutions to this problem need to begin much earlier, prior to kindergarten in fact.

    First, it should be noted race or ethnicity, per se, are not really what’s at issue in terms of students’ relative success in the STEM fields, but rather the historic and persistent lack of opportunity afforded to certain segments of U.S. society, resulting in the overrepresentation of people of color among the ranks of the poor.  And further, it is not poverty in itself, but poverty's accompanying life conditions that help to explain performance gaps that begin at home and extend into schooling and beyond.

    In this case, the study’s authors, Morgan, Farkas, Hillemeier and  Maczuga, argue that “the strongest contributors to science achievement gaps in the United States are general knowledge gaps that are already present at kindergarten entry. Therefore, interventions designed to address science achievement gaps in the United States may need to be implemented very early in children’s development (e.g., by or around school entry, if not earlier) so as to counteract the early onset of general knowledge gaps during the preschool and early elementary years.”

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  • The Purpose And Potential Impact Of The Common Core

    Written on May 19, 2015

    I think it makes sense to have clear, high standards for what students should know and be able to do, and so I am generally a supporter of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). That said, I’m not comfortable with the way CCSS is being advertised as a means for boosting student achievement (i.e., test scores), nor the frequency with which I have heard speculation about whether and when the CCSS will generate a “bump” in NAEP scores.

    To be clear, I think it is plausible to argue that, to the degree that the new standards can help improve the coherence and breadth/depth of the content students must learn, they may lead to some improvement over the long term – for example, by minimizing the degree to which student mobility disrupts learning or by enabling the adoption of coherent learning progressions across grade levels. It remains to be seen whether the standards, as implemented, can be helpful in attaining these goals.

    The standards themselves, after all, only discuss the level and kind of learning that students should be pursuing at a given point in their education. They do not say what particular content should be taught when (curricular frameworks), how it should be taught (instructional materials), who will be doing the teaching and with what professional development, or what resources will be made available to teachers and students. And these are the primary drivers of productivity improvements. Saying how high the bar should be raised (or what it should consist of) is important, but outcomes are determined by whether or not the tools are available with which to accomplish that raising. The purpose of having better or higher standards is just that – better or higher standards. If you're relying on immediate test-based gratification due solely to CCSS, you're confusing a road map with how to get to your destination.

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  • Knowledge For Literacy

    Written on May 14, 2015

    Our guest author today is Marilyn Jager Adams, a visiting scholar in the Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Department of Brown University. Marilyn is internationally regarded for her research and applied work in cognition and education, including the seminal text Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. This post is adapted from Literacy Ladders, our anthology of articles on early childhood literacy learning.

    The very purpose and promise of schooling is to prepare students for responsible adult lives—to be civically minded and informed, to pursue higher education, and to find gainful work that allows them to grow and contribute to society. To accomplish this, students must be given ample support and practice in reading, interpreting, and writing about texts as complex as those that characterize life beyond high school. But here lies our great dilemma. Increasing the sophistication of assigned texts, all by itself, is unlikely to do much good. After all, we know that many students are unable to understand such rigorous texts, and nobody learns from texts that they cannot understand.

    What this means is that we, as educators, need figure out how to help raise our students’ language and literacy skills to levels that enable them to understand and gain from complex texts. Working with the Albert Shanker Institute, the American Federation of Teachers, and Core Knowledge Foundation, I recently helped produce an anthology of research essays — Literacy Ladders — that addresses this challenge. Below are a couple of the key takeaways.

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  • Where Al Shanker Stood: Verbal Ability As The Key To Learning

    Written on April 30, 2015

    We found this 1974 Al Shanker New York Times column to be of interest, both in terms of current debates over variations in "opportunity to learn" and implementation of the Common Core State Standards, and in regard to recent research on the importance of oral language development in early childhood (see here for more); we hope you agree. 

    It is regrettable that the important work being done by the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement has received such scant notice, not only in the media but in educational circles as well. It deserves better. Founded in 1959, IEA is an organization of 22 national education research centers whose basic purpose, through use of tests, surveys, questionnaires and other methods, is to develop generalizations for education throughout the world. It has done studies of achievement in mathematics, science, reading comprehension, civic education and foreign languages.

    A good summary of the findings of recent IEA research is provided by Benjamin S. Bloom, Professor of Education at the University of Chicago and one of the founding members of the Association, in his article, "Implications of the IEA Studies for Curriculum and Instruction," in the May 1974 issue of the University of Chicago School Review. Bloom, to begin with, sees as a salient virtue of IEA research that its methods have been developed for the specific purpose of international comparison. In previous cross-national studies, he observes, "the evaluation instruments developed in one country typically showed that country to be superior to the other countries included in the study." The procedures which IEA has helped develop avoid such bias. The IEA studies, Bloom reports, reveal that there are vast educational differences between countries. "If school marks were assigned in the various nations on the basis of the highest nation's standards (where perhaps the lowest fifth might be regarded as failing), then almost 50 percent of the students in the lowest scoring of the developed countries would fail but about 85 percent of the students in the average developing nation would fail." In terms of grade norms, "it is evident that the attainment obtained in one year of schooling in the highest nation requires one and one-half or two years of schooling in the less favored nations. To put it in terms of time and human resources spent, it may cost twice as much for a particular level of learning in one place as it does in another."

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  • Fixing Our Broken System Of Testing And Accountability: The Reauthorization Of ESEA

    Written on January 21, 2015

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    Our guest author today is Stephen Lazar, a founding teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City, where he teaches Social Studies. A National Board certified teacher, he blogs at Outside the Cave. Stephen is also one of the organizers of Insightful Social Studies, a grass roots campaign of teachers to reform the newly proposed New York State Social Studies standards. The following is Steve’s testimony this morning in front of the Senate HELP committee’s hearing on ESEA reauthorization.

    Sen. Lamar Alexander, Sen. Patty Murray and distinguished members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, it is my honor to testify before you today on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and to share with you the perspective of a classroom teacher on how the ESEA should address the issue of testing and assessment.

    I am a proud New York City public high school teacher. Currently, I teach both English and U.S. history to 11th-grade students at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan, a school I helped found with a group of teachers three years ago. I also serve as our dean of Academic Progress, overseeing our school’s assessment system and supporting student learning schoolwide. My students, who are listening to us now—and who I need to remind to study for their test tomorrow—represent the full diversity of New York City. Over 70 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch; 75 percent are black and/or Latino; 25 percent have special education needs; and the overwhelming majority are immigrants or the children of immigrants.

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  • To Seek Common Ground On Life's Big Questions, We Need Science Literacy

    Written on January 8, 2015

    Our guest author today is Jonathan Garlick, Director of the Division of Cancer Biology and Tissue Engineering at the School of Dental Medicine at Tufts University. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

    Science isn’t important only to scientists or those who profess an interest in it. Whether you find fascinating every new discovery reported or you stopped taking science in school as soon as you could, a base level understanding is crucial for modern citizens to ground their engagement in the national conversation about science-related issues.

    We need to look no further than the Ebola crisis to appreciate the importance of science literacy. A recently elected senator has linked sealing the US-Mexican border with keeping Ebola out of the US, even though the disease is nonexistent in Mexico. Four out of 10 Americans believe there will be a large scale Ebola epidemic here, even though there have been just four cases in the US and only one fatality. Flu, on the other hand, which killed over 100 children here last winter, barely registers in the public consciousness.

    Increasingly we must grapple with highly-charged and politicized science-based issues ranging from infectious diseases and human cloning to reproductive choices and climate change. Yet many – perhaps even the majority – of Americans aren’t sufficiently scientifically literate to make sense of these complicated issues. For instance, on one recent survey of public attitudes and understanding of science and technology, Americans barely got a passing grade, answering only 5.8 out of 9 factual knowledge questions correctly.

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  • The Global Relationship Between Classroom Content And Unequal Educational Outcomes

    Written on July 29, 2014

    Our guest author today is William Schmidt, a University Distinguished Professor and co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University. He is also a member of the Shanker Institute board of directors.

    It is no secret that disadvantaged students are more likely to struggle in school. For decades now, public policy has focused on how to reduce the achievement gap between poorer and more affluent students. Despite numerous reform efforts, these gaps remain virtually unchanged – a fact that is deeply frustrating, and also a little confusing. It would be reasonable to assume that background inequalities would shrink over the years of schooling, but that’s not what we find. At age eighteen, rather, we find differences that are roughly the same size as we see at age six.

    Does this mean that schools can’t effectively address inequality? Certainly not. I devoted a whole book to the subject, Inequality for All, in which I argued that one of the key factors driving inequality in schools is unequal opportunity to learn, or OTL.

    It is very unlikely that students will learn material they are not exposed to, and there is considerable evidence that disadvantaged students are systematically tracked into classrooms with weaker content. Rather than mitigating the effects of poverty, many American schools are exacerbating them.

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