Teaching & Learning

April 17, 2002 8 min read
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Massachusetts’ History and Social Studies Debate Resurfaces

From the establishment of the Puritan colonies to the Boston Tea Party, from its role in the Civil War to the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and beyond, the history of Massachusetts is rife with conflict and controversy. So it might be fitting that the state’s history/social science framework continues to inspire perhaps the most criticism of any core subject in Massachusetts since the state began implementing its system of standards and accountability in 1993.

The framework went through months of debate before it was adopted in 1997. During the development of the broad outline of what students should learn in those subjects at various grade levels, proponents of a traditional approach to the subject battled those advocating a more multicultural view of history. (“With Vote Set, Mass. Board Still at Odds Over History Standards,” June 11, 1997.)

Now, as the guidelines go through the first periodic review required by state law, some critics are contending the proposed revisions shortchange the history of African-Americans and Hispanics.

The state board of education has received more than 700 comments on the proposed framework from teachers, community leaders, researchers, and the general public. Some of those comments criticize the document as reflecting a Eurocentric view of history.

Several black leaders and groups, including the Boston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a prominent city councilor in Boston, are protesting what they see as the Eurocentric slant.

Heidi Perlman, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts education department, disputes claims that the curricular blueprint gives such issues as slavery or Islamic history short shrift.

“We went through the framework to look at the very specific charges against [it], and they are false,” Ms. Perlman maintained. “The problem is very simple. ... Everyone believes their ancestry and history needs to be in there. It is impossible to fit it all.”

After the public comments are reviewed and some changes are made, the state board hopes to discuss the new framework and possibly vote on it later this spring.

What to Teach?

Despite the development and implementation of a state system of standards and accountability over nearly a decade, a recent study suggests that some new teachers in Massachusetts aren’t getting coherent curricular materials to help them prepare students to meet the higher expectations.

More than half the 50 first- and second-year teachers in the study reported that while they were given a curriculum that prescribed specific topics or skills to be taught, they received no instructional materials or guidance for addressing them. Ten of the respondents said they received no curriculum at all.

The study, “Lost at Sea: New Teachers’ Experiences With Curriculum and Assessment,” is published in the Spring 2002 issue of the journal Teachers College Record. It was written by David Kauffman, Susan Moore Johnson, Susan M. Kardos, Edward Liu, and Heather G. Peske, researchers at Harvard University’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers.

“These new teachers often were overwhelmed by the responsibility and demands of designing curriculum and planning daily lessons,” the report says. “They entered the classroom expecting to find a curriculum with which they would struggle. Instead, they struggled to find a curriculum.”

To make up for the lack of resources, the teachers reported searching the Internet, photocopying other teachers’ lessons, and spending their own money on materials.

While small, the study reflects previous findings and confirms anecdotal information that novice teachers get little support on matters of curriculum, according to Kathleen J. Skinner, who oversees professional-development programs for the Massachusetts Teacher Association, a National Education Association affiliate.

“Most teachers want to know what’s the content that they are expected to teach in the course of the year,” said Ms. Skinner. “How they teach it is an individual thing.”

Her own study two years ago of a representative sampling of mathematics teachers found that most districts in the state did not provide curriculum materials in the subject.

Salary Stagnation?

Public school teachers experienced only a slight gain in their salaries over the past decade, despite a mostly booming economy, asserts a report published by the NEA.

The report, “Rankings and Estimates,” April 2002, is available from the National Education Association. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Also, see our summary table, “States With the Greatest Percent Increases in Average Teacher Salaries.”

Teacher pay increased an average of 31 percent from 1991 to 2001, the “Rankings & Estimates” report says. When adjusted for inflation, however, that increase dropped to a mere 3 percent, researchers for the teachers’ union found.

On average, between 1991 and 2000, full-time workers 16 and older saw their weekly wages increase by 9 percent after adjustments for inflation were made, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Meanwhile, the average U.S. teacher’s salary for the 2001-02 school year was estimated at $44,604, up from $43,335 the previous year, a 2.9 percent increase.

“As more money was invested in public education, teacher salaries remained stagnant—all while the U.S. was in the biggest economic expansion in its history,” NEA President Bob Chase said in a statement accompanying the release of the annual report this month.

New Jersey, Connecticut, and California offered the best pay, while Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota offered the lowest salaries, the report says. Wyoming, New Mexico, and Nebraska had the highest percent increases from 2000-01 to 2001-02.

Getting Support

Job prospects for paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and other school support-staff members are promising, but those who take such positions receive low pay, little respect, and overwhelming workloads, a report concludes.

“It Takes a Team: A Profile of Support Staff in American Education,” April 2002, from the American Federation of Teachers. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader).

The 1.2 million-member AFT, which represents 184,800 support personnel, examined that category of school worker for its report, “It Takes a Team: A Profile of Support Staff in American Education.”

The report outlines the hourly wages and annual earnings of school secretaries, library personnel, technicians, janitors, and clerks, among others, and says that pay for such jobs during the 1999-2000 school year was higher in the Far West and New England than in other regions. Those who work in the Southwest and Rocky Mountain regions received the lowest earnings.

One constant, though, was the amount of work such employees do.

Eighty-seven percent of the 224 workers surveyed for one part of the study reported that they were expected to complete “unrealistic” workloads; 38 percent reported that the problem had been growing for five years. Most employers respond by authorizing overtime rather than hiring additional help, the respondents said.

“Paraprofessionals have a specific set of concerns about workload,” the report points out. “In too many instances, [they] are put in positions they did not ask for and are not trained for—working as substitute teachers.”

In addition, standards, professional development, and certification for support-staff are either nonexistent or lax, while the demand for such workers is growing, the study found.

The market is especially strong for paraprofessionals, as the enrollment of special-needs students increases, and new school improvement initiatives are put in place that require the efforts of such individuals.

“Keeping high-quality employees in our schools and colleges means creating high-quality jobs for those who fill these important roles,” the report says.

Union Ban

Neither the American Federation of Teachers nor any of the union’s affiliates is entitled to represent the more than 5,000 professional, nonfaculty employees working at Maryland’s public colleges and universities, according to a recent ruling by the AFL-CIO, the union’s umbrella organization.

An internal panel of the mammoth labor federation decided last month that the Washington-based American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees had already laid claim to the institutions, said Ed Phaneuf, a spokesman for AFT-Maryland. According to the AFL-CIO constitution, member unions can’t compete with each other, he said.

The decision was “very disappointing,” he said, because the teachers’ union was trying to regain its one-time presence on college campuses. A few years ago, some 600 higher education employees were affiliated with AFT-Maryland; today, fewer than 10 are, Mr. Phaneuf said.

The issue arose when the AFT affiliate began to organize individuals at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore following the enactment of a state law last July that permits unionization within those ranks, he said.

The 14,000-member AFT-Maryland represents mostly K-12 workers.

From Grants to Pets

An online Web site designed specifically for educators and stocked with such offerings as lesson plans and more than 100 chat boards will now include resources specific to every state in the nation.

The 6-year-old site,, began providing hyperlinks to state and District of Columbia resources last month, according to its designers. By logging on to, educators can also sign up to correspond with colleagues from around their states on chat boards or during real-time online meetings.

In addition to the state resources, offers advice on matters ranging from writing grant proposals to keeping classroom pets.

Julie Blair & Kathleen Kennedy

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as Teaching & Learning


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