A More Perfect History

Last week, the College Board released a new version of the AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description. This document, last revised in 2014, outlines the content that should constitute an Advanced Placement American History course. Ideally, students taking this course pass the exam at the end of the year that entitles them to college credit for their achievement.

7522707282_46e00dc43e_zThe United States does not have a national curriculum for American History. The Common Core standards, an effort to unify the curriculum taught in American schools, only cover reading and math. The AP guidelines are the closest thing we have to a national standard for how this subject should be approached in high school.

The new standards come a year after strong opposition to the 2014 version. That revision emphasized comprehension, interpretation , and synthesis of history instead of merely recalling the names and dates of important milestones. Critics claimed that it undermined the idea of American exceptionalism, and fostered a view of American history that is too negative and political. Several states moved to ban the course from being taught in their schools.

In academic circles, we call this shift toward analysis, synthesis, and application an increase in academic rigor. As we continue to move into the age of information abundance, it becomes increasingly important for students to evaluate the information they’re getting, make connections among content from diverse sources, assess bias and frame of reference, and draw their own conclusions. They apply this deeper understanding  of history in new contexts, ostensibly to keep from repeating it.

Unfortunately, some of those conclusions don’t necessarily paint the United States in a positive light. After looking at the facts, one might conclude, for example, that the Boston Tea Party was actually an act of terrorism. Or, maybe, the strained relations between Europeans and native tribes had more to do with the Europeans dismissing them as savages, taking and destroying their resources, and constantly breaking treaties than with the natives acting unreasonably hostile toward white settlers. It’s quite possible that rounding up Japanese Americans, most of whom were United States citizens, and locking them up in interment camps after confiscating their homes and property was a heinous violation of their civil and human rights. One might conclude that detaining 780 people in the aftermath of 9/11 without charge or trial, and then systematically torturing them  over the course of a decade poses a stark contrast to the certain inalienable rights endowed to them by their creator.

Fortunately, the new version of the course re-instills those patriotic American ideals that make our citizens believe that this is the greatest country in the history of the world. Our nation is founded on the ideals of liberty, citizenship, and self-governance. Just don’t get too caught up in that definition of “liberty,” and be careful about that “self-governance” thing if you’re black or female or poor. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson are fearless leaders to be revered, and have more than earned their places on our currency. Let’s set aside Washington’s blundering that would have lost the revolutionary war if the French hadn’t conveniently saved the day, Franklin’s inability to keep his hands to himself, and Jefferson’s substantial bi-racial posterity. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution should be revered as sacred documents, unless you take that bit about being created equal too seriously, or unless the unelected Supreme Court issues a ruling you don’t agree with. We were certainly the determining factors in ending both world wars, and the U.S. is the only country who realized that the cold war could be ended by simply telling Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Let’s conveniently omit the fact that the United States, 70 years later, is still the only country to have actually used a nuclear weapon. Don’t get too caught up in the details. We’re awesome, and we know it.

A generation ago, I took this AP American History course. We skipped most of the dates and facts. The textbook spent most of the year in the bottom of my locker. The units focused on essential questions that were primarily answered through the examination of primary sources. We learned to interpret history for ourselves. We learned to assess bias. We learned about different kinds of oral and written accounts, and how to determine why they were created, by whom, and when. One of the units focused on the cause of the civil war. Slavery was a contributing factor. But it wasn’t the only factor, and it probably wasn’t the driving force. Slavery as a human rights issue was certainly not as important as slavery as an economic issue. But we didn’t blindly read an over-processed, committee-driven, negotiated account in a textbook about why there was a civil war. We explored the topic ourselves.

We didn’t cover most of the course. We glossed over almost all of the dates and names. I don’t think the teacher was overly concerned with our exam scores. In fact, we didn’t have any assessments or grading at all, apart from the final exam. We were intrinsically motivated, and the subject was made interesting by the approach taken by the teacher. It was certainly a time before high-stakes accountability.

I scored well enough to earn six college credits and was exempted from taking Western Civilization as a college Freshman. I don’t remember much about the exam, except that in the essay, I argued that affirmative action programs were discriminatory. I’m pretty sure I criticized Lincoln in the same essay.

I love my country. There’s video and photos all over the Internet of me waving flags and singing patriotic songs. I know most of the words to the Pledge of Allegiance (even though I think it’s a really creepy nod to fascism). I sing the words to the Armed Forces Medley and Stars and Stripes Forever every time I hear them. But I think our country can be better. There’s lots of room for improvement. And we don’t get better by ignoring the inconvenient misdeeds of our past.  Our students need to study all of American history, not just the parts that make us look good. They need to draw conclusions, identify and acknowledge misdeeds, and resolve to prevent their leaders from walking down those same paths.

Maybe that’s what the critics are afraid of.


Are We There Yet?

I’m a believer in personal learning networks. I’ve often said that I have learned far more from my colleagues than I have from any graduate course or workshop or conference. I’ve connected with people from all over the world, exchanging ideas, debating instructional approaches, and uniting in finding the best ways to leverage technology to improve learning and best meet students’ evolving needs.

map-29903_1280The technologies have evolved over the years. Online bulletin boards and usenet made way for web-based discussion boards and email lists. Blogs and wikis made it easy for anyone to post ideas online, and podcasts, Skype and Google Plus made it easy to connect with audio and video. The move to mobile and the integration of social networking tools have made connecting a friction-less part of life. It’s easier, sometimes, to use these tools to message the people in my own home than it is to go upstairs and find them. At the same time, these tools have made it easy to blend my social networks with my professional learning networks. Everything is in the same place.

At professional conferences, I’ve increasingly moved away from the the pre-planned presentations, in which a speaker talks about a topic for an hour, in favor of more interactive sessions that are more improvised and targeted to meet the needs of the people in the room. For me, this trend began with Educon several years ago, and has continued through the EdCamp movement and the unconference components of the Ohio Educational Technology Conference, OETCx. I think the exchange of ideas on that informal level is just as valuable, and perhaps more authentic, than the sessions that have an “expert” doing all the talking.

At the same time, though, I’ve noticed that I’ve been increasingly disengaged in the last couple years. I’m still writing here (at least once a month), and I get good feedback about the ideas I share. But I’m really not reading a lot of blogs anymore, and I’m not reading any on a regular basis. I’m listening to a lot of podcasts, but most are not directly related to technology or education. I check in with twitter occasionally, and find an occasional resource or perspective being shared that’s new. But for the most part, it’s the same things over and over again. Testing is killing American schools. We have to do a better job of teaching students to think critically. Common core sucks (except when it doesn’t). Everyone’s attacking education and teachers, and no one is doing anything about it. Politicians haven’t got a clue. Yeah. I’ve heard all that.

Learning must be student-focused. We have to meet the individual needs of every student. Differentiate by adjusting rigor. Assessment should inform (formative) and reflect (summative) learning. Evidence of learning happens in more ways than just test performance. Learning must be relevant to the student. It has to be active. Insert your favorite John Dewey quote here.

None of this excites me, because it’s not very groundbreaking. I have to use that word carefully. I’ve been twice accused of killing podcasts by claiming that they’re not adding value to the global conversation.  But I’m more likely to jump into Facebook these days, which I’ve curated to be entirely social, than I am to check Twitter (which is mostly professional). The same people are talking about the same things they’ve been talking about for the past decade.

A couple years ago, I tried to lead a conference session on moving the conversation into practice. We all have great ideas on what education should be, but sadly that vision is not fully realized in very many schools. Even in my own school district, where we have vertiable edtech rock stars, there’s a lot of disagreement about how to best put these ideas into practice. The session was quickly derailed and devolved into a weird mix of “Pearson is evil,” and “we have to protect our kids online.” I was embarrassed that we couldn’t get further than that.

The more I think about it, though, the more I see the edtech conversation as a weird combination of candy and Jaeger shots. The retweets from conferences are the ones that are witty and shallow. Find the 12-word sound byte, and you’ll be popular. It doesn’t matter if you say something new, as long as you’re clever about it. I think I’m ready to have a salad or a pint of ale or a grande cafe con leche. Let’s  dig a little deeper and spend a little more time.

Coursera keeps telling me that it has suggestions for me. Maybe I should take them. Or perhaps I should be engaging with fewer people on a deeper level. Tools like Slack and Viber make it easier to organize small teams. Maybe that makes sense for collaborative learning projects with more  specific goals in mind.

We know that the success of learning is largely dependent on setting goals ahead of time, and then demonstrating that progress has been made toward reaching that goals. At this point, though, I’m not sure that “continued professional growth” is a sufficient goal. I need to be more specific about what I want from my learning network, and curate  the network to meet that goal.

Image source: Pixabay.

Why Middle School Sucks

This is a FRED Talk I’m giving at OETCx this week. OETCx is the unconference component of the Ohio Educational Technology Conference. The idea with this presentation is that it’s a five minute presentation with 20 slides, automatically advancing every 15 seconds.


My name is John Schinker. I’m the Director of Technology for Brecksville-Broadview Heights Schools in Cuyahoga County. The school district I work in is not the same as the one I live in. That’ll be important in a minute.


This is my daughter, Emily, on her first day of first grade. Like most first graders, Emily was excited about school, and would do anything to please her teacher. She brought home her language arts book the first week, read the whole thing in one night, and took it back and asked for the next one the next day.


Emily’s enthusiasm for school persisted throughout elementary school. She wasn’t a genius (she does have some of her mom’s genes, after all), but she truly enjoyed learning. But that changed when she got to fifth grade.


In fifth grade she went to Intermediate School. Her classroom was not unlike this one, and her teachers’ pedagogy was very similar as well. The teacher was the source of all information, and the students’ job was to absorb knowledge.


The school’s focus was on preparing students to take the Ohio Achievement Assessments. They systematically covered the curriculum, mostly by completing worksheets. The school wanted to make sure that every kid passed the test.


In sixth grade, the OAA became the “super bowl.” That metaphor was used all year, and they counted down the days until the test. Nothing was going to get in the way. The students were going to be ready to excel on the test.


Emily saw that this was a game, and she lost interest in playing. She was reading at a 10th grade level, and her math scores were off the chart. She could easily have passed the OAA on the first day of school, and yet spent the entire year preparing for the test.


The school identified her as gifted, but in her school, “gifted” kids participated in a pull out program that gave them MORE worksheets and projects to do in addition to the classroom work that had to be made up during the pullout period. We opted out of the program.


As she finished sixth grade, we realized that middle school was going to be more of the same. There was little differentiation for students above the mean, and all of the passion for learning was being systematically expunged from the students. We looked for alternatives, finally settling on an online charter.


The online charter wasn’t any better academically. It was still totally focused on getting kids to pass the tests. But at least she could do school at her own pace. In two years, she completed three years of English and three years of math. She also had time for six hours of art per week in addition to music classes and world language. In her spare time, she wrote a novel.


Before we go on, we need to do a really quick review of standard deviation. I know you’ve all seen this before. Just humor me for half a minute. Standard deviation tells us how closely data is clustered.


With a small standard deviation, all of the data is pretty close together. With a larger standard deviation, the data is more spread out. If these are students, the ones on the left all performed similarly on the test, while the ones on the right were all over the place.


I looked at the 2014 data for the OAA math test, and this is the standard deviation of the scaled scores. See what happens? As students move from 3rd to 6th grades, they get further apart from one another. Then, after sixth grade, they get closer together. That’s because schools focus intense intervention on the students who are doing poorly, while virtually ignoring those who have already passed the test.


I thought this might be an anomaly, so I looked at some other years. They all follow the same trend. The kids get further and further apart in math until they hit middle school. Then, we work really hard to get them all back together.


What about reading? In language arts, the same thing happens, but it happens earlier. This makes sense. Schools focus on reading FIRST. Then, when the kids are all passing the reading test (6th grade), they focus on math scores.


The problem with this is that teaching to the middle doesn’t work in middle school. Essentially, this data is showing that there is no middle. The kids are all over the place. So most of the kids are either bored out of their minds or totally lost most of the time.


We need a better model for differentiating in the middle school. Academic rigor is one way to do that. Don’t give MORE work to those who understand the basics. Give them better things to do with that knowledge. Similarly, struggling students may move DOWN Bloom’s taxonomy, not to focus on LESS content, but to engage in it in a different way.


There are lots of other models as well. Blended learning and adaptive learning offer different tools for extending and differentiating that allow the teacher to spend more individual and small-group time with the students who need it. Response to Intervention is a way to apply proven intervention strategies in a consistent way. But regardless of the strategy we use, we have to do something.


This is Emily on the first day of 10th grade. She’s in Junior honors English, advanced math, and honors Chemistry. She still takes every art class she can. High School can differentiate a lot better than middle school, and she’s back to loving school again. But it was a rough few years. Middle school sucked.