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Why Are middle school curriculums so different? And should every 6th grader be expected to learn the same things? What should every sixth-grader know?

These questions have been on my mind since I began my second round of District Two middle school tours in Manhattan this fall.

I’m trying to find the best fit for my 5th-grade son, but I’m also trying to figure out what is actually taught in 6th grade, why each school approaches it so differently and how much it ultimately matters. How does one define a good education?

Should 6th graders study Newton and the Laws of Nature, The Rise of Napoleon and Greek and Latin Roots? Should they learn trillions, integers and square roots? Child Labor and Mexican Independence? The French Revolution and Ancient Rome? In what grade and in what sequence?

All of the above are among the suggestions for 6th graders by noted author and educator E. D. Hirsch Jr. in What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know.

I read the book recently and had the chance to spend some time with Hirsch at a conference. I noticed that only some of his suggestions have made it into the middle schools I’ve visited so far.

Hirsch says parents should examine curriculums to make sure that “they spell out, in clear and concrete terms a core of specific content and skills all children at a particular grade level are expected to learn by the end of the school year.’’ I have yet to leave a tour with a curriculum in hand, although I always try to ask what will be taught.

So far, it seems to vary widely from school to school – and often changes from year to year.Hirsch touched off a debate when he wrote a book called Cultural Literacy, Hirsch rejects the idea that a set curriculum is either authoritarian or conservative, instead describing it as “super democratic.’’

I can’t help wondering, as I continue these tours, who makes the decision in each school for what must be taught, beyond what will be on state tests that schools are increasingly judged – and graded on.

Whether or not you agree with Hirsch’s assessments of what every 6th grader should know – and many don’t -- the questions he raises seem both worthwhile and interesting to pose on tours.

I’ll try to find more answers.

Read all of Liz Willen's Middle School Muddle

Why Are middle school curriculums so different? And should every 6th grader be expected to learn the same things? What should every sixth-grader know?

These questions have been on my mind since I began my second round of District Two middle school tours in Manhattan this fall.

I’m trying to find the best fit for my 5th-grade son, but I’m also trying to figure out what is actually taught in 6th grade, why each school approaches it so differently and how much it ultimately matters. How does one define a good education?

Should 6th graders study Newton and the Laws of Nature, The Rise of Napoleon and Greek and Latin Roots? Should they learn trillions, integers and square roots? Child Labor and Mexican Independence? The French Revolution and Ancient Rome? In what grade and in what sequence?

All of the above are among the suggestions for 6th graders by noted author and educator E. D. Hirsch Jr. in What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know.

I read the book recently and had the chance to spend some time with Hirsch at a conference. I noticed that only some of his suggestions have made it into the middle schools I’ve visited so far.

Hirsch says parents should examine curriculums to make sure that “they spell out, in clear and concrete terms a core of specific content and skills all children at a particular grade level are expected to learn by the end of the school year.’’I have yet to leave a tour with a curriculum in hand, although I always try to ask what will be taught.

So far, it seems to vary widely from school to school – and often changes from year to year.Hirsch touched off a debate when he wrote a book called Cultural Literacy, Hirsch rejects the idea that a set curriculum is either authoritarian or conservative, instead describing it as “super democratic.’’

I can’t help wondering, as I continue these tours, who makes the decision in each school for what must be taught, beyond what will be on state tests that schools are increasingly judged – and graded on.

Whether or not you agree with Hirsch’s assessments of what every 6th grader should know – and many don’t -- the questions he raises seem both worthwhile and interesting to pose on tours.

I’ll try to find more answers.

NAEP results out, city kids either improving or stagnant

Written by Admin Thursday, 15 November 2007 12:21

Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress tests are out, and New York City kids did great! Or not. Let's see what folks have to say about the results of the test considered "the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas."

"City Students Stalled on National Education Tests," from the Sun: "Scores on a math test for fourth-graders went up, but others are statistically flat since 2005.""New York City Public School Students Make Gains on 2007 NAEP tests," a DOE press release: "New York City students made impressive gains on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, with particularly significant progress achieved by 4th graders in mathematics compared to their peers in other cities and by Black 4th-grade students in both reading and math."

Who's right? You be the judge. Check out the scores in math and English for yourself.

JC Brizard to head Rochester public schools

Written by Admin Thursday, 15 November 2007 12:00

Farewell to DOE administrator Jean-Claude Brizard, who has been offered the Rochester superintendency. We're sure he'll do a great job there. It's just too bad the DOE didn't want to hold on to him.

Student Thought: A solution to the cell phone issue

Written by Admin Thursday, 15 November 2007 07:28

Today, it was reported that the DOE's plan to install cell phone lockers outside of several schools has been put on hold. This plan was created as a possible resolution to the cell phone ban, the contentious rule that states that NYC students are not allowed to have their cell phones in school, even if they are turned off.

In short, the ban is wrong because it puts students, who commute up to four hours per day, into an unsafe situation because it takes away their main line of communication with parents and the police in the event of an emergency. This is in turn contributes to distrust between students and that makes the already difficult tasks of teaching and learning slightly more impossible.This new plan of building lockers outside of school in which students would pay to store their cell phones is a waste of money. The safety issues that transparent outdoor lockers raise are to complicated to resolve. It doesn't adequately relieve the distrust in our schools. And it does not address the real issue that the cell phone ban is trying to address: academic integrity.

The main reason that Bloomberg has articulated in support of the ban is that students misuse cell phones in class. He says that students make calls and text messages in class and use their cell phones to cheat on tests. While my first instinct is to ask the mayor why he does not ban pen and paper from schools (because if you did a statistical analysis of cheating in NYC schools I'm sure you'd find that students use those as means of cheating much more often than they use cell phones), I believe that it is more important to propose a simple and effective solution to the issue of students misusing cell phones in class.

Instead of banning cell phones and creating a host of new problems, or building super-high-tech-theft-proof-safety-guaranteed-outdoor-transparent cell phone lockers and wasting too much of the DOE's valuable funds, why don't you just LOWER CLASS SIZES!

A student won't get away with using a cell phone in a class of 25! They just won't. And by lowering class sizes you will also increase the amount of actual education that goes on in our school because teachers will be able to develop better learning relationships with their students. As a high school teacher told me, "Lowering class size would fix everything." Everything including preventing students from misusing their cell phones in class and thus getting rid of the need for a citywide ban.

There you have it: a real solution.

DOE to principals: Fire more teachers!

Written by Admin Thursday, 15 November 2007 04:00

The DOE initiative of the day is to fire more teachers, the Times reports. The city has hired top-notch lawyers to help principals build cases against tenured teachers and is encouraging principals to fire more teachers before they get tenure. UFT head Randi Weingarten is naturally upset, linking the new initiative to the progress reports and saying, “Basically, it’s signaling to principals that rather than working to support teachers, the school system is going to give you a way to try to get rid of teachers.”

A few thoughts: No one wants bad teachers to stick around, but the tone of the DOE's program is just mean. Hiring a former district attorney to supervise the firings? Now being a weak teacher is a crime. Under this system the same people assigned to help struggling teachers are also charged with building the case against them. Will teachers be less likely to seek out help when they are having trouble if needing help can be perceived as a sign of weakness? None of the DOE reforms can succeed without strong teachers who are happy to helm New York City classrooms. Making teachers terrified and suspicious of their supervisors can't be good for morale. And bad morale is bad for kids.

I'd also love to know what the DOE's projections are for how many teachers deserve to be fired each year under the new initiative. Right now about 10-15 tenured teachers are fired each year for "incompetence" and about 65 probationary teachers are not given tenure, the Times reports. How many do the number-crunchers at Tweed think need to be fired? Is it 100? 200? A thousand? I'm sure there are projections. Will principals be held accountable for meeting a purge quota? Will community superintendents? It sounds unsavory but in the data-driven DOE I wouldn't be surprised if school leaders were required to meet some kind of firing-to-student performance ratio.

Finally, we should think about how this push will actually affect the teaching corps in schools. After all, the city does have a hard time finding qualified teachers, especially in math, science, and special education. How many principals will really use the new resources to fire new teachers before they are tenured? I'm guessing that principals in high-turnover schools would often rather take a chance that a struggling new teacher will improve over time than go through the rigmarole of removing him and finding a replacement. So I think we will be more likely to see teachers terminated before they get tenure in more functional schools, where they have a higher chance of getting the resources they would need to improve. (On the other hand, preventing bad teachers who leave good schools from becoming bad teachers at weak schools does need to happen — at the Research Partnership conference I attended in October, one paper showed that that is the typical trajectory for struggling teachers. The paper said that bad teachers, as judged in value-added assessments of student performance, in weak schools were more likely to leave teaching altogether.)

But it's in less functional schools — schools where the principal and his teaching staff might not see eye to eye — that I think we will see more tenured teachers being pursued under the new initiative. I can't tell you how many principals have told me that their school's inability to help students is the fault of experienced teachers who refuse to adopt new programs. I'm sure it's a real problem in breeding a unified teaching staff. But refusing to get with the program du jour is not the same as incompetence and I am concerned that this initiative will allow principals to conflate the two issues. If they are permitted to do so, this could result in even larger numbers of inexperienced but impressionable teachers staffing the most difficult schools with the principals least likely to want to develop them.

Cell phone compromise plan on hold

Written by Admin Wednesday, 14 November 2007 08:25

Whatever happened to the DOE's plan to install lockers outside middle and high schools for kids to stash their banned cell phones during the day? Nothing, it seems. As recently as July we were reading that schools had been selected for the storage pilot, but now the Post reports that the plan has been derailed because of safety concerns. The DOE is now saying the program will kick off by next fall. In the meantime, the DOE will spend this year finding a vendor to provide the lockers and ensure that by next fall every single child will have a cell phone.

CPAC member reports on Queens G&T meeting

Written by Admin Wednesday, 14 November 2007 07:55

Marge Kolb, a CPAC member from Queens, sent Insideschools a report from the Queens meeting last week about the proposed changes to Gifted & Talented admissions procedures. Check out her report, then take a look at the Insideschools calendar for details about the two remaining public meetings.

Puppies in the schools

Written by Admin Wednesday, 14 November 2007 03:26

Here's one way to differentiate instruction for reluctant readers: bring in dogs, as the Bronx New School has done to provide reading partners for shy kids.

When I became president of LaGuardia's student government this year, the first question I felt needed addressing was: Who gets to be on Student Government?

Since I joined SGO in sophomore year, students had been appointed to be representatives by putting in an application consisting of an essay, a recommendation, and their transcript. In most schools, this is an effective way of selecting representatives because there will not always be enough applicants to represent every grade, official class, etc. When I joined, there were about 25 SGO members and I was the only one from my grade. An application process for lower-level officials increases the number of students involved in their school.

However, there were also several requirements for aspiring SGO representatives that I disagreed with. First, applicants had to have a grade point average requirement of 85 or above to be considered. In addition, they had to have a clean dean's record.

My problem with both of these requirements is that they exclude important members of the student community: those who have not succeeded academically and students who have not followed school rules. These students have just as much right to representation as any others. They are also affected by the school's successes and more so by its failures.

For that reason, my fellow officers and I decided to repeal those requirements and since then, the number of SGO representatives has jumped from 46 to over 100, with greater representation of students from every class, major, race and gender.

As we increased in size, we also created a Speaker position. This person would run personnel of SGO and would work on recruiting new representatives, accepting and rejecting applications and helping new members find the committee that they would be best for.

We also created a new Student Opinion Committee: a committee of 15 SGO representatives whose sole job is to research how students feel about the goings-on of our school and then report their findings to the officers so that we could bring them to the school committees that we sit on: Attendance, Safety, and the SLT.