Tag Archives: Common Core

Talking about Talking (Part II)


It’s our job

Teaching students to deliberate about issues that are in dispute is a professional responsibility for all secondary social studies teachers and all for all elementary school teachers in New York. This is not only a moral and patriotic imperative; it is explicitly stated educational policy.

New York State Social Studies Standards are divided into five strands. Standards 1 through 4 deal with the History of the United States & New York, World History, Geography, and Economics. Standard Five is called Civics, Citizenship and Government. An important link between our deliberative political nature and the New York State Social Studies Standards is found in Standard Five and particularly in a section known as “Key Idea 4” of Standard Five.

Table 1 is a modification of information tabulated by the New York State Department of Education (NYSED). Many of these indicators are touched on in Grade 12 Participation in Government classes, though there is no standardized assessment in Participation in Government as is found in Global History and United States History & Government. Current State exams tend to measure recall of subject matter and specific reasoning and interpreting skills. Tolerance, civic mindedness and informed participation in reasoned discourse, however, are not so conveniently measured. Nonetheless, when one studies these indicators, one notes a strong implication that schools should be using deliberation to teach tolerance and collaboration and that “participation” is demonstrated by proposing, negotiating, compromising, and defining. Indeed, students should be practicing these skills in order to “develop and refine participatory skills.

Table 1: New York State Indicators of Civic Engagement

Key Idea 4: The study of civics and citizenship requires the ability to probe ideas and assumptions, ask and answer analytical questions, take a skeptical attitude toward questionable arguments, evaluate evidence, formulate rational conclusions, and develop and refine participatory skills
• show a willingness to consider other points of view before drawing conclusions or making judgments

• participate in activities that focus on a classroom, school, or community issue or problem

• suggest alternative solutions or courses of action to hypothetical or historic problems

• evaluate the consequences for each alternative solution or course of action

• prioritize the solutions based on established criteria

• propose an action plan to address the issue of how to solve the problem
• respect the rights of others in discussions and classroom debates regardless of whether or not one agrees with their viewpoint

• explain the role that civility plays in promoting effective citizenship in preserving democracy

• participate in negotiation and compromise to resolve classroom, school, and community disagreements and problems
• participate as informed citizens in the political justice system and processes of the United States, including voting

• evaluate, take, and defend positions on what the fundamental values and principles of American political life are and their importance to the maintenance of constitutional democracy (Adapted from The National Standards for Civics and Government, 1994)

• take, defend, and evaluate positions about attitudes that facilitate thoughtful and effective participation in public affairs

• consider the need to respect the rights of others, to respect others’ points of view (Adapted from The National Standards for Civics and Government, 1996)

• participate in school/classroom/ community activities that focus on an issue or problem

• prepare a plan of action that defines an issue or problem, suggests alternative solutions or courses of action, evaluates the consequences for each alternative solution or course of action, prioritizes the solutions based on established criteria, and proposes an action plan to address the issue or to resolve the problem

• explain how democratic principles have been used in resolving an issue or problem

Source: http://www.emsc.nysed.gov/ciai/socst/socstands/socstand.html

The recently adopted New York State Social Studies Framework doubles down on these underlying Standards. Among the six Social Studies Practices included therein is “Civic Participation.” Indicators for this practice include persuading, debating, negotiating and compromising in the resolution of conflicts and differences.

Common Core ELA Standards further demonstrate the professional responsibility of all teachers to prepare students for deliberation with their fellow citizens. While this is a K-12 obligation, commencement standards make clear that we want to graduate students who are able to

Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.

and to

Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when possible…

All of these imperatives are premised on the presumption that, through deliberation, it is possible to find consensus, to discover some previously unthought-of understanding or some higher value that transcends the positions that seemingly divide us. Obviously it would be easier to achieve these educational aims, to be successful at one’s job, if one shared this presumption. Consider it a self-evident truth.

Educators should acknowledge that characteristics of civic engagement, including the ability and willingness to deliberate about issues that are in dispute, are unequally distributed among students and that they are influenced by extracurricular factors such as race, sex, and parental attentiveness to civic issues.  The fact that some students are less informed, tolerant or comfortable with conflict over important public questions does not absolve us of our responsibility to help them meet learning standards. Besides, democracy is better served when these inequalities are ameliorated and public schools are well suited to address them.

More on that last bit in Part III.


Bill Gates and the Global History Regents Exam (Part 1)

That the August 2014 Global History & Geography Regents exam included an item extolling Bill Gates’ contributions in the “war” on disease and poverty is not, in itself, evidence of a plutocratic conspiracy. Nonetheless, it does make one wonder about the mindset of those who created the assessment.  It also highlights problems with the current design of the New York State Regents exams in social studies.

Let’s look at the question in question. It includes a four paragraph passage in a text-box:

…Millions of children in developing nations die from diseases like pneumonia, measles and diarrhea that claim twice as many lives annually as AIDS. Vaccines prevent these basic illnesses. Bill Gates pledges billions of dollars to vaccinate the world’s children. Problem solved. But it’s not that easy.

Money alone won’t rid dirty water of parasites that can blind and cripple. It won’t fix bad roads that keep people from getting care. It won’t end the political corruption and violent unrest that erase health advances. It won’t stop a population explosion that contributes to poor health. It can’t even prevent a rat from gnawing through the power cord of a refrigerator used to store vaccines in a remote West African clinic.

In late 1998, Gates donated $100 million to create a program dedicated to getting new and underused vaccines to children in the poorest countries. A year later he gave a stunning $750 million to launch a new superstructure for improving childhood vaccinations, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) – a coalition of international public health agencies, philanthropies, therapists and the pharmaceutical industry….

Gates knows vaccines can’t do it all, not when a regional hospital in Nigeria draws its water from an open pit in the ground. Or where a 6-year-old Ivory Coast boy with a leg twisted by polio faces a life of begging because his mother couldn’t afford a trip to a clinic for vaccines. Or where a broken board on a bridge can halt the shipment of medicine for days….

Source: Tom Paulson, “Bill Gates’ war on disease, poverty is an uphill battle,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 21, 2001

The passage is one of ten documents included in the Document-Based Question (DBQ) on the exam. As such, it is intended to be used among other documents in writing an essay about how global issues (including disease) affect children and how individuals, groups and governments have attempted to address those issues.

The passage includes several features of Gate’s approach to world health:

  • That pharmaceutical solutions such as vaccinations are essential for improving health in the developing world
  • That the developing world is overpopulated
  • That a western-led coalition of private philanthropies, the pharmaceutical industry and government agencies should fashion the way health care is administered in the developing world

The inclusion on a State test of a passage praising one of the most wealthy and powerful men in history, who is doing more than anyone alive to shape the unfolding changes in the American educational order, including widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), need not be a problem. Indeed, the CCSS, the 2014 New York State Social Studies Framework and the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards all make it clear that students need to be closely and critically reading such non-fiction texts, framing questions about those texts, comparing them with other texts and accessing prior knowledge to see how the content of those texts helps illustrate enduring themes. But it is a problem that the Regents exams still don’t include essay questions that ask students to demonstrate these skills.

The Constructed-Response portion of the DBQ asks two low-level reading questions to which most students can easily find the answer:

5a. According to Tom Paulson, what is one situation that makes it difficult to reduce childhood diseases in developing nations?


5b. According to Tom Paulson, what is one way money donated by Bill Gates has been used to reduce childhood diseases in developing nations?

Thus, the Constructed-Response portion of the test, intended to set students up for a more complex writing task, does not guide students toward any consideration of how bias, context or audience might shape the point of view expressed in the passage or how one perspective on Bill Gates’ approach to global health care might be compared with other perspectives. Moreover the overall essay question, for which the instant passage might provide supporting details, does not ask students to evaluate the document at all. Rather, students are asked to use information in at least five of the ten documents in order to “discuss how governments, groups, and/or individuals have attempted to reduce the effects of two global issues on children.” For the purposes of the task, the information in the Bill Gates passage can merely be taken at face value. A man as influential and important as Gates ought to be subject to a little more scrutiny.

The ironic flaw in the question lies in its failure to ask students to demonstrate those analytic skills delineated in the CCSS to which Gates lent his incredible wealth and political support. One educational effect of this is to teach students to uncritically accept that Bill Gates understands what needs to be done to help save children in the developing world. Another effect is to hinder the efforts of educators working to promote the instructional shifts demanded by the latest national and state standards in social studies among other subjects.


Common ground among diverse thinkers

In the 1990s I taught social studies at a Long Island high school whose faculty had voted to join Theodore Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools (CES).  Through that association I became more deeply familiar with the work of Mortimer Adler and the Paideia group. Sizer had been a member of Adler’s group in the 1980s and now Adler was working with the CES. Both Sizer and Adler subscribed to a “less is more” approach to education, both, as I recall, were opposed to ability-group tracking of students, both believed that an important part of a rich education would have to include lengthy discussions of important texts in Socratic seminars. At the time it did not occur to me that Sizer, a committed disciple of John Dewey; and Adler, a neo-Thomist, must have had some profoundly different ideas about truth, human nature, and intellect. As a practical matter, it did not seem to make a difference.

Schooling in America occurs against a backdrop of theoretical debates about the ends and means of education, the impact of which, with respect to what really happens in classrooms, is usually indirect. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing and sometimes even holding contradictory notions about pedagogy. For much of my career, John Dewey and followers including Jean Piaget and Howard Gardner were  frequently cited theorists among those who fancied themselves “reformers.” Nonetheless, while Dewey’s Pragmatism and the various forms of “constructivism” have dominated academic writing and discussion about education, I have also been attracted to another set of educators who, at heart, are quite opposed to Pragmatist principles and sometimes, but not always, to the pedagogy of Dewey’s disciples.

In addition to Adler, for example, I’ve been influenced by the early twentieth century writings of Jacques Maritain and even Allan Bloom. I take E.D. Hirsh seriously and back in the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s I found his empirical research more persuasive than say, Gardner’s. While I’m convinced that students must discover knowledge through their own agency and that teachers must create circumstances wherein students can achieve their own insights, I wince a little when friends say students must “make meaning” for themselves. I make it a point to say that students discern meaning or grow closer to the truth, and I avoid relativistic expressions. Some things are more worth knowing than others and truth can’t always be a matter of perspective. Mortimer Adler believed this. Nonetheless, Adler dedicated his 1982 Paideia Proposal to John Dewey.

As a teacher and as a school administrator my workaday world has not much challenged me to untangle any inconsistencies among these thinkers. But as I follow and participate in the discussion of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), questions about how we learn, about the ends of education and about the implications of fundamental principles have got me thinking about some of the (apparent) contradictions in my own thinking. I’ve also been wondering how influential educational leaders of opposing philosophies have come to be supporters of the CCSS. Indeed, Common Core opponents also include some strange bedfellows. The impact that the CCSS initiative is having on teaching and the management of schools makes it one the most significant educational initiatives in American history. The connection between educational philosophy and the actual conditions in which we teach and learn may be growing more important.

I’ve been among those who have been cautiously supportive of the CCSS while opposing the baggage that comes with it. Smarter people than me have already written of the problems that accompany the new testing regime, value-added evaluation of teachers, the corrupt connections between moneyed elites and decision makers in State and Federal governments. Some of those people have come to believe that it is impossible to separate the CCSS from the baggage.

Reflecting on a few areas of consensus among those educators who shaped my thinking in the early part of my career, I’m reminded of the famous line from Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” In spite of some profound differences, Dewey, Sizer, Adler and even Maritain were all democrats and republicans. Their epistemologies and their pedagogies did not always agree, but they all believed that an end of education was protecting democracy and human rights; rights grounded in the inherent dignity of every individual. In the next few posts, I hope to take a closer look at the philosophical ties that bind some of these educators of old, and then to look at what the CCSS say and what those with the power to implement them are doing with respect to those common principles.