A recurring theme here is the interaction between parents and their schools and teachers. As a teacher who has parent conferences coming up this week I've been giving this some thought for selfish reasons but in so doing I've had a flash that it makes sense to toss around here. Here's the flash.
As consumers, parents have no idea what they are 'buying', i.e. there is no objective measure of what a 1st quarter, 2nd grade or 3rd quarter 7th grade (pick your own quarter and grade if you like) student should be able to do. Hell, truth be told, I'm not sure I know what a student should do either. You wouldn't go to the store to buy a dozen eggs without insisting on a definition of 'dozen'. Yet, with our kids we've created a mushy narrative for what we define as learning goals that leaves us talking around each other.
Here's what I mean. Below, I've extracted the Massachusetts standards that are relevant for addition. Before you read them, understand that you are looking at a spiraling standard and also, gulp, know that these are highly regarded in the educational establishment and have even been touted as a model for national standards. Also, ignore the creeping growth of the standard as it incorporates division and multiplication goals. Just focus on addition. Read them carefully and then be prepared for a quiz...
Know addition facts (addends to ten) and related subtraction facts, and use them to solve problems.
Add and subtract(up to four-digit numbers) and multiply (up to two-digit numbers by a one-digit number) accurately and use them to solve problems.
Add and subtract (up to five-digit numbers) and multiply (up to three digits by two digits) accurately and efficiently.
Accurately and efficiently add, subtract, multiply whole numbers and positive decimals. Divide, whole numbers using double digit divisors with and without remainders
Accurately and efficiently add, subtract, multiply, and divide (with double-digit divisors) whole numbers and positive decimals.
Here's the quiz.
1. For any grade of your choice, what speed should be used as a proxy for efficiency?
2. For any grade of your choice, what is the definition of accuracy?
3. For grade one, should students be accurate or efficient?
4. Why are grade 3 students required to be accurate but not efficient?
5. Are manipulatives, pictures, or fingers allowed in any grade to achieve the goals?
6. Are calculators or tables allowed in any grade?
What's your grade? Could you even answer the questions? This is mush and I submit that a sixth grade student whose addition facts come from his fingers is meeting these standards provided he consistently gets correct answers and doesn't use up a lot of paper to achieve a result.
Of course neither parents or teachers are going to change these standards. But, here's a thought to put some pressure on this part of the education puzzle. When you go to a conference, go with one simple question, "What should my student be capable of doing right now?"
This should provide a wonderful jumping off point for a more meaningful discussion than the standard fare. "Johnny's doing quite well" won't cut it, will it? When you get an answer, drill down and insist upon accuracy and efficiency parameters that pin down the objective goals. Don't settle for subjective answers. Find out how fast he should be doing things. Find out what the acceptable error rate is. Inquire as to the remediation Johnny is getting if he is not meeting the objective measures. Be ready for heavy spin. I'd be really interested to know what you get for answers.
And BTW, I really hope none of my parents are reading this right now because I'd have to make up stuff to answer this kind of interrogator and that wouldn't be pretty.