First Person

The new social studies framework: deeper, yet still limits learning

When the state released a draft of the high school social studies framework last year, a group of social studies teachers I’m part of responded calling for revisions that build in more room for inquiry, depth, and choice.

I feared that the new framework would, like the old one, pressure my classroom to be places where trivial memorization trumped the higher level thinking, research, and writing skills we know our students need to develop to be ready for the next phases of their lives as citizens and college students.

A new draft of a Social Studies Framework, though far from what I hoped for, makes large steps towards our demand for inquiry, small ones towards choice, and some (mostly rhetorical) nods towards depth.

Since a deep revision seems unlikely now, I instead want to highlight some of the places where the latest framework supports good teaching in my classroom and others; point towards other places where meaningful improvements are possible; and lastly, begin to think about how a revised Regents exam could allow for students to experience inquiry, depth, and choice even if the framework doesn’t change.

Moves towards inquiry and choice

Within the content specifications, there are a number of places where the new framework encourages deeper thinking by juxtaposing historical events that together complicate cartoony narratives.

For example, when the framework asks that students consider “the Irish Potato famine within the context of the British agricultural revolution and the Industrial Revolution,” it is exactly the type of counter example I present to student to complicate the dominant narrative of progress typically associated with the time period. Similarly, a pairing of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Reaganomics is one I have used in U.S. history class to not only demand higher level thinking, but also to help students understand a fundamental division in U.S. politics today.

And while there are still examples of the interpretive work of history being done for students, as was the dominant case in the previous framework, this revision does a much better job of leaving the interpretive work up to students. A statement like, “Students will examine the growth of industries under the leadership of businessmen such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Ford and analyze their business practices and organizational structures, from multiple perspectives” perfectly captures the approach I take, where it’s up to students to ultimately determine whether these people were good for the country.

All three of these examples, and similar ones throughout the framework, are likely to encourage the type of sophisticated thinking we want for our students, and required by the Common Core.

Breadth at the cost of understanding and skill development

However, the framework’s overwhelming breadth of content will stand in the way of two of its expressely stated goals: pushing students to deeply explore the material and develop the research and writing skills dictated by the Common Core and the National Council on Social Studies’s C3 framework (of which I enthusiastically approve).

That’s why we responded to the hundreds of content specifications in the original draft with a demand for choice. And there are some places in the revised framework where we feel we have been heard.  For example, the framework lists a number of 20th-century social movements, including LGBT, Native American, and feminist movements, and states that “students will deeply investigate at least one of the efforts above.”

This is the type of option I give to my students, so they have the opportunity to attain a deep understanding of movements that interest them, and to practice their research skills, while still becoming familiar with others as they listen to class presentations. I would like the social studies framework to build in more of these kinds of options.

Take the example of a key idea in the ninth-grade standards, which demands that students understand that “Classical civilizations … employed a variety of methods to expand and maintain control over vast territories.”

If the primary goal is this understanding, I can get students to that point by doing two case studies, perhaps of Rome and the Mayans. However, the “conceptual understanding” tied to that “key idea” says that “Students will examine the location and relative size of classical political entities (Greece, Gupta, Han, Maurya, Maya, Qin, Rome).”

Which is more important here?  Is it the key idea, which could be accomplished by in-depth case studies of two civilizations? Or will it be the conceptual understanding, which demands students be vaguely familiar with seven different civilizations? Given the number of understandings we’re supposed to make sure students reach, only a class period or two can be devoted to this one.

In my opinion, spending one period each on two civilizations is a better use of my students’ time than 11 minutes each on seven. If I were to do the latter, none of my students would remember anything about the civilizations, let alone get to the deeper understanding about maintaining control over territory.

How a revised Regents exam could help

I hope the final framework will give school communities more choice about content so students have the chance to learn material in depth. But I recognize that the committee responsible for the framework faces demands for specific content from many different stakeholders. So I want to end by considering how revising the Regents exam for global studies and U.S. history could mitigate the effects of the long lists of content the framework includes.

The current Regents exam emphasizes memorization of trivial surface knowledge in its 50 multiple-choice questions, basic reading in its document-based essay, and discussion of some knowledge in its thematic essay.  None of these capture the work historians or citizens do with historical knowledge, nor do the results tell me much about whether my students have the skills needed to be successful in future endeavors.

Both the recently revised U.S. History Advanced Placement exam and the International Baccalaureate test show that choice is possible within a highly rigorous and respected course. It is my hope that the new Regents exam will take a path  between these two widely respected exams, where the emphasis is on historical thinking and 21st-century reading, writing, and research skills.

By eliminating endless multiple-choice questions that prioritize students’ ability to recall facts from a vast vault of superficial knowledge, a new exam could assuage my concern about the adoption of a new curriculum that continues to make social studies a discipline where knowledge is an inch deep and a mile wide. My students deserve a social studies education that prepares them to participate insightfully in our world.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.