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NCLB Outrages

Backing into State Curriculum

Ohanian Comment:Here's the positive spin on what is happening in Vermont, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire--motivated by NCLB testing requirements. It looks like it will be better than what's happening in Massachusetts, Texas, wherever. But that's not saying a whole lot.

We can be grateful that Julia Steiny points out that a curriculum is not a series of increasingly difficult academic tasks but otherwise she is too gung ho for standards and testing. She seems to believe that students learn what teachers teach and that learning is sequential in a way discernable by testing. I disagree.

I wonder if Ms. Steiny is curious about why people in Marlboro want to opt out of this test.

Many school districts -- across the nation -- do not have a curriculum. Oh, they have sequences of academic tasks -- like the requirement that all eighth graders read To Kill a Mockingbird -- but a sequence is not a curriculum.

Often, a textbook drives the sequence, tacitly promising that if teachers and students just turn the page, the next academic building block is right there. Many teachers appreciate the convenience of plodding through a commercial text. But when using the book does not produce impressive test results, accusing fingers fly, usually in the direction of the students, their families or the teachers, but rarely to the curriculum or lack of it.

Especially with the current interest in strengthening critical thinking skills, textbook-bound curricula can be deadening because they discourage the teacher from thinking deeply, creatively about how to get each student to proficiency.

Furthermore, when you look at test scores -- again, across the nation -- you find that elementary students score the best, whether suburban or urban, and then the scores drop at each level. Middle level is considerably less great and then by high school, United States students are starting to underperform compared with their European and Asian counterparts.

Pundits explain this slippage in various ways, but surely some of it is due to curricula that have not been back mapped from a very specific academic goal so that each year -- starting in kindergarten -- a given skill is introduced, enhanced later on and enhanced again. As the science folks discovered in Project 2061, careful observation and labeling are foundational to all of science and first- graders are more than capable of drawing a plant or microscope and labeling -- with help from the teacher -- the specific parts.

A true curriculum is not a series of increasingly difficult academic tasks, but specific skills built according to what is developmentally appropriate, until a 12th grader has the background, for example, to be an entry-level statistician or to mine texts in different media to research complex issues. In the past, teachers "covered" a canon of material -- the Aztecs, the modern novel, and a set of math skills -- but now teachers need to help every kid meet specific academic standards as measured by the increased amount of K-12 testing we will see in the coming years.

The federal No Child Left Behind legislation mandates that all states test their students in grades three through eight, and once in high school. This law is driving Rhode Island and other states to re-map their academic frameworks to be explicit about the expectations for students -- and teachers -- on a year-by-year basis. Mapping academic expectations is critical to the job of creating these annual tests.

On the one hand, the state must be clear with the districts about what exactly will be tested in each grade level -- or rage and frustration will break out in the land -- and on the other, the state must identify the specific academic building blocks so students are fully prepared to learn each required concept or content. You can't suddenly learn how to interpret statistics. Knowing how to collect data and make accurate graphs, along with years of acquiring math and research skills must already be in place before a student can be comfortable working with statistics.

The back-mapped expectations are in draft form now. Indeed, the state enthusiastically invites your comments on the Rhode Island's Grade Level Expectations, which can be found at the URL cited below. The newly defined expectations are thankfully much less abstract than the old state frameworks, but they are still not for the impatient. The expectations are laid out in strands.

The reading strand includes, for example, sub-strands such as like "Fluency and Accuracy," "Vocabulary" and "Analysis and Interpretation." The documentation shows how individual grade-level skills build each year so that the mega-skill defined by the "strand" can be accomplished. The new state testing program -- being piloted this year -- will determine whether students in fact mastered the expected skills. If not, the school will be able to respond quickly by helping children gain missing building blocks before the next test cycle.

In fact, if we could just ease back from the naming-and-shaming use of testing, the new annual program will give schools much better, quicker and more specific information about children's mastery of the essential building blocks.

Rhode Island's expectations are being created jointly with two other New England states -- New Hampshire and Vermont. Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts were involved in initial discussions about creating a New England common assessment, but both Massachusetts and Connecticut were happy with their testing program and Maine's program is legislatively mandated, so they were not free to switch, though they might come into the project later.

In any case, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island are pooling their resources to develop both the expectations and the tests themselves, called the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP. (A decent communications person would have discouraged them from using that acronym.)

None of the three partner states wanted to narrow their curricula, but all were glad to share the conversation about building specific expectations whose product would be those proficiencies for which business and higher ed have been screaming. Tests will be tied directly to those grade-level expectations, but the documentation also flags important skills that will not be tested that particular year, but which need to be taught then to prepare the kids to learn other, more complicated skills that will be tested in later grades.

Rather than dictate a sequence of academic tasks, the expectations leave it up to the districts and teachers to help their own unique populations reach proficiency in whatever way they deem best. As long as students are legitimately meeting expectations, the state has no business micromanaging how the districts do it.

At the end of the day, this means that the kids in Brattleboro, Vt., Franconia, N.H., and Westerly will all be expected to meet the same proficiency levels. Teachers across those three states will be inventing, enhancing and practicing the best ways to get all sorts of kids to rise to expectation. The states will be able to learn from one another.

Diane Schaeffer, the Department of Education's lead person on the development team, says: "Because people have been sharing ideas across states, you see them getting closer together about what they're using to help children reach certain expectations. But since each population is slightly different, they'll always need to work out how they'll meet the expectations slightly differently."

And in this way a state and regional curriculum will begin to evolve. As the schools and districts work with their populations, studying the feedback from their own tests, those having success can share their tips. As such, district and even school curricula will always be flexible and unique, responsive to the changing needs of students and tailored by the passions of the teachers and the personality of the district. But the spine of each educational strategy will be a common, unifying set of goals.

The more I study it, the more I find it complicated, but reassuring to educators and very promising to families. At least now you can get on line and find out what your kid is supposed to know and be able to do, and when.

The GLEs are large documents, found at http://www.ridoe.net/standards/gle/default.htm

Diane Schaeffer's e-mail is right there. Tell her what you think.

Julia Steiny is a former member of the Providence School Board; she now consults and writes for a number of education, government and private enterprises. She welcomes your questions and comments on education. She can be reached by e-mail at juliasteiny [at] cox.net or c/o Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.

— Julia Steiny
Providence Journal


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