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

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

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.