jasonbwatson

November 6, 2013

What About Common Core? (part 2)

Indiana has been one of the states at the forefront of the Common Core debate. That is due in no small part to the fact that Indiana was among the early adopters of the CCSS and due to the fact that there has been a concerted effort in Indiana to un-adopt the standards.

One of the leading opponents of the CCSS in Indiana is Heather Crossin. So successful have Crossin and her grassroots organization been that Indiana decided this year to temporarily suspend Common Core adoption. But what got Crossin so worked up about Common Core in the first place? In 2011 her then-eight-year-old daughter brought home a math problem that struck Crossin as odd not because of the problem itself but because of the fact that despite getting the mathematical answer correct, Crossin’s daughter received only one point out of three. Why? Because she did not provide the correct reason for how she knew that a 448 foot bridge was longer than a 407 foot bridge. Crossin’s daughter answered said that she knew it was because 448 is a larger number than 407. The Common Core-aligned textbook being used in the classroom, however, wanted the student to compare the numbers in the ones, tens and hundreds columns individually and determine that 448 is larger than 407 that way.

From that one problem launched Crossin’s crusade, now formalized in the group Hoosiers Against Common Core. The group’s purpose, according to its web site, is to bring “together concerned people from all points of the political spectrum in order to effect legislation resulting in the reversal of its [CCSS’] adoption.” Why? “For some, the idea of violating states’ rights is important. To others, they oppose it strictly from a quality perspective. A majority oppose it because it stifles curriculum development and teacher/school autonomy in choosing what is best for their students.”

Therein lies the problem, though. The CCSS does not stifle curriculum development. It may well serve as an excuse for those developing curriculum or those adopting it, but the fact that the CCSS makes a convenient excuse does not make it the actual problem. Furthermore, the CCSS does not “negate teacher/school autonomy in choosing what is best for their students.” The reality is that teacher autonomy is, always has been, and almost surely always will be restricted by the fact that teachers have supervisors at various levels above them to whom they must report. Teachers, therefore, cannot use whatever books they want as the textbooks for their classrooms. That is not unique to CCSS and it will not go away if CCSS is trashed. There could be legitimate and healthy debate about the autonomy of public schools to exercise autonomy in textbook selection, but that is a debate that precedes CCSS and will still be around after CCSS, as well. In other words, CCSS has served to get Crossin’s attention, and the attention of others, but what they are really worked up about is a more deeply-rooted problem with public education (or any education aligning itself with any system that restricts its autonomy, since Crossin’s daughter was at a Catholic school).

See, when Crossin questioned the principal of her daughter’s school about the bridge problem and the approach used in the new textbooks, the principal told Crossin that the school had no choice but to use the books because they aligned with the CCSS. That is not true, though, at least not entirely. Whether or not that specific school had the autonomy to select its own texts I do not know. I do not know how textbook selection works at that school in particular or in Indiana in general. What I do know, though, is that the implication that the textbook in question was the only one aligned with CCSS and therefore had to be used is not true. There are many textbooks that align with the Common Core standards, and their number is growing. Furthermore, the math standards established by the CCSS provide plenty of room within the guidelines they establish for discretion in textbook selection.

The CCSS standards for mathematics begin with eight Standards for Mathematical Practice. What are those eight standards? That students should (1) make sense of problems and persevere in solving them; (2) reason abstractly and quantitatively; (3) construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others; (4) model with mathematics; (5) use appropriate tools strategically; (6) attend to precision; (7) look for and make use of structure; and (8) look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning. I am no mathematician, but I fail to see anything in those eight standards that should raise the hackles of any parent or educator.

To the specific problem that first made Crossin aware of the CCSS I would say this… The problem is ideally suited to address the second of the eight standards above. Crossin’s daughter provided the correct answer as to which bridge was longer, and her reasoning clearly demonstrated quantitative reasoning. She may not have accomplished the level of precision or abstract reasoning that the textbook’s authors wanted, but that would be a problem with the way in which the problem was written, not with the CCSS in general. It also highlights a problem with the teacher who graded the problem; it makes no sense to provide a student with only one-third of the possible credit when the student provides the correct answer!

Even when looking deeper into the specific standards for specific subjects within the field of math the standards are emphasizing only the facts and skills that students should master, such as this standard within the Geometry area: “Derive the equation of a circle of given center and radius using the Pythagorean Theorem; complete the square to find the center and radius of a circle given by an equation” (CCSS.Math.Content.HSG-GPE.A.1). This is, to my mind, a fairly basic standard that any Geometry student should be able to meet, CCSS or not.

The Hoosiers Against Common Core includes a gushing endorsement of a piece written in the New York Times in June “defending traditional mathematics.” That article, by an associate professor of philosophy and a professor of mathematics, asserts that most math instruction today is on “numerical reasoning” rather than the “more traditional focus on understanding and mastery of the most efficient mathematical algorithms.” However, the CCSS do not discount algorithms or the mastery of them. They do expect math teachers to explain to students the reasons why algorithms work, and they expect students to grasp the reasons, but this is not a knock on Common Core. As the Times article points out, this is not even new to math! The article states, “Although every decade has its bad textbooks, anyone who takes the time to look at a range of math books from the 1960s, 70s or 80s will see that it is a myth that traditional math programs routinely overlooked the importance of thoughtful pedagogy and taught by rote.”

In fact, the third grade CCSS standards specifically state that students should be able to use “algorithms based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction.” In other words, exactly what the Times article argues for and exactly what Hoosiers Against Common Core seems to decry about the CCSS.

So if the CCSS are not the problem, then where are we now? Oh, we are back at bad textbooks. The simply reality is that good textbooks, good teachers and good schools have been doing what the CCSS now outlines for years. The most effective teachers will find almost nothing in the CCSS that will alarm them because they have already been doing what the CCSS asks them to do. The best textbooks will require little if any adjustments because they already do what the CCSS ask them to do. Contrary to what anyone may say, the CCSS simply do not require specific textbooks! So the uproar over the CCSS is really over a much broader, and much deeper, issue…one I will continue to explore next time.

January 22, 2013

And we wonder…

The December 15 issue of WORLD magazine included a page with short articles about education issues (page 72). Collectively, these three articles reveal quite a bit about the problems with public education in America today.

The first article is entitled “School’s Out,” and looks at the battles going on in Chicago and Washington, D.C. over school closings. Of course, Michelle Rhee faced incredible pressure over closing underperforming (a very polite way to say “failing”) schools during her tenure as chancellor of D.C. schools. But the reality is that Chicago and D.C. are losing students at a considerable rate–Chicago’s student is down 6% over the last decade, but D.C. is down around 35%. (And while the percentages are staggeringly different, the difference in number of students is small: 25,270 students lost in Chicago, 27,681 lost in D.C.).

There are, of course, many factors that may contribute to the decrease in enrollment in urban areas, including families moving into the suburbs, more families choosing nonpublic schools, and the poor quality of the public school systems.

Regardless of the reason, though, anyone with any knowledge about business operations would recognize that maintaining things “as they are” in light of a 6% or 35% decrease in consumers is a recipe for failure. What restaurant would maintain the same number of locations or the same staffing levels after a 35% decrease in customers, for example? And yet the Chicago Teachers Union is vehemently opposing the closing of any schools. Of course this should not come as a huge surprise after Chicago teachers went on strike early this school year, and had the audacity to claim that their demands were in the interests of students. CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey stated, “If you close our schools, there will be no peace in the city.” Ah…how refreshing to see such a spirit of compromise, or even a willingness to acknowledge that sometimes tough decisions have to be made in order to save a sinking ship.

In Chicago half of the students drop out; in D.C. the figure is 40%. Eighty percent of fourth graders in both cities struggle to read. And in D.C. the opposition to embracing reality is not only among the public school teachers, but among city council members, who strenuously oppose the closing of schools in their wards, despite the fact that new Chancellor Kaya Henderson says that many schools are half-empty, resulting in a considerable waste of money.

Moving on, beneath “School’s Out” is an article entitled “Musical chairs.” This article begins by introducing Jessica Keskitalo, a high school history teacher in Beaverton, Oregon who is teaching seventh-grade math this year, after all of a “half day of math training.” And Keskitalo is not alone as she spends the year in unfamiliar territory; according to the article, she is one of 365 teachers in the Beaverton district who were “shifted by seniority” to replace teachers who were laid off. In other words, the school district needed to make cuts, and they did. But, “Oregon requires districts to lay off teachers with the least experience first, instead of assessing expertise and classroom needs.” Oh good…another example of putting the needs of the students first! (Sorry, sarcasm seems to be dripping out of me today).

According to Beaverton officials, some 160 teachers were placed in “significantly different positions” this year. Keskitalo, for example, had never taught mathematics, and her only experience teaching middle school students came during one month of her student teaching. The article states that neither the principals in Beaverton nor the teachers had any say over the new assignments. Another example provided? Beaverton “transferred district librarian Jenny Takeda into a third-grade classroom one week before the Oregon Association of School Libraries named her the Librarian of the Year.” Takeda opted not to accept the assignment, so she is now a substitute teacher as she tries to figure out what her future holds.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, as cited in the article, reports that, “the overwhelming majority of school districts use seniority as the only determinant of teacher layoff decisions.”

Lastly, the right column of the page contains an article entitled “Fox in the Henhouse.” This one describes the fact that union official Glenda Ritz was chosen by voters to be the new state superintendent of Indiana schools, ousting Tony Bennett (not the singer, but a “nationally recognized school reformer”). Why is that a problem? Because Indiana has in place one of the “biggest statewide voucher program[s], teacher evaluations tied to student test scores, and new grade-by-grade tests and curriculum requirements shared by 46 states.” Ritz, however, “dislikes evaluating schools.” Hmmm…I wonder why? As a union official, her focus was undoubtedly on maintaining teacher jobs and increasing teacher salary and benefits, not on student achievement.

If this news is illustrative of the condition of public education in America is it any wonder that our students consistently lag behind students on other countries on tests? Should we be surprised that so many students drop out when council members and superintendents are focused more on teacher jobs than on student learning? Should we be surprised that students struggle to learn when teachers are randomly placed in classrooms because they have tenure, not because they have any training or even any clue how to teach the age and/or subject matter they have been assigned? I think there are a lot of very capable and very dedicated teachers in the nation’s public schools…but I think, for the most part, they’re swimming against the tide. They’re trying to do something that, despite the rhetoric, simply has not been made a priority–actually teaching students to learn.

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