Make History Matter at 8am Tomorrow at NCSS

Frank McCaughey and I will be presenting tomorrow morning at 8am sharp at NCSS.  Hope you can join us physically or virtually.  For those who can’t, our presentation and a link to our materials are below. Continue reading Make History Matter at 8am Tomorrow at NCSS


"If I Don't Grade My Students' Regents, Who Will" at the New York Times

I submitted a piece to the New York Times SchoolBook section that was submitted today on Regents Grading:

The New York State Board of Regents recently decided to change grading regulations to ban teachers from scoring their own students’ state exams. They said it was to prevent cheating.

To any outsider, this seems like a simple decision. However, like too many educational decisions, it is actually a reactionary decision to a relatively small problem that will hurt a large number of students.

Read the rest here, and please join in the conversation in the comment.

Student Essay Reflection #1

My new school has an school-wide interim assessment process for all classes where students are assessed on the same skills three times a year to track growth and inform instruction.  Unlike most “data-driven” initiatives, teachers at my school collaborate together to design the assessments and determine levels of performance.  The “data” we get from these assessments then is actually valuable in identifying areas where students need support.  The Social Studies assessments focus on creating arguments using evidence from documents.  My first essay in my government & economics course asked to students to agree or disagree with the statement, “Identities are created by marketing.”  The documents I used are here.  My reflection follows, with some of the data below it.

Based on the students’ essays on marketing and identity, there is a range of development on different skills.  The majority of students write in a way that shows they are college ready, and most of those who do not are close.  However, students are showing they are not ready to make valid arguments.  Most students know to make arguments, but their generalized claims need to be supported by concrete and specific evidence.  They also need to recognize that making a good argument involves recognizing shades of gray and opposing opinions.

The largest area of growth for my class is in sourcing information.  Nearly all students presented all or most information carelessly as facts, rather than showing that the information represented perspectives, or worse, came from advertisements.  Additionally, students need to learn to group evidence from multiple sources to support their claims, rather than letting the sources dictate the organization of their arguments.

Both needs are already being addressed in my class.  We are now practicing sourcing together with every single piece of information that is set forth, be it reading or video.  As this concept seems to be entirely new to students, I expect quick improvement.  In order to help students learn to group relevant evidence together, I am having them write individual paragraphs where they need to use multiple sources to answer a question.  These sources offer differing views, so it also helps students get in the habit of recognizing the multiple complexities or sides of issues we discuss.  Just for one example, students this week saw a video showing how direct democracy is being used to make decisions as Occupy Wall Street, but also read an op-ed decrying the state of California’s ballot initiative process.

As we move into looking at politics, students will have even more practice with looking at issues from various sides.  The class will rarely focus on what is the right policy stance, but rather, how a policy should be “sold” to different constituencies.  Students will participate in a couple of simulations from the Buck Institute where they take on the role of politicians trying to appease various groups on both sides of the aisle.

Notes: Standard areas are in all CAPS, followed by the indicators of that standard.  4=Excelling, 3=Succeeding, 2=Developing, 1=Beginning

ARGUMENT Controlling Idea Supporting Evidence Multiplicity USING EVIDENCE Connections Quoting SOURCING CONTENT Outside Info Validity WRITING Organization Intro/Conclusion Thesis
Average 2.01 2.26 2.27 1.60 1.69 1.67 2.03 1.27 1.99 2.21 1.99 2.47 2.50 2.46 2.54
Standard Deviation 0.71 0.72 0.85 0.77 0.67 0.63 0.68 0.51 0.75 0.81 0.73 0.77 0.76 0.81 0.74
Count: 4 1 2 3 1 1 0 1 0 3 3 2 5 5 5 5
Count: 3 15 23 28 9 5 6 14 2 10 23 12 30 31 31 33
Count: 2 38 36 24 21 35 35 41 15 40 30 39 28 28 25 27
Count: 1 16 9 15 39 29 29 14 53 17 14 17 7 6 9 5

Announcing a Great Opportunity for Students: Along the Color Line Video Contest

Please share this with any teachers you know.  Dr. Marable was very important to me, and I can think of no greater tribute to him then to share his work so that it inspires new social critics.  I have written a curriculum to to support the project, which you can find here.

“Along the Color Line” Video Contest: Teens Speak Out About Current Events

“Along The Color Line”, written by the late historian Dr. Manning Marable, was a public educational and information service dedicated to fostering political dialogue and discussion, inspired by the great tradition for political event columns written by W. E. B. Du Bois nearly a century ago. This video contest provides high school students with the opportunity and incentive to use scholarly research to analyze and pose solutions to some of the social issues that Manning Marable addressed in his writings such as sexism, racism, imperialism, and poverty. It continues the spirit of “Along the Color Line” by fostering critical analysis on political issues and public events that had special significance to African Americans and to other people of color internationally; allows students the creative license to translate the rigorous research that Dr. Marable used in his “Along the Color Line“ columns into a creative and accessible video medium; and empowers students to speak out about the material conditions of their lives to an audience of teachers, activists and community members at “A New Vision of Black Freedom: The Manning Marable Tribute Conference” sponsored by Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies from April 26 – April 28, 2012.

Curriculum Connection: An adaptable weeklong curriculum developed by a NYS certified HS teacher is available free for educators. It provides educational units and background reading for teachers of Civics, Government and US History to connect this contest to their classroom while meeting several Common Core writing (1,4,5,6,9) and reading (1,2,4,6,8,9,10) standards.

Contest Requirements: After becoming familiar with Manning Marable’s column “Along the Color Line” style of blending scholarly data with political analysis to address social issues, students will create a 2-3 minute long video presentation that features their research and analysis of a social issue that is important to them and their community.

Criteria: This contest is limited to students currently enrolled in high school anywhere in the US. Submissions will be judged on depth of knowledge of social problem being discussed, originality, and creative expression. Students can submit individually or through their teacher as part of a class project.

Submissions: The due date is February 17, 2012 before midnight. Submissions should be sent to Only one submission per email and per student. Students must include their name, age, grade, and full contact information as well as the name, address and phone number of their high school. Videos longer than 3 minutes will not be accepted.

Finalists: The top finalists will be special guests of the conference, where their videos will be screened. The first place winner will be announced at conference.

Prize: $250 Prize, one of Dr. Marable’s books and the video featured on the conference website.

For more information or questions contact:

Implementing Standards-Based Grading in my Social Studies Class, Finally

7/12/12- I wrote a new version of this, which contains better ideas.  Please read that instead.

This year, I am going 100% SBG in my senior Social Studies course, which combines government and economics.


I wrote a whole series (scroll down to the bottom) on my plan to do a form of Standards Based Grading in my history class last year.  It sort of happened, sort of didn’t.  I was thinking about SBG, but the experience for my students did not change: they still saw grades for individual assignments, though there were performance standards attached to writing assignments.  There were three major problems, two of which I knew going in, one which I realized very quickly:

  1. In a survey history course that ends in a high-stakes, content-based exam, it is necessary to track how students do with all content, and one is never going to be able to write standards for, let alone reassess, 200 different pieces of content.
  2. As I wrote last year, the history skill standards that I was aware of at the time are not written with performance in mind, and were very difficult to assess.
  3. The problem that emerged immediately was that I hadn’t planned my course with SBG in mind, so the standards I planned on using were not really useful for assessment.  They were also the wrong standards/enduring understandings for what I ended up teaching, because I never went back and made sure the Stage 1 stuff from UbD aligned with the Stage 3 stuff (see this recent post on that issue)

Changes for This Year

This year, there are four factors which are game changers and make me know I can actually do this right this year:

  1. I started working on a project with the brilliant Daisy Martin, who does the Reading Like a Historian work out of Stanford, who gave me a ton of clarity on what historical skill standards should look like so they can be used to assess student performance.
  2. Most importantly, my new school started a SBG pilot, that the 11th and 12th grade math and science teachers, as well as the art teacher, are participating in.  They already had a structure in place which solves some problems for me, and keeps me from having to figure things out myself.  The clarity provided by the design of the pilot makes my life easier.
  3. Because I knew of the pilot and had the structure in mind, I was planning as an SBG assessor from the moment I started conceiving my course, thereby correcting the second issue above.
  4. My unit plans, at least the first one so far, fully align Understandings, Assessment, and Instruction, the three stages of UbD.

What it Will Look Like

Everyone in the pilot was told to write learning goals that start as “I can” statements for students, along with teacher friendly indicators of performance.  Examples follow below. Continue reading Implementing Standards-Based Grading in my Social Studies Class, Finally

Supercharging the DBQ Essay

The Document Based Question Essay is one of the more ubiquitous secondary social studies assignments in New York, and I imagine, in the US. It is a requirement on both New York State Regents Exams in History, each a graduation requirement, as well as on AP History exams. It’s one of the few things on standardized tests I do not have a problem with, and would use even if there was no test associated with it. While not a truly authentic assessment, DBQs accomplish exactly what most timed assessments should: it simulates the real work of professionals in the field through inquiry. Given that authentic inquiry in social studies takes a lot of time, the DBQ essay provides an appropriate bounded inquiry experience which can be used both as a formative assessment to help students learn more information, but also as means to assess students’ abilities to critically read, construct written arguments, back those up with evidence, access and integrate other knowledge, and write in a clear, organized manner. For the couple hours it takes, DBQs give teachers a lot of bang for their buck.

Since becoming a part of the pilot for new assessments to be used as part of NYC teacher evaluation last January, I’ve been thinking even more deeply about the uses of DBQs. Starting from the brilliant Historical Thinking Matters, the DBQs from the pilot forced students not only to construct arguments based on evidence, but they also asked students to learn to think and read like historians, by presenting them with contradictory evidence about the causation of events. This is something the NY DBQs never do; all documents can be read and used merely as a statement of fact. It also pushes students beyond the thinking of most AP DBQs, which focus on obviously subjective evaluations of the effects of historical actions, as opposed to forcing students to take an objective stand on the causes of events in the face of unclarity and uncertainty. Still, with all sources being primary documents, a key component of the work of modern research was missing.

Last year, it dawned on me that I could use the DBQ structure to teach and assess students’ abilities to evaluate all sources. On a DBQ I constructed about the French Revolution, I threw in a “document” from Wikipedia. I did not want students to simply discard the information — there was really good stuff in there — but I hoped students would question the trustworthiness of the source in writing rather than just citing it as fact (some did). The most astute readers even picked up that there was evidence in another primary document included that contradicted part of the Wikipedia source.

This year, as I put together a senior course that deals with major questions and understandings from government and economics, I’m envisioning using DBQ essays in order to simulate two additional authentic tasks from my students’ lives. One of these uses is a little more obvious: students will have to take a stand on policy matters based on contradictory data, newspaper reporting, and opinion pieces. I’m currently accumulating documents for an essay about the effectiveness of the stimulus for later in the year, and additional ideas would be great.

However, in dealing with seniors, I’m also looking for a way to simulate the experience of a college course, and attempted to construct a DBQ experience to give me an idea of where students are in terms of being ready for that. My first unit looks at identity formation, media literacy, and the connection between the two. So I’m asking students to write a DBQ essay agreeing or disagreeing with the statement, “Individuals‘ identities are created by advertising” using these documents (sorry, it’s a big file). I think this task will simulate the experience of having to take an exam based on course reading. I don’t just want to simulate this experience, though. In order to simulate the lecture hall, I will deliver a formal lecture on models of identity formation, and students will be allowed to use their notes on their essay. The next day, I will attempt to simulate the social aspect of studying in college by splitting up the documents between students, having them read them over, and then share their reading with their classmates. Only then, will students get all the documents, and have a couple of classes to write their essays.

One of the shared practices of my new school is the use of three interim assessments throughout the year using the same rubric in order to track students’ growth and to be able to target instruction to the areas where it’s most needed. This identity essay will be the first of my interim assessments, so I’ll post the data and my reflection on it once I have it in early October, as well as continued reflection throughout the year about addressing these specific skills.

Woodcutting: Changing the Ritual

After getting my Enduring Understandings finished last week, I next sought out to write Essential Questions. I’ve never felt before like I’ve been successful writing EQ’s the first time I plan a unit; I frequently only realized the real EQ as I taught.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. In the past, I’ve always written EQ’s before creating my assessments and lesson outlines, which is explicitly what UbD suggests you’re not supposed to do. UbD insists that though there are three stages of planning, the first of which involves crafting understandings and essential questions, these stages of planning do not happen linearly. Stage 1 is a good place to start, but it’s not the only place to start. The key is ensuring that all three stages work together in the end. As commenters both online and off have pointed out when seeing my understandings, they don’t mean much without the assessments that go with them; it’s only natural that they go hand in hand.

(The next two paragraphs are really technical and jargonny. Feel free to skip if you have no idea or interest in what I’m writing about.)

Unfortunately, there is a practice that is increasingly common in NYC schools that does not allow for this natural unit planning to occur: the practice of curriculum mapping. At my old school, I can take a large amount of responsibility for the emphasis that has been placed on this in recent years.

I have nothing against curricular mapping to start the year. In fact, I think it’s incredibly important and necessary step to come up with units, the relevant content and skills for each, as well as the timeframe. The problem when curricular mapping is married to Stage 1 and Stage 2 of UbD. It doesn’t make sense to develop EQ’s, Understandings, and major assessments independent of the plan for how you’re going to help students learn what they need to be successful. Likewise, it doesn’t make sense to be developing Understandings and EQ’s independent of the instructional sequence of units.

I hit a wall when I started developing my essential questions. It was relatively straight forward for me to come up with a draft list of questions for my first two units, but I was really struggling with the rest. And that shouldn’t have surprised me: I have a clear idea of the instructional sequence for the the first two units, and not for anything else.

So I’m changing the plan for my ritual. I’m going to plan units in their entirety, and then use that information to create the curricular map I need to submit. Realistically, I will be able to do decent plans for the first semester; the rest can wait until I know my students better.

Previous Posts in the Series

New Teacher Evaluation Systems are not Trustworthy Without Better Assessments

It seems that the biggest issue these days in education “reform” is the attempt to change how teachers are evaluated. Locally in New York, the state legislature passed a new evaluation system last year and the Board of Regents more recently released their guidelines for the implementation of that law, though much of the details remain to be negotiated between local districts and unions. Nationally, the Gates-funded Measure of Effective Teaching Project is starting to share some conclusions from the first two years of their study, and a recent report from the Center for Teaching Quality’s New Millenium Initiative by a group of Denver teachers has garnered some positive attention in the blogosphere from Renee Moore, Ariel Sachs, Dan Brown, and others.

Like nearly all issues in education, this one is complex. I have gotten to see just how complex it is from two vantage points within the NYC discourse: I have been working for the past semester to support the social studies teachers in NYC’s transformation schools who were subject to the pilot of new assessments that are to be part of the new teacher evaluation system. I am also on the UFT negotiating committee for the new system. Unfortunately, I am under non-disclosure obligations for both sides, and can’t yet write from those experiences. I did, however, have the luck to be invited last night to participate in a webinar through the Teacher Leadership Network with a researcher from the Gates MET study, so will use that study as a jumping off point for some comments.

There is tremendous reason to be skeptical, if not downright resistant, to Gates money being used to support this study, as Joanne Barkan so brilliantly documented in Dissent. I’m willing to put that aside for the minute, to assume the best intentions of the researchers who are working on this and other projects. The basic logic of the MET project, as well as all efforts to measure teacher effectiveness, seems to be as follows “if we can identify what goes into good teaching, then we can a) replicate it through better teacher education and development and b) remove ineffective teachers that will be replaced with the better developed teachers we will then be able to create.” The less benign version of this argument, which is motivating the politicized teacher evaluation laws passed around the country is that “we need to identify bad teachers so we can fire them and replace them with good ones.” Again, I’m willing here to deal with the better intentions of former, despite all the others on the bandwagon.

The billion dollar question then becomes, what is “good teaching”? And unfortunately, this is the question I have seen dealt with in far too simplistic ways, if at all. The MET study claims that evaluation should be based on “students’ achievement gains” and “any additional components of the evaluation…should be valid predictors of the student achievement gains” (“Working” p. 5). This seems like incredibly circular logic, as it implies that other measurements of teacher effectiveness are only valid if they predict students’ gains on the standardized tests the study used. And while in their initial findings, the MET study showed that “the type of teaching that leads to gains on the state tests corresponds with better performance on cognitively challenging tasks and tasks that require deeper conceptual understanding, such as writing.” (“Learning” p. 5), this reveals further flaws in the project’s logic, as it places the cart squarely before the horse. Shouldn’t the question be: are the assessments of student outcomes valid indicators of students’ ability to complete cognitively challenging tasks? Is it not likely that teachers would see even more growth in students’ capacities for deeper conceptual understanding without the state tests that assess other skills and knowledge in the way?

The conversation in the webinar yesterday focused largely on the question of trust in developing new observation systems. This could not be more important. For teachers to be able to trust any new observation system, and for the public to be able to trust the validity of any system, there needs to be a much larger focus on what the desired outcomes are for students’ learning, and what is the most meaningful way to assess students’ attainment of these outcomes. Organizations like Edutopia and Fairtest have documented the incredible flaws in current assessments, and Joanne Barkan, once again, showed the misuse of these assessments to attack teachers using deeply-flawed mathematical models like Value-Added (which is also the basis for the Gates study’s data). There needs to be exponentially more dialogue initiated in order to develop better assessments that assess meaningful outcomes.

We also, I think, need to be prepared to recognize there will not be one silver bullet solution to this issue. The new evaluation system in New York allows for one district to use different assessments from from another, and even for clusters or networks of schools within a district to choose different assessments. This is a move in the right direction. Just as colleges seem to have no problem recognizing that the IB and AP are equally valid assessments, so to, should we allow more flexibility for schools, or even teachers, to have access to a battery of meaningful, rigorous, and valid assessments of student learnings. As I wrote yesterday, there is never a silver bullet solution for the complexities of education, and we should not expect things to be any different with assessment.

My Senior Philosophy Roundtables – Video Footage

I’m hoping things will settle down in the coming weeks so I can have some time to sit down to document and reflect on the whole process of doing Roundtable presentations for the first time.  This idea was inspired by/stolen from East Side Community High School, who I visited earlier in the year.  I reflected on that visit previously. I’m really excited to be posting video of my class for the first time:

Want to Students to Remember? Make it Challenging

“For a teacher trying to design an assignment, the ideal thing is to put your students in a situation where they are challenged. The more someone struggles with something, the more they are going to learn.  You want them to eventually feel something is easy to process, but only because they’ve worked through it and made it their own, not because you made it easy for them.”

~Nate Kornell, Assistant Psychology Professor at Williams College in “Studies Find ‘Easy’ Material May Not Be Easy to Learn” (Education Week)

Make sure you read this whole article.  This is something all the great teachers I know seem to know, and it flies in face of the “drill and kill” model of education being propagated by too many schools across the country right now.  As I tell everyone I coach, the best form of “test prep” is a good, challenging, project.  It’s nice to see research confirm that.  The whole study can be found here (PDF file).