Measuring Sticks

“The high school, the junior high, the elementary school, we went down six times a year. And not just me, the whole school went down to watch the National Symphony. And that’s where I learned that I had no interest in classical music. But it was an effort! It was arts in the school. And now you have to fight to get arts in the schools. Because nobody wants to pay for it. Nobody wants to pay for anything anymore. That’s the way I look at it. Nobody wants to pay to get the things that would allow to have a great education for children. And I had that education. And they were middle class. It wasn’t some wealthy neighborhood.”

–Lewis Black, April 14, 2014 at the National Press Club

I’m starting off by quoting Lewis Black. Suffice to say, I’m not necessarily in a good mood.

This is more of a macroscopic view on things, only IF I’m allowed a macroscopic view after one year of teaching. Please keep in mind a few things:

-I’ve taught for 12 months now

-I’m a second career teacher (let me emphasize this); while I’m less experienced than some teachers in their 40s, I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who has lived outside of education

-I am/was a pediatrician, so I’m not a novice around young people, nor am I novice with how young people are “wired”

-I worked in an applied science

I’m in a Facebook group for NGSS teachers. (I might not be after this blog – they might kick me out). NGSS is for Next Generation Science Standards. As much as anything is controversial in science teaching circles, NGSS elicits some strong opinions from educators. It’s kind of “common core” for science teachers; not in methods, but in general view (new vs. old). I’m not so sure why it elicits such passion on either side (more on that later).

As much as I can figure out, it comes down to this: Sciences (and I’m focusing on middle school and high school here) have always been taught like many subjects. Focus on the content, and the students will pick up other “skills” that they might need that translate to other disciplines along the way. NGSS flips that – it forces the curriculum planning to think of the skill first and then weave the content in with the skill. Our district is switching to NGSS and we are writing the curriculum now; I’ve read as much as I can and I’m helping with the writing. I’ll get to my opinions and views in a minute, but I’ve got to detour into some snarkiness.

The NGSS Chemistry facebook group is not very helpful, at least not to me. (Many Facebook groups aren’t helpful – they become an area where 90% of the people can agree on something and shout dissenting opinions or truly open ended questions down). On this group, as an example:

“Can you believe it, my colleague still teaches with SLIDES??!!!” (Hey, maybe, like me, this was earlier in their career or they were starting from nothing, and you had to start somewhere – offer to help if you are so enlightened).

There are discussions on grading practices, which seem to fault the teacher (from other teachers) if they mark students down for turning work in late (“It’s about the skill, not the timing.”) Apparently, none of these educators have worked under the deadline of medical records or medical licensing requirements. I’d like to see them try that argument after having been suspended for completing medical records late (or a licensing application late) and see how far they get. Or, if you run your own business, a deadline for a customer might in fact be artificial. Let’s see how many repeat customers one gets when one keeps missing “artificial” deadlines with a quality product. Again, I wish you lots of luck with that.

The one that got me was on a biology discussion (I think it involved the Krebs Cycle and location of organelles in the cell). One teacher posted that he made his students still know the location of the processes. Another posted back, “Does the content really matter?”

SNARK ALERT! Let’s say that back in my pediatrics days that I’m taking care of a sick infant. Furthermore, the sick infant has a respiratory issue. As such, I order a blood gas. The blood gas comes back, and the nurse asks me for an interpretation of said blood gas. My response is, “Oh, I can’t do that. Content isn’t important. But I’m excellent at interpreting graphs and analyzing trends and creating a model of gas exchange in mammals!” If they didn’t throw me out on my @$$, they’d be out of their minds, or they’d be getting sued faster than the USMNT choking on an international friendly in Cincinnati (tells you the timing of this post).

Content matters – sorry, but I’m not sorry (and yes, that scenario is a bit unfair). Here’s a major olive branch; I’m not on the “content matters” side in the NGSS debate. Being able to think through things is just as important as knowing “facts.” I’ve known plenty of people with “book knowledge” that are rather deficient at generalizing concepts to multiple related scenarios. The fact is that having both (skills to apply knowledge AND the knowledge itself) matter. One without the other is rather pointless.

What NGSS is asking teachers to do is to be more intentional about designing the curriculum. It’s asking that lessons be designed in a manner so that scientific phenomena are the setting, but that other things like analysis, model construction, mathematical analysis are at the forefront of the lesson as well. I wasn’t doing NGSS per se this year, but I was doing a lot of what it was asking me to do. In fact, most science teachers (most good ones) are already doing that without making it so obvious in their planning. NGSS is flipping the planning process, but it’s not really all that different.

Will it be better or worse than what we are already doing? I don’t really know, and quite frankly, I don’t have a strong opinion on it. Time will tell. I do know that if teachers don’t go all in and don’t try (or they don’t care about their students and what they are doing), that it will go badly; bad attitudes sink things. But that’s not new. If you care about what you do and care about those you are teaching, it will be a lateral move at minimum. It might be better. Whether or not it’s worth the time and effort is to be determined. But we have to put in the time and effort and see what happens. I’ll tell you my impressions on NGSS in 1-2 years if anyone is interested. (My early thoughts are it is a continuum; more skills should be taught in middle school, and start bringing in more content later. It will all go much smoother in a district after it has been fully implemented for a few years, and one can argue when we should focus more on content over skills, but we’ll see about that. There’s a pitfall or two, but I totally see the upside. It’s more than worth a shot. If you’re reading, Hi, Dr. Bumbu!)

This is not an NGSS blog, however.

As I was with a group of chemistry teachers last week, my mind wandered for a bit. Summer break had started for some, and here we are planning out new curriculum for the upcoming year. We’re trying to create a scenario where students are engaged for the entirety of the time they are in our class, but we’re trying to keep the stress low. The amount of time (and home environment) that each student has to do work greatly varies (and this is TRUE), so that has to be kept in mind. There are other variables that we chase as well.

When I finished high school in 1995, we (collectively, as a nation, to the best of my recollection) were chasing Japan. We had fallen behind in math and science, and Japan was handing our butts to us and asking us how it tasted. The solution? Work!!! Have some work and then have some more.

Somewhere along the line, we (collectively, again) decided/saw that overworking students might produce some results, but it might be fraught with a bit of peril as well. And what if all students are not coming in at the same starting point? How do we handle that? Less homework! (I keep seeing on my Facebook feed how Finland is the model to follow. So, if we follow the Fins, we’ll be finished with revamping our educational system? Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun…. Bad, Dr. K! Go to your room!)

But how are students prepared for life beyond high school? In college, secondary training, and the workforce, you simply will not finish all of your work in class. How do we prepare students how to prepare? How do we prepare students for careers in the 21st century? That last question is even fraught with more peril – some school districts put students in career paths early on. That’s all well and good – but what about the well rounded education? What about an appreciation for the arts (thank you, Mr. Black)? What about basic science literacy (want to know where anti-vaxers start)? We know that most people in school now are NOT going to finish in their first career, but we have high schools starting students in career paths…. Hmm….

Friends, NGSS is not the problem nor the solution. If you are positively minded, it is the example. If you are feeling negative, it is the symptom. Collectively, we don’t know what we want out of our educational system, but we know we don’t want to fund it. So whatever you do, do it on the cheap.

Here’s a given. Private schools will always be less subject to this. Why? They will have money. They can do what they want being subject to less regulation. They have selection bias. I’m not angry – that’s just the way it is. So, private school peeps, if you are interested, keep reading. If not, quit now, in a way, this isn’t really directed at you.

It seems like we (collectively) are chasing some finish line, some goal. Teachers often opine that principals change teaching methods every so often for the “flavor of the month”. There seems to be a new, better way – backed by some sort of data – and we need to switch how we teach students. I’m not saying this is right or wrong. I haven’t been doing this long enough to know one way or the other, nor do I have an extensive enough knowledge of educational literature to debate someone on every finer point. I suspect most educators don’t either; it’s tough to know EVERYTHING.

Furthermore, this country, each state, each city, even a lot of districts have diverse and divergent needs. It’s tough to come up with a common approach when backgrounds are vastly different. It’s even tougher when levels of preparedness are different; when student home lives are different; when school resources are different. You get the picture.

It gets even tougher when, quite frankly, we (again, collectively, no just one “we”) don’t quite know what we are preparing our students for. If we are supposed to plan for a goal, but we don’t quite have a grasp of the goal, we’re kind of hosed.

Is the goal to have the student prepared on a career track by the time they turn 18?

Is the goal to have a well-rounded education in order to have the student prepared for a future where they need to keep on learning?

Is the goal to have students learn “soft skills” – research, networking, etc…?

Is the goal to provide more “real world” exposure to students and get them out of the classroom if “traditional” education is “failing” students? (I’m using quotes, not to be sarcastic; just to be clear).

One could make a reasonable argument about doing each one of these. Or, you could do all of these – if given enough resources (that’s coming). Or, blow it up and do something completely different. The larger point is this: part of the reason you see so many different educational paths on the high school level that flip-flop in methodology is that until we realize what the final endpoint is, it’s awfully hard to pick a “best practice” in getting the students there.

(Disclaimer – I also fully realize that there will probably be more than one best practice – I’m not even getting into preparation for university vs. trade school – we need more of this – vs. other careers. I don’t want this blog to go on forever).

Is the high school supposed to do all of this? Does it have to be done all during school hours? 90% during school hours? Is homework evil or is it ok, and to what extent? (I know there are some reasonable limitations on students depending on your home life. However, some think it is 100% evil. If so, are we failing students in career preparation? Not that I’m advocating working people to death – that’s how I got here! But there’s always an element of learning on your own. That has to start at some point.)

The more you want the school to do (and the more combinations), the more this is going to cost. How much money are we willing to spend per student? What’s reasonable? What’s a need in an educational environment? What’s a reasonable want, and what’s just a want? How do we divide a pot of money across a state? A region? Within a district? Across K-12?

This last paragraph gets tricky. If the state takes over the entire educational system, that ensures (on some level) more equity. However, what’s the drive for individual districts to provide more for their students? However, do districts divide their own resources well anyway? You can get large districts with income disparity – it would be interesting to study or audit large districts school by school. Which schools have the best funding for student technology or teacher grants? Here’s a hunch – it might be the ones with the most active/well-funded PTOs. That puts those schools within a district ahead. Individual motivation is a factor – but is it fair? (And who decides – all good questions.)

If you want bang for your educational buck, the lion’s share of the money probably should be coming in on the pre-K to 5th grade side. Why? The further behind children fall educationally early on, the harder it is to catch them up. This harkens back to my pediatrics world – it’s all about brain development. The more dollars you spend on helping a student when they are young is going to translate into significant savings when that students gets older. But it’s not sexy and shiny, like this: (To be fair, this might be a low blow on my part. I haven’t researched educational spending per student on these school districts.)

The point, however, is still valid. We seem to have a tendency to spend on shiny things, but ought we be focusing on what gets long term results? The problem is, spending money on a 4 year old won’t show what I would term “society visible” results for a decade or two when they are back, working in the community. This is hard to swallow, especially for taxpayers. But it’s the truth. You might want to see a shiny lab with new equipment. What you need are a bunch of 6 and 7 year olds that are voracious readers and curious learners (and help for those children that are struggling with a skill or set of skills). The new gym or swimming pool, quite honestly, can wait.

I realize that about one third of this blog consisted of me typing questions, so it’s probably a frustrating read. It’s also frustrating to write. I had my wife proof-read and edit this blog (twice), and I’m still not completely satisfied with it. If I tried to research and answer each question, it would be 20 pages, minimum. I wanted people to see, however, how earnestly I take my job and more importantly, the conundrum we are in with our public educational system. It’s not just an issue of money (that is an issue, no doubt, but it’s not the only one).

We keep hearing phrases like “Our children will have ‘x’ many careers during their lifetime” or “The skills of the modern worker are not the skills of the current worker”. That might very well be true. Until we figure out what that preparation should look like, it will continue to be a source of worry on the 9-12 level (and post-secondary as well). We need to figure out what students need to learn first. Then we can figure out an approach. I’m a pragmatist at heart. There are many good ways to do things; but if we are married to an approach (and the needs be damned), the frustrations will continue to mount for educators and students alike. Start at the end and work backwards – and this “problem based” vs. “real world” vs “traditional” learning discussion will likely dissipate.


I was told I needed to have pictures for my blogs; nothing fit here. Our albino parakeet (Louie) recently died. She was a great friend to all of us. We adopted a jenday conure named Jalapeño – she’s 17 years old and had not been allowed out of her cage. STAR Avian Rescue here is St. Louis took her in and a “foster parent” had her for one month and did great work with her. We’ve her for 3 weeks and she’s as sweet as can be. I can’t keep doing bird/parakeet blogs, but I did want to acknowledge Louie (we miss her terribly) and Jalapeño (she’s truly wonderful)! And to everyone out there, if you are looking for a loving pet, you could do much worse than a bird – but you have to interact with them. If you do, trust me, they will love you back – and then some.

Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 44 year old high school chemistry teacher (and former pediatrician), happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I blog sporadically, and if there's a theme in here, please tell me what it is!

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