Monday Reading List: Teaching 9/11 as History and the Connecticut Saga Continues

We commemorated the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks yesterday; as 2001 moves farther into the historical rearview window, educators are looking for the best ways to teach the attacks as history. Jamie Martines at The Hechinger Report studied classrooms in New Jersey:

Teaching students about 9/11 is challenging because it’s a complex topic, and many teachers have said they lack the resources, training and time to teach it. While New Jersey does not have state testing in social studies (required state tests focus on reading and math), schools are required to follow a set of social studies education guidelines that include some lessons on contemporary issues, including terrorism. But even then, teachers of traditional U.S. and global history classes are often crunched for time by the end of the school year and struggle to fit in discussions of any events that happened after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s.

Jacoba Urist, writing in The Atlantic, looks at the difficulty of teaching a dramatic event whose consequences are not yet fully understood:

For high-school textbook writers, teaching 9/11 against the backdrop of wars still on-going—and surges of xenophobia—sets it apart from an attack like Pearl Harbor or a trauma like JFK, where, a decade-and-a-half later, both events had a distinct sense of narrative closure. The causes and effects of September 11 may feel empirically muddled for some teachers. On the one hand, 9/11 is referred to as “the darkest day in America’s history.” On the other, students see a fresh wave of terrorist-linked massacres not only in France and Turkey, but in San Bernardino too. According to Ward, 15 years isn’t usually enough time to chart historiographical change—how the narrative of the past evolves. Textbooks, however, have steadily shifted from a “more nationalistic perspective” to placing 9/11 in larger sections on the “War on Terror,” sacrificing space for the particular day to give students more nuance and complexity.

While almost every K-12 student in America today was born after the attacks, it is striking that the vast majority of the backdrop issues remain unresolved. Jackie Zubrzycki writing in Ed Week looks at the adoption of formal standards about 9/11:

Now, 21 states include September 11 in their state standards, and two include terrorism, according to an informal poll conducted by Stephanie Wager, a board member of the National Council for the Social Studies. That's about the same as in 2011, when Diana Hess, the dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's school of education, and Jeremy Stoddard, an associate professor of education at the College of William & Mary, found that fewer than half of states' social studies and history standards mentioned 9/11. But that number partly reflects states' approach to standards, not their commitment to teaching about modern history, Stoddard cautioned. Many of the states that don't specifically include September 11 don't require all students in the state to learn about any particular event at all—the same standards wouldn't require a school to mention the Revolutionary War. 

Because of regional differences in interpreting history (*cough* the Civil War *cough*), the United States may never have a national, standardized interpretation of the 9/11 attacks, or any event of historical consequence for that matter. It is striking, though, how quickly that day has moved into the realm of "history." My wife, who works at a big tech company, hosted a happy hour for some of her younger employees recently, and at least two of them were in kindergarten in 2001. Their peers are becoming teachers, and soon many of the people teaching 9/11 will only know about it through having learned about it secondhand.

In other news, Sharif El-Mekki wants to know if schools have the courage to diversify, and he shares some thoughts about how to do so, including this:

... traditional data-driven professional development, while necessary and beneficial, must be balanced by quality supports that leverage the interests and assets of teachers. Affinity groups and professional learning communities may be centered around “hot topics” or “special interests,” thereby giving teachers a space and group to explore their passions in the field of education. Cohort supports groups and leadership pathways also provide teachers an opportunity to build a sense of community and belonging within schools. On a local level, districts must begin to rethink the traditional and nontraditional pools of candidates for teaching positions. More specifically, schools and districts may benefit from leveraging the existing capacity of adults currently occupying non-teaching positions within schools and education support programs.

Data from teacher surveys reflect what researchers find across fields, which is that compensation is a relatively small factor in whether or not folks are happy in a profession. There's a threshold that a salary has to meet, but once met, other issues - like the attentiveness of one's manager and opportunities for growth - seem more relevant. Schools often struggle with implementing those non-pecuniary benefits.

Jay Mathews has a column in The Washington Post, where he wonders whether teacher quality is the right focus for education policymakers, after reading E.D. Hirsch's new book:

[Hirsch] says we have been callously blaming teachers for meager results of reform when the real culprit is what they have been asked to teach. Most school lessons, he says, are an uncoordinated mishmash of concepts with little importance placed on the vocabulary and key facts that produce good readers. Without a curriculum that allows teachers to build on each other’s work and help students learn words at the core of modern civilization, more teacher training will not get us very far ... Citing research by Brookings Institution scholar Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, Hirsch says “a better curriculum can range from being slightly to dramatically more effective than a better teacher. That’s not surprising when you consider that the curriculum is what teachers teach and what students are supposed to learn.”

There are people with extremely strong opinions about Hirsch and his ideas, and I do not want to weigh-in on that debate. That said, can't it be both teaching and content?

It's not like the data we collect are so clean and rigorous that researchers can say - with utmost confidence - that one is distinctly more important than the other, no matter what Hirsch's opinion on the matter is.

Speaking of false choices, last week a Connecticut judge dispensed with one of education's biggest either/or questions: do schools need more money or more reinvention? Judge Thomas Moukawsher correctly said "it's both," before demanding changes in the state's school finance system. Elizabeth Harris and Kristin Hussey of The New York Times covered educators' reactions:

But more than anything, Judge Moukawsher seemed offended by the irrationality of the state’s education system: He said its funding of new school buildings was driven not by need, but rather by how much clout individual legislators might have; he criticized the teacher evaluation system and said the high school graduation standards were all but meaningless. He told the General Assembly it first had to determine how much money schools actually need to educate children and then must allocate the funds in a way that met that goal. Philip Dwyer, the chairman of Fairfield’s Board of Education, said on Friday he felt the judge’s view of Connecticut’s system lacked nuance ... But Bridgeport’s interim superintendent of schools, Frances Rabinowitz, said much of the ruling sounded right.

"Lacked nuance" is a shorter way for a leader in one of the state's wealthiest communities to say, "Don't touch my money." I'm going to continue to cover this story closely. There hasn't been a major statewide school finance realignment in years, and the fact that this decision compels lawmakers to make structural reforms is unique. Have a great week!