Teaching & Learning

December 03, 2003 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 5 min read
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Corrected: The item headed “Scary Spanish?” incorrectly identified the publisher of the bilingual books called The Twisted Doors. Dior Publishing, based in Lafayette, Ind., produced the French-English and Spanish-English novels.

Social Studies Advocates Seek ‘Merit’ in Michigan

How come high school students in Michigan know more about reading, writing, mathematics, and science than they know about social studies?

That’s a question raised pretty much every year with the release of results of state tests, on which high school students do only about half as well in social studies as in the other subjects.

Sixty percent of last year’s seniors passed the math exam; 67 percent passed the reading test; 61 percent, the writing test; and 61 percent, the science test. But just 26 percent of the students passed the social studies test.

Why? Possible answers are legion. Teachers and students have complained about the content and the form of the exam, which, unlike the math, reading, and science high school tests that are part of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, requires an essay response. Some teachers have pointed to a lack of serious preparation in social studies before students hit high school.

James Toby, the chairman of the social studies department at Everett High School in Lansing, believes that students’ attitudes play a large role. “They are disinterested,” he posits.

But Mr. Toby also strongly faults the state because while students have to pass all the other tests to win “merit awards” of $2,500 toward their higher education, the social studies scores don’t count. “I know students who write their names on the exam and then come back out [of the exam room],” he said.

J. Kelli Sweet, the executive director of the Michigan Council for the Social Studies, which represents teachers, agrees that the social studies test should count toward the merit awards. She also would like districts to come up with more money to retool their social studies programs in accordance with the state’s academic standards and to train teachers in them. Still, with more budget cuts looming, that may be difficult, she recognizes.

But one other reason for the poor showing, Ms. Sweet contends, is that the bar is set higher for social studies. "[It] has a higher cut score and a higher performance standard.”

State officials, who could not be reached for comment last week, have said in the past that the social studies exams are too new for individual rewards to be based on them.

Reopening Soon

Researchers hoping to dig through the vast archives of historical documents on education housed in the Milbank Library at Teachers College, Columbia University, will have to wait awhile. The library is undergoing renovations that have forced the closing of most of the five-story building since construction began last year.

The special-collections division has allowed graduate students and researchers to examine the thousands of original documents and rare books that provide a detailed look into education history, dating from the 15th century. The archives are stored primarily in the climate-controlled basement and subbasement of the library.

The closure has raised concerns among archivists and education historians, who worry it will undermine the division’s mission. But Teachers College officials say the archives will again be available after the first phase of renovations is completed in about a year. Moreover, they say, the special collections will be more accessible.

“We are raising money for them, building a new reading room for the special collections, and repositioning the division as a more integral part of the library,” said Gary J. Natriello, its interim director.

English Alignment

Educators aiming to analyze how closely English/language arts instruction is matched to state and local standards and tests will have a new tool for doing so. Until now, curriculum-alignment instruments developed by researchers at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers were available only in mathematics and science. (“Teachers Picking Up Tools to Map Instructional Practices,” Oct. 8, 2003.)

More information on the Surveys of Enacted Curriculum is available from the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The newest Surveys of Enacted Curriculum, as they are called, were unveiled last month. A Web site has also been set up for participating districts that provides a forum for teachers and administrators. The Wisconsin center is administering the survey’s site, Learning Point Associates, formerly known as the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, is devising additional Web resources.

A decade into the national push for rigorous academic standards, many districts are still working to align curricula and teaching with those expectations.

The alignment tools can be used to gather detailed information on what and how teachers instruct in essential topic areas, then chart how those practices align with state academic guidelines and what is tested.

Scary Spanish?

Students learning French or Spanish can now delve into their chosen language while being intrigued, and possibly frightened, at the same time.

The Twisted Doors, a new book available in either French and English or Spanish and English from the Seattle-based publisher, Multilingual Books, teaches students how to conjugate verbs, use proper grammar, and expand their vocabulary through a bilingual mystery story. The suspense novels also come with an audio recording of the story.

Using intrigue to engage students is not a new concept. Earlier this year Simon & Schuster and Kaplan Inc., a test-preparation company in New York City, released a mystery novel that uses words commonly found on the SAT. (“A Tome for the Timorous and Tremulous,” Feb. 5, 2003.)

The Twisted Doors and CD set are available for $59.95 at

Back to Their Roots

The Los-Angeles based Broad Foundation has announced that it will give $6 million to set up a partnership between the Detroit public schools and Michigan State University with the aim of training 750 teachers for the urban school system.

The program will recruit high school students from the Detroit district, provide them with training during that time, and help finance their bachelor’s degrees at MSU, which houses a well-respected education school in East Lansing. Graduates will then be expected to return to the 161,000-student district.

Eli Broad, who built two Fortune 500 companies and established the foundation, grew up in the Motor City, graduated from its Central High School, and earned a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State in 1954.

“I owe almost everything I’ve accomplished to Detroit’s public schools and Michigan State University,” he said in a statement.

—Julie Blair, Michelle Galley, Bess Keller, & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo


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