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 we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.