Richard Dreyfuss: Improving Civic Education

Link: Richard Dreyfuss: Improving Civic Education

Actor Richard Dreyfuss at the Big Apple Conven...

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No, I am not on my trip blogging (but don’t put it past me). I just wrote this last night and scheduled it for later as to not send out two posts right after each other.

However, I wanted to share this great talk. It was filmed at the Commonwealth Club in July of last year. (See link above)

Richard Dreyfuss discusses the need and necessity of civic education and how our society is beginning to disregard its importance. He stands up against the push for facts and memorization (standardized tests) that have begun to get in the way of preparing young men and women for a life where critical thinking and reason are a vital requirement. As Robert M. Hutchins said, “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”

I believe Mr. Dreyfuss is concerned, just like many of us who teach the social sciences, that society and public schools in particular, are becoming more apathetic and that has begun in the classrooms where history and government teachers are being forced to teach random objectives that can be quantified on a multiple choice test.

So what should we be doing? I believe Stephen Lazar said it best when he said, “the primary job of social studies teachers is to prepare critical citizens.” He explains that to be a critical citizen:

Students need to know that they need to “read” the New York Post differently from the USA Today, the New York Times differently from the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC differently from Fox News.  Moreover, they need to know to critically evaluate what they find through Google or YouTube.

So with this in mind the talk from Mr. Dreyfuss made a big impact. He speaks with reason and logic. He has quietly reflected on this issue for a great deal of time and it shows. He has evaluated and analyzed his words and thoughts meticulously. He demonstrates the very ideal that he is arguing for in a profound way. I highly recommend taking the time to watch this great talk.

Once done, don’t stop there. Go to the Dreyfuss Initiative to see the ideas he expresses in action.

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News I find: Putting skills before scores

News I find is a series where in my travels I come across articles that I find interesting and relevant to the current education debate and I want to share them with you all. This episode we look at the goal of education verse the quantifying of a student or teacher.

Putting skills before scores

While this article comes from Ireland, I still find it is relevant. Ireland and the United States score very closely on the PISA evaluations and they are also going through the same debates we are currently going through. While I know there are many factors in the education debate, this might shed some light on if we are going in the right direction.

A highlight from the quick article was a quote from Sir Ken Robinson where the author says:

Robinson argued that education systems were geared not towards producing rounded individuals but college professors, a relentless conveyor belt “educating people out of their creative capacities” starting in preschool and ending at the top of a university department.

Read more:

My view is that we have become too obsessed with this idea that every key stroke and every table visit a teacher does needs to be logged and tracked. We are wasting countless man hours on data collection, evaluation and dissemination that it has made us lost to the real goal of education; preparing the children for whatever path they choose to take.

As I have said repeatedly, my job isn’t to make them into mini historians upon completion of my class. If they want to do that, they should go to college and major in history. My role is really to give them the critical thinking skills they will need for life and to help them develop other skills that we have dubbed the Big 11.

  1. by utilizing text reading strategies.
  2. by applying writing strategies.
  3. by responding to historical text/literature.
  4. by utilizing and/or creating maps, graphs, and diagrams.
  5. by conducting research.
  6. by utilizing and/or interpreting primary and secondary sources.
  7. by seeking information from varied sources to develop informed opinions.
  8. by collaborating with peers.
  9. by presenting information orally, in writing, and/or through technology presentations.
  10. by utilizing technology resources.
  11. by providing contemporary examples.

So what is the content? It is just a tool for the above goals. I want them to become better citizens and more well rounded individuals and it is my belief that by studying world history and utilizing the above methods, they will become more successful in life.

Until next time, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

We don’t need no stinkin’ grades. Part II

And now for the dramatic conclusion.

So you don’t grade you say?

Well, I do but not in the typical fashion. Lets begin with AP courses and summer homework. I’m still not sold on the overall value of these but I agree to it primarily because I know many of my peers teaching AP World History across the nation (especially those with high passing rates) have two years and/or see their students every day. Being on a block schedule, I have about 60 days to get my students ready for a competitive test where the competition has had double or more of the time to prepare.

So what I assign for the summer is material that will help bring them up to speed on content, like an online condensed world history textbook. I also assign a writing sample, just to see where they are at, and I assign a geography assignment so they can become familiar with this world. However, I grade none of this. The first assignment is for their own good and it’s value or completion will be evident throughout the year when they either struggle with the amount of knowledge they are learning or if some of the text is familiar from the reading. I do not grade the essay because how can I grade them on an assignment I never taught them how to complete. Either they did it or they didn’t. 100% or nothing. Simple. The last assignment I give a timed quiz on but I never tell them that it will never enter the grade book as an assignment. I just want them to become familiar with the stress of a timed, high pressure test. Again, what do I grade by handing out failing grades from the beginning?

As for first quarter. Still no “grading”. Either they did the assignment or they didn’t. For instance, my students take notes and make note cards (both AP and Honors). As for their notes, I never read the actual work. Why would I? The notes have to be useful to the student, not myself so as long as they can read and understand it, I’m happy. I only grade them on if they have questions (I teach them Cornell), do they use the right formats and editing, are they attempting abbreviations, did they put summaries and are the notes selective and paraphrased. Otherwise, I could care less about them. When they do begin to turn them in, I never mark them down for being done incorrectly, I just tell them what they need to focus and improve on.

However, as we move through the material, my bar begins to raise and the level of acceptability goes up. If something falls below it, I just make it unacceptable and have them fix it. Soon, the work load alone is motivation for them to get better. My goal though, is to get them to take risks, try things and attempt everything without the fear that going outside of the box is somehow going to hurt them in their grade. I try to remove the pressure of the grade from the goals of my classroom. I don’t want them to just follow a recipe. They need to think for themselves.

The same with essays. I have always tried to give out full credit for completed essays at the start of the year. I would also just focus on grading one aspect of the essays like thesis or structure. I would have them fix the mistakes from the one part to focus their efforts. The idea was to not overwhelm them with a multitude of errors which could cause them to become deflated and defeated. While in the beginning I wouldn’t ask for a rewrite. I was more concerned with quantity because I feel that writing is a process that needs to be completed repeatedly to get better. However, by the middle of the year I felt they had written enough to now begin improving on their abilities.

Recently I was introduced to a new way of grading essays which has begun to replace the previous system. I still give full credit during the first quarter for attempt but now I only give full credit during the second quarter if they fix the errors, otherwise I give them a 75%. By third quarter it will be to the scale. The scale though is set up on a 25 point system (easily changed to 100 points by simple multiplication). It gives 16 points just for a good faith effort (64%) and the other 9 follow the AP World History rubric for their essays. While the rigor is lowered for honors, I still use it.

What this does though is it gives a C to getting just 3 points (16+3=19=76% or a C as each point is worth 4%). The average paper I get had between 3-5 points so the average grade is 76% to 84%. A paper that does all that is required gets 7 points or a 92%. The final 2 points are reserved for those papers that go above and beyond on some or all of the basic 7, just like the AP Test. However, that is my end of the year goal so how can I grade them in November for something I expect mastery on in May? Until that time, I have decided that I will begin with full credit for trying and over the course of the year, slowly raise the bar.

So the issue then is how am I getting them to think outside the box when I am building them towards fitting into the box by May and their grade is reflective of that? Well, my answer are that there are some limits to everything but it is also that essays aren’t my only grades. An essay needs some structure for clarity and organization but there are still great opportunities for creative thinking and I take those into account if my students can defend their reasoning for the risk. Also for just attempting these they still get a D and when factored in to a grading system where I categorize and essays are only 20% of the grade, a D only moves a grade 6% overall.

Same with tests. I have begun to ban multiple choice tests. When I do give them, I just let them collaborate on them. I find the chaos that ensues to be hilarious as they form into camps over question 6’s answer being either C or D. But even my written, short answer, inquiry or any other kind of test is done to a different scale. I am not a fan of the idea that a kid gets an 92% on one test and then a 12% on the next so their grade averages out to a 52%. Is that truly reflective? Where as if the grade was a 92% and a 50% then it would average out to a 71%. If the child consistently scores low, it will show regardless but by not placing a floor on the grade at 50, it seems to only hurt those who score a C or above.

In the end, my tests and quizzes only count for 30% of their grade so even getting all 50% on tests only changes their grade by 15%, still in the B range.

In the end I have to ask myself, what is my end goal, what am I trying to accomplish. I have pushed back further and further on this idea that school is somehow a punishment and we need to reprimand students for making mistakes. I want them to take the chances and when it doesn’t work out, come and see me to find a solution. I want them to know that they always have a safety net to catch them when they take risks or have a bad day. I want them to challenge the system without feeling like that challenge will cost them the year.

Maybe I am on the wrong track but for me it just fits.

Until next time, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

We don’t need no stinkin’ grades. Part I

I guess I should start by saying that I do not grade.

What is the purpose of grades? I find myself questioning them more and more. At their heart they are supposed to show ability levels of above average to below average, with the majority of grades for an assignment being around a C. This makes our coveted bell curve that we are taught is ideal.

But what is average? Average compared to what? To just the other kids in their class? To all my students? All students in the school in similar classes? Or are we talking compared to state or nationally? In the end, what is the point in the larger context?

I am torn in far too many directions on this issue. I hear and understand the arguments of grades reflecting the ability level of students when compared to a rubric, especially a widely used one like an essay writing rubric. However, isn’t the goal of education to bring all students to mastery level? If so, why are we using a scale that claims average is a C. We argue this idea of mastery and approaching standards, while grading them on a system that argues average vs. above average.

I read an argument on this from Penn State where they had changed the definition of grades from the “average” scale to the “achievement” scale. In the view of the authors, it was still acceptable to receive a grade of C and students should still be considered for masters programs for a 2.00 as they had fulfilled the objectives of the previous courses to an acceptable level. Their goal was to limit the number of high achieving students who were making it onto deans lists due to watered down grading policies. The exclusivity of these lists was diminishing.

This argument reminded me of a class I had last year. In one of my AP World History classes, my sophomores were going through credit checks and one of the many excellent students I was blessed to have, came walking back in cheering how she was Ranked #1 for her class. It helps to know some about this student as she is usually never very openly confident in her abilities, even if everyone around her knows she is an excellent student and tries to remind her.

However, when she came in singing her joy of her accomplishment, another student in the class, a friend of hers and a very blunt child that I love, announced to her and the class, without hesitation, that she was in a class of #1s and they were all tied for #1 so she wasn’t special. While this scene was hilarious, as the laughing response from the now deflated child was to let her have her 5 minutes of happiness, it did speak to a larger issue of what exclusivity was there to rankings or honors distinctions.

Looking into this, I found that many school districts have begun the process of eliminating the valedictorian and salutatorian distinctions and replacing them with the cum laude system. Reading many of these articles, the common theme was that it allowed for more students to achieve some type of top honors to help them in their collegiate pursuits and the competitive nature of the former system placed too much pressure on students. Is the goal then just to get all students into college or to inflate the abilities of students, making them feel smarter or more prepared for the future than they really are? As a colleague once said to me, we are no longer educators, we are now graduators. It seems that the end goal of education is to not only get the kids through the hoops to get a diploma but to get them all through with higher honors and GPAs, even if the ability level isn’t there.

Proof of this can be found in remediation rates of students entering into college.

Before I get into this, I want to make it clear. I DO NOT think it is the goal of primary and secondary schools to get students into college. College is not for everyone in my opinion and many successful, wealthy people either never went to or dropped out of college. I will get into this more at some other time though.

However, what the results show is that remediation in college is increasing. In 2001, the average percent of high school graduates that attended college who needed remediation was around a 33%. By 2010, the number has grown to about 50%. Two important places where remediation has skyrocketed are New York and Florida. Under the guidance of Gov. Jeb Bush and Joel Klein‘s data driven accountability education model, remediation rates rose to upwards of +70% (I wonder where DC schools will be once the dust settles from Michelle Rhee).

So what does this all mean? For me it means that grades are less and less important or even irrelevant. What do they really say? One view of this is the College Boards use of the AP test scores. The AP Board is very active in explaining that their scores and pass rates are not indications of standards assessments. They also adjust their results year to year as the tests themselves are not designed from one textbook or state curriculum. There just isn’t enough time to teach all the facts of world history in one year. It is not a test of facts and details. It is a test of critical thinking and analysis. It is a competition with fellow students and the AP Board strives to balance the successes of students on the exam while still keeping it difficult to promote exclusivity and rigor. The AP Board knows that if everyone who took the test and ended up passing the test, then colleges would devalue it more and stop accepting it.

In the end, this is only a fraction of the national debate over grades. Universities have been in deep discussions over these issues and others, such as grade inflation or course rigor from discipline to discipline. There are other issues of community, culture, necessity, political motives of leaders both inside of and outside of education and countless others factors adding to the complexity of this issue. From a simple A-F system of 50 years ago, we have created a monster where the image of a student or a school trumps the integrity of the assessment and the true ability levels of our children.

Next post I will further discuss this issue and explain how I have begun to approach this Goliath in my own classroom. Until then, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. Also, send any topic ideas to me as well as i am always looking for things to spark a conversation about. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

Sir Ken Robinson – Changing Education Paradigms

Well, I stumbled upon Sir Ken Robinson once I discovered Fora has to be one of the greatest websites. I like TED but I have enjoyed Fora much more. Back to the point though. In the above video, a group called RSA Animate, take a ten minute clip of his longer talk (which you can find here) and add an animation to it.

I use this video in my own classroom to spur discussions on history and how we use or don’t use history to learn about our current world. I usually begin by stopping the video immediately to discuss the artist drawing in the clip. I will take a second to see if I have any artists in the room and if I do, I ask them what class they hate the most. This usually makes them uncomfortable but after making sure they know that whatever the answer is, including my own class, I just want honesty, even letting them know that I didn’t particularly care for history when I was their age.

However, what I usually hear is that Art is their least liked class. When I ask them why, a general response is that they don’t get to draw or paint or design what they really want. This is the response I am looking for. I explain to them that in my opinion, Art class in high school has less to do with turning them into artists or refining their skills and more to do with having them learn the skill, beauty, thought and power found in art. It is more about an appreciation for art.

So this leads me back to the video where I ask them how the artist in the video became so good. They usually agree that it takes time, practice, dedication and passion. We will then have a conversation about whether higher education would be the best route this gentleman should have taken in life. We will discuss the financial costs verse the long term benefits of those costs. We will discuss who they would higher if they owned RSA Animate, the artist with a portfolio of work or the artist with a degree. There may also be some other side conversations around this whole discussion but remembering them all would be a nightmare.

Finally I will play the film. However, I will never just let it run, I must stop it occasionally (I developed this horrible habit from my first Master Teacher, Mr. Madnikoff). Even though it is drawn out for them, I want to make sure that they understand what is being discussed so I will stop it occasionally to make sure they are all still on track. By the end I will begin another class discussion and have them talk about the purpose of learning history, the value of a college education, a debate over what students should and should not go to college and what careers are connected to those students and what is the current state of public education.

I’ve enjoyed doing this in my classroom for a couple years now and I am wondering all of your thoughts on Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas. Share them below and continue the conversation. If you enjoyed this video, watch his full talk here.

Well, until next time, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Also, please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings. As always this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

To Union or Not To Union


Well, I was planning on and have been researching much more into a different topic (and much more controversial, at least I think it is). I have been looking into the grade inflation debate, especially for high schools, but Jon Ralston, being the evil man he is, decided to write about unions. I knew as soon as I saw his column that not only would I share it with all my fellow Facebook teachers, but that most of them would find strong agreements with his views as do I.

This issue of a teachers union is a divisive issue that seems to bring more hate in today’s politics than does most. Even progressives and tea party supporters can find common ground with their disgust with the teachers union. I must disclose up front that I am a union member and don’t have any intention of leaving right now. This does not mean I agree with or particularly enjoy the union but I will get into this more later.

First I guess I should begin with my view of any union. I’m not going to get into a historical discussion of unions and their value. Bottom line, they were a necessity. But let’s look at the purpose of a union. Their only interest, as it should be for the most part, is to their members. When it comes to teachers unions, I always hear the vile that they don’t care about the students. Well, they shouldn’t. This isn’t to say that the individual members don’t care but the entity shouldn’t. To put this into perspective, are the other unions out there supposed to care about the customers interests or the members/employees? And why should they. I know the argument that customers can just take their business elsewhere while students technically can’t, at least not as easily. But the bottom line is that the unions job is to fight for the interest of the teacher, not the school, the administration, the public or the students. There are many other interest groups fighting for the rest of them.

On the same token, what is the interest of a corporation? It’s not technically to the customers or employees. When it is, it is only for their own self interest of profit. Bottom line is that their interest is with the investors and making them money. They will keep prices down only so far as to keep the business coming in the door but to do that, they must also keep costs down which isn’t in the best interest of the employees all the time but it is all for the purpose of finding the best economic balance to gain the greatest profit. That is where unions come in. They fight to keep a reasonable wage, benefits and safety for the employee, which can sometimes cost the customer in the price of goods and the investor in profit margins. Teachers unions handle the same role, fighting for class size, wages, benefits and working hours.

So, what of this union? A coworker and good friend said it best, this isn’t a professional organization but rather a trade organization. Teachers want to be treated like a doctor or lawyer but are represented like a laborer or operational engineer. This isn’t meant to be offensive as I have friends and family in both but the tactics employed by our union bear striking resemblance to those of other trade unions. The image of a construction worker or truck driver picketing in front of a business is sometimes enough to drive scabs away but that of Mrs. Johnson, our 3rd grade teacher, or Mr. Wilson, the lovable English teacher, doesn’t strike fear into our hearts. Unions have history in organized crime, they have had to employ violent techniques or aggressive means to meet demands, things teachers just are not built for.

Instead we want to be treated and respected for the service we employ just like a doctor or lawyer. We sacrifice our economic futures to a point to give back to the community as a teacher and all many ask for is a small level of respect and at least a salary that will cover the cost of our degrees, which everyone must get to become a teacher, and to live a decent lifestyle were we aren’t worried about if we will have enough to pay the power or if the car will continue to get us to work. No one is asking for the mansions and the yachts, we don’t expect to drive the BMWs and Benz but we expect that the years of education, the service and sacrifice we give to Americas children, will afford us a midsize Ford and a basic home to raise a family in. Is the American dream too much to ask for to those who help all of us reach that dream?

Now, is this union broke or broken? I don’t know and frankly I don’t care. There is only so much I can care about so this is one of my sacrificial lambs. For those who feel it is time to get rid of the union, both teachers and public, I ask you, what would this past years budget cuts and reform movements been like without the speed bump that is the union? Class sizes? Schools were seriously discussions 4 day weeks and student numbers above 50. For a nation that claims our schools are failing and need to be reformed, how in any way would this help? How about cuts to wages and benefits? I ask any of you, with a 4 year degree or above, would you become a teacher at that price? Sure there are many people with no degree who would take the job but that isn’t the option and would you really want someone who skipped college to be the example of a path to college to students?

And frankly how many people want a job that requires them to stand in front of a class of 30-50 students for an hour to and hour and a half, 3-6 times a day, no running to the bathroom unless it is an emergency, no break for the most part as students are standing at the door when you walk in and you are pushing them out at night, then you get a whole hour to hour and a half to grade, plan and prepare for the 200-280 students you have (have you read the great works from out nations average and below average youth, then try grading it). That isn’t to mention the sports, clubs, meetings, paperwork for IEPS, behavior plans, parent emails, student emails, collaboration groups, department meetings, events, assemblies, awards nights, student orientations, parent nights, plays, music recitals and not to mention if you have your own children’s schools events as well. Let’s not get into the trainings, requirements for furthering our education, conferences and keeping up on the latest trends to keep the material fresh (watching Jersey Shore to make references to it should come with hazard pay alone).

And don’t give me the weekend, holiday, summers off argument. The 60-80 hour work weeks all year long more than make up for it. Bare minimal I arrive at 6:30 daily and stay until between 3 and 4:30 primarily trying to grade the students work or tutoring those who come in for the help and that’s not to mention the evenings where I might be grading or lesson planning, in trainings and professional development, at a club or sports event, running a club or sports event, or answering emails from parents, students and other staff.

No one complains when the accountant pulls massive hours during tax season then takes a month off or a lawyer takes a break after the big case or the game developers relax some once the game ships. But that’s not to say we are sitting around the house staring at a wall. At least I’m not. I’m evaluating my lessons from the previous year, traveling around locally to learn more history to add to my curriculum, attending summer institutes to become a better teacher and to learn the changes to my subject, beefing up on the latest research, or shockingly, helping out former students who are off into the “real world” now and are still looking for advice and guidance. I know that not all teachers do these things and many shouldn’t do nearly as much as I sometimes do but removing the union doesn’t solve this problem. In fact it can compound the issues. In my limited years of teaching, I have seen too many teachers leave just because they work twice as hard teaching and for half the money than they made in the private sector.

As for the ones actually caught in the middle of this, the students. Let’s be real, if the student is coming to school hungry, or worried if their brother is going to get shot by the local gang or while deployed in Iraq, or if their father will be able to keep his job, or if the family is going to have to move again because of the unemployment or any of a vast amount of reasons, then is it the teacher that has failed or the union for that matter. Maybe it is society, which teachers and everyone else is a part of, that has failed. To blame one group is to remove blame from the rest of us.

We are notorious as a people for deflecting our own misgivings on to others. Schools are messed up or unions have powerful contract, then it’s the unions and teachers fault? Why not the school districts and administrations fault for agreeing to the contract or the politicians and the voters who supported them for appointing and agreeing to the demands? Why do we blame the winners instead of going after the losers for not being good enough? Why do we blame others for our inadequacies? You don’t like the union contracts, renegotiate. If your a teacher and you don’t like the union, get more involved, change it.

And if the other side gets all they want, the society can deal with the continued exodus of teachers, some bad but many that are good, as this profession slowly gets turned into a peace corps where young idealistic college grads, many from top universities but wildly uninformed to the tragedy of the inner city, volunteer a couple years to rebuilding an inner city school instead of the African village or Haiti, then move on to allow the next group to come in but in the end doing little long term progress as they aren’t around to ever see it through. Make teaching more and more unattractive and let’s see the quality of teacher we get and with that, the quality of student they help shape that then gets sent into our work world to help secure and stabilize America’s future and prosperity and with that, our generations retirement. I’m sure it will all work out in the end.

In the end, teachers need a different type of organization to represent us but laws the way they are and society the way it is, this is the group we are stuck with. And the biggest problem that this brings is that society seems to associate the actions and views of the union with those of the common teacher. The news loves to bring on the union heads to debate the politicians, educrates, and fake reformers more interested in selling a product or book. What is lost is the classroom teacher. And bottom line is that most will never hear from that teacher because as I hopefully showed, they are too damn busy and concerned with your children to make the time to get that involved in the politics of the job. Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, stop teaching and find a way to bash it daily for a paycheck.

To end this and many more in the future, I’m taking a page from my favorite commentator, TryHardNinja.

If you comment the blog, please rate/share the blog. If you like the blog, please subscribe. As always this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.