Need for Academic Rigor
News: ‘Academically Adrift’ – Inside Higher Ed
This is an update to the original post published in January 2011.
The website review of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Link above) revealed a shortcoming in higher education that I see has roots in secondary education. That is, the academic skills we associate with a “good education” are not the skills the students are challenged to master. I wish to turn away from college education to high school education.
Over the past several years, my school has had to administer an exam to students for the purpose of determining if they have further developed the skills that the Common Core and Danielson Framework ostensibly target. Over those years, we’ve had parental and student protests against these examinations. I believe the reason for the backlash can be explained in several ways. However, at the very top of the list of instigating factors has to be the public debate over the efficacy of these two initiatives in public education. Everyone from teacher unions to political figures have an opinion to express and a constituency to convince. As a teacher, I try very hard to interpret those public debates in an academic light. That has been difficult because the debate is often tainted with political partisanship, turning attention away from education toward some other, tenuously related, hot-button issue. I want to stay clear of that public debate and look, academically, at the activities on a school level, my school. I believe that there is an explanation why these ‘Common Core’ -type standardized exams support a similar outlook to that of the author of the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Link above).
There are three areas I have intimate experience with that impacts the skill development of students: Curriculum, Technology, and Time on Task. I’m trying to be specific here to offer clear examples. Any teacher will attest, the challenges vary with local peculiarities involving budgeting, parental involvement, and school leadership. I want, for the sake of brevity, to restrict my attention to these three areas. Today, I would like to focus on ‘Curriculum’. It’ll be followed in subsequent posts by Technology and ‘Time on Task’.
I have been teaching 9th grade Social Studies for most of my 30 years of public high school teaching. Over that period, I’ve had to adjust to at least three major changes to the curriculum initiated by the City of New York (my employer), the State of New York, the school within which I work, and the federal government. The one element of the course that has remained relatively unchanged for 3 decades is the scope. I have to cover a time period that begins with the ascent of Modern Humans (Homo Sapien) and ends with the Enlightenment Period. That’s a time period covering \~200,000 years. You can probably see by now where I’m going with this portion of the argument.
I love breaking this scenario into raw numbers:
1. 200,000 years in 180 school days. Of those 180 days, about 40 are abridged days, meaning the classroom instructional period is reduced for a variety of reasons (Fire/ Lockdowns/ and Shelter-In Drills, administrative re-scheduling, standardized tests, etc.). Of course, I’m omitting lost school days due to severe weather and actual dangerous circumstances (bomb threats). If I can claim half of those lost classroom minutes we then reduce the total class days by 20 to 160 days.
2. Let’s now remove teacher absences. In NYC, a teacher is given 10 days per school year for medical and personal matters. For our purposes, let’s remove the entire allotment, leaving us 150 days. I don’t want to infuse student absences here because I have 170 students without solid numbers for average number of absences. However, that variable is important because any day a student misses means the loss of a significant portion of the curriculum (as you’ll realize at the end).
3. Let’s take 200,000 and divide by 150 = 1,333 years per classroom period (or school day).
4. Under the best possible conditions, I’ll have 42 minutes to conduct the class. I’m omitting taking attendance, addressing late students, reading and recording absence notes/ trip permission forms, answering the classroom phone call (school phone in each room) from a counselor or administrator), troubleshooting technology glitches, administering exams and quizzes, collecting assignments, allowing students to collaborate on tasks, assisting students with questions and/ or difficulties, etc. 1,333 years divided by 42 = about 32 years per minute. If a student has to use the bathroom, they’ll be behind at least 160 years, depending on the severity of their bodily function.
I can aggravate the scenario further by stating the course ends with a standardized examination compiled by someone other than I, the person who struggled to cover the curriculum for the school year (or 150 school days as in my scenario).
Yes, the curriculum is too large to expect any comprehensive attention to significant moments in Human history. How then, can any teacher dedicate the requisite time to work on academic skills? These skills require practice, the time for practice, time for teacher feedback, and time for students to apply teacher suggestions. Some might rebut my scenario with suggestions to glance over certain topics, assign the topic for homework, or even omit the topic from classroom review. In that case, I would reply “Why have those topics in the curriculum to begin with if time is so limited?”. Are we ‘planning’ ourselves into a scenario like the one I presented for reasons beyond academics?
Next time, I’ll express my observations and experiences with classroom Technology.