Teachers discuss benefits and demands of Profile of Learning

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 3/17/99.

The debate over the Profile of Learning has moved to the Minnesota Senate, with preliminary hearings commencing soon in the Senate Education Committee.

Neither the Senate nor the governor's office is expected to back the House bill that drastically reduces the requirements of the Profile of Learning. "We need to keep the Profile in order to maintain high standards," Department of Children, Families and Learning Commissioner Christine Jax told Minnesota Educator, the publication of the teachers' association. "However, we need to respond to the concerns of teachers."

One of the driving forces behind the debate this winter on the Profile of Learning has come straight from the classroom as teachers have expressed their displeasure with the current requirements. Other teachers strongly support the Profile of Learning.

The editorial page of Minnesota Educator has been filled for months by letters from teachers arguing for and against the Profile of Learning. They haven't been able to print all the letters due to lack of space.

It is a hot topic.

In the second part of our series on the Profile of Learning, we will listen to what local teachers have to say about covering the Profile of Learning in their classrooms.

(Last week the first article in this series described the present requirements of the Profile of Learning.)

Reviewing curriculum
The Profile of Learning are the high standards portion of the new graduation rule. The idea is to challenge students and for them to be able to show that they understand.

Several teachers found that in preparing to push their students they challenged themselves first.

For example, in the first grade, Joyce Anderson and Eileen Werner have been rewriting a state package about needs and wants in our community. First grade social science was assigned this portion of the standard because they already covered needs and wants. Now they have to expand from talking about just individual needs and wants to those belonging to an entire community.

Their problem is that it's too challenging for first graders. The package was written for a higher grade level, but it fit into our curriculum at the first grade level. So Anderson and Werner have been attempting to modify it.

They haven't finished yet. They need to have some sort of performance to judge their students' achievement and plan to do a community service project outside the school in April or May.

They have met for hours in school and done work at home.

Even if the Legislature would eliminate the Profile of Learning requirements at the elementary level, Anderson said her time would not have been wasted. "I didn't go into this depth (before), so having this standard has made me take a deeper look at this chapter," she said.

Middle school principal Deb Gillman teaches a graduate level curriculum development class, and has made a Profile of Learning package a class assignment. The vast majority of teachers in her classes, she said, have found teaching a package beneficial, but as pupils these teachers have had extra motivation to accomplish them. "The teachers were amazed at how much the kids could do," she said.

"Is (the Profile of Learning) good for kids? You bet. Is it too much? You bet. Should it be pared down? Absolutely." Gillman said.

"There is a lot of good stuff in it," she continued, "and it should not be thrown out."

Good fits
A number of teachers mentioned how well a package "fit" into their class, or how well it matched what they already taught. Take a look at some of the sixth grade science projects pictured on page 12. Bob Bowden has been doing science projects for 20 years. Now it fulfills an inquiry standard.

"We redesign and redesign the educational wheel," Bowden said. "Basically we get back to the basics. Some of us never left there."

Rebecca Hoey, a high school business teacher, covers the career investigation package in a required ninth grade class. The quarter-long class has five stages. First, the student must analyze themselves, their interests, and their strengths. Second, they must complete an interest survey and list five potential careers. Third, they select one career to investigate, and they must interview two schools that offer related classes and then write a report of their findings.

Fourth, they make a four-year plan for their high school course work. High school principal John Janotta and curriculum coordinator Danith Clausen made a four-year plan sheet with all the course requirements and graduation standards requirements.

The four-year plan of courses is just a guide, and can be altered should the student's career goals change. It does give homeroom teachers some sense of direction during registration.

The fifth step is for the students to take their package of career information home and have their parents sign it. "I think it's important if they spend nine weeks doing it they should share it with a parent," said Hoey.

If the Profile of Learning is reduced the careers package might be one of the cuts. "I'll still do all those things in my classes," she said, "but I'll never ask them to do all the paperwork."

As a vocational teacher, Hoey said the standards fit well into her classes because she already did projects.

One core subject area where projects fit nicely is social science, according to eighth grade teacher Cameron Mahlum. His upcoming mock trial is an example of an alternative method of assessment. It tests the students' knowledge of courtroom procedures and communication skills without a written test.

"In social science, it's a great fit," he said, "because it brings the history to life."

Civil rights projects and position papers develop student ownership, he said. "Nothing is better as a teacher as when a student puts into practice something you've been teaching," he added.

Good idea, bad packages
High school social science teacher Jeff Youngs also has used mock trials and other alternative assessment methods long before the requirements of the Profile of Learning.

"These ideas are good, but the cookie-cutter approach just doesn't work," he said.

Youngs said he tried to use two state packages and they were both difficult. One was so terrible, he said, that even after he retooled it almost completely, it was still bad.

"You can't fit someone else's approach exactly," he said. "You can't mirror it."

This is a sore spot with high school agriculture teacher Bill Ryan, who said, "it takes away a teacher's individual style of teaching."

In the second grade last year, they did a package on inquiry for which the students were required to find answers to their questions. Madonna Leimer's class read several books by children's author Tomie de Paola, and then each student wrote a letter asking him three questions.

They were supposed to find answers three ways, so Leimer found a taped interview and information on the Internet. Each student also received a biographical letter from de Paola's office and an autographed bookmark, but some students didn't have a single question answered.

As if the project wasn't time consuming enough, Leimer also had to have individual conferences with each student, which consumed a lot of class time.

The idea had some merit, but the needed skills were above her class's ability. "I guess I would like the freedom to decide myself how they're going to meet these high standards," said Leimer.

Create your own package
Teachers can write their own packages, which must then be approved by a review committee including Paynesville and five other school districts.

"The benefit of getting it approved is you would determine locally what your students would learn and you could tailor it to your students and textbooks," said high school mathematics teacher Bill Brinkman. He started writing a package last summer on Chance and Data Analysis, working a week in June, July, and August. After talking with various "experts," he has made several revisions, but when he submitted it to the committee it was not approved because the committee didn't like his test, he said.

High school communications teachers Michelle Anderson and Deb Ficek are creating a package for the learning area of Read, Listen, and View. Anderson said the goal is to get students to be critical observers of complex information. For instance, students should consider the perspective of the speaker and whether or not they have a bias when listening to them. "It's getting them not to believe everything they read or view," said Anderson.

Anderson and Ficek started writing last summer, and had paid substitutes three days this year so they could work on their proposal. Anderson is grateful for the extra time to work, but also resents being taken out of the classroom and away from her students.

Their proposal hasn't been approved either, and Anderson said the problem now is the use of a written test to test comprehension.

"I do think (the Profile of Learning) has some good points, as long as I have enough say to make it fit in Paynesville," she said.

Something gained, lost
"These things don't happen in a vacuum," said Youngs. "When you talk about time, money, and energy in these areas, then others are neglected."

"I was never against the good part of the profiles," he said. But he felt the state had created a monster. "It's like it got so big it choked itself."

Brinkman said it's like doing science projects in every class throughout the year. "What's really appropriate to do two, three, four times becomes pretty repetitive," he said.

"It's very cumbersome to add extra steps to what they're already doing," agreed Jane Leitzman, a sixth grade English teacher and president of the local teacher's association.

"It's one thing to work that long on something you've created and guided," continued Leitzman, "and another to do it routinely for things you consider extra hoops."

The extra time required for the Profile of Learning is a common complaint among teachers. Package writing, preparation time, class time, record keeping, and grading all take time. Remember Joyce Anderson's first grade project mentioned at the start of this article. That project doesn't even fulfill an entire standard. It covers just one of eight tasks. The other seven need to be done in second and third grade.

Next week we will examine the history of the Profile of Learning and opposition to it from the start.

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