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Adventures in Gender-Specific Language

My mother once called me from Chicago to ask, “What’s another word for manhole?” No introduction, no context, just the question.

I offered “utility cover” and we both hemmed and hawed as it was a replacement but not the same. She pulled the phone about a millimeter from her face, yelled the suggestion to someone I presume was standing a mile away, gave me a harried thanks, and hung up.

Later it would emerge that she was the editor on a wiki project and helping a team update text. The round discs embedded in roads that cover access points to utility services had nearly brought the group to blows. Did the first syllable imply gender? Did it even need to be changed? These are things my mother worries about in her retirement and I hope it remains the most stressful thing she worries about.

Language is a wonderful, messy thing. It can lift us up but it can also hold us back. Whoopi Goldberg once said in an interview: an actress can only play a woman. I’m an actor I can play anything.

The words we use, the titles we describe can have an impact on how we see the world. One of my recent favorite reads, The Notorious RBG talks about Justice Ginsberg’s first argument before the Supreme Court. Not yet an “Honorable,” she used Ms. as her title, even after getting married in 1953. The court’s security knew she was a female lawyer and handed her a bar admissions card that read, ‘Mrs. Ruth Ginsburg.’ No doubt, for the Notorious RBG it was NBD as she won her argument on behalf of a husband who had been denied equal benefits by the Air Force.

Niki Nakayama is not a chefess, she’s a chef.
Ava DuVernay is not a dictoress, she’s a director.
John Williams isn’t a composer, he’s a …. [record scratch]

[I’ll admit I didn’t search terribly hard but I wasn’t able to find any titles that implied male and evolved to be gender-neutral. Heck, I couldn’t even think of what a masculine suffix looks like in the English language. The closest I came was –bro but I don’t think that counts.]

Frustratingly enough, gendered words persist. In the midst of this great article about Graham Windham is the phrase, “Mrs. Hamilton served as its first directress for 27 years.” It’s a fantastic piece and rather than thinking about the story, I wandered off into: what information do the letters -ss serve that the title Mrs. doesn’t? Didn’t Mrs. and “widow of Alexander Hamilton” effectively communicate she identified as female?  Did someone add those letters because she held the position in the early 1800’s? Did the editor sneeze when reading and missed it? How might Carly Fiorina react to being called a “candidatess” for president?

Musing on that article aside, the inverse linguistic habit often pops up frequently. When gender is unknown, we’re predisposed to default to “he“, even when the writer is a cis-gendered woman or girl. We’re so used to “he” and masculine as the default, that we notice “she’s” or experience observational selection bias wherein we notice several female names or stories in a row. (As an aside, the women of the Missed in History podcast are fantastic at calling out readers’ letters when they complain about “too many women.”)

Cast a group of funny men in a movie and it’s a comedy.
Cast a group of funny women in a movie and it’s a “chick flick.”
Write a novel about a man and his family? It’s literary fiction.
Write a novel about a woman and her family? It’s “women’s fiction.
Boys play district-supported sports? Give them a mascot.
Girls play district-supported sports? Add Lady or -ette to the mascot.

Chris Lehmann brought it up this summer on Twitter and received several “yeah, we do that” or “Well, what about?” responses. In each case, it raises a compelling question about how we talk about, define, and describe the things that girls do. What are the implications when we define their sports teams or clubs by the fact they’re not boys? There’s evidence to suggest that it’s harmful for girls and it serves little purpose other than to say, “the body under this uniform belongs to a girl.”

While writing this post, I wandered through some of my old Tweets and once upon a time, I used to call out gendered language like it was the reason I thought Twitter was invented. Then I got smacked down. And told I was wrong and didn’t get the author’s intent. And slowly, I stopped. Now when I do it, I often add a ” 🙂 ” at the end to mean,  “Look, I know you’re not a sexist prat. But come on, please think about what you’re saying and the words you use.”

My new habit is to climb right into threads, uninvited, when I see a series of white, male avatars talking about problems with the teaching profession and all the things that a profession that is 75% female has done wrong. I’m thinking it’s the next level of the work: to figure out and unpack to how feminism, especially intersectionality, can be a force for addressing many of the problems in the modern education system.

But, hey, whadda I know? I’m just a bloggess. And not even the cool one.

Postscript 1: None of this is to say we shouldn’t attend to sex and gender or should ban related words. The US women’s soccer team call each other “girl” and talk about their “girls club.” Rusty Young, Katie Youngs, and Sarah Thomas were all the “first female” to hold their particular job titles (flight crew chief on a carrier, Blue Angels pilot, NFL ref.) You cannot be what you cannot see is one of my favorite sayings as for me, it speaks to the need for children to see what’s possible. It’s our job as adults to elevate and celebrate voices, names, and faces that are “firsts.”

Postscript 2: “Gender-specific language” describes words that imply gender such as “actress.” As our language evolves to include, rather than exclude, members of the trans* community and as our understanding of the relationship between sex and gender expands, a new moniker may be coined.

Postscript 3: If you’re a fellow podcast junkie, I strongly recommend adding PostBourgie to your feed and start with Episode #38: Race is Always the Issue. Tressie McMillian Cottom guests to speak about her article in The Atlantic of the same name. Her article paired with Black Girls Should Matter, Too should result in any self-professed feminist realizing that if the work isn’t intersectional, it ain’t the real work.

Postscript 4: Soraya Chemaly gave a TedX talk on this very topic!

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For want of a sledgehammer…

According to ESSA, all districts and schools that receive public funds must administer a math and ELA test to at least 95% of their students in grades three through eight, and in High School, once a year.

There is no opinion in that statement. No claim. Nothing to refute or disprove. It is what it is.
There are basically three ways the system can respond to this fact. At the upper level, state ed leaders can:
  1. design and administer tests that look like current ones
  2. design and administer tests that look different
  3. ignore it

Door #3 isn’t really an option as Massachusetts’ attempt at two tests has shown the feds aren’t messing around. Gambling with the dollars that most likely support students in low-resource schools and districts isn’t something states should be doing. (I’m looking at state’s responses here – what an individual parent of a child in public ed can do is a different matter.)

 New Hampshire not only went through Door #2, they kicked it off its hinges. ESSA allows for more states to apply for that path, so here’s hoping lots of states have the courage to do it. This path though, isn’t easy. It requires an incredible amount of work to shift from machine scored, multiple choice tests to capstone projects or portfolios. Time and money. Yet, these kinds of assessments are a worthy goal. They embed diagnostic, interim, and summative assessments into the curriculum and turn tests from something done to students to learning experiences and tasks done with and for them. This ideally is where I’d hope we head as a country. 
So that leaves Door #1 – tests that look like what we have now (25 Multiple Choice questions based off a passage or math problems plus a few extended writing or problem-solving tasks). The challenge is with this approach is, as the cliche says, “what gets measured, gets done.” If there’s poetry on the test, so goes the thinking, teachers will be sure to include poetry in their curriculum. This strikes me as a Faustian bargain. There’s no denying that the content of state tests dictates what happens in the classroom – we’ve known that for years. That said, there is space to push back. Schools and districts can and tdo. The larger issue here is if state tests should treated like the tail that wags the dog (driving curriculum) or a flea on its back (a minor annoyance).
What if, perhaps, there was a door 1.5? One solution I’ve been mulling (that I didn’t explain very well on Twitter and am resisting the urge to delete all of the Tweets where I tried) is shifting the nature of what students read on the ELA tests.

So basically, there are two types of texts students can engage with during the state ELA tests – informational or literature. Currently, NCLB/ESSA state tests use a combination of these types which means students are answering multiple choice questions about poetry. Which… ew. I get why it happens. I get why they’re doing it but it remains one of the oddest things to ever emerge from the public education system. When writing state assessments, states have to narrow down the entire pool of standards to what can be captured by a multiple choice item given to all students at the same time. States already leapfrog the Speaking and Listening standards and pick the most meaningful RI or RL standards to focus on.

What if the tests instead left literature alone – recognizing there is rarely one right answer when it comes to interpreting narrative fiction – and only used informational texts? The content could alternate between Science and Social Studies texts. For example, in grade 3, 5, and 7 students would read passages and answer questions about scientific experiments, plants, space, or technology. In grades 4, 6, and 8 they would read questions and passages about American history, events, and people.

Pros:

  • Science and Social Studies would get more attention as background content knowledge will make the passages easier to negotiate (if we assume that the presence of something on the tests ensures teachers teach it)
  • Poetry and literature can return to their rightful place as a deeply personal experience without one forced right answer as determined by one team of adults
  • Test designers can make explicit connections to states’ SS and Science standards, making the tests primarily an ELA/Reading test, but aligned to the other content that students experience

Con:

  • It runs the risk of chasing poetry and literature right out of the classroom – if they’re not going to be on the test, will ELA teachers include them? (I say yes but your mileage may vary)
  • Literature is a key part of English Language Arts curriculum – removing those passages takes it from an ELA test assessing 4 of the 6 CCLS areas to 3 of the 6 (Language, Writing, Reading Informational Texts). The loss of literature passages may cause content and construct validity issues.

Right now, I’m kind of love with this idea. Keep in mind, though, that I’m MORE in love with the idea of portfolio, capstone, and performance-based assessments as the annual measure. If told door #2 isn’t a viable option, I’d love to find the nearest sledgehammer and make a space between door #1 and #2.

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To fail or not to fail

There’s a compelling challenge around the word “fail” and all it’s derivatives. If we accept the truth that the words that we use shape our reality, it becomes especially troublesome given the current climate.

On one hand, we’ve got the idea behind makerspaces, hacking, and a call to help students experience failure and success like Jessica Lahey describes in her book. Failure is good.

On the other, we’ve got bloggers writing extended thought pieces about how many and why children fail the tests. We’ve got public school advocates talking about failing schools. Failure is bad.

Failing. Failure. Fail. Where I a linguist, I would be studying the ever loving daylights out the fact that those with opposite positions on so many issues in public ed use the same word in so much the same way. Which of course, raises questions:

  • Why are we using the very language we want students to embrace to create a climate of fear?
  • What makes an eight-year-old think they failed a test?
  • Who is it that describes schools as failing?

I spoke up once about this tension before and was told in no uncertain terms: “until you are appointed my editor, I will use the word “fail” to describe these lousy tests in every way possible.” I wrote a post about the semantics of state tests and was told that we don’t have to use the words “failure” for an eight year old to know they failed.

 So which is it?
If it’s the former, failure is good, then let’s stop talking about kids failing a test they can’t fail. Let’s stop talking about failing schools and talk about under-resourced schools. Let’s force people to talk about specifics instead of abstracts.
If it’s the later, and failure is bad, then why are we surprised when high schoolers are afraid to try or kids are stressed about taking a state test that has no tangible impact on them?
In either case, I suspect if we don’t our linguistic house in order, the feedback loop continues.
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What do we lose due to Opt Out? What do we gain?

It is not my place to say if a parent’s decision to have their child not take a state test is the right or wrong call. Rest assured, there are plenty of people willing to say it’s their right and must happen or those who say no, don’t. As Joey would say, my take on it is a cow’s opinion. It’s a moo point. If you’re curious, though, I’ve shared it here.

Defenders of the “right to opt out” claim have a wide variety of opinions behind that claim. In my particular neck of the woods, the claim goes back to parents’ rights and policy related to teacher accountability. In other areas, especially NYC and Chicago, it’s about larger systemic issues, equity, and the impact of how test scores are used to close schools.

Critiques of the “right to opt out” claim generally fall back on the “it’s the law” rationale and point to No Child Left Behind (now ESSA) 95% testing mandate. Some will attempt to speak to the benefit the scores provide schools and parents, which at times, acts like gasoline on the fires kindled by the opt-out movement.

So here we are at the end of 2015, gearing up for 2016 and the buzz of large-scale testing endures. New York State tests are in April and I’ve already seen a flyers in store windows, letters to the editors, blog posts and tweets telling parents to Opt Out now; that this year’s opt-out numbers need to be the highest ever. To which, I wonder:

Why? And at what cost? What do we gain due to the Opt Out movement? What do we lose?

The Opt Out movement has given the system energy it hasn’t seen in decades. It’s given parents a name to use to describe their frustrations with school and an outlet for action. Opt Out allows parents to *do* something. Turning frustration into action is mighty, powerful thing.

The Opt Out movement is working to deprive a massive system of consistent, reliable data. This year’s third graders are the first group to take state tests who have only known Common Core. Without state testing data, educational researchers lose key information they need to look at interventions and figure out what works. A quick review of Google Scholar reveals over 8,000 studies and articles published since 2005 that use No Child Left Behind mandated state test scores to look at the success of funding initiatives, after school programs, to defend art and music programs, and to explore different curriculum programs.

The Opt Out movement has forced a long overdue conversation around what constitutes quality testing. Parents are looking carefully and closely at testing items and raising important questions about how we capture evidence of student learning. Since the Opt Out movement overlaps with the anti-Common Core movement, conversation around textbooks, curriculum, and homework has hit the mainstream.

The Opt Out movement is making it difficult for the layperson to understand what constitutes quality testing. State tests typically go through several rounds of design. The process includes field testing, statistical analysis, final eyes review, and teacher analysis. I’ve written before on how terrible adults are at predicting item difficulty and PineappleGate and the implication that an adult can recognize a bad item on sight is making the conversation harder.

Commissioner Elia shared what she’s doing to attend to the Opt Out issue. Yet, it’s a loud, local, and unstructured movement. Organizations representing some members proclaim opt outs will continue until, for the lack of a better phrase, their demands are met. Those demands, though, seem highly localized. Parent groups in Chicago and NYC have raised issues of equity, funding, and resources. Parents in suburban areas raise issues of teacher evaluation. If teacher evaluation goes away and tests are shortened back to pre-2012 length, will suburban parents opt back in?

It’s pretty clear that a variety of factors contributed to the rise in Opt Outs in NYS: the Regents Reform Agenda, a state commissioner who went out into the field, longer and more challenging tests, etc. etc. So we hit a tipping point. I continue to wonder though if the fall has been worth it. What have we – members of the American public education system, present and future – gained? What have we lost? What has the education profession gained or lost? Will it be worth it? How will we know?

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How responsible are we for the behavior of others?

A former colleague in a teacher workgroup I belonged to designed a unit around the question: How responsible are we for the behavior of others? When she spoke about how her 5th graders wrestled with the essential question, she spoke about the direction their questions and inquiry followed. Rather than focusing on the powerful dynamic between the bully and their target, the students wanted to talk about those bystanders. What do we do? Is it my responsibility to stop the behavior of someone else? Is it my job as a fellow student to speak up in defense of the target? What if the bully then turns their attention to me? It’s safe to assume students look to adults to figure out the right thing to do.

There are entire TV shows devoted to what adults do in the 3D world in situations in which it appears someone is the target of a bully. We study the bystander effect. We re-frame bystanders as upstanders. Trump is a prime example of a society wrestling with how we deal with an adult who says and does things that are clearly offensive. (Spoiler alert: His actions cause us to seek out tribes. If what he says resonate, you want to connect with others that feel the same. If what he says is offensive, you want to connect with others that feel the same.)

The edu-twitter and blogsphere is a different challenge. Education chats happen regularly. Education-related tweeters return to threads that are days, weeks, sometimes months or years old. With Trump and other examples of bullying, in the “real” world, we have multiple data points to inform our conclusions about the speaker. We hear his voice, we see his body language and facial expressions. We see how his words are often a direct response to the feedback he gets from his audience. We don’t have that in 140 characters.

So, this morning, I’m wondering – what’s our obligation to our profession? How responsible are we for the behavior of others? If someone says something sexist, racist, or factually incorrect, do we speak up?

No. As long as the sexist, racist words aren’t directed at someone, no one is being hurt. The reader has no idea what the Twitter user’s intent is and their gaffe may just be a sloppy or lazy word choice. More the point, it’s not an individual’s responsibility to police others’ words, thoughts, or actions. Report offensive behavior, ignore offensive words.

Yes. The lack of a specific audience doesn’t limit the responsibility we have to speak up for equality and equity. Stereotypes are reinforced when someone makes a statement about a group of people and that statement goes unchecked. It’s not necessary to chastise the speaker but it is critical that educators hold each other accountable for perpetuating stereotypes or inaccuracies.

It depends. If you care, speak up. If you don’t… don’t. I suspect the heart of the matters lies less around who and when we speak up and more around what we do when someone brings a word or a phrase to our attention. Does it cause us to double-down on our thinking or double-check our work and language and clarify as needed. It remains that we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their impact. So it would seem that when it comes to this particular essential question, I have no answer.

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Should have known better… AKA “Common Sense”

More than one person with a public image has proclaimed Ahmed Mohamed should have known better. He, a 14-year-old boy with a Muslim name, should have known how his teachers would have responded to him bringing a device with wires to school.

He should have used common sense.

More than one educator has criticized Cheryl LaPorte for including a task where students copied an Islamic religious phrase in order to get a sense of the complexity of Arabic writing. She should have known how students and parents in her school district would respond.

She should have used common sense.
One child brought a textbook publisher’s image and word choice to his mother’s attention who then brought the image to the media. As the conversation expanded, people commented that the publishers should have done better. They should have known that it was misleading to refer to slaves as “workers”, in the same category as immigrants or indentured servants with a chance at freedom. 
They should have used common sense.

In each of these cases, someone has used the phrase “common sense” to defend the exactly opposite position.

  • Ahmed’s defenders said his teachers should have used common sense before responding. It was a clock.
  • LaPorte’s defenders said concerned parents should use common sense before responding. The Shahada isn’t a magical incantation. Simply writing the phrase doesn’t make one Muslim.
  • The publishing company defenders said readers should have used common sense before responding. The word choice in the single image isn’t indicative of the entire slavery-related curriculum.
With respect to Thomas Paine, an appeal to “common sense” is a lazy and counter-productive way to engage in discourse in a multi-cultural, diverse, society with multiple perspectives. If your reader agrees with you, congrats! You’ve preached to the choir, rallied the troops, and strengthened groupthink. If your reader disagrees with you, congratulations! You’ve shut down the conversation and implied that anyone who disagrees with you lacks basic, common sense.
I’ve reached the conclusion that if we truly want to engage with others, seek to understand, or get where others are coming from, the phrase it’s just “common sense” has got to go. If your fall back position is “it’s just common sense”, consider instead, the power of claims and counterclaims. Also presented as point/counter-point or pro/con, the approach (albeit an approach steeped in Western civilization and not necessarily the best or right way) forces readers and writers to be transparent in their thinking.
Adopting an approach of claim/counterclaim as the writer forces you to see the topic or issue at hand from more than one perspective. More than that, it removes you from the equation. I’ve written before about the challenges of confirmation bias and the challenges of changing one another’s mind. One way to ensure your reader won’t change their mind is to suggest that you are right and they are wrong. Using claim and counterclaim is a small step towards checking your own biases and actively working to see the other position.
An example: 
Claim: Given recent events, students should get every opportunity to see and interact with the complex stories, people, and aspects of the Muslim faith in order to combat stereotypes.
Counterclaim: Given recent events, teachers should back off of teaching about aspects of the Muslim faith that goes beyond the basics. 
Neither is about me, my opinion, or my experiences. Both can be supported or refuted with evidence. One isn’t right and one isn’t wrong. For me, the power of writing down a counterclaim is that it forces me to literally think from the “other side.” Not the other side of the issue mind you – it’s hubris to suggest all situations are ORs – rather, from the other side of my claim. As a reader, you can refute my claim with a different one or re-state the counterclaim so that it better matches your take on the situation. Pick a topic you’re passionate about and give it a try. 
See how it feels and then put your claim out there – and be open the counterclaim. 
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Cuomo and Tests

While it’s not exactly an air of something rotten in the state, there is certainly an eau de confusion in the Empire State. I have long been a fan of our state’s history, especially when it comes to education and I suspect 2012-2015 will be the basis for a chapter or two in future books on the topic. You know, all those books, that are written on the history of education in NY. The many, many books.

This by Chalkbeat does a nice job summarizing where things stand now in terms of teacher evaluation. It remains, alas, until the guidance documents are released by SED, it’s a lot of speculation around the edges and on email listservs. 

In the meantime, Governor Cuomo is providing his commentary.

Cuomo, asked by a reporter why he decided to reverse his stance and delink the tests from the teacher evaluation, said that’s an incorrect characterization.

“I think if you read the report you’re going to find out that your two questions are not accurate,” Cuomo said. “There are teacher evaluations that are in the report and they are connected with tests.”

Here’s the thing that I will *not* stop shouting. I will stomp my foot, beat my breast, and sealion ALL over Twitter threads that claim the contrary.

There. Is. Nothing. In. APPR. That. Requires. Tests.* (in the traditional sense as we think of them or as, I suspect, Cuomo thinks of them.)

It’s possible to calculate growth scores without using a 0-100 numerical scale.
It’s possible to collect pre/post data using authentic, meaningful tasks.
It’s possible to capture evidence of student learning without a bubble sheet and #2 pencil.
It’s possible to leverage this mandate so that school is better for students, not worse.

It’s not only possible, it’s necessary. This is an unprecedented chance to do the really hard work of creating assessments that are done with, not to, students. It’s a chance to make another crack in the wall between curriculum and assessment. The hard part is that schools need to time to revise and strengthen assessments so they meet the APPR criteria so let’s hope they get it. Teachers need space to organize their thinking about target setting and they need tools to ensure their assessments are quality.

*For the “locally-designed” AKA SLO component.

(It can be done. It is being done. I’m happy to share. Feel free to tweet me at @JennLCI, check out a conference session I did on the topic, or drop me a line.)

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Part 4: 50 States, 50 Sets of Standards v. One Country, One Set of Standards

Part 1, the introduction, is here.
Part 2, a defense of resource sharing, is here.
Part 3, an analogy that fewer choices helps us be more creative, here.

Part 4: I give.

This morning on NPR, Shankar Vedantam reminded listeners that we don’t change our minds. It’s similar to a This American Life episode that became the basis for a unit and curriculum I helped design that invited students to compare Regents writing to “real” writing. The task was organized around the essential question: What’s the point of writing an argumentative essay if we rarely change our minds? 

 
I’ve reached the inevitable conclusion that there doesn’t seem to be a point. Vedantam’s gist was a bit more nuanced: we can change others’ minds but not unless we find the right framework.
I can’t seem to find the words to persuade someone who believes 50 sets (actually 1000 when you add all up) is better than one, or 20, set(s). I’m not sure how to convince someone who thinks “locally-grown” standards are inherently better because they were written by teachers with a particular accent as opposed to those with accents from multiple states and regions. I’d like to think someone making the alternate claim could find the words to get me to change my mind, but I’m not persuaded by quotes from long-dead Founding Fathers or a general claim of “because it’s better” or “we were fine before this particular set of standards.” I’ll do my best to keep my mind open, though, and keep looking.
So I conclude my series by conceding. Tribe mentality in runs deep. We get a bee in our bonnet, a hum in our dinger, we set up camp and call it home. I’m not sure if I’m a counselor at Camp Common Core but I am on team “Let’s Save Teachers’ Time” and a card-carrying member of the “We Can’t Go Back in Time” club. And yet… and yet….
 
A writing standard from a national set of standards: Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases.
 
A writing standard from a state-developed set of standards:
  • Challenge or support a point of view with supportive facts and opinions 
  • Compare differing points of view in order to draw conclusions 
  • Determine the validity of both sides of an argument, supporting or refuting one or both sides of the argument
I’m struck by the similarities. And differences. Both require we help students see the other side of an argument. The first one asks that students consider their audience when writing and to be fair. The second one is about challenging and determining validity. In both cases, I wonder – what are the implications when the adults in students’ lives struggle with the demands of the standard? How do we model these standards or find anchors for them if adults are so rarely willing to do it ourselves?
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Part 3: 50 States, 50 Sets of Standards v. One Country, One Set of Standards

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here

Freedom to innovate.
Ability to be more nimble.
Unique state personalities.

Laboratories of Innovation
The 10th Amendment.

When I’ve asked those who are staunchly against the idea one set of standards or read their writing, there’s generally a pattern. If the person has identified as against a particular set of standards, the response is generally about how horrible, terrible that particular set of standards is.* If not, the response tends to be around the reasons listed above. My take away from these conversations and readings is that if each state is allowed to develop their own content standards, then they’ll be able to experiment with new ideas and meet the unique needs of their students. I disagree.

My claim: One country with one set of learning standards helps increase educational innovation.

If you haven’t heard her name yet, I’d like to introduce you to Frances Tariga Weshnak. She’s a chef and all-around badass. She speaks multiple languages and forged a life for herself after her father kicked her out as a teenager. Right now, she’s a part of Top Chef Season 13 but I first saw her on Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen.

Alas, last week Frances was asked to pack her knives and leave Top Chef. She knew it was coming as soon as time was called and when she presented her dish, my husband and I commented on the difference between this chef and the one we saw on the other shows. Granted, editing may have a great deal to do with but I’d like to use Frances to support my claim that having fewer options can make us more creative.

On Chopped, chefs are given four ingredients and a pantry. Frances was amazing. She was confident, assertive, and a problem-solver.

On Cutthroat Kitchen, chefs are given a dish to cook and access to a pantry for 1 minute. Frances excelled. She dealt with any sabotages thrown her way and served up three great dishes.

On Top Chef, chefs are given a meal theme and access to a grocery store and a budget. Frances floundered. She kept changing her mind, substituting ingredients, and doubting herself. She appeared to spend so long figuring how to start, she didn’t have enough time to ensure it was a quality dish.

The sheer number of decisions that teachers have to make is astounding. What resources to use, which instructional strategies to use when, which is the right way to frame a question, how to best capture evidence of student learning through assessment, when to push, when to hold back. How to make content relevant for each and every child. If teachers start with the same standards – the grains of sand that make up the castle of a child’s education – it is easier to share resources, it is easier to share lessons from experimentation, it’s easier to focus on what matters. Kate, a math educator, made a similar point as a comment on Part 2.

With a shared set of standards, teachers at least have a shared, specific starting point. When innovation happens, there’s one less variable that has to be eliminated in order to figure out what made the innovation successful. With 50 sets of standards, the starting point is “Math” or “Science.” Finland, a country held up as an example by some of the same people who cite the reasons at the top of this blog, has national standards. New Zealand, a personal favorite of mine in terms of culturally competent ed and quality assessment practices, has national standards. For me, this really goes back to the issue of 50 states or one country. Do we want innovation to stay locked at the state level or do we want it to go national?

*Most people tend to hate on the Common Core when it comes to “one set of standards.” It’s worth noting that the following content areas have national standards, and in some cases have had them for years:

Dance (as a form of expression)
Dance (as a physical activity)

Mathematics (From National Council of Teachers of Mathematics-foundation for CCSS-M)
Technology
Business Education
Computer Science
Supporting Gifted Learners
Supporting Students Learning English

The National Council of Teachers of English has their own philosophy set of standards around reading and writing English

Ready for Part 4, the conclusion? Have at it!

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Part 2: 50 States, 50 Sets of Standards v. One Country, One Set of Standards

Part 1 here.

As I suspected, I’ve been reframing my claim as I’ve been writing and reflecting. My original claim: One country with one set of learning standards helps reduce teachers’ workload and frees up more time to talk about pedagogy.

Where I am today: One country with one set of learning standards helps reduce teachers’ workload.*

How I got there:
There is something delightfully powerful about being in a room when designers are sharing their creations – be it young scientists at a fair or teachers at a conference. I had the pleasure of facilitating a middle-level session during a recent TriState Performance Assessment Design Consortium conference. Teachers from three states shared tasks and assessments they’d designed as a part of a professional development program. Students also attended and participated in an eye-opening panel and were available for questions during a poster session.
Teachers share. There have always been task, lesson, unit, and assessment warehouses. Teacher Pay Teachers didn’t invent something new, they just monetized it. For decades, there was a teacher store in my area whose stock came entirely from retiring teachers or those leaving the profession. New teachers who bought the contents of a retiring teacher’s filing cabinet could be fairly confident the materials were quality and would work in their school as they came from local teachers. The store closed at just about the same time as the internet became ubiquitous and sharing moved online.
Now, when a teacher is looking for a task for a particular purpose, the process usually starts something like this:
  1. google the term or concept or visit a favorite website
  2. filter through search results to find something that looks interesting and applicable
  3. review the selected task to figure out if it’ll work in her state
  4. revise the task as needed to make it work in her state, for her students, and with available resources
Teachers didn’t need one set of standards to share lesson plans, units, or curriculum. One set of standards, though, makes it easier. At the PADI conference a 6th grade ELA teacher from NY could sit in on a session with an ELA teacher from CT and know that the task would align to her state standards. A teacher in a CC-adopting state can go to any number of websites:

Rest assured, I’m fully aware of the counter-claims about this level of standardization. I’ve been told several times that the coding and organization of CCLS is about publishers and technology, not teaching. I’ll leave it to those making that claim to defend it. I’m having a hard time seeing, though, how making it harder for teachers to share quality resources is a good thing.

*I’m working around to the idea that 50 versions of that one set is better than one identical set. Still mulling that over.

Part 3 here.

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