Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Only Subjects That Matter

There's a message that has been delivered loud and clear for the last decade-- only two subjects in school matter. Only reading and math affect a school's rating. Only reading and math scores factor in teacher evaluation. Only reading and math come with state-approved Official Standards. Only reading and math are on the all-important Big Standardized Test, now believed by an entire generation of school children to be the entire purpose of schools.

History? Science? Music? Art? Well, there are still some parents out there who remember these as being part of school, and so there's not full support yet for getting rid of them (kind of like some folks are sure that cursive writing has to be part of school).

This has left other disciplines in a bit of a bind.

On the one hand, it would be a kind of boost to folks who teach history and science and all that other cool stuff if they were part of the whole test-driven school set-up. If history were on the BS Test, schools wouldn't just cut history classes, or only offer history to students who don't need test prep remediation classes.

Don't even think about it.
And yet, what the experience of math and reading shows us is that the bad amateur standards and the horrible tests exert a power warp and twist and distort the subject areas into a dark, sad, stunted dark mirror image of their best selves. I have filled a million miles of blog with the business of explaining and depicting the badness, but the bottom line is that when you design a course of study around the goal of being to measure it with bad multiple choice questions-- well, it's like trying to jam a buffalo into a mason jar-- only, unfortunately, in this case the mason jar is made of some unyielding adamantium substance, and so it is the buffalo that loses the fight.

So one the one hand, science standards have been greeted by sciencey folks because they will get science off the list of Unimportant Subjects. On the other hand, lots of sciencey folks are afraid that the science standards kind of suck. Said the American Society of Physics Teachers of the Next Generation Science Standards (Draft 2), "the wording of many of the NGSS performance expectations is confusing to the point that it is not clear what students are actually supposed to do," and that "the science content of the current form of NGSS contains so many errors that most science teachers and scientists will doubt the credibility of the entire enterprise."

I myself worry a lot about history. I'm an English teacher, but I will argue till your ears are blue that history is the single most important subject of all and the root of all other education. But what to do about that?

Witness Massachusetts, where history is marked for inclusion in the Big Standardized Testing Expansion Pack, a move that has been questioned by Barbara Madeloni (Massachusetts Teacher Association). As the state bureaucrats consider more testing, she stood before them to object

"I cannot believe that you are being asked to add more testing to that regime," she said. "It reflects a profoundly bureaucratic and technocratic view of what it means to learn." 

She is absolutely correct. But the editorial writers of are also correct when they write that history cannot continue to be considered a second-class citizen. The problem is that we've reached the point where they see no way to do that but by testing.

Ideally, such improvement could be implemented without a standardized test. But if there is no test, there will be no incentive within school systems to improve history education, a fact Madeloni omits when decrying the MCAS model.

The problem that the editorial writers overlook is that there could not be a worse subject to examine through a BS Test than history (though there are others that are just as bad). History is the antithesis of a One Right Answer field of study. It's a field in which "answers" look a lot more like conversations, a shifting and dynamic balance between facts and human perception and background and perspectives. This is why so much school history instruction is so bad- to avoid any debate or upset or confusion or controversy, we stick to what is "settled" which is, generally, boring names and dates. There was a guy named Columbus who sailed the ocean blue in 1492, and we're going to stop right there before anyone gets bent out of shape.

History's answers are four-dimensional. Standardized test questions are one-dimensional. And so here we go, jamming a buffalo into a mason jar.

So what do we do? If I were a history or science teacher, would I accept promotion to First Class Core Subject and then try to teach my discipline properly as a sort of guerrilla activity while doing my minimum test prep. Thousands of English teachers are faking compliance with the standards-- maybe that could work for other disciplines. Still, the daily pressure of being pushed to commit educational malpractice-- I mean, is getting on the Subject That Matters list worth it?

The fact that we have to even discuss such a twisted choice is one more measure of the damage being done by the era of test-driven management of test-centered schools (and this is without even getting into the bizarrely stupid and terrible local tests being committed by schools in subjects like music and phys ed just so those subjects can haz "data" too). Subject areas are now that at-risk kid in your room who thinks the only attention he can get is negative attention, but maybe that's better than being ignored.

This is what we've done. We have not reduced the Subjects That Matter list to two-- reading and math. We have reduced it to one-- the only subject that matters is testing, a subject that has little or nothing to do with education. If you are having trouble jamming a buffalo into a mason jar, you need to spend less time considering technique and more time questioning whether you're engaged in a futile and ultimately stupid endeavor.

We can talk about lots of different threats to public education right now, and some may be noisier or flashier, but if I were to become emperor of the education world, the first thing I would do is banish the Big Standardized Test completely. There's no single act that could do more to radically improve education in this country.


  1. Peter, you are my hero on a daily basis. But a science teacher you are not. While I would certainly agree the NGSS standards are awkwardly written, they most certainly do not "suck." The new standards move the sciences (especially physics and chemistry) out of the realm of the elite and into the everyday world of all students. They demand teachers help students learn to think in terms of systems, models, and patterns, to argue from reliable evidence with civility, to question and evaluate sources...they answer so many of the deficits in rational thinking that we witness every day and especially since November. Because they rely less on memorization and plug and chug formulas, and more on the ability to think creatively to solve 21st century problems, they build tremendous equity in the classroom. NGSS was not developed by the same people or in the same way the Common Core was. They are developmentally appropriate and had real teacher input. Don't believe everything you here from the physicists. They're a bit scared we're going teach kids to be able to understand what they do.

    1. Well, Chris from my perspective as an earth science teacher of 13 years and Professional Geologist of 30 years (worked 20 as a consultant) I have to disagree with you and agree more with Peter.

      The new standards are far inferior to what they will replace in NYS. The earth science standards have been gutted in many areas, especially topographic/weather/geologic maps and most notably geology. And once again the purveyors of these new standards are having them implemented without adequate piloting and testing to see if they will accomplish what they hope to do, much as we witnessed with the Common Core.

      Some of what you write about I agree with...they are more developmentally appropriate and their greater reliance on inquiry to teach science is an improvement, but here in NYS we've had standards like that for decades. Where the NGSS will have their greatest impact is in states whose level of science education is already poor, where science IS pushed out of schools to give more time for test prep in ELA and math.

      One other thing...wait for the push back from certain states who will be reluctant to implement science standards that include evolution, but not intelligent design...where climate change is framed in terms of false equivalency with liberal hoaxes, where the age of the universe is either 13.8 billion years or just a few thousand.

      I have to stand with Peter...there is little need for national standards. Let each state determine what they want their children to know, and if that decision hurts those kids it was a choice of the citizens of that state to give them that education by electing politicians who voted for those choices. It will just ensure that New York and other states with already superior standards will remain ascendant with a better educated populace and competitive advantage.

  2. I think NGSS can be improved, as there seems to be some very large gaps in some areas I consider critical. We gave a BS science test this year to freshman with hilarious results. Freshman are in biology, and they don't take chemistry until sophomore year. Many never take physics at all. We gave a test to freshman that asked about all of these things. The standards aren't bad, but the tests will always be horrible. There really is no point in trying to prep students for horrible irrelevant tests, no matter what subject you teach.

  3. Well not only did I use the incorrect form of "hear" but apparently I'm not nearly as smart as people in NY. The issue with standards has ALWAYS been that every niche group wants their own personal corner of the science world represented and there just aren't enough days in the K-12 calendar to "cover" them all. I've been teaching middle school science for 20 years and I don't know ANYONE who's ever gotten through the entire set of grade level standards in one year, no matter which new and improved set we adopt. There will always be physicists who think there aren't enough physics standards and geologists who think there aren't enough geology standards, and so on. But what NO standards have included to this point is the emphasis on scientific thinking and reasoning (at the expense of some niche content) and I for one, in a state apparently not nearly as wonderful as NY, think that the scientific practices and engineering is far more important to ALL our students than intimate knowledge of how to identify twenty varieties of quartz.

    1. I'd expect nothing less from a generalist, though I must point out that the earth sciences are hardly niche content, especially when climate change and water quality issues loom ever more important in the future.

      At least NY acknowledges that fact (about the earth sciences) since most other states ignore them. Since you are one of those unlucky ones who teaches in another state you would have little knowledge about what I teach. Let me assure you that I don't spend anytime at all teaching about the many varieties of Quartz, even if there are only 16 and not 20. I am happy you will enjoy the new NGSS standards and how they will transform your teaching.

      My only question is - why did it apparently take the NGSS to change your teaching and not before?

  4. Dear Mr. Greene and Commentators:

    Art Teacher here! And here to solve the problem of the missing quartz! @Rockhound...Sir: have you never heard of a gallon?

    Wishing everyone a Wonderful Break! Happy New Year!


    1. Got it...the four missing varieties of Quartz make a gallon.

      May the Quartz be with you!

  5. NGSS – Future Fail On its Way!

    Steps on the road to failure:

    1) Write abstract, skills-centric, content weak, K to 12 science standards in your ivory tower.

    2) Be sure that elementary standards are developmentally inappropriate by emphasizing the abstract and omitting the importance of simple, concrete, straight forward, important content knowledge (facts and ideas)

    3) Include the word “engineering” to satisfy the STEM worshippers, but omit its accepted meaning by twisting it into a vague, nebulous, and essentially useless form

    4) Provide little training and not nearly enough time for teachers to develop substantial science programs. Be sure to include a fleet of clueless consultants to confuse and confound elementary teachers

    5) Provide limited funding for science supplies and equipment

    6) Flood market with crappy, canned science and engineering activities and projects and even worse computer programs.

    7) Write crappy tests based on abstract, skills-centric, content weak, K to 12 science standards

    I just completed a 3 hour PD session on the NGSS in NYS. It is another Common Core-like disaster in the making; another “implementation” failure just waiting to happen. Like every new idea proposed by outsiders, they can look good on paper (Not so with NGSS) but there will NEVER, ever be sufficient TIME allotted to teachers to make them work with real kids in real classrooms. I see NGSS as a Trojan Horse filled with consultants, code writers, publishers, privatizers, and corporatists foaming at the mouth at yet another opportunity to pillage and plunder public school resources.

  6. Q: Is getting on the Subject That Matters list worth it?

    A: No.

  7. i have straight a's in reading and math but i got in trouble for having a c in geography?