kitchen table math, the sequel: Evidence in Education

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Evidence in Education

As I've visited this blog over the past year or so, I've learned a lot about different viewpoints regarding education. It's been enlightening to say the least.

One thing has struck me lately: There is almost no reference to evidence when education is discussed. When I'm speaking about evidence, I'm talking about trials with the following characteristics:

1. The whole curriculum is tested, not just elements. Too often, we hear about curricula based on "research". Unfortunately, individual program elements, even if they are based on good science, don't translate into effective programs. For a curriculum to work, *all* the elements must work together to provide a positive result.

2. Many classrooms. I once spoke with an administrator about the need for evidence. His response was "well, there are just too many elements in a classroom to figure out what is working and what isn't." This is true if you're talking about a single classroom .. . we don't know if its the classroom teacher, those particular students, or some other factor. However, if we involve multiple classrooms at multiple schools, we start to get somewhere, as random factors start to cancel each other out. While this is expensive, curriculum developers, like drug manufacturers, should bear the burden of testing their curriculum *before* they introduce it to classrooms.

3. Beginning and end points. Often, medical researchers will talk about "end points" in a study. This refers to end outcomes that they are going to measure. In academia, this means 3rd party tests that make sure students know the material. These tests should be administered at a minimum before and after the "treatment" (i.e., the curriculum in question). To make sure the curriculum developer is dealing honestly, multiple 3rd party tests should be used, to make sure curriculum developers aren't gaming the trial by using tests that favor their curricula, and so outside parties can figure out which measure they trust if results are vastly different.

4. Controls. In medical trials, one group will get a placebo while the other gets the medicine. This doesn't apply directly, but curriculum developers can simply let schools either implement whatever curriculum they like, or they can stipulate a specific curriculum they'd like to test theirs against. Since the curriculum developers are claiming that their curriculum is better, then it should handily beat the other curricula, and this should show up in greater net achievement in beginning vs. end testing no matter what other curricula is chosen. If the chosen curricula can't achieve this result on the average, then the curriculum just isn't better.

This approach could change the whole game. One could imagine, for example, an FDA-like body for curricula. Publishers would have to submit their testing results to prove efficacy before the curriculum would be used in schools. So rather than testing the "treatment" on the next generation of children (e.g., whole language in CA in 1987), curricula would be tested *before* kids are subjected to them.


SteveH said...

To talk about research and proof, you have to at least be on the same page. What are the assumptions? What is given? It's clear that many people have very different ideas of what constitutes a proper education.

In our town, the main assumption is full inclusion with differentiated instruction. This means that they will have much different criteria of success than a Core Knowledge school. We do, however, have specific criteria. They are the state NCLB low cutoff proficiencies. Schools just look to see if their numbers go up or down.

The problem is that they don't have any way to test whether large jumps are possible. They can only evaluate small relative changes. I would say that large scale testing on kids would not be looked kindly upon by parents. I like the idea of a test where kids have the same teacher for math from K to 8th grade - as long as my son would get the good teacher! I doubt that test could happen.

The only alternative is to allow parents to choose different paths, as with Singapore Math versus Everyday Math, but will this be allowed in a school with full inclusion? It is also self-selecting to some extent.

I don't disagree that there are lots of things that can be done to determine good teaching methods, but I don't think that's what many educators want. They will never agree with my outcomes that have to be measured. And I don't agree with other parents. My attorney tells me that not much matters until high school.

For many schools, philosophy comes first and research is used only to validate their assumptions.

RMD said...

A few responses .. .

In the medical field, researchers choose a variety of outcome measures. They aren't standard, but they are typically "reasonable" given the context of the research. You would just need tests that are generally recognized as acceptable. For core subjects, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills sounds like a fine starting point. There are tons of tests out there.

The issue right now is that testing of curricula isn't being done before children are faced using it. Children are the guinea pigs of the curricula! (it's the same as medicine . . . would you blindly take a new, powerful drug that hadn't been tested? perhaps, but it's much less risky to wait for trials)

And in terms of the debate over education, unless you start demanding evidence of efficacy of curricula, all members of the debate are caught in a continual "he said, she said" type of battle where each side promotes their point of view with nothing to back it up.

It would be fine to argue over the fine points of the trials. It's done in medicine today. But at least you'd have something real to argue about, rather than supposition. Also, with enough trials, you can do "meta-analysis" where you look at lots of outcomes and try to deduce generalizations.

And in terms of giving parent curricula options (e.g., Singapore Math or Everyday Math). . . you can do that. But how are you sure that either option works? And from a training standpoint, how do you make sure either is implemented correctly?

And as far as your attorney's statement ("not much matters until high school"), I guess this is true for transcripts and such . . but not learning. The Matthews Effect is still in place. (and, by the way, the Matthews Effect was deduced from educational research)

And for those parents who don't like the idea of their kids being part of a curriculum test .. . it's happening now (they're all part of a giant test), but there are just no ways to take the curriculum off the shelf if it doesn't work!

farmwifetwo said...

I'm not convinced it's 100% the curriculum. Yes, the current US/Canada/UK version stinks, but IMO the administration of the program also needs to be examined. We have teachers teaching K to 8 math that barely passed math themselves. If you don't understand math, how can you teach it.

My eldest last night mentioned he's doing equivalent fractions... I finally figured it out it was "finding the lowest common denominator". "It's hard Mom"... shouldn't be he knows his mult/div facts easily to 10x's tables.

I suspect it's the teacher not the fractions that have him confused. Since I don't have any fraction work books at the moment, later this morning I'll make up my own and teach him how to do them properly.

Maybe it's time we demanded that teachers actually have to get 80%'s in Univ level math courses to teach math, not slip through with a 50%. Maybe it's time the teaching program was longer than a year to become accredited. Maybe it's time that like in the highschool grades you teach what it is you majored in at Univ. Just b/c you have a sociology degree and one year of teacher's college... doesn't make you a teacher.

SteveH said...

States are trying to define proper curricula with the Common Core State Standards. These are low end standards. I've always wanted a second, high end standard defined for K-8. AP classes define the upper level standard in high school and the state's NCLB tests define the lower level. I want an upper level defined for the lower grades.

When I was growing up, elementary education was not great, but they tried to keep K-6 kids on a math track to algebra in 8th grade. I got there without any help from my parents. This isn't true nowadays. The path does not exist. Full inclusion requires them to water down math to the point where kids need outside help.

With an upper level defined for K-8, some schools might be willing to implement a separate track. You might begin to start collecting real data. I'm not optimistic. Our schools know that many students would be helped greatly by separate tracks. They won't do it. They want to see research on what are the best differentiated instruction techniques.

I don't think that you can dictate from above some sort of research-driven process. I think, at best, you can define high end goals for K-8 and hope that some schools will implement them. If this is done in an organized way, then you might begin to collect and publish comparable data. Our schools might just shrug it off. They already see about 20% of our kids going off to private schools because their expectations are too low in K-6. I don't know how research is going to fix that mentality. Research won't create a consensus.

RMD said...

"I'm not convinced it's 100% the curriculum."

How do you know? That's my point . . . you have no idea what part the curriculum plays until you find out how effective it is. And then schools can decide if they are implementing it correctly, based on what studies show should happen.

"I don't think that you can dictate from above some sort of research-driven process."

why not? it's done with drug research.

"States are trying to define proper curricula with the Common Core State Standards."

this still doesn't tell us anything about how students can meet these standards. it's like setting fitness goals . . . you can set all the goals you want, but until you understand what it takes to reach those goals, you're about at the same place

RMD said...

one more point . . . this isn't about setting some national standards for education research

rather, it's about expectations. We should expect that curriculum developers actually test their curriculum to see if it works. Otherwise, it's just another dose of snake oil.

farmwifetwo said...


1. B/c if you don't know how to do math. Understand the rules, how things work, why 2+2 is always 4 and that Calculus is no harder than Gr 6 math (need to make certain fractions are taught). No matter what the curriculum is, you still can't teach it.

2. Not every student learns the same. Just b/c I like the Saxon program doesn't mean it'll work for another child.

But the biggest reason... is #1. If the Teacher does not understand the subject being taught... no matter what the curriculum is... they will NEVER be able to teach it to someone else.

lgm said...

The answer to math challenged elementary teachers in my full-inclusion district is many-fold:

1) RtI for those students who are not classified

2) Math resource teacher does pull-out or push-in for classified students

3) special ed. teacher plus 1:3 student:para ratio(or whatever the $$ available can support) in reg. ed. classroom for those that are mainstreamed (as opposed to LD).

4) Acuity - software by CTBMcGrawHill that CAN assess a students procedural knowledge

5) Collaborate - teachers in each grade level have a time and space daily for 45 minutes specifically for collaboration while a para or an itinerant bulding sub is with the students.

And of course, every single teacher has the opportunity to take classes from any U or CC nearby or via distance learning if they feel their professional knowledge needs a boost and they'd like to set an example of being a 'lifelong learner'. I'm not sure they can be reimbursed for tuition if they are not pursuing a master's or PhD.

Cranberry said...

"Works" in comparison to what? Not teaching the children at all? What's the control in the study?

Schools vary widely in how closely they follow a curriculum. Everyday Math in our elementary school is not implemented in the same way as EM in a school 10 miles away.

Also, what's a good result? Lifting the performance of the students at the bottom? At the middle? The top? All students? Parents will splinter in their opinions, based upon where their children fall in the pile. School teachers and administrators will prefer different definitions of a "good curriculum."

SteveH said...

"why not? it's done with drug research."

Tell me exactly how this will be done. How will this FDA-for-education be set up? What powers will it have? Who gets to decide on what is a desired outcome of education?

"this still doesn't tell us anything about how students can meet these standards."

Of course, but you first have to define outcomes that you want to achieve. It's obiously a big problem for K-8. This is a philosophical problem, not a research one. We already know that algebra in 8th grade is possible for many kids, yet many schools don't care.

I'm sympathetic, but I don't see how some sort of educationally-benevolent federal government dictatorship will define not only the research process and standards but also the expected outcomes.

I see a solution more in terms of bottom-up. What Allison will be doing sounds good. I would like to open up more school choice in our area so that some schools can show the way. You won't have to argue over research. Parental demand will emerge and show the way. In fact, many parents might choose different solutions. That's OK with me.

Laura said...

5) Collaborate - teachers in each grade level have a time and space daily for 45 minutes specifically for collaboration while a para or an itinerant bulding sub is with the students.

I think this is a great idea, and also potentially a way to deal with overcrowded classrooms--have the teachers spend their time actually teaching and prepping, rather than doing glorified babysitting/loose monitoring.

If the kids are going to be spending up to an hour or more a day reading and writing independently anyway, there's no (theoretical) reason a teaching assistant can't handle supervision while the highly paid teachers cycle around doing actual teaching, prep, analyzing data, etc.

RMD said...

some more responses ...

"Not every student learns the same."

The evidence supports the notion that similarities in learning are greater than differences. Daniel Willingham in his book goes to great lengths to dispel the notion of learning styles. Also, in Project Follow Through, Direct Instruction was found to be the best program on *all* measures (there were 9 or so tests) and for *all* students. This couldn't be the case if learning differences were greater than similarities.

"If the Teacher does not understand the subject being taught... no matter what the curriculum is... they will NEVER be able to teach it to someone else."

This is somewhat true. Zig Engelmann attacked the teacher issue by using scripts.

Also, I'm not saying that a validated curriculum will solve every problem.

"Schools vary widely in how closely they follow a curriculum."

This will show up in the data. If the data shows that schools couldn't implement the curriculum appropriately, then there must be an issue because you can bet that curriculum developers would put their best foot forward to train teachers and get their program implemented correctly.

"what's a good result?"

At this point, any data is good, because the curriculum developers aren't offering any data to support their products!! At least if there were efficacy data available, you could then pick a curriculum that would work for a given student population.

"Tell me exactly how this will be done."

In reality, I doubt an FDA-type organization will be set up. My point is that when we debate various curricula, we should *demand* evidence for efficacy, even for curricula we favor. Without data, the debate turns into mush.

"you first have to define outcomes that you want to achieve"

How do you know if your outcomes are shooting too high or too low if you don't know how effective your curricula can be?

Also, what does it hurt to measure effectiveness? You'll need to do it anyway.

"I would like to open up more school choice in our area so that some schools can show the way."

Charters and other choice options are a great start. But evidence for effectiveness will make them better because they can decide to implement curricula that have been proven to be more effective.

Cranberry said...

"5) Collaborate - teachers in each grade level have a time and space daily for 45 minutes specifically for collaboration while a para or an itinerant bulding sub is with the students."

Ah, so here is where difference between people pops up. Our public school has paraprofessionals, and some subs, but we don't have enough to allow daily collaboration during class time. I would also not be pleased to discover that class time had been turned into a study hall. There are also frequently times when there aren't even enough subs to cover teacher absences.

There is time built into the schedule for collaboration, while students are at "specials," i.e., music, art, languages, P.E. and Health. I am not certain that this time originally alloted for collaboration is being used for grade-level collaboration, as I have the strong impression that IEP meetings and administrative meetings are scheduled in that time.

SteveH said...

"But evidence for effectiveness will make them better because they can decide to implement curricula that have been proven to be more effective."

I don't think that anyone would deny the importance of research, but you will get different opinions of "more effective". A good research process can be very useful, but it won't answer basic questions of philosophy.

In our schools, their goal seems to be some sort of "common good" type of education. Academics is only one part of the whole child. When you talk about the academic needs of individuals, the usual response is that they have to educate ALL kids, and other things are important too. Research would be used to try to incrementally improve their Plan A rather than to determine if a Plan B, that sets a higher priority on academics, would be better.

RMD said...

"but it won't answer basic questions of philosophy"

true. it's hard to argue philosophy .. . and that's the point

currently, there is *no* data supporting curriculum right now. at least if we had some data about curriculum, we could decide if, by following up, whether "whole child" concerns are warranted

as an example, Follow Through found that Direct Instruction improved *every* measure .. . competance, confidence .. . .you name it, the kids using DI improved on every measure in a significant way

if parents demanded supporting data, it might surprise everyone

RMD said...

one more thing about the "whole child" concept . . .

it's awfully hard to be a "whole child" if the child is deficient in skills. If they can't read or they read poorly, their lives definitely won't be whole.

also, insisting at least some modicum of effectiveness for the curriculum shouldn't affect their concerns about the whole child. and there are measures of child development that they can include if they like (they were included in Follow Through)

Cranberry said...

I've read about Project Follow Through online. In forums like this, full of posters who care about the academic side of school. I've never heard of it in discussions of curricula to adopt for our local public school, nor in public discussions of other schools' adoptions of curricula. That's the effect of philosophy.

There's such a strong vein of anti-intellectualism in American education today, it's predictable that such a study would not be interesting. Far more attention was devoted to the "Mozart Effect" than to Project Follow Through.

I don't think the publishers want effective studies. I think they would fight them tooth and nail. They don't want to enter an arena in which there would be one winner, and many losers. It's far better for them to sponsor small studies, with able children, in supportive communities. They choose conditions in which they know the results will be good, because the intent is to sell the product.

Even if there were one clear winner, it wouldn't matter. The next Superintendent would change course, even if the current curriculum were the best in the country. I'm sorry if I sound cynical, but I don't think that the public school system is set up for education. There are too many competing interests at stake.

Allison said...


Project Follow Through is exactly my critical answer to your hope of "testing" curricula.

Follow Through was tested. The results are in: it worked. It beat out everyone else by a mile.

No one adopted it. The Feds killed the study and funding even though they had the evidence; almost no one else adopted it.

Ask yourself why that is.

Catherine posted something similar. In her district, they did or found a study comparing curricula. They found the answer. Then they adopted something else anyway.

Ask yourself why that is.

The drug analogy is weak, I think.
Doctors and patients have a vastly different model than parents and students and teachers. The teacher spend 10 years in school assessing the status and knowledge of a student after learning for years how the normal learning systems work and how they don't work. The teacher doesn't visit your student for 10 minutes to try to prescribe the right math homework. That isn't their model.

Unlike medication, individuals can't choose curricula. You can't say "my student doesn't like this one, the side effects are yucky; likes this one instead, and there are no side effects for him." The closest you can get to that is basically to try to find a school that might have some of the curricula you want, but you only get to choose roughly once a year, and you live with what you don't like anyway, or supplement on the side.

Parents as parents have little knowledge of what's wrong with schools. If their children aren't totally miserable, then it takes them years to figure out that something *is* wrong. Even if you told them that some curricula works and others don't, they don't have the power to choose it; at best, they get the gross-level choice of picking a school which has already picked 5 curricula, and they have to live with it for a year.

RMD said...

allison and cranberry .. .

I agree to the vast majority of your points.

Here's my argument: if someone asserts that their program works (as the publisher of a new math curriculum did when he responded to Katherine Beal), demand that they show their program actually works, instead of attacking the components of their program.

one point I disagree with:

"The drug analogy is weak, I think."

I stand by the drug analogy. The fact that the education establishment doesn't accept it isn't something I can control. But the approach is sound. Even in medicine, drugs affect patients slightly differently. However, studies tell us what it generally does, and informs us when it might not work.

And, once again, having some concrete information about efficacy is better than having nothing.

Allison said...

hm; maybe I wasn't clear. I see that you are confusing the scientific method used in evaluating something's effectiveness with the bigger drug analogy.

But let's stick with the analogy for a bit. Medically someone "proving" effectiveness isn't enough. Look at the vaccine disaster: vaccines have been accused of causing autism without one shred of evidence ever. The effectiveness of vaccines is so great that people felt they could rely on other people's use of them, and that would be enough, because they didn't want to undertake the risk concomitant in taking the vaccine themselves, even if the risk of not is extraordinarily greater in severity. And even with effective medication, it wouldn't matter at all except that people are willing to take medication on doctor's orders, doctors are well trained in understanding what is healthy vs. sick and how to recognize it, that there are quantitative measures that can be used to tell when someone is sick vs. healthy.

People take medicines properly when they see an immediate effect on their health. What's the immediate effectiveness of a curriculum? How would you measure that? Can you tell in 3 days that you've learned? That your child has?

People often stop taking medicines when they shouldn't, because they can't feel it's working, or they feel it's worked well enough already. What's the equivalent in education? How will a school board decide to keep going?

People spend billions on "drugs" not approved by the FDA. They may or may not do ANYTHING. The number of diet pills, herbal remedies, and utter fraudulent junk out there (from mundane magnetic bracelets for arthritis to incredibly painful and risky chelation therapy for autism) is evidence that people DO NOT CARE about effectiveness "as studied". They care about what they can convince themselves is true.

To blithely ignore that since we can't control that aspect of the education system, we can succeed anyway, is to make an error: what is the opportunity cost of putting our effort on THIS idea, rather than another? Because it's not whether or not "some concrete information about efficacy is better than none; it's whether or not spending the time, money, and effort trying to establish efficacy is better than some OTHER attempt to fix what's broken. If the choice is proven effectiveness so we can all argue what's proven, what the standards are, etc. maybe we'd have been better off doing something else--fighting the school board, running for office, opening a Kumon franchise, etc.

Paul B said...

Could I ask the folks contributing to this thread, who or what do you think is the source of curriculum design?

Cranberry said...

The requirements set forth by the textbook committees in the largest (i.e., most lucrative) states. Those committees' standards should align with the states' yearly tests.

In other words, in my opinion, it has nothing to do with parents' desire for effective education, and a great deal to do with politics, and, in my cynical opinion, lobbyists. In public education, though, the politicians ultimately control the purse strings. Politicians don't want to be too radical, nor too old fashioned, so their demands are open to input from the experts in the field--ed schools.

RMD said...


Good points . . . all of them

I understand that even with evidence, we'll have people who doubt it (look at the breast cancer screening recommendations) or simply don't understand it, and that other interests may overcome it.

However, I'm not advocating a movement dedicated to an evidence-based approach to curriculum development. Rather, I'm attempting to bring others around to a point of view that is lacking in the debate. Too often I hear people defend or attack a curriculum without sure footing either way. Also, there is research out there that can tell us a LOT about what does work and what doesn't.

I'll claim success if one parent or other advocate starts to think about things differently. This person might start reading some of the research, or even advocating that research be done to validate curriculum *before* our kids are subjected to it.

SteveH said...

"Too often I hear people defend or attack a curriculum without sure footing either way."

I don't know how many times I've heard the claim that the What Works Clearinghouse shows the effectiveness of Everyday Math. In fact, there is very little good research to go on for any math curriculum.

If you define research as a requirement for proper debate, you will end up arguing over the research. As Allison says, many will just ignore or spin the research. Research might change the mind of some, but not the ones who matter. It's about politics, money, and turf.

I don't want to dismiss research, but it's not the Holy Grail. There are many other parts to the battle.

RMD said...

"I don't want to dismiss research, but it's not theI Holy Grail. There are many other parts to the battle."

I agree.

Anonymous said...

With respect to curriculum design-

the current trend to put photographs of the textbook "authors" in the book always reminds that the priorities are frequently not about the calibre of the content.

Also the term "research based" needs to be replaced by field tested or something comparable. I have read grants that argue something is research based as soon as it is a point of discussion among advocates.

Cranberry said...

I don't think it's possible to isolate the effects of any curriculum. On paper, our oldest child was a product of Everyday Math. She aced the state test, which is the goal for today's school districts. However, she worked through several Everyday Math workbooks at home, and had the guidance of two math-savvy parents at home. So, to be honest, she should count as EM/SM/parent tutoring--not straight EM.

No involved, educated parent lets their child flounder. The parents either tutor themselves, or hire someone. The difference in performance between affluent and working-class districts could come down to this engagement. If you were to test curricula, you couldn't use affluent districts, because it would be diluted by parental efforts. One parent organizing a Singapore Math study group on the side could influence results. A tutor who knew the state tests inside and out could also influence results.

RMD said...

"Also the term "research based" needs to be replaced by field tested or something comparable. "


"I don't think it's possible to isolate the effects of any curriculum. "

The idea isn't to isolate the effect on any one student (like your daughter). Rather, the aim is to determine the effect of a particular curriculum on a population, since that is how curricula are generally used.

Paul B said...


Paul B said...

OK so nobody took the bait I dangled about how a curriculum is designed. Sigh! I'm going to wiggle the worm, so to speak.

One of the things you're all struggling with is simply this; curricula are not designed they just happen. In my district, at least, here's how it happens....

It starts with state mandated 'standards' that every school system must meet. This is the chicken. Then comes the text book publishers, marketing their product to (sometimes) widely differing sets of state standards. This is the egg. The develpment at this stage is somewhat analogous to a chicken laying a crocodile egg because the differing state standards are in conflict with a publisher's need to create and market a single series to the nation. There are always gaps. Some of these are huge.

Next comes school committees and district curriculum directors who pick a publisher or publishers. This is how you cook the eggs; scrambled, fried, hard boiled, etc. Then you get to a school where the eggs are combined with bacon, home fries, and toast to suit the tastes of administrators and coaches. This is breakfast.

Finally you come to the classroom where teachers, in self defense or selfishness, mix in their own favorites and serve it up to their students to eat.

In my district this is how it was for years. A few years ago there was a modification where the whole steaming pile was overlaid with curriculum maps. These were guides that simply took all the aforementioned pieces and codified expectations around how they were to be used. Think of this as writing out and publishing a menu after you've washed the dishes.

Oh yes, I almost forgot the food critics, state testing. The 'galloping gourmet' sort of rides atop all of this and says this is how we will see if you are performing. Of course the actual standard you are to meet is this test, the details of which are unknown to any of this delivery cluster until after it is given.

Much of the previous thread is built on an assumption that some entity is actually responsible for a curriculum. In my experience at least this is a very bad assumption. I liken the process more to one of those creations that you see composed by a chimp decked out in a beret and diapers. When it gets done you have a painting, for sure, but it's not art.

Anonymous said...

Paul B-

Many of the state standards were written to accommodate use of various NSF funded curricula which predate the language of the standards. These tend to be long on process language and the use of calculators and technology. Think New Jersey.

Sometimes though the State Standards look pretty good but the inquiry approach, construct your own understandings will be set out in the Instructional Frameworks. This attempt to push certain types of curricula is generally not an accident as research into the history of such guidelines tends to show. You then have a misalliance between the content to be tested by the state and the instructional "how" being pushed in the classroom. Think Georgia.

States like Mass and California with high content standards could still be undermined if someone adopts fuzzy math implementation and teaching guidelines in an effort to change the type of textbooks that can be used.

Cranberry said...

Sorry, Paul B, I thought by "curriculum" you meant the packaged materials a district can purchase from a publisher. If you meant, "what materials students receive in the classroom," that can have little resemblance to the original program. I wouldn't call that a curriculum, though, because at that level, what each child experiences varies too much, especially when you consider their homes' influence on each child.

Just like a battle plan, an academic plan doesn't seem to survive the encounter with the opposition. I have now seen our local public school districts change superintendents and principals so frequently, I wouldn't count their influence as building a curriculum--they change too frequently. The teachers are a more constant force, and need to deal with the administrators as passing distractions.

I have seen superb math teaching. As a parent, I approve of consistency between classrooms. There are different ways to reach that. One way is for teachers to specialize in one topic, and to teach multiple classes. Another way is for a group of teachers to agree on a series of lessons, and to assign the same readings and homework to each class. It can even extend to test creation, so that each student's performance can be easily compared to other children in the grade.

The worst system (in my opinion) for consistency is the common elementary model of one teacher -- one classroom. Some children will have teachers who are strong across the board, but some will have teachers who have noticeable weaknesses in one topic. (frequently math). I would much prefer a system of math specialist teachers (NOT math "coaches"), who may teach several grade levels, but at least understand mathematics.

Cranberry said...

Anonymous @ 10:49 AM,

My oldest child had a math textbook for 6th grade which would swing both ways. The lessons were on the fuzzy side. I remember one unit which called for the class to build a birdhouse. On the other hand, the review sections were straight-up, do-the-math traditional problems. A school could go both ways with this textbook, as there were elements from all approaches in it.

I don't remember the name, as we returned it to the school some years ago.

Paul B said...

It's a really common misconception to confuse textbooks with curriculum. I did it when I started teaching and it wasn't until I had some scars that I realized curriculum is far more involved. Matters of scope, sequencing, assessment, pace, and definitions for success are not addressed by the text.

Curriculum is the full range of experience a child goes through in a course (life). Some definitions even include experiences outside the course. The word has Latin roots in 'race course', implying the track or course one navigates.

NSF, NCTM, and various other advisory bodies do NOT provide curricula. Every Day Math, CMP, Saxon, and Singapore Math are not curricula. These are components of curricula.

I know of some schools, for example, that use a blend of CMP and Scott Foresman for middle school. Their curriculum defines the proportions of each element. I also know some teachers that do this kind of blending (off the reservation).

This is not at all like making doughnuts.

Redkudu said...

>>It's a really common misconception to confuse textbooks with curriculum. I did it when I started teaching and it wasn't until I had some scars that I realized curriculum is far more involved.<<

This is a VERY important distinction to make, and I'm glad you brought it up.

In my experience, districts often can (and do) purchase a curriculum package which does not correlate with the resources teachers have. In my current district this is causing a great deal of angst for English teachers. The purchased curriculum is actually designed to coincide with a particular textbook - a textbook we don't have.

The curriculum is very detailed and even offers worksheets for the activities - unfortunately, the worksheets are based on the literature the teachers are expected to have on hand. You would think they would use some generally acceptable/mainstream items to make up for this, but no. The selections are not usually readily available, going so far as to be nearly impossible to acquire because they are so eclectic and unusual. In the poetry unit alone I realized I would have to purchase seven different books myself to acquire the poems required for the lessons because they were not available anywhere but in that textbook or in the author's original publication.

The pacing is odd in this curriculum: 6 weeks for poetry. 2 weeks for short story. 8 weeks for novel. It's like some English teacher's dream vacation, not anything like a scope and sequence that will serve students who don't become poets or novelists.

In addition to that, textbook companies do develop curriculum to coincide with their own offerings - the books, workbooks, teacher materials, DVDs, CD-ROMs, and other supplementals. These are derived in an attempt to satisfy the state's minimum requirements and, as I've found in high school English, require copious amounts of time in navel-gazing activities which lull students into a sort of boring introspective stupor - "How do you feel about the choice character X made?" "When have you had to make a choice like narrator X?" "Write a letter to narrator X about a time you made a choice similar to theirs."

Far too often I find myself having to do what farmwifetwo says: "Since I don't have any fraction work books at the moment, later this morning I'll make up my own and teach him how to do them properly."

Textbook companies here seem to want schools to buy not only their products but also their curriculum. Districts, however, buy a curriculum, then textbooks - or expect teachers to fit the curriculum to the textbooks on hand.

ChemProf said...

This year, we have a new faculty member, and as she's gotten started, I am reminded of the difference in expectations for preparing a college course versus an elementary school teacher. In a college course, the instructor is expected to prepare lectures, but is almost never expected to prepare them from scratch. Most of us will find someone else who taught the course, and borrow their notes the first time. If we can't do that, we'll start by preparing notes from the textbook. From there, we refine our notes until we are happy with how we're presenting the material. Now, this is for someone who is an expert in the field, who is probably preparing 3-15 hours of material per week, depending on teaching loads.

So why is it that teachers in elementary school are expected to "roll their own" with such limited resources? Of course the result is going to be a mess, especially given the social justice focus in ed schools, and it will be worse in math, which isn't the favorite subject of most K-6 teachers anyway.

Anonymous said...

"States like Mass and California with high content standards could still be undermined if someone adopts fuzzy math implementation."

Funny you should say that. We are considering a move to Silicon Valley. In a morning of increasing despair, every single suburban district I could think of to research - with the exception of Cupertino - uses Everyday Math. The math wars may have started in California but fuzzy math seems to be winning.

SteveH said...

I wrote a response yesterday, but the blog rejected it. Twice. Hmmmm.

"Much of the previous thread is built on an assumption that some entity is actually responsible for a curriculum."

Thanks for clarifying what you mean. As with a lot of educational terms, discussion can wander all over the place without a proper definition.

In our small district, curriculum is not the driving force, especially in K-8. You could even argue that they don't have a curriculum. They have no printed or online definition of what they teach or how they teach it. At best, there are the NCLB state frameworks which influence what they do. The schools also do not say how much flexibility they allow each teacher to stray from whatever definition they do have.

The primary driving force for our schools is full inclusion. This is also pushed by the state which decrees that there will be no separate gifted or talented education. Everyone has to be together. However, I don't know why their thinking changes to allow separate math tracks in 7th and 8th grades. Reality, probably.

In terms of textbook selection, it's not just a textbook that is selected, but a system. When our school switched to Everyday Math, they bought into the promise that they could keep all kids together and "trust the spiral". Although EM is loaded up with all sorts of junk to get it past the curriculum checkoff weenies, nobody worried about whether they could get through all of the pages or whether there was any proof that they could trust the spiral.

Now, they have to make it work, but that just means getting good marks on the state low cutoff proficiency index. As Paul says, it's evolutionary, and I wouldn't call it a curriculum. It's mostly a reactionary process. They set the full inclusion process in motion and now they are trying to make it work. For K-6, the state goals are very low, so there is no pressure to do anything about changing Everyday Math.

This was different in 7th and 8th grade a while back. The pressure came from the high school and parents who complained that their kids weren't ready for Geometry as a freshman. This was back when the school used CMP. Their first reaction was to add more algebra topics to the 8th grade CMP class. The resistance to change seemed to be driven by one long time 8th grade math teacher. After he left, CMP disappeared and they stated to use the same algebra text as the high school. I just wish this sort of high end pressure could be applied to the lower grades.

Anonymous said...

The textbook publishers are on a slippery slope when they try to distinguish between curriculum and textbooks. With Singapore textbooks there is no confusion as in the US, because their standards already come with the textbooks. The US has failed to upgrade its list of exemplary and promising textbooks. I think the travesty of US education reform is that it has taken so long for students to achieve, unless you consider increasing failure rates an achievement. I think the entire system is rotten and it starts with the Department of Education and the Computer Services Corporation which processes and distributes all education under the auspices of ERIC. The whole thing is a sham and a waste of taxpayer money. We'd be better of building fighter bombers in India.

Allison said...

--So why is it that teachers in elementary school are expected to "roll their own" with such limited resources?

It's worse than this. From where I stand, every time I meet a new teacher (almost always they are young, too), they WANT to roll their own. They consider anything else inauthentic.

This is a byproduct of the ed-school focus on process and social justice. It would be wrong to be inauthentic. It would be wrong not to adapt what you teach to the students you have. It would be wrong to "force" a set of lessons and concepts on a class that may wish to go elsewhere. The new teacher strives to be a guide on the side, you know. (that this would require EVEN MORE prep has not yet occurred to them.) And yet, simultaneously with that notion, is the ego of the young teacher: they came to DO something, to CHANGE someone, to SAVE someone. How could they possibly get that emotional satisfaction out of teaching precanned lessons written by someone else? It would not be their own emotional satisfaction--why it would not be authentic!

but it's not always true that they are expected to roll their own. In math in the St. Paul district, it appears that teachers are micromanaged down to the minutes they spend on each task, all defined by the textbook (EM) and a top down execution plan for that textbook. so the teachers must search for a place for that authenticity and social justice elsewhere. I guess that's why it ends up in the writer's workshop so often.