July 25, 2008

Hoffman and the Rule of Holes

Tom Hoffman is having a grand ol' time digging himself deeper into a rhetorical hole.

Let's start with the argument Hoffman apparently considers to be the knock-out blow.

DeRosa's critique of the assignment is based on how he imagines the Dred Scott decision ought to be taught in a US History class. Had he asked before writing his missive, or bothered to read the History and Social Studies section of the Curriculum Guide, he would have known that his entire frame for critiquing the assignment was incorrect, because this was not an assignment for a US History class (taken in 11th grade at SLA), but an African-American History class.

I'm not sure why Tom thinks I didn't know that the project was for an African-American history class considering this statement from my initial post.

The project comes from page 10 of the Family Handbook and pertains to African-American History.

I've taken the liberty of highlighting the relevant portion for Tom's benefit. Apparently, my "entire frame of critiquing" wasn't correct after all.

In this context, what is important is the decision's impact on African-Americans and the abolitionist movement, not the balance of power in the great game between the North and the South in which the African-Americans are seen as mere pawns. Perhaps in 11th grade US History, the pre-war balance of power dynamic will be emphasized.

I agree. That's why I gave the following as an example of analysis showing deep understanding for a high school student.

[T]he Dred Scott decision is important because it upset the political compromise at the federal level (the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act) which served to limit the spread of slavery.

Again I've emphasized the relevant portion for Tom's benefit. The balance of power issue remains an important issue for African-Americans history since it affected the growth of slavery. I'm thinking the growth of slavery might have "impacted" African-Americans.

I provided yet another reason for why the balance of power issue was important to the slavery issue:

As long as the Senate was gridlocked, the North would not be able to pass a constitutional amendment banning slavery in all the states.

Again, I've scaffolded the passage for Tom's benefit. I'm thinking the balance of power issue was a little more important than merely a "great game between the North and the South in which the African-Americans are seen as mere pawns."

Tom continues:

I would note that Chris Lehmann told me that he left a comment on Ken's blog explaining this oversight on Ken's part, but for whatever reason, that comment has not been published as of this date.

Unlike Tom, I don't moderate comments and I only delete spam comments. If Chris' comment didn't post it's either because Chris did something wrong or blogger ate the comment. Most likely it was the latter.

I'm thinking at this point Chris is glad the comment didn't make it through.

The knock-out punch missed its mark. Let's see if Tom's remaining argument lands.

Beyond Ken's unhappiness of the framing of the decision and the assignment, his criticism of the student work itself is not based on any knowledge of the kind of work 14 year olds typically do. As a piece of writing, the letter in question would stand up admirably against the anchor papers used in any 9th grade writing assessment in the country, if not the world. DeRosa never questions the accuracy of the student's historical information.

Actually, I did question the efficacy of petitioning Southern Democrats for redress. That seemed to be on the wrong side of a few historical facts. However. the primary deficiency in the student project was that the student didn't give us much to work with, hence my characterization of the project as "superficial understanding." This contradicted the claims made by SLA in the family handbook, and I quote:

Teachers in each course ask the question – “What are the enduring understandings students should have when they leave this class?” Teachers then create projects that can only be completed by showing both the skills and knowledge that are deemed to be critical to master the subject and demonstrate that deep level of understanding.


At SLA, there may be multiple assessments – including quizzes and tests – along the way, but the primary assessment of student learning is through their projects.

This was supposed to be an exemplary project, yet it contradicted SLA's assertion that it showed deep understanding of the subject matter and mastery of skills. I argued that it showed superficial understanding because it "fail[ed] to cover any of the important issues presented by the decision, the historical context of the case, and why the case is historically important."

Tom's point with respect to what a 14 year old should be expected to know is relevant. Tom cites an AP prep book for U.S. History that provides far more detail on the Dred Scott decision (p. 132)and the relevant history leading up to that decision that my analysis. I also cited a middle school history text which gave about the same level of analysis that I provided. What is clear is that the student example project provided far less analysis than either the middle school analysis, my analysis, or the AP prep book analysis.

That's two misses.

My advice to Tom: stop digging.


CrypticLife said...

"Unlike Tom, I don't moderate comments "

You can tell a lot about blogs by how they moderate comments. School matters, for example, censors virtually everything. You don't censor, Dennis Fermoyle (who is different from you philosophically) doesn't censor. I have no trust in blogs that censor the comments beyond spam or pure annoyance (I recently saw a comment consisting nothing of the word "quack" several hundred times. I tolerate censoring that sort of comment).

Roger Sweeny said...

Tom and Ken are both right--sort of.

Ken is right that the student doesn't show "deep understanding of the subject matter and mastery of skills."

However, I don't think that's possible for most ninth graders. Two years later, the standards should be higher, though even there I think "deep" and "mastery" are more than can be expected (and if those are the words that educators use, perhaps they should do something about their "rhetoric inflation").

On the other hand, the student does seem to get all the facts right.

(I agree that writing to southern congressmen isn't going to change their minds. However, I would be interested to know if that was a strategy of abolitionist groups.)

Moreover, the letter is literate. Verbs agree with subjects. Sentences begin with capitals and end with periods. More important, each sentence makes sense. One sentence follows logically from another. Ideas are clearly stated and developed.


And more than a significant number of college students can do.

I think it is a major achievement.

Anonymous said...


I don't think Ken is criticizing the grammar or composition. Rather, I believe he is pointing out that the premise of the school ("discovery learning" or "guided learning") is faulty and doesn't lead to subject matter mastery.

A better approach would be to teach subject matter and its historical context, and then allow the student a chance to show mastery on what was taught to see if they actually learned it.

Put another way . . .

The "guided learning" (my words) approach works well in graduate schools where the students have shown a high level of understanding of the subject matter. But it short-changes students in high school because it doesn't give them a basis from which they can evaluate history and its implications today.

The approach that says "well, it's better than most" keeps us from really figuring out better ways to do things, and ultimately getting better schools.

(In fact, that is one of thing things that I still can't understand. . . the way people don't seem to want to make schools better, and continue to defend the status quo, which clearly isn't working . . . especially when there is a proven way to do better.)


Tom Hoffman said...


You simply have no idea of what good, or bad, 9th grade student work looks like.

KDeRosa said...

I guess you told me, Tom.

Anonymous said...

There are a few different standards being applied here.

One standard: Does this represent excellent 9th grade level writing?

I think most readers of this blog would agree that the quality of the writing is impressive for a 9th grader. Of course, the writing sample was almost certainly cherry picked for the handbook and is likely not typical of 9th grade writing at the school.

A second, much higher, standard is the one the school claims the passage illustrates: Does this writing show excellent historical understanding at the 9th grade level?

In a relative sense, it does -- after all, the typical American public school 9th grader can't write a coherent paragraph on Dredd Scott even after "learning" about the decision in class. It's a pretty low bar to get over.

In an absolute sense, the writing certainly does not illustrate the sort of work a 9th grader is capable after excellent instruction. Tom seems not to get this. Perhaps this is because Tom does not have an excellent sense of historical understanding himself. (No offense, Tom, neither do I.)

More likely, Tom clearly does not have a good grasp of what excellent instruction is capable of with 9th grade students -- I doubt he has ever encountered it.

This is why he accuses KD of not having any idea of what "good or bad 9th grade work looks like."

If Tom is serious about providing an excellent education to his students, he should find a copy of Carnine's understanding U.S. History and read it carefully.

Once he realizes what 9th graders are really capable of, hopefully he will raise his standards.

If he does, he will eventually find that the only way to meet those standards is through excellent, organized, direct instruction.

Even graduate level students do not learn efficiently using the progressive, student initiated practices his school advocates.

Tracy W said...

Moreover, the letter is literate. Verbs agree with subjects. Sentences begin with capitals and end with periods. More important, each sentence makes sense. One sentence follows logically from another. Ideas are clearly stated and developed.

So "inquiry-driven, project-based teaching" doesn't lead to deep understanding of history, but does lead to good grammar?

It's starting to look more attractive already. :)

Roger Sweeny said...

If (and it's a big "if") inquiry-driven, project-based teaching doesn't lead to deep understanding of history, but does lead to good writing, I would be in favor of it.

Right now an astoundingly large number of ninth graders aren't getting either the deep understanding or the writing skills. Getting the writing skills would be an improvement. And writing skills are foundational. A student is really limited if they aren't there.

Of course, I would hope that projects in the later years develop a deeper understanding. But I'm not going to worry about running races when people can barely walk.

Jo Anne C said...

"I think most readers of this blog would agree that the quality of the writing is impressive for a 9th grader."

I would agree with your statement as long as the student wrote this project on his/her own.

My child (good student) has yet to be assigned a project that he could complete based solely on the instruction received in the classroom.

In order to receive top grades, parents often provide direct instruction at home so their children can succeed.

Many projects I have seen, look as though the parents are doing them for their children.