Four years ago, Harford County Public Schools introduced a required, ninth-grade class called Living In A Contemporary World, also known as LICW. The idea behind LICW was to help high school freshmen adjust to high school expectations and plan for the future. But the class was widely seen as an irrelevant time-waster. Now, there’s some good news on two fronts.
Eighth-graders who are creating their high school schedules for the 2010-11 school year, can request a waiver of LICW. For students who do take the course, some planned changes hold promise for a better experience, even if LICW still falls short of recommended improvements.
Some 9th graders have always been exempt from the LICW requirement. Typically, those students were in magnet or other special programs. But last year, freshmen in the general program were also granted waivers when LICW conflicted with their educational plans.
The waiver option was not publicized by HCPS last year, nor is the option noted in the new Student Education Planning Guide for 2010-11. But LICW is not required for a Maryland high school diploma. So HCPS can waive the local requirement when LICW is replaced by a course that better suits an individual student’s educational needs, according to Roger Plunkett, HCPS Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction.
This year, LICW waivers remain an option for all incoming freshmen, subject to approval by their school principal. Waivers that are denied at the school level, can be appealed to Mr. Plunkett at email@example.com
For students who do take LICW, some meaningful changes are planned. To better appreciate those changes, it may be helpful to revisit the original course, as seen through the eyes of teachers, administrators, supervisors, students and parents.
The Harford County Board of Education hired a consulting firm to evaluate a series of high school reforms implemented in the 2006-07 school year, including LICW. The consultants’ 2008 report singled out LICW as “extremely problematic”.
Focus group discussions revealed deep dissatisfaction with LICW among every stakeholder group. Less than one-third of HCPS administrators and supervisors (and even fewer teachers, students and parents), thought that LICW helped 9th graders adjust to high school.
The stakeholders identified several problems:
- The course included content that most students either learned in elementary and middle school, or that students could acquire quickly, such as note taking and study skills.
- Some content, such as income taxes and how to balance a check-book, was more appropriate for high school juniors or seniors, than for high school freshmen.
- The focus on career choices was too soon for most 9th graders.
- Professional development for LICW teachers was insufficient, and teachers from disparate content areas were assigned to teach the course.
- There wasn’t enough “there” there, to justify LICW as a year-long course. The consultants reported that many teachers, students and parents called the class a “waste of time”.
That last point was painful, because LICW fills a slot in freshmen schedules that might be put to better use.
At the time, the consultants suggested the following fixes:
- Ensure the content is the most needed by 9th graders
- Consider cutting the course down from a full year
- Conduct professional development for all LICW teachers
- Allow LICW teachers time to share best practices
- Identify the correct departmental “home” for the course and make it part of that department’s curriculum
The recommendations were made two years ago. Where does LICW stand today?
To find out, I spoke recently with both Roger Plunkett, and George Toepfer, who is the HCPS Supervisor for Social Studies. I’d like to thank them both for their time and for their earnest efforts to improve LICW; although both would acknowledge that LICW has been a work in progress.
Several changes are planned for LICW in 2010-11 that are clear improvements over prior years. Those changes include:
Principals are encouraged to group students according to ability in LICW classes. For schools that employ homogeneous grouping, pacing will improve and instruction can be more closely aligned with students’ needs.
LICW teachers are now more likely to be social studies teachers. Social studies became the departmental home for LICW, so social studies teachers are best suited to teach the course as it has evolved. In years past, less than half of LICW teachers were from social studies – meaning that teachers with expertise in one area, like Spanish or PE, were teaching LICW units, like personal finance. That can still happen, but system-wide, 75% of LICW teachers are now social studies teachers. Another benefit: LICW concepts can be included in the professional development provided to all social studies teachers. Professional development specific to LICW is also offered to non-social studies teachers, but not all teachers have taken it and it cannot be required.
Some curriculum has been changed. An early section that introduced students to the school faculty has been taken out. Sections on students’ rights and responsibilities and strategies for success, have been streamlined. Supports for the High School Assessments have been woven into LICW, which will be helpful for students who struggle with that material.
All of which is good news, representing some progress on the consultants’ recommendations.
On the downside, cutting out some content doesn’t necessarily mean that what remains makes LICW the best use of time for all students. LICW’s focus will now shift to later units on career explorations, economics, geography and leadership. This content was developed with help from supervisors in English, Career & Technology, Health, Business Education and Library/Media, and a special effort was made not to duplicate content already provided in these subjects. But LICW will still include content that stakeholders had said was waste of time.
For example, tax returns, credit card use, resume writing, and salary and benefits comparisons, all of which are more appropriate for older students, are still there. Students benefit from early and repeated exposure to these concepts. But many students never revisit them again in high school. If there is only one shot at this content for all students, it should be closer to the time when it has real meaning.
Also on the downside, the course is still a year long. Under the block schedule, if LICW is cut to semester-length, it must be paired with a yet-to-be developed semester course for freshmen. (Yet another reason to get rid of the block schedule, but I digress). The pending reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation and other potential state mandates have stalled plans to cut the class back to a half-year, for now.
Parents who want a more detailed outline of the updated curriculum for LICW, should ask their schools’ principal to provide them with a copy as soon as it becomes available. I was able to review a copy of the current curriclulm guide.
The document is at least 6-inches thick, so this is by no means a comprehensive review. But here’s a list of the units covered and some supplemental explanations, with the caveat that all may be subject to further changes for next year.
Unit 1: Orientation to High School – Portions of this unit have been eliminated or streamlined for next year.
Unit 2: Strategies for Success – This unit has been streamlined
Unit 3: Stress Management & Decision Making – This unit includes planning one’s time and handling conflict. The section on bullying once required reading a controversial book called The Chocolate War, but that book has since been replaced with Inventing Elliot.
Unit 4: Contemporary Issues & Research Methods – Just like it sounds, this unit includes instruction on research methods, evaluating issues, distortion and propaganda.
Unit 5: Career Explorations (21 – 23 days) – Here’s where you will find the section including the resume, mock interview and job readiness, along with “My Life Plan” and career clusters.
Unit 6: Personal Economics (31 days) – This unit covers money management, credit cards, spending vs. saving decisions, investment securities, and comparisons of salary and benefits packages. (Plenty of adults would benefit from this section.) Previous testing of LICW students in this area showed encouraging improvements when comparing pre- and post- instruction mastery, but in absolute terms, scores went from 40% correct to 50%. Lack of relevance may be part of the reason.
Unit 7 Leadership & Citizenship (20 days) – Includes a study of leadership styles ( NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani is one example), power structures in different types of government, and the civic responsibility to vote.
Unit 8 Living in One’s Own Local Community (9 days) – This unit discusses local issues, such as crime, with some geography included.
Unit 9 Living in One’s Own National Community (12 days) – The unit includes presidential vs. congressional power, some history of national regions, and geography as it relates to national issues, such as pollution, poverty and homelessness.
Unit 10 Living in One’s Own Global Community (16 days) – Includes a map of the continents, theories of war, global organizations (United Nations), along with issues such as globalization, trade agreements and freedom around the world.