Fired for Teaching Too Much?

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 22, 2005; 9:57 AM

Joe Enge, an 11th grade U.S. history teacher at Carson High School in Carson City, Nev., says his district is trying to get rid of him because he disobeyed orders to stop teaching most of what happened in his country before 1865.

Mary Pierczynski, superintendent of the Carson City schools, says that is nonsense. She says she is treating Enge as she would any teacher with a series of unsatisfactory classroom evaluations. She says her district prefers a relatively quick review of America through the Civil War at the beginning of 11th grade, and it covers that period more extensively in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades.

This is one of those teacher vs. administrator clashes that I find fascinating, since they are so rarely reported and yet so important to what happens to our children in school. I am not going to take sides, because I think the battle of Carson High obscures a much larger point that has been, as far as I can tell, almost totally ignored in this dispute. I will wait a while before saying what I think the more important issue is. See if you can guess.

Enge is in his fifth year at Carson High. His admirers are enthusiastic about him. Ron Knecht, an economist and former Nevada state assemblyman, says that when he served with Enge on a local textbook evaluation committee, Enge "stood head and shoulders above the other social studies and history teachers" on the committee.

Terresa Monroe-Hamilton, whose two children have both attended Carson High, told the school district in a letter that "of all the teachers at Carson High, Mr. Enge is their favorite. . . . He cares about his students deeply and he knows his teaching material extremely well."

Enge says he got a positive evaluation his first year, but the situation changed after the history department chair "told all the new teachers to start the year by telling the students the North won the Civil War and move on." He says the school's course description book still identifies 11th grade U.S. history as a post Civil War course. Enge says he was even told the "We The People" competition, which promotes knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, could not be part of his course because the writing of that great document was not a post-1865 event.

School officials say an 11th-grade focus on the later 19th century and the 20th century will produce a deeper and more engaging course. Enge replies that it is impossible to understand what happened in America after 1865 without a strong dose of what happened before, and the earlier grades do not provide that. He notes that the vast majority of such 11th-grade courses, as well as the College Board's Advanced Placement and SAT subject tests in U.S. history, try to deal with the story of America from colonial days to the end of the Cold War.

Official classroom evaluations being used to seek Enge's dismissal say he is disorganized and slow. He responds that this is a lie used to get rid of him, and the school has in fact often asked him to take on some of its most difficult students.

Enge says he is also in trouble because Carson High Principal Fred Perdomo favors the progressive approach to teaching -- an emphasis on how to find facts rather than memorizing content, with projects to keep students involved and interested. Enge says he is a traditionalist who thinks learning names, dates and events is important.

This philosophical difference, at the heart of many American curriculum fights, is confirmed by a copy Enge sent me of Perdomo's April 22 negative evaluation of Enge's teaching. "I explained," Perdomo says in the evaluation, "that it is impossible to teach all of the content on any history. That is why we have reference books and texts. It is his job to teach the students how to find the content, and then to analyze and apply that content."

Superintendent Pierczynski tells me, however, that "Mr. Enge's situation remains a personnel issue and not a curriculum issue." She says privacy rules prevent her from saying much more, but she defends the district's approach to U.S. history.

"The exploration of America through 1865 is taught in the 8th grade," she says. "Additionally, in 8th grade, students are given a brief overview of the 20th century. The American Revolution is studied in 10th-grade World History. The first quarter of 11th grade history is devoted to a review and elaboration of the 8th-grade material, reviewing information on colonization through 1865. The remainder of the 11th grade year is spent on material covering 1865 to present day. During the senior year, students take U.S. government where students are presented with information on the Articles of Confederation, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, etc. At no time has one of our teachers been told not to teach the history of our country prior to 1865."

The argument is moving toward binding arbitration, which Chuck Muth, president of a local group called Citizen Outreach, says could lead to Enge's dismissal if Pierczynski continues to back up Perdomo's negative reviews of the teacher's work. "This entire episode is an outrage," Muth said in an Internet article. "Joe Enge is the kind of teacher we should WANT educating our kids. He loves history. He knows history. And he's darned good at teaching history. Indeed, Enge's spirit of resistance to this great injustice would make our Founding Fathers -- who the Carson City School District would prefer to pretend never existed -- proud."

Have you figured out yet what is missing from this debate? To me, it is a measure of how well Enge's students are learning history and how that compares to students who have been taught the district's way. Some states, such as Virginia, have standardized U.S. history tests, the work of hundreds of teachers who decide which themes and issues are most important. But Nevada doesn't have anything like that, and only students who choose to take the AP or SAT subject tests have an independent check of how well they have been taught.

Thankfully, at least one person in Carson City has raised this issue. Eric Robinson, a parent who is director of information technology for a local medical management group, read about the controversy and got a call from Pierczynski after he complained to several officials about how Enge was being treated.

When Pierczynski told him she was only trying to uphold state teaching standards, Robinson said in an e-mail to Muth, he told her he thought that was a reasonable point. "So is there any information available about how Joe Enge's students perform on standardized tests?" he asked. Pierczynski says her response was that Nevada did not have a standardized U.S. history test for 11th graders. If Enge's students had taken the AP U.S. history test, written and graded by outside experts, at the end of their course, we would have had some useful data to judge the dispute. Half of the AP test is multiple-choice questions full of content to please the traditionalists. The other half is essay questions, some based on documents presented to the students, which require the kind of critical thinking that progressives endorse.

But most states, including Nevada, have nothing comparable for most students. So in the long argument over whether standardized tests have any use, let us add the case of Carson High.

I personally don't have much patience with the insults and politics that often arise when teachers and administrators go after each other. American history was my favorite subject in high school, and I would prefer the focus in Carson City be on what students are actually learning, rather than which methods and schedules of teaching the educators find most congenial.

I don't have much hope this is going to happen, in Nevada or most anywhere else, but we have come a long way since 1865, and maybe in another 140 years, we can get this right.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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