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Del. Teachers Get Close-Up Look at Proposed Standards

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Wilmington, Del.

In one room here at Mount Pleasant High School, the class assessed the properties of various materials out of which T-shirts could be manufactured.

Down the hall, another class used photographs of Native Americans to study the U.S. policy of assimilation in westward expansion.

And so it went throughout Delaware as public school teachers, becoming students for a day, got their first hands-on lesson in the state's ongoing effort to revamp curriculum and assessment.

The in-service meetings, one last week and one the week before, gave teachers a close-up look at the standards initiative.

"We have all these wonderful standards that look terrific. We're coming up with these tasks,'' Bonnie Albertson, the leader of an English-language-arts and social-studies class, told one group of teachers during the Feb. 17 session at Mount Pleasant High. "Now we have to say what is acceptable, how are we going to measure it, and how are the kids going to know.''

"I hope that you all butt in there and make your feelings known,'' said Ms. Albertson, a high school English teacher in the Brandywine Valley district, which includes part of Wilmington, and a member of the state's curriculum-frameworks commission for English and the language arts.

A Preview of Standards

Delaware is among a growing number of states trying to toughen academic standards as a way to improve student performance.

The state's approximately 6,400 public school teachers participated in the mandatory in-service sessions designed to acquaint them with what education officials and business leaders hope will transform public education.

Called New Directions for Education in Delaware, the initiative began in 1992 as a partnership among state and local school officials, higher education, and the business community, which is underwriting a large portion of the $18 million project. (See Education Week, June 17, 1992.)

New Directions focuses on creating content and student-performance standards, as well as frameworks that educators can use to develop curriculum and instruction for their individual districts.

Four curriculum commissions made up of teachers, subject-matter experts, and community leaders are developing the standards and frameworks.

For teachers, the in-service sessions offered a preview of what the commissions have drafted, solicited their input, and enlisted their support for the massive undertaking.

"It accomplished our primary goal: to engage the total profession in an understanding of what we're about and where we're going,'' said Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the state's superintendent of public instruction. "The key now is to be able to craft the quality follow-through.''

Mr. Forgione said it was important to unveil the unfinished work at an early stage in the process. "This exercise showed we have a lot of polishing to do,'' he said. "If you don't let people become part of it early enough, you end up with a complete package people don't want to accept.''

Teachers Take to Task

"The final draft probably isn't going to look anything like this,'' said Ms. Albertson, who spent an afternoon at Mount Pleasant High outlining the work of the English-language-arts commission and then putting teachers through exercises designed for 8th graders.

The tasks previously had been tested on 8th graders. The sample study was small, but it covered students of varying academic levels.

The tasks were structured to incorporate content standards from more than one academic discipline.

The T-shirt task integrated math and science, while the assignment about Native Americans combined English, history, and civics.

Although the teachers were put through the paces of the task in about an hour and a half, students would spend about a week on the unit, leading to a 60- to 90-minute writing assignment, and culminating in a lengthier writing task.

Ms. Albertson first asked the teachers to look at a map of the United States and point out English, Spanish, and French settlements, as well as Native American populations.

"What we want students to see here [is that] conflicts were inevitable,'' Ms. Albertson said.

Teachers, she said, could also spark discussion by talking about contemporary films about frontier life in the American West that many students likely would have seen, such as "The Last of the Mohicans'' and "Dances With Wolves.''

Ms. Albertson next had the teachers read an excerpt from Children of the Wild West by Russell Freedman.

They were then asked to look at a pair of photographs taken in the late 1870's of three somber-looking Native American girls.

The first photo was taken when the girls arrived at an Indian boarding school. They were sitting on the floor, dressed in native garments, and wore their hair in braids.

The second photo, taken 14 months later, shows the girls in European-style clothing, gathered around a checkerboard; with them are a doll on a chair and a book.

Based on the photographs, class members were asked to explain in a paragraph or two the meaning of the pictures to a class of 8th graders who had yet to study the westward expansion.

At the boarding school, the teachers said, attempts had been made to assimilate the girls into Western culture, as dictated by U.S. policy. But their demeanor and facial expressions indicated that the girls were unhappy.

The teachers documented their conclusions and inferences with objective criteria from the photos as well as passages from the Freedman reading.

But while the teachers' responses were fairly pointed, the 8th graders on whom the task was piloted were all over the map with their answers.

"What I think about the people in the 1870's and 1880's,'' began one. "They was having fun playing checkers.'' Another wrote, "They should never have been forced to be civilized.''

The student responses provoked the most intense discussion among the teachers.

For example, after one teacher observed that "a child could have written this without ever having done the reading,'' the class debated how specific the directions and the scoring criteria must be.

"If you [judge by] real-world standards, where in the job market is the boss going to say, 'When you write this piece for the technical manual, here is how you're going to be judged,''' said Nancy A. Doorey, a member of the state school board who attended the session.

The student responses also demonstrated that while the students might have met standards for English, they did not necessarily meet history and civics standards, or vice versa.

Finding the Holes

The session also showed that some elements of the enterprise are vague.

When one teacher asked how the program would help special-education students, Ms. Albertson replied, "I don't know. That is what this is for.'' She said she hoped that teachers would help find any holes in the initiative.

Another teacher questioned whether teachers would have time to plan or work with colleagues from other disciplines and whether policymakers were supportive.

Teachers "will have to stay longer [after school] ... without any financial increase,'' one teacher said.

Ms. Albertson said that even she, as a member of a panel drafting the standards, has questions. For example, she said, she does not know what will happen to childen who do not meet the standards.

After the session, teachers said that the plan needed work but that the state was moving in the right direction.

"I'm buying into it big time,'' said Shirley Bixby, an 8th-grade English teacher from the Brandywine Valley district. "These are ways you can assess children to see if they are thinking or repeating by rote.''

Ann Albosta, a high school special-education teacher, said the reforms have the potential to make learning relevant and interesting.

"If you go into kindergarten or 1st-grade rooms, the kids are all busily engaged,'' she said. "Go into older [students'] rooms, and often you see glazed looks.''

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