Tag Archives: high school curriculum

Teacher Federalism

A year or so ago, our school’s upper level math teachers met to define curriculum requirements for algebra two.

I’d been dreading this day for several weeks, since we agreed on the date.  I teach far fewer Algebra 2 topics than the other teachers. Prioritizing depth over breadth has not made me terribly popular with the upper math teachers–who of course would dispute my characterization of their teaching. There were three of them, plus two math department leaders who’d take their side. I’d be all alone playing opposition.

Only two possible outcomes for this meeting. I could, well, lie. Sign off on an agreed curriculum without any intention of adhering to my commitment. Or I could refuse to lie and just and fight the very idea of standardization The good news, I thought, was that the outcome would be my choice.

Then the choice was taken away from me.

Steve came into my room beforehand. Steve is the member of the upper math group I’m most friendly with, which means we are, well, warily amicable. Very different characters, are we. If you’re familiar with Myers-Briggs, Steve is all J and I’m as P as P can be.  But  over the years we realized that while our approaches and philosophies are polar opposites, we are both idiosyncratic and original in our curriculum, more alike than we’d imagined. He was interested by my approach to quadratics and his approach to transformations is on my list of innovations to try.

So Steve tiptoed into my room ahead of time and told me he wanted the meeting to be productive. I went from 0 to 95 in a nanosecond, ready to snap his head off, refusing to be held responsible for our departmental tensions, but he called for peace. He said it again. He wanted this meeting to be productive.

I looked, as they say, askance. He asked me if I would be willing to settle for good, not perfect. I said absolutely. He asked me to trust him. I shrugged, and promised to follow his lead.

For reasons I won’t go into, no one expected Steve to run the meeting. But in the first five minutes, Steve spoke up. He said he wanted the meeting to be productive. He didn’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

We all wanted what was best for our students, he said. We all thought we knew what was best for our students. But we had very different methods of working. If we tried to agree on a curriculum, we’d fail. Eventually, someone in power, probably at the district, would notice, and then that someone might make the decision for us.

So rather than try to force us all to commit to teaching the same thing, why not agree on the topics we all agreed were essential, “need to know”?  Could we put together a list of these topics that we’d all commit to teach? If it’s not on the list, it’s not a required element of the curriculum. If it was on the list, all teachers would cover the topic. We’d build some simple, easily generated common assessments for these essential topics. As we covered these topics–and timing was under our control–we’d give the students the assessment and collect the data. We could review the data, discuss results, do all the professional collaboration the suits wanted.

If we agreed to this list, we would all know what’s expected. All of us had to agree before a topic went on the “need to know” list. No teacher could complain if an optional topic wasn’t covered.

I remember clearly putting on my glasses (which I normally don’t wear) so that I could see Steve’s face. Was he serious? He saw my face, and nodded.

Well. OK, then.

Steve’s terms gave me veto power over the “need to know” list.

Wing and Benny were dubious. What if they wanted to teach more?

As requested, I backed Steve’s play.  “We could make it a sort of teacher federalism. The “Need to know” list is like the central government.  But outside these agreed-upon tenets, each individual teacher state gets complete autonomy. We can teach topics that aren’t on the list.”

“Exactly,” Steve added. “The only thing is, we can’t expect other teachers to cover things that aren’t on the list.”

In other words, Steve was clearly signaling, no more bitching about what Ed doesn’t cover.

We agreed to try building the list, see if the results were acceptable. In under an hour, we all realized that this approach would work. We had 60-80% undisputed agreement. At the same time, Wing and Benny had realized the implications of the unanimous agreement requirement. A dozen or more items (under topics) the other three teachers initially labeled eessential) were dropped from the “need to know” list at my steadfast refusal to include them.  Steve backed me, as promised.

While all three raised their eyebrows at some of the topics downgraded to the “nice to have” list, they all listened carefully to my arguments. It wasn’t just “Ed no like.” As the day went on, I was able to articulate my standard–first to myself, then to them:

  1. we all agreed that students had to come out of Algebra 2 with an indisputably strong understanding of lines.
  2. We routinely have pre-calc students who need to review linear equations. In fact, I told them, this realization was what led me to dial back algebra 2 coverage.
  3. Non-honors students were at least a year away from taking precalc, which was where they would next need the debated skills. If some of our students weren’t remembering lines after three years of intense study, how would they easily remember the finer points of rational expressions or circle equations, introduced in a couple weeks?
  4. This called for limiting new topics to a handful. One or two in depth, a few more introduced.
  5. Our ability to introduce new topics in Algebra 2 was gated by the weak linear knowledge our students began with. If we could convince geometry teachers to dramatically boost linear equations coverage, then we could reduce the time spent on linear equations in algebra 2.

Once I was able to define this criteria, the others realized they agreed with every point. Geometry priorities were a essential discusison point, but outside the scope of this meeting and a much longer term goal. That left all debate about point 4–how much new stuff? How much depth?

This reasoning convinced them I wasn’t a lightweight, and they all knew that my low failure rate was extremely popular with the administrators. So they bought in to my criteria, and were able to debate point 4 issues amicably, without loaded sarcasm.

I knew I needed to give on topics. At the same time I was shooting down topics, I was frantically running through the curriculum mentally, coming up with topics that made sense to add to my own curriculum, making  concessions accordingly.

The other teachers looked at the bright side: I’d be the only one changing my curriculum. Every addition I agreed to had to be carefully incorporated into my already crowded Algebra 2 schedule. I did have some suggested additions (a more thorough job on functions, say), but none of mine made the cut. The other teachers’ courses were entirely unaffected by our “need to know” list.

At the end of the day, we were all somewhat astonished. We had a list. We all agreed that the list was tight, that nothing on the “like to know” or “nice to have” list was unreasonably downgraded. I want to keep this reasonably non-specific, because the issues apply to any subject, but for the curious: rational expressions were the most debated topic, and the area where I made the most concessions.  They covered addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, graphing. We settled on introduction, graphing of parent reciprocal function and transformations, multiplication and division. Factoring was another area of dispute: binomial, of course, but I pushed back on factoring by groups and sum/difference of cubes. We agreed that exponential functions, logarithms and inverses must be covered in some depth, enough so the strongest kids will have a memory.

“What about grades?” Benny asked. “I don’t want to grade kids just on the need to know list.”

“But that’s not fair,” I objected. “Would you flunk kids who learned everything on the need to know list?”

“Absolutely,” Wing nodded.

I was about to argue, when Steve said “Look, we will never agree on grading.”

“Crap. You’re right.” I dropped the subject.

In a justly ordered world, songs would be sung about “That Day”, as we usually call it. Simply agreeing to a federalist approach represented an achievement of moon walk proportions. Then we actually built a list and lived by it, continually referring to it without the desire to revisit the epic treaty. Stupendous.

I  didn’t write about the agreement then because I worried the agreement would be ignored, or that other senior math folk would demand we revisit. Instead, our construction of the  “Need to Know” list shifted the power base in the math department in interesting ways.   Our point man on these discussions did indeed express displeasure with the Need to Know list. It’s too limited. He wants more material on it. He expected us to comply.

Wing, Benny, and Steve could have easily blamed me for the limits. “Oh, that’s Ed’s doing. We all want more on the list.” Instead, upper math folk presented an instantly united front and pushed back on incursion.  No. This works for us. We don’t want to break the agreement. We like the new productivity of our meetings. Team cohesion is better. Wing and Ben still think I’m a weak tea excuse for a math teacher, but they understand what we’ve achieved. With this unity, we are less vulnerable.

In short, we’ve formed our own power base.  As I’m sure you can guess, Steve is the defacto leader of our group, but he gained that status not by fiat, but by figuring out an approach to handle me that the others could live with. No small achievement, that.

Will it last? Who knows? Does anything? It’s nice to watch it work for the moment. I’ll take that as a win.

We’ve used that agreement to build out other “need to know” lists for pre-calc and trigonometry. They aren’t as certain yet, but Algebra 2 was the big one.  Worth the work it took to update my curriculum.

Our teacher version of federalism has allowed us to forge ahead on professional practices, lapping the lower level crew several times. In fact, on several department initiatives, the upper math department has made more progress than any other subject group, something that was duly noted when hot shot visitors dropped in on our department meeting. The other groups are trying to reach One Perfect Curriculum.

I’m not good at describing group dynamics unless it’s in conversational narrative. But I wanted to describe the agreement for a couple reasons.

First, some subject departments  operate in happy lockstep. But many, even most, high school math departments across the country would recognize the tensions I describe here. .  I recommend teacher federalism as an approach. Yes, our agreement may be as short-lived as some “universal curriculum” agreements. But the agreement and the topics list are much easier to agree to, and considerably more flexible. I’ve seen and heard of countless initiatives to create a uniform curriculum that foundered after months of work that was utterly wasted. Our group has had a year of unity. Even if it falls apart next year, that year of unity was purchased with a day’s work. That’s a great trade.

But in a broader reform sense,   consider that none of the four teachers in this story use books to teach algebra 2. Not only don’t they agree on curriculum, but they don’t use the same book. Some, like me, build from scratch. Others use several books as needed.  Our epic agreement doesn’t fundamentally change anyone’s teaching or grading. We simply agreed to operate as a team with a given set of baselines.  Noitce the words “Common Core” as the federal government (or state, your pick) defines it never made an appearance. It was simply not a factor in our consideration.

Does this give some small hint how utterly out of touch education policy is? How absurd it is to talk about “researching teacher practice”, much less changing it? I hope so.


Education Policy Proposal #2: Stop Kneecapping High Schools

Continuing onto the second of my education policy proposals for the upcoming presidential election, I offer up the one nearest to my heart.

Our national education policy has led to an absurd paradox: colleges charge students full freight tuition for a suite of remedial classes that high schools are effectively banned from offering for free.

The ban is most noticeable in math. Some examples: In 1997, Chicago Public Schools wanted all freshmen to take algebra, so all remedial and pre-algebra classes were dumped., giving students and their counsellors no other options. A decade ago, Madison, Wisconsin did the same thing. California effectively banned pre-algebra in high school by docking test scores of students who weren’t taking algebra in 8th grade (drop one score category) or, god forbid, 9th grade (drop two score categories).

City after city, state by state, schools took away the “easy” math options: business math, consumer math, general math. At the same time math credits required for graduation became more difficult. Many state diploma requirements specify three years of math ending in algebra 2, which means the student must get a passing grade in algebra 1 by sophomore year. Some states just indicate “3 years of math” but a close read of the fine print shows that pre-algebra doesn’t count as a credit, but only as an elective (e.g., NYC, Ohio)

It’s less discussed, but English, history, and science have few differentiators other than Advanced Placement classes, and occasionally honors. This story on Madison’s attempt to detrack their English (and eventually science) classes based on reading scores is so completely typical it’s practically a template of the process of course restriction–just change the locations. All students reading at 9th grade level (which was questionably set at the 40th percentile of 8th grade reading scores) were put in “advanced” classes. Those below the 40th percentile were put in “regular” classes, and 8% of that group were given remedial reading. In other words, all but the genuinely illiterate were expected to understand 9th grade material.

The rationale for this wholesale purging of high school course catalogues is well-documented. States or districts are faced with a dramatic racial gap in test scores, which everyone attributes to the equally dramatic imbalance in high school college track course enrollment. Federal mandates, as well as civil rights organizations armed with class action lawsuits, demand the end to imbalance in enrollment, the better to end the gap in test scores . Unlike other education reforms that take money, training, and buy-in to implement, course catalogs and transcripts are entirely under administrative control. Shazam! The courses many students need disappear, leaving only the college track option.

So students who enter high school with elementary reading skills and no basic math facts are put in exactly the same classes as students with college level reading skills and impatient algebra readiness. Schools are given no ability to offer alternate easier courses except by going the extreme route of declaring the students incapable of participating (that is, putting them in special ed). Students have no choice in their education.

Sadly, the problem was misdiagnosed, in large part because many people want to ignore primer rules 1, 2, and 4. Schools have dramatically increased access to college level courses, but test scores and demonstrated ability have barely budged. The data on this approach shows failure that’s not only discouraging but depressingly consistent: But then, as Tom Loveless has observed, the “push … is based on an argument for equity, not on empirical evidence”.

Most people address this issue from the other end, complaining that inclusion of weak students damages the education of stronger students. I agree, and see the results of this every day. Since I work in a Title I school, the high-ability students I see losing out on more rigor and challenges are also poor students, often Hispanic or black. Teachers can’t adequately challenge strong students while also encouraging weaker students. Maintaining rigor requires failure for those who can’t achieve it.

Unfortunately, failure requires blame these days. To avoid blame, schools and teachers run roughshod over rigor by lowering standards. (Feel free to blame me on this count; I refuse to hold my students to standards they didn’t choose when it’s a choice between failing or graduating.)

Alas, many students still fail these classes, even given our dedication to keeping them on track despite content that is beyond their capabilities and/or interest. But remember, the schools offer no courses to fall back to after failure. Kids just have to take the subject again.  America spends millions teaching the same kids the same course twice, or even three times, both during the school year and in summer school and other credit recovery programs. Many of them don’t learn much the second time or third time through, of course, but teachers and administrators are fully aware of primer rule #3, which is why we pass them anyway, eventually. That way, at least, they can go to college and get the remedial classes we can’t offer, even if the poor kids will have to pay for them.

Those of you who focus on lost opportunities for the high achievers, I ask you to take a moment and ask yourself what it’s like for kids at the other end, to constantly fail courses that they have no choice in taking, no interest in, and no ability to genuinely understand. And to make it worse, once students are identified as strugglers whose test scores will hurt the school, they’re shoved into “support” classes for math and/or English, stuck for twice as long in classes they already despised. Why even try, when they know that if they stick it out eventually they’ll get a passing grade? And who can blame them?

This must change. High schools need to be able to teach all students at the appropriate pace and content level, which for many doesn’t begin to approach the expectations of our absurd national education policies. Pre-algebra, arithmetic and basic math literacy and general purpose reading and composition are necessary to allow students who needs those skills to acquire them without having to go to college to pay for them. Science and history need to be appropriately gauged as well, so that students can learn basic information at the pace they need.

The many students challenged by these simpler topics will be unlikely to progress to college level work. Ever. Algebra during senior year might often be a worthwhile goal. However, all students, regardless of underlying ability and interest, can learn to use the knowledge and skills they have and we can, indeed must, learn to build curriculum to challenge and extend their capacity. But schools can’t do this while lying about student capacity, which is what schools are forced to do when policies prohibit them from offering a full range of courses that meet student interests at the appropriate cognitive level.

So what can a presidential candidate do? Well, since the states have made these changes in response to federal pressure, a good place to start is get rid of the pressure. Praise the new ESEA bill for returning accountability back to the states. Promise to collect data, but accept that student learning is a complex mix and leave it at that.

Then promise to fund efforts to research and develop challenging yet accessible high school curriculum and course sequences to assist in educating the students who weren’t able to absorb the information from the prior eight years of schooling. Everyone fears that putting students into remedial classes will involve thought-obliterating worksheets piled on one after the other. I’ve taught remedial classes, and have been able to develop or borrow engaging curriculum. But the risk is legitimate.

A presidential candidate can also address the most compelling objection to this proposal: fear that schools will just place black and Hispanic kids into the lowest level classes by default. I think that fear is overrated; I once went looking for the bad old days and couldn’t find many (if any) cases of schools deliberately, systematically putting high-scoring black students into low ability classes. Many schools used test scores, which created the imbalance, as test scores by race always will. However, there’s still a messy middle in which white parents and black parents make different demands for kids with identical test scores, or badly behaved low income students who are nonetheless quite bright are failed by teachers who confuse behavior with ability.. Testing and required placement will help mitigate that risk. The federal government can certainly require proof that schools and districts are appropriately placing students with strong test scores, regardless of race. (States, schools, and districts will need that data to avoid lawsuits.)

But here’s the real education policy proposal for the candidates of 2016: Stop pretending education is the answer to poverty. Many kids who don’t care for school are galvanized by the possibility of a job. Stop offloading national responsibilities onto the schools. Schools can’t give students jobs with good wages. The economy can. Stop the flow of cheap labor at all education levels, by squashing requests for more H1B visas, scrutinizing citizen layoffs for cheap Indian labor, and enforcing our immigration laws. You build an economy with the workers you have, not the workers you can import at the price you want.

To say this proposal is at odds with the zeitgeist is to reveal how thoroughly at odds the public is with the “white professional ghetto”, as Harold Myerson describes the intelligentsia. The public doesn’t believe that everyone can achieve equally; that’s a delusion reserved for people who’ve never spent time in the schools they want to “fix”.

Next up: Repeal IDEA–leave special education to the states.