Turkey Assignments

Here are two slides of 7th-grade writing assignments from two different middle schools in California, they are originally from an Ed Trust slide deck.  

When you hear people talk about the expectations gap, this is the sort of thing they are talking about.  Some kids are not getting something that is just a stagger-step behind the others but something that is so far back as to almost be out of sight.  The differences in what these assignments expect and teach and the opportunity gap those expectations create couldn’t be much starker and manifest themselves in a variety of ways including today’s debates about accountability and whether we should have common expectations for schools and students in any accountability system.

17 Replies to “Turkey Assignments”

  1. Our district followed the advice of consultants and performed the same excercise. Had it been done as a wake-up call, and a first step towards raising standards, it would have been constructive. Had they asked why some teachers wrongly lowered standards too much, making class dull, it would have been a great professional development tool. Had they addressed the extreme classroom disruptions in neighborhood 7th grade classes that make it virtually impossible to do more than busywork, it would have been a contructive excercise. Had they sought efficient methods like the Toldeo Plan to remove ineffective teachers, and could they have afforded incentives to attract top teachers to the toughest schools, it would have been beneficial. But until you address disorder in classrooms, you will keep losing top teachers and students. Had they given political support to principals so they could have given support to teachers who want to raise standards, it would have been good. But you can not put nonstop pressure on teachers to just pass kids on, and expect standards not to fall.

    To turn things around, it would take an honest discussion of what it takes to raise student performance when neighborhood secondary students have skills that are five years or so below their neighbors who went to magnet schools. But our district leaders had the the same visceral response as you seem to be having, and mandated immediate and much much higher standards. Instantly, many core teachers were intimidated into teaching five years above the students reading level, and failure rates soared to 95% in some. The dropout rate exploded and the distrcit immediately abandoned the experiment.

    Again, when I first heard of the exercise I thought it was great and I also assumed that they would include teachers in the collaborative discussion of solutions. But the reality is so shameful, when administrators/lobbyists with have no relevant experience in the classroom come in contact with it, they have no idea of complex the problem is. Then when the consultants offer the simple and free solution of just “raise expectations,” the blame and shame game tales over, and the students are hurt even more.

  2. This could have at least as much to do with curriculum as expectations. In a rigorous, content-rich curriculum, students “cover” (a dirty word in education circles, of course) a large amount of literature, in addition to the history, science, art and other subjects that allow them to successfully and intelligently discuss subjects like the “general psychological and intellectual change” the character undergoes. Under less rigorous curriculum, where student writing is entirely self-directed (which is “authentic,” “high-engagement,” and a “best-practice”) students invariably write about what they know, in other words, themselves and their experiences. It’s as if we put blinders on them and expect them to intuit their way to high-achievement.

    Forgive me, but it’s time — no, it’s long past time — for people who work in education policy to start taking a long, hard look at curriculum and instruction. No, I don’t mean standards and test scores. I mean what children actually do in school hour by hour, day by day. You could put Nobel Prize winners in front every classroom in America, but if you don’t start insisting that all children get the same kind of rich, varied content that is served up at our best schools, this is exactly what you’re going to continue to get. Walk into any high-achieving high school in America and ask 10 kids at random who Anne Frank is. I’ll eat my hat if all ten don’t know. Walk into a low-achieving high school and ask the same question. Get ready for blank stares. Ask teachers why, and be prepared for an earnest lecture on culturally relevant pedagogy and how hard it is to engage students in a story with a protagonist whose experiences are so different than theirs.

    Wake up. Stop focusing on outcomes and start looking at inputs. Refusing to educate children is our de facto education policy.

  3. I just want to be clear that I agree with Robert, especially that we need to “start taking a long, hard look at curriculum and instruction.”

    In this comment I’m speaking only from my experience, but I suspect you’d find some kids from the toughest neighborhoods excelling the Core Knowledge curriculum in the middle school magnets, while their neighbors are caught in dysfunctional classes characterized by a “less rigorous curriculum, where student writing is entirely self-directed (which is “authentic,” “high-engagement,” and a “best-practice”) students invariably write about what they know, in other words, themselves and their experiences. It’s as if we put blinders on them and expect them to intuit their way to high-achievement.”

    But I also suspect that the teachers have heard good things about Core Knowledge and would be thrilled to give it a try.

    But the key phrase is to “take a hard look” at what students actually do. Someday we’ll be able to look more at outcomes, but first we must be tough-minded in looking at inputs. Just as we need to get rid of “drive-by evaluations” of teachers, we need to get rid of drive-by evalations of failing schools by consultants, policy analysts, and special interest groups like the Ed Trust, and unflinchingly think through our problems and solutions.

  4. Clearly there’s a problem here in the expectations between these two assignments. However, I think there’s a also a relevant context issue. If both of these were assigned as assessments for major units (as I assume the Anne Frank essay was), we’ve got not only a problem, but a tragedy.

    However, if the bio sheet was used as part of a first day activity where student interviewed one another then introduced each other to the class, or if teacher X wanted this student information as background for incorporating relevant examples into her lesson, I can let that pass. From the one piece of evidence we have of the teacher’s intention could assignment have been stronger, yes. However to judge a teacher on a single worksheet that comes out of his/her classroom isn’t fair. I’m trying to give bio-sheet teacher the benefit of the doubt.

    That being said, I’d unfortunately venture to guess the assumptions are probably accurate about the rigor and effectiveness of these two teachers.

  5. No no no no no no! Sorry, Amy but you’re exhibiting exactly the kind of reflexive thinking John is warning about (and I agree) when you make assumptions about “the rigor and effectiveness of these two teachers.” Like low expectations students, low expectation teachers don’t just happen. Find me someone who wakes up one morning and says, “I’m going to put myself through a teacher certification program and gets a masters degree so I can get a government job and condescend to children full-time.” You can deliver low-expectation instruction and go home every day thinking you’re teaching for high expectations, because that’s how you’ve been trained. At worst, there’s a kind of Emperor’s New Clothes feeling to it. It takes a long time and no small amount of courage for a teacher to say, “You know what? I don’t think what I’m being asked to do here makes sense for these kids.”

    And at the risk of disagreeing with my friend John Thompson, I’m not ready to throw the Ed Trusts of the world under the bus. There are just as many — more, probably — self-described experts inside schools damaging children with well-intentioned but ruinous pedagogies as there are outside experts doing similar damage with well-intentioned but deleterious policy notions. Neither side has a monopoly on truth. But a clear-eyed diagnosis of what’s happening, and what will take to reverse it is essential. We need everyone pulling at the oars, not pointing at each other and saying “You don’t know how to row.”

  6. I guess to JUST see these two slides, with no context whatsoever is problematic.The two assignments are completely different assignments, as Amy notes, but you can not assume anything whatsoever about the two teachers-Nothing-I think these two slides say more about whoever incorrectly juxtaposed the two slides/assignments with each other and tried to compare them. As Amy notes, context is completely missing from these assignments. The direct assumptions are not grounded…anything can be assumed-how about some more factual information here?

    Slides of lessons plan comparisons or final or mid semester assessments/tests (or any assessments) on similar topical areas- from low and high performing schools is what is necessary. How about comparing a lesson from a high and low performing school on photosynthesis? This would be more telling.

  7. There is a woeful lack of context here. There’s nothing wrong with either assignment, per se. The “me” page is perfect for a 7th grade assignment at the beginning of the year and I could see 100 ways a teacher could use it (assessment, writing sample, icebreaker activity, etc.) The essay prompt is also appropriate. When I taught high school students, I used similar assignments at various times, and believe me, they knew I had high expectations.

    Now if this were a comparison of final end-of-semester projects, we’ve got a problem. Or if the students in the school with the “me” page assignment aren’t ever taught how to write an essay, that’s a problem. But these two assignments side-by-side, with no description of how they’re used, when they’re used, or what’s done with them, doesn’t show us much other than two random assignments.

  8. Robert, John, Great comments. You both highlight well why the standards movement has largely failed (and will continue to fail) to improve student learning. Having some external group come in and say “just raise the bar” in no way enables teachers to do a better job in the classroom.

  9. Robert,

    I’ve fallen off a few times, but haven’t I done better in holding my tongue on the Ed Trust?

  10. BTW, the low writing assignment on Andy’s post certainly IS covered by California’s standards. Several of them, arguably:

    Grade Seven, Writing
    Organization and Focus 1.1 Create an organizational structure that balances all aspects of the composition and uses effective transitions between sentences to unify important ideas.

    The “My Best Friend” essay could be used to teach or demonstrate this standard and a dozen others. That is NOT by the way an argument in favor of that standard, but an illustration of why process standards are worse than none. A teacher who uses this standard and whose student writes a well-constructed essay on “My Best Friend” can go home happy and content that she’s teaching for high expectations. She has done exactly what we’ve asked her to do.

    Not terribly satisfying though, is it?

    This is why “high expectations” are as empty a phrase as, well, “high standards.” Unless we’re willing to specify exactly what we expect children to know — as opposed to what we expect them to be able to do — we will make zero progress.

  11. As a special education teacher I can see uses and problems with both assignments. I agree the “all about me” page would be great to do at the beginning of the year as part of an assignment about writing an essay, or it could even be used in my classroom to help students with communication skills if it was used in an interview situation. The paper could also be used in a newspaper unit for one student to write a “feature article” about another student. The Anne Frank writing prompt would definitely have to come after a lot of preparation in my room. I understand that in many classrooms that would not be the case, but in mine it would. I have high expectations for my students, but I still have to go over what goes into a complete sentence on a consistent basis. My students that could grasp who Anne Frank was and when she lived would do well on the essay. On the other hand, I would also have a couple kids in my room who would have no idea. Yes, I do use the regular junior high text books in my classroom, but we do a lot of extra work so that they can grasp the main concepts. In this case I feel it would be important to see the rest of the assignment before deciding whether it was valuable or not.

  12. I, unfortunately, see this gap even within a single school setting. My school recently began a system of inter- grade level peer- to-peer observations. During these visits, I have observed struggling and special needs students being guided through higher-order thinking, and gifted students completing basic recall comprehension activities. I believe sometimes the “dumbing down” of assignments may be a response to frustration. I also find it hard to differentiate many assignments while still retaining the quality and level of sophistication it began with.

  13. I’m with Amy on this, and it gives me a chance to bring up my favorite soapbox topic, the lack of description in the study of education. What is actually going on in these two classrooms? I don’t know. I can’t know. My imagination has no trouble coming up with pictures and details, and it sounds like Amy and others probably imagine things about the way I do. But I can also imagine that I might be wildly wrong in some important ways. A five-page description of the classroom situations from which these two contrasting assignments come could be most valuable. A five-page description of any classroom situation would be valuable. There are not many descriptions of actual classroom practice around. Descriptions should be as plentiful in educational discussion and literature as photographs are in a newspaper.

  14. At first, I thought you were making fun of the grammatical errors in the first slide. Then I read the rest of your blog entry and realized you were praising this as the better of the two. Having thought about it, I’m not sure that I don’t find the first to be one of those over-written and quite pretentious lesson plans that pretend to high expectations while grading everything easily and accepting anything.

    High expectations need to be followed by high standards in grading. That is where I would focus in this situation. What was received and how was it measured?

    Anyone can copy a good assignment from the internet.

  15. It is certainly true that the two examples shown are asking students to create and exemplify very different types of work. However, I am uncertain under which context these were presented. Obviously, the first, and much easier of the two, is asking students for information based on their own experiences. This would be very suitable for the first few days of school as a “getting to know each other” activity. The second, however, is obviously something that a teacher would employ in the latter part of the school year. How do we know how these two pieces were actually utilized in the classroom and under what circumstances they were presented? More information is needed to better determine the true desparity the preparer of the slides intended to exemplify.

  16. This post was another example of Eduwonk turning himself off to teachers. We appreciate context, as the previous comments illustrate. As others stated, I could see myself giving both assignments–one on the first day, perhaps, or in an advisory, and the other as the culmination of a unit and taking a week or more to complete. I’d like to see Eduwonk acknowledge that his post was a stunt, void of meaningful context.

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