Social Studies Curriculum:Will Standardization Hurt Local History?

The movement to evaluate teacher performance took a new turn recently. According to a press release from Governor Cuomo dated February 16, 2012: &#8220Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, New York State Education Commissioner John King, and New York State United Teachers President Richard C. Iannuzzi today announced a groundbreaking agreement on a new statewide evaluation system that will make New York State a national leader in holding teachers accountable for student achievement.&#8221

A new evaluation system will be established based on the following rubric:

Teacher Performance – 60 points

Under the agreement, 60 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on rigorous and nationally recognized measures of teacher performance. The agreement requires that a majority of the teacher performance points will be based on classroom observations by an administrator or principal, and at least one observation will be unannounced. The remaining points will be based upon defined standards including observations by independent trained evaluators, peer classroom observations, student and parent feedback from evaluators, and evidence of performance through student portfolios.

Student Achievement in State and Local Assessments– 40 points

Under the agreement, 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on student academic achievement, with 20 percent from state testing and 20 percent from a list of three testing options including state tests, third party assessments/tests approved by the SED and locally developed tests that will be subject to SED review and approval. Under the plan, school districts will also have the option of using state tests to measure up to 40 percent of a teacher’s rating.&#8221

The grading system will be:

Ineffective: 0 – 64
Developing: 65 – 74
Effective: 75 – 90
Highly Effective: 91 – 100

Based on all the glowing testimonials in the press release one would conclude that a major effort to address a serious problem has been dutifully and responsibly faced by our elected officials and the leaders of the education infrastructure in the state.

The headline in my local paper a scant few days later told a different tale: &#8220Principals’ opposition to teacher evaluation grows: 18 principals from northern Westchester and Putnam publicly oppose state policy&#8221. The lead sentence, always an important one in reading tests, boldly proclaimed:

&#8220Eighteen high school principals from northern Westchester and Putnam counties have joined the growing ranks of school administrators who are publicly opposing the state’s new teacher evaluation system.&#8221

Social studies was one of the areas identified as paying the price for the implementation of the new system.

&#8220A statement from the Northern Westchester/Putnam High School Principals Association said that the new system would pressure teachers to &#8216-teach to the test’ and would focus attention on English and math — the subjects most tested — at the expense of social studies, science, the arts and physical education.&#8221

According to the article over 1300 principals in the state have a signed a petition against the proposed teacher evaluation system which has to be implemented at the local level. This means the individual school districts will have to adopt the new evaluation requirements through collective bargaining with teacher and principal unions. Don’t count on an agreement anytime soon in your community but look for it in the headlines of your newspaper.

By coincidence, a teacher on the H-NET discussion group Teaching Social Studies in Secondary Schools, asked the following question on January 23, 2012:

&#8220Curious to see if any of you have to give a department exam (one that all students take regardless of teacher) or live in an area where a state history assessment is given? At my school, we give a common final and are awaiting a state created test at some point in the next few years.&#8221

In response to a post from a Kentucky teacher, a social studies chair in Indiana raised an interesting question about the next step:

&#8220The other thing I wonder with this&#8230-I don’t know how it is in Kentucky, but we have local authority in buying textbooks and other materials. The materials we use may be different than the materials at a school 10 miles down the road uses. I wonder if the day is coming where our state legislature will mandate that all schools in the state use the same textbook, no matter where they are located, and the ECA will be mandated?&#8221

Some states already have state-wide textbook purchases which is why what Texas wants is so important to other states. Textbook publishers don’t gear their books to what a local community in New York wants- the big states like Texas and California hold sway. One of the concerns expressed by the principals over the evaluation was the very issue of constant stream of (unfunded) mandates from Albany. One possible outcome is that the evaluation system will accelerate that process with textbooks being a possible next step.

Local history could take a big hit in statewide standardization. Just at a time when education professionals are emphasizing the importance of a sense of place in the development of a child, that local sense of place may be lost. The teaching of social studies already pays for the price for the absurd idea that reading and social studies are in a zero-sum contest for teacher time so time taken for social studies is time lost for teaching reading. This means even if school districts had the money for field trips they still would be minimized because of the time away from school and learning to read. All the more reason why it is essential for the history community to make its voice heard in the development of new common core curriculum. If there is a Rochambeau Drive in your community, shouldn’t you know why even if it is not on a state exam?

Peter Feinman founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences and the more effective use of New York State Heritage Weekend and the Ramble.

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