Now in its fourth year in Washington State, the Teaching American History (TAH) grant Constitutional Connections has challenged teachers to teach U.S. history through the lens of the U.S. Constitution.
To deepen their content knowledge, teachers have attended Constitutional Academies with nationally renowned scholars; summer Constitutional Institutes organized by the Constitutional Rights Foundation; and traveled to James Madison's Montpelier for seminars held at the home of the Father of the Constitution. Teachers worked in History Professional Learning Teams (HPLTs), and over 100 elementary, middle, and high school teachers representing 56 schools have participated in the program. One participant described it as "the best and most important professional development program in [her] 35-year career."
The bimonthly Constitutional Academies feature presentations from distinguished scholars on topics such as The Doctrine of Discovery, Native America, and the U.S. Constitution and The Common Good, Immigration, and the Constitution. In 2008, four-day Summer Constitutional Institute themes were 20th-century issues in U.S. history, particularly Constitutional issues and the presidency; methods of engaging students in critical thinking and deliberation through discussion; and ways to make history instruction relevant for our students.
Ongoing communication with teachers and an evaluation process tying student achievement to state standards characterize this grant. Beginning in spring of the first grant year, Matt Karlsen, Project Director, issued notices keeping participants abreast of program activities and deadlines and providing information on external resources useful for the classroom and for professional development. In May 2008, Karlsen moved to the blog format, posting regularly at American History in SW Washington for both this TAH grant and a second TAH startup, Causes of Conflict.
As a partial mechanism to evaluate the impact of Constitutional Connections, teachers were requested to submit before and after samples of their lessons and of student work. Program administrators believed these work samples would offer a more meaningful evaluation than standardized tests.
Karlsen and Rick Dills, Constitutional Connections Evaluator, describe the rationale and their approach to assessment:
In addition to the evaluation design goals dictated by the Teaching American History office, we—the Constitutional Connections Project Director and lead evaluator—wanted the process to be meaningful. We were challenged to build a system which measured progress in a way that tied student achievement to Washington State's standards, focused on student and teacher knowledge of Constitutional Connections content, honored teacher professionalism and judgment, and where evaluation data could inform classroom instruction and professional learning team activities.
We decided on a work sample approach, measuring what teachers know by looking at teacher work (the lessons, assignments, and assessments they use with their students) and what students know by looking at their performance on classroom assignments and assessments. Through the collegial review of teacher and student work samples utilizing a criterion-based tool comprised of project targets and state standards, teachers were able to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of a range of approaches. While a difficult challenge for participants (as well as a messy process for the two of us!), this achieved our design goals in a way that surpassed dependence on standardized tests. Participants—especially those involved in the more intensive rating team—gave high marks to the approach: In our project, the evaluation process found itself embedded as a central component of teacher change.