Wednesday, May 2, 2006 | When Jon Robell was a student at Point Loma High School, the state of California’s Board of Education mandated the teaching of completely different mathematics content standards than it does today, and Robell failed his ninth grade algebra class.

Robell, who graduated from Point Loma in 1997, is now a second-year, ninth grade algebra teacher at the School of Law and Business, one of four small schools located on the City Heights campus of Crawford Educational Complex, previously known as Crawford High School. All four of Crawford’s schools are part of the San Diego City Schools District.

This year, Mr. Robell, who also coaches wrestling, was named Crawford Educational Complex’s Teacher of the Year.

Robell is a new teacher recruited to the district thanks to the San Diego City Schools teacher internship program, an alternative teacher credentialing program designed to add badly needed new math and science teachers to the district. Robell teaches full-time and attends one four hour class per week to earn his California state teaching certificate.

As a first year teacher last year, Robell was quickly introduced to the Byzantine world of state educational content standards.

“I was handed a stack of paper listing 25 algebra teaching standards and told to teach them. I tried to pick and choose, because 25 is a lot to cover. I focused on the 11 most important ones my first year,” Robell said.

Robell was turned onto mathematics by the same high school teacher who gave him the F in ninth grade. By the time he was a high school senior, Robell was a ninja with numbers and hard at work helping his classmates with their own math assignments.

“I’m starting to teach to the standards through project-based learning. Students in groups are really able to apply the curriculum to their lives. It’s easy to just teach the standards, but I want my students to really understand them.”

Recently, Robell used his creativity to push his students toward meeting California State Algebra Standard 23.0: Students apply quadratic equations to physical problems, such as the motion of an object under the force of gravity.

Visiting Crawford were four professional trick bicyclists, skateboarders, and rollerbladers who came to advocate against drugs and for drinking milk at an assembly attended by all the complex’s students. Clad in a “Got Milk?” t-shirt and elbow and knee pads, a female Brazilian rollerblader flew into the sky off a half-pipe temporarily installed on the Crawford football field.

The assembly got Robell and a few other Crawford math teachers thinking.

“The half-pipe was a perfect introduction to quadratic equations. My ninth graders made half-pipes out of cardboard and glue, then they put them onto graph paper and traced the arc. My students saw how arcs change and curves grows faster compared to a line. I’m going to do this lesson forever,” Robell said.

While Robell is able to find creative ways to teach the state standards, he admits that the 25 standards he needs to teach are daunting and doubts whether some are even necessary.

“Some of the standards are just off the wall. I think they should be amended to be more general. Some math teachers might think I’m crazy, but kids learn standards thoroughly by working on projects and twenty five is frightening,” Robell said.

Robell is not alone in his thinking on standards. In fact, standards are amended for numerous reasons, and improving student achievement is not always the goal.

The Politics of Standards

Like any bill before a state legislature, the amending of content standards often becomes political.

Richard Elmore, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education whose research focuses on education policy, contends that politics sometimes becomes too much a part of deciding on standards, mostly in reading and social studies. Elmore argues that creating too many narrow standards precludes teachers from realistically meeting them.

“There are big ideological battles going on. The whole (standards-making) process is political and politicians feel they are representing the public interest in what gets taught in schools,” Elmore said.

One controversy in amending California’s education curriculum surrounds Senate Bill 1437, a bill currently before the California State Senate that would require social studies teachers to teach the history of gay rights in California.

“The law already states that curriculum must include the contributions of men and women of underrepresented groups in the United States. This law would add [sexual orientation] to this description. It’s hard to imagine teaching California history without including (former San Francisco Supervisor and gay activist) Harvey Milk and (San Francisco) Mayor George Moscone,” said Geoffrey Kors, the Executive Director of Equality California, a non-profit organization that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and supports the bill.

Numerous conservative organizations oppose SB 1437, which will come before the senate for a vote in the coming weeks.

One example of ideology playing a role in determining content standards was a highly publicized court decision in Dec. 2005 that ended a curriculum requirement that mandated the teaching of “intelligent design” in the Dover, Penn. public school district.

Critics of the teaching of Darwin’s theory of natural selection – mostly religious conservatives – favored teaching intelligent design, which derives from creationism. In late 2005, intelligent design supporters on the Dover school board were resoundingly voted out of office.

“I would not be in the least bit surprised if the intelligent design debate comes up in California,” said Elmore, who argues that California’s size and ideological diversity would lead to such a showdown.

While there are national and international content standards set by teachers’ associations, for example the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, there are currently no federally mandated content standards in the United States.

Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York University and a former Assistant Secretary of Education in the George H.W. Bush Administration, argues that creating federal content standards would solve the problem of local school districts and states varying in what they teach.

“The nation is leading toward national standards, at least in science curriculum. Clearly in mathematics as well the standards are not unique to different counties and states. Other countries have agreed on international standards, there is no reason we shouldn’t have them in the U.S.,” Ravitch said.

The Skills of the Future

Twenty years ago, the San Diego economy was built around rocket scientists designing warheads to fight the Soviet Union. Now, many of those scientists are working in the ever expanding field of biotechnology, one of the largest industries in the San Diego region.

General Dynamics has been replaced by Pfizer, and parents want to know that their kids are learning what it takes to work in the economy of the future.

But predicting that future isn’t so easy.

“Students are educated to work in fields that are growing older and older. You can never be sure of the life cycle of an industry. The next technological revolution may not be in computers,” said Ryan Singer, a former economic advisor to the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Steve Graham, a professor of special education and literacy at Vanderbilt University, believes that in the age of human cloning and French face transplants it is still important to teach the seemingly archaic skill of handwriting.

“There is an assumption that we are all using word processors to write now and that is not the case. In early grades, students write using handwriting and as they grow older will turn to computers. But the more affluent students will have the best access to word processors,” Dr. Graham said.

Among the California English-language arts content standards include numerous writing standards in grades K-4 designed to teach legible handwriting. Not until grade four does “keyboarding” emerge as a standard.

Graham, who recently assessed the status of handwriting teaching in the United States by surveying 169 randomly selected teachers, argues that standards based on handwriting are designed to push students to write critically.

“Most kids write between seventeen and twenty letters per minute. If a student is a really slow writer he is unable to plan his writing appropriately, which has a negative impact on the student’s writing output. Think about the effect this has on kids when they take notes in class or take timed tests,” Graham said.

While Graham advocates for the teaching of handwriting in public schools, his survey results indicate that teachers themselves are unclear on how to teach handwriting skills.

Ninety percent of the teachers who responded to Graham’s survey said they were unprepared to teach handwriting, though ninety percent of the first through third grade teachers surveyed said that they actually were teaching handwriting.

“Teachers are teaching something that they don’t know,” said Graham, who is currently writing a report based on the survey results.

Elmore, of Harvard, said that politics might have played a role in adding a standard like handwriting to the California state content standards.

“Some state board member probably had a bug about handwriting,” he said.

Unanswered Questions

Most educators agree that content standards play a crucial, if not beneficial, role in steering the ship of public education. However, they disagree on the more narrow scope of such standards.

Reform of educational content standards could call for a range of demands, which would likely address the following questions:

  • Should federally mandated standards be created?
  • To what degree should states leave the narrow interpretation of standards to local school districts?
  • How significant a role should politics and ideology play in the development of standards?
  • How often should standards be amended? To what extent should they be amended to align with technological innovation?

While politicians, academics, and education reformers debate these heady issues, most teachers like Robell prefer to be left to the classroom.

“I’ve grown a lot in the past two years. I came into the classroom clueless. I am way more comfortable teaching to the standards than I was my first year. They just have to be applicable,” Robell said.

Ramsey Green, a native San Diegan and a former high school social studies teacher, is currently a graduate student at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia Please contact him directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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