The Greatest Show on Earth
BY NICK SMITH
LETTERS TO CAL-EM
A PERSONAL HISTORY OF HIGHLAND
“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before.” [Kurt Vonnegut]
When I was 10 or 11 years old, I was lucky enough to go to the circus. It was the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus extravaganza with three rings, sideshows, caged exotic animals, balloons, cotton candy, high wire acts and thrills galore. It was marvelous as the ringmaster announced each performance, raising his voice at just the right times to make the act seem exciting and dangerous.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls and children of all ages, welcome to The Greatest Show on Earth!
Welcome to the most extravagant extravagancy the human eye can behold, welcome to the stars of the most spectacular show in the world—every act, every animal parade presented to you in full regalia as the band plays. See the clowns, see the jugglers, see the acrobats, exotic animals and the high diver dive into a tank of water. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth!”
Oh, it was exciting, and the experience stays in my mind yet to this day. I was so taken by the “show” that I made up my own ringmaster-barker chant that I used to torment my little brother, Joe, with for years.
“Joe, Joe the dogface boy; he walks, he talks, he crawls on his belly like a reptile. He can hoochy down the road and can koochy like a toad. See his ears with your own eye; they’re so big he can fly. He eats rocks; he stammers when he talks; he has sticks up his nose and he licks his own toes. Come one come all, come look, come see—see Joe, Joe the dogface boy. He may be my brother, but he’s nothing like me. He’s a freak of nature, come on and see!”
Joey would cry and complain to my mom that I was singing the dogface boy song again, but like a good brother, the more he cried and complained, the more I tormented him with the song. Not only did I tease the poor kid with my ringmaster speech, but I used him to build certain acts for my own greatest show on earth. Once I tied him to a tree, and then proceeded to throw knives at him, trying to outline his body with the knives. That’s how he got a scar on his neck just under his chin. I rigged ramps for jumping, convincing him to sit in between so I could soar my bike over his head. That’s how he got that scar over his left ear.
I loved playing circus.
I attended a couple other circuses during the mid-two thousands representing the Highland Community School District. The first was the extravaganza put on by Dr. Willard (Bill) Daggett, CEO of the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). His work is HUGE here in Iowa where he is treated like a rock star of enormous stature. One might say he is the Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger of the education world. His emphasis is on rigor, relevance and relationships and has been so popular in Iowa that those buzzwords are everywhere in every school and in every education conversation throughout the entire state when anyone talks about student achievement and school improvement. The department of education has even paid him thousands of dollars to come speak to them about his philosophy, which I suspect he borrowed from Bill Gates or maybe visa-versa.
Oh, my God is he a great speaker. He’s dynamic, persuasive, charming and full of goose droppings. I’m not saying that there isn’t merit in his message; much of what he says make perfect sense and has actually been followed by educators for years long before Mr. Daggett started his company or became the in-service guru for public education. He takes the information and packages it in a way that makes it sound urgent and necessary at the moment. He is very good at what he does, and I defy anyone to remain stoic during one of his fantastic shows. He is so popular with the Iowa Department of education and the legislators that most of the Iowa common core comes straight from his rigor and relevance and relationship handbook. Iowa has also paid him thousands of dollars over the years for speeches and his involvement in teacher professional development.
Mr. Daggett, however, has some problems with the truth; in fact, he out and out falsifies information in order to support his particular philosophy, but you might do that too if someone was willing to pay you $10,000 for a daylong seminar and didn’t care if what you said was accurate just as long as you were tearing down the current educational system and trying to replace it with some sort of “reform.” For example, Daggett said in his speech, “We are the only industrialized nation on the face of the Earth that thinks that you teach biology and chemistry as separate courses. Biochemistry universally, across the globe, is seen as one in the same.”
Henry Duckworth, a biochemist at the University of Manitoba, however, said Canada teaches chemistry and biology separately. “High schools are doing right to teach chemistry as such (separate), so that students get the basics before they turn to the vastly more complex molecules that you have to deal with in biochemistry,” said Duckworth. In addition, Kazuo Tachibana, a chemistry professor at the University of Tokyo, said Japan also teaches chemistry and biology separately. England also teaches chemistry and biology separately. Daggett further extended his argument by saying the United States is isolated from the international community because most US schools do not require physics to graduate from high school, while 79 other nations require at least one year of physics to graduate. David Robitaille, international coordinator of the Third International Math and Science Study and a professor at the University of British Columbia, contradicted Daggett’s assertion. He said he knew of few nations that required physics to graduate from high school.
The merits of some of Daggett’s message could be debated, but his entire message is called into question when he uses fictitious studies and unverifiable statistics. For example, to illustrate how American students quickly lose what they are taught, Daggett cited a massive Harvard study.
“Harvard just completed, for the second year in a row, a study of 2,100 high schools across the country,” Daggett said. “They took the top two ranking academic students (who had graduated the previous year) from those 2,100 high schools; they asked those top two students-2,100 high schools, 4,200 kids in total–to sit with the ninth graders in the same building as the ninth graders took their final exams last spring in three courses; social studies, math and science. Eighty-eight percent of those kids failed two of the three.”
Douglas Winsor, special assistant to the dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said he could not find the study. How can this audience know that his story about Harvard bringing the top graduates back to take tests is a total confabulation? The mere invocation of the word ‘Harvard’ gives the figment credibility. He’s as charismatic as he is dishonest.
Former US Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn said education consultants are common. He said there is little quality control and it is easy for school officials to be taken. “A lot of it (educational consulting) is a scam, because the people who get hired don’t really know much or don’t meet the needs they are being hired to address or, in a few cases, are themselves frauds,” said Finn. “There’s so much emphasis in the field (education) on ‘professional development’ and ‘in-service,’ and so many dollars rolling around for those purposes that it’s easy for this racket to flourish.
Daggett said in the “The Washington Post” that his inaccuracies were a result of a long day on his feet.
He testified before a congressional committee that was looking at the Goals 2000 initiative.
FACT: Head Senate Librarian Greg Harness said, “I am confident he never testified before Congress.”
“Twenty-nine nations in the world require four years of technical reading and writing to graduate from high school.”
FACT: David Robitaille, international coordinator of the Third International Math and Science Study and a professor at the University of British Columbia said, “I’ve never heard of such a thing,” and said none of the countries he has studied have such requirements.
In 1996, 62 percent of the colleges in this country-the community colleges-did not require a high school diploma for admission.
FACT: Renee Gernand, who is in charge of the College Board’s database, said 75 percent of the two-year schools require a diploma for admission, 98 percent of four-year schools require a diploma. She said, “My data on this is very good. I don’t know where he got his numbers.
Fifty-four percent of the students in Arizona attend charter schools. Twenty-four percent of the students in California attend charter schools.
FACT: According to the California Department of Education’s website, 9 percent of all students are in charter schools, Director of Charter Schools Administration in Arizona Lyle Skillan said currently 4.2 percent of its students are in charter schools.
“There is one college in America this fall that has 600,000 students enrolled, which is eleven times larger than (University of ) Phoenix and you know what it is? It is called Western Virtual University. It started only two years ago.”
FACT: Only 180 students are enrolled, Director of University Affairs at Western Governors (formerly Virtual) University Amy Tejral said.
“At this moment, in the Antarctic, Stanford University has a laboratory, where they are growing tomatoes in 20 degree below zero temperatures, outside. And they’re going to full flavor and texture without freezing,” to North faculty.
FACT: Arthur Grossman, a professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University, said this “doesn’t sound plausible at all” and he knew of no such program.
My oldest daughter, Heidi, is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Carolina Complete Care, which is the fourth largest medical facility in the world. She is married to a young neurosurgeon. She is in charge of eight hospitals including Baston Children’s Hospital, Duke, and John Hopkins.
FACT: Carolina Complete Care has four doctors on its staff: an internist, a family physician, and two chiropractors. It does not run any hospitals. Heidi is married to one of the chiropractors; she is the office manager.
There’s no argument about the rigor, relevance and relationship framework from what I can see other than its emphasis is it excludes a large number of curricular items that I think are worth saving, like literature, music, art and industrial technology courses to name a few. Teachers have always followed this framework, as far as I know, as a matter of practical application to any lesson plan. The problem, once again, is that many [especially in Iowa] view this framework as the panacea savior of education, and it’s not.
At Highland, we over worked the entire idea to death until it was eventually abandoned for some other one-size-fits-all program for school improvement. We called the framework diagram “quadrant D” (from the Bill Gates lingo), then required that every lesson plan contain a quadrant D ending. That demand, of course, was impossible and impractical because not every lesson even lends itself to quadrant D (complex higher order thinking skills from Blooms taxonomy) completions. Some lessons, by necessity, must remain in the knowledge and information (quadrant A) section because that knowledge is needed later, along with other information, to reach the quadrant D level. I’ve reprinted the framework (below), taken from the International Center for Leadership in Education web page, so that you may see for yourself how the concept works and how application to every lesson is ridiculous..
The Rigor Relevance Framework®
The Rigor/Relevance Framework is a tool developed by the International Center to examine curriculum, instruction, and assessment along the two dimensions of higher standards and student achievement. It can be used in the development of both instruction and assessment. In addition, teachers can use it to monitor their own progress in adding rigor and relevance to their instruction, and to select appropriate instructional strategies for differentiating instruction and facilitating higher achievement goals.
The Knowledge Taxonomy (y-axis) is a continuum based on the six levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, which describes the increasingly complex ways in which we think. The low end involves acquiring knowledge and being able to recall or locate that knowledge. The high end labels the more complex ways in which individuals use knowledge, such as taking several pieces of knowledge and combining them in both logical and creative ways.
The second continuum (x-axis)—created by Bill Daggett—is known as the Application Model. A continuum of action, its five levels describe putting knowledge to use. While the low end of the continuum is knowledge acquired for its own sake, the high end signifies action—use of that knowledge to solve complex, real-world problems and create projects, designs, and other works for use in real-world situations.
Cal-Em, despite the exaggerations of the ringmaster, the circus is still a marvelous and unique type of entertainment, and despite the exaggerations and partial truths of Bill Daggett, the rigor, relevance and relationship framework for instruction is still the most marvelous methodology for instruction that I’ve seen. It’s not new, and it didn’t originate with Bill Daggett, far from it, but he did put the idea into understandable terms and has promoted its virtues all over the nation. He has taken what good teachers always did and packaged it in a framework of understanding, and I applaud him for that.
Unfortunately, what Highland did with the information was incorrect, poorly administered, weakly understood and finally discarded. What a shame. If we had spent a little more time on the message and less time on the messenger, we would have been much more successful with the method. That’s what I’m afraid of with the Iowa core curriculum. The Iowa Department of Education seems to be so in love with the messenger that they are failing adequately to understand the message. I personally used the framework throughout my entire teaching career, although, I must admit I didn’t have a name for the methodology until it was popularized by Daggett. You must remember, however, that this method is only one part of teaching and should be used at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner along with other methodologies if instruction is to be successful. I especially like the way it fit with Blooms taxonomy of higher order thinking and the Hunter method of planning.
Standards based instruction for curriculum and assessment created by the federal government or the state in the form of common core typically tend to emphasize specific subject matter content and basic skills to be mastered at a specific grade level for each subject. This is not what rigor, relevance and relationship is all about. Though the standards (common core) call for “critical thinking,” in reality the standardized tests used for assessment are unable to assess anything near “critical thinking.” A multiple choice-fill in the bubble test cannot easily lend itself to much more than the lowest common denominator. Additionally, the pressure on teachers to cover tremendous amounts of subject matter that will be randomly cherry-picked for the high stakes test, usually prevents them from spending the time needed to help students think carefully about, construct an in-depth understanding of, and communicate adequately the complicated content and skills that the standards (core curriculum) subscribe.
The point of rigor, relevance and relationship is to help students work with and use knowledge, rather than simply reproduce it on a test. The idea is to build deep understandings about a subject and then applying those understandings to questions, problems and issues in the student’s life. How does a test measure that? The key here is to keep the concept of curriculum and the concept of testing separate. Curriculum is what the teacher teaches or facilitates. Testing, or core standards is what students are expected to know and demonstrate at a particular (grade) level. The common core cannot be the curriculum because the curriculum is much more complicated than the core can ever assess. We need to get these differences straight before we connect the dots. The emphasis on achieving test score targets and meeting an endless list of proficiency levels actually undermines the authentic intellectual mission of the school by lowering the outcomes to “testable” items rather than true intelligence.
I think it will be difficult, Cal-Em, for our schools to truly educate our students because the emphasis of government is on the wrong path. They want to use core curriculum to build standardized tests in order to provide pseudo-accountability, not build a curriculum where students actually learn to use the knowledge and skills acquired in their own lives. We are going in the wrong direction.
Heaven help us.