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Published in Print: February 26, 2003, as Teaching & Learning

Teaching & Learning

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Reports Examine Content Of 'Civic' Education

Many state academic standards in history and social studies are stuffed with topics that are too broad or vague to allow for meaningful instruction, a new analysis of the documents for 48 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. Department of Defense schools concludes.

States must rein in their guidelines and introduce a "civic core" for high school students that focuses on essential topics and allows a deeper study of history and civics, according to the 209-page report.

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"Educating Democracy: State Standards to Insure a Civic Core" outlines the findings of an extensive study of state academic standards in the subject conducted by Paul A. Gagnon, a senior research associate at Boston University's Center for School Improvement. The study was underwritten by the Albert Shanker Institute, an entity of the American Federation of Teachers. It is available on the Web at www.shankerinstitute.org.

Meanwhile, a report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement calls for stronger civics education programs in schools. The report, titled "The Civic Mission of Schools" and also released this month, incorporates the recommendations of nearly 60 scholars and educators for helping to prepare students to become active participants in democracy.

It recommends that civics education programs incorporate: formal instruction in history, government, law, and democracy; meaningful discussion of local, national, and international issues; and opportunities for students to apply their knowledge through community service, extracurricular activities, school governance, and simulations of democratic processes and procedures.

California Teaching

Four in 10 Californians say poor teaching in the state's public schools is a very serious problem, according to a public-opinion survey unveiled by a nonprofit group pushing for an improved teacher workforce in the state.

That view differs sharply by race, ethnicity, education level, and age, however. Only 35 percent of whites, for instance, perceive a serious problem, while 51 percent of Latinos and blacks do, the survey found. Similarly, younger people and those with less education were more likely to say poor teaching is a serious problem than were older, more educated Californians.

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The survey, sponsored by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, in Santa Cruz, and released last month, polled 1,006 residents statewide, including an oversampling of parents of school-age children. The center promotes certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards for California's teachers as one means of strengthening the teacher corps.

Asked to rate the problems facing the state's schools, survey respondents said lack of involvement by parents and insufficient money getting to schools were more important than poor teaching. But 77 percent agreed that the state has too few qualified teachers, and 60 percent said they believe teachers are underpaid. Between 70 percent and 80 percent of Californians endorse raising teacher salaries and paying more to teachers who take assignments in high-poverty areas, where it is hardest to attract educators, and to math, science, and special education teachers, who are hardest to find.

The survey found a much smaller proportion of residents, 39 percent, favor easing the teacher shortage by hiring people without teaching credentials while requiring them to work toward licensure, a widespread practice in many California districts with majorities of poor and minority students.

While almost half the respondents think an excellent indicator of teacher performance is the degree of interest teachers show in their students, just 20 percent put the same stock in student scores on annual state tests.

At the bottom of the public's list of effective measures for improving schools was limiting the proportion of new teachers in a school to 20 percent, the survey found.

Union Woes

States and school districts aren't alone in posting budget shortfalls.

The Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, has a hole in its finances that could lead to both a dues increase and staff reductions. The 157,000-member union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, is running short by $10.7 million, about 18 percent of its $60.9 million annual budget.

The main cause, union officials say, is an increase over the past two years of the costs of the union's staff-retirement plan. The costs are linked to downturns in the economy and the stock market rather than any benefit increase, said union spokeswoman Margaret Trimer-Hartley. Exacerbating the problem is less-than-projected membership growth and the related lack of dues income, she said.

To stem the red ink, union leaders will recommend an $11 increase to teachers' $457 annual dues in the coming school year. If approved by the MEA's governing body this spring, the increase will be the second in five years and more than double the amount of the earlier hike.

Association officials also want to reduce the 348-member staff by 47 positions, preferably by encouraging early retirements. "We're negotiating with all our might to prevent layoffs and still ... reduce the workforce," Ms. Trimer-Hartley said, referring to ongoing talks with the two unions that represent MEA's employees.

"We think it would be newsworthy if we weren't feeling the pinch of this economy," she added. "We have very good company out there."

Among the NEA's 50 state affiliates, only the 117,000-member Illinois Education Association faces a similar shortfall, according to Melinda Anderson, a spokeswoman for the national union.

But other unions do have red-ink worries. At the Missouri National Education Association, for instance, rising costs for staff health insurance have been a "big [fiscal] issue" and raised the possibility of layoffs among the association's 54 staff members, said spokeswoman Carol K. Schmoock.

Elementary Trade Books

Amid demands for skills-based literacy instruction and structured reading curricula, interest in high-quality children's literature is still high, according to a survey of the trade book industry. U.S. schools spent more than $300 million on trade books during the 2000-01 school year, with a large proportion of that money spent on selections for young children.

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The survey is available from the Educational Paperback Association, PO Box 1399, East Hampton, NY 11937, or by email at edupaperback@aol.com.

"The majority of the paperback sales are coming more out of elementary schools than high schools," said Thomas J. Milano, the president of the Educational Paperback Association, an organization representing trade book publishers and wholesalers and the survey's sponsor. "I'm surprised by that because we really don't gear our marketing in that direction. We generally work more at the junior high and high school levels."

Mr. Milano pointed out, though, that a lot of attention and funding have been focused on reading in grades K-3, which could be contributing to the higher sales at that level.

The survey, conducted by the East Hampton, N.Y.- based association, found that three states—California, New York, and Texas— accounted for more than a third of total spending on the supplemental materials in 2000-01. The organization polled its members—some 90 commercial publishers and 30 wholesale distributors—about their revenues from educational books and how those sales were broken down geographically.

Above the Middle

Ten middle schools in three states have earned recognition from a national organization for their success in meeting the academic and developmental needs of their students. The schools in California, Georgia, and North Carolina were selected as "Schools to Watch," under an award program established by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform.

For More Info
The list of state-level Schools to Watch is available online from the National Forum. (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.)

State officials selected the schools for their academic excellence, responsiveness to the needs and interests of young adolescents, and commitment to helping all students achieve at high levels.

The Boston-based forum created the national Schools to Watch program several years ago to push for improvements in middle-grades education, which has been often been viewed as a weak link in K-12 education. ("The Weak Link," Oct. 4, 2000.)

In 2000, the forum rewarded four middle schools that met or exceeded 32 criteria in curriculum, instruction, leadership, and student achievement to serve as models for middle school improvement nationwide.

The organization established the state-level Schools to Watch program last year to raise the profile of successful middle schools.

—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo & Bess Keller
inclass@epe.org

Vol. 22, Issue 24, Page 9

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Correction: 
An item here understated the dues increase that leaders of the Michigan Education Association are proposing to members. The proposed increase is $111.90 annually.

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