kitchen table math, the sequel: 12/28/14 - 1/4/15

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Frederick Hess: Common Core tests were the fix for NCLB

Frederick Hess writing in National Affairs:
In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act marked a dramatic win for standards-based reform — but at the price of abandoning the push for "national" standards. NCLB required states to adopt standards in reading and math, administer annual tests geared to those standards, use tests to determine which students were proficient, and analyze the outcomes to determine which schools and systems were making "adequate yearly progress" — including the absurd requirement that 100% of students be proficient by 2014. Schools and systems that didn't perform adequately were subject to federally mandated sanctions. The crucial compromise was that states could set their own standards and tests. In fact, NCLB specifically prohibited national testing or a federally controlled curriculum.

What followed was not difficult to anticipate. The possibility of sanctions gave more than a few state leaders reason to adopt easy tests and lower the scores required for proficiency. A "race to the bottom" was soon underway, prompting an effort to combat the gamesmanship.


The real power of standards lies in their ability to change what is tested, and thus to change how curricula and textbooks are written, how teachers teach, and how students learn. As Finn and Petrilli put it, the standards are ignored, and "[e]ducators instead obsess about what's on the high-stakes test." This is why advocates are so impassioned and why critics are justified in fretting about the implications of the Common Core. When coupled with tests, accountability systems, and teacher evaluation, the Common Core becomes the invisible but omnipresent foundation of American education.


[T]he Common Core is neither necessary nor sufficient for fixing the problem it was designed to solve. The critical rationale for the Common Core was concern that states had gamed and manipulated testing under NCLB. But a more modest solution was already available. Every state has long participated in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests students in reading and math (and sometimes in other subjects) in grades four, eight, and twelve under carefully controlled conditions and provides a rock-solid means for comparing performance. In fact, NAEP results were already being used to flag states that appeared to be gaming their NCLB tests. Common Core advocates, however, thought that relying on NAEP was an unsatisfactory, makeshift solution. Instead, they embraced the Common Core standards.

Solving the "race to the bottom" problem would have required the Common Core tests to replicate NAEP's careful protocols. However, perhaps recognizing that states might not have signed on if they were subject to transparent coercion, Common Core advocates were remarkably laid back about what states would actually be required to do when it came to policing test conditions, accepting mandatory passing scores, or establishing strong oversight boards. Thus, advocates failed to build in controls to prevent states from manipulating outcomes. States can administer the Common Core-aligned tests much later in the school year than is recommended (thus inflating measures of student learning), ignore guidelines on testing conditions, and set their own proficiency scores. The only "safeguard" against any of this is state officials' inclination to do the right thing — which is precisely what it was before the Common Core. Meanwhile, many Common Core states have decided not to use the program's new tests at all; as a result, barely 40% of students are currently slated to be tested with one of the two new Common Core tests, and at least 19 different tests will be used nationwide next spring. Given the critical role of the tests for maintaining standards, this undermines the purpose of the Common Core — and in a fashion that seems unlikely to lead to purposeful experimentation or rethinking. Within a few years, testing may be only slightly less fragmented than before the Common Core, and many established tests will have been jettisoned for slapped-together replacements.

How the Common Core Went Wrong
Common Core was all about the tests.

NCLB had failed -- so the thinking went -- because (some) states gamed the system by writing easy tests (or writing hard tests but setting easy cut scores).

So Common Core would create common standards and, hence, common tests. Hard tests.

Like Jason Zimba, I might have thought, a few years back, that changing the tests would do the trick. Create good tests, let the schools take it from there.

But having sent three children through public schools, and having read some of the literature on foreign aid and its many debacles, I now have a much greater appreciation for the slipperiness of reality.

Or the slipperiness of culture, more like.

I'm extremely tardy getting Barbara Oakley's op ed & new book posted, and it looks like I won't get to it today, either.

But I do want to quote her passage on culture:
Today's Common Core approach to teaching STEM is at least superficially appealing. The goal of placing equal emphasis on conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application is laudable. But as with any new approach to teaching, the Common Core builds on the culture that's already there. And the culture that has long reigned in STEM education is that conceptual understanding trumps everything. So bewildered math teachers who are now struggling to teach the Common Core are leaning on the old thinking, which has it that if a student doesn't understand—in the "ah-ha," light-bulb sense of understanding—there's no way she or he can truly become expert in the material.

True experts have a profound conceptual understanding of their field. But the expertise built the profound conceptual understanding, not the other way around. There's a big difference between the "ah-ha" light bulb, as understanding begins to glimmer, and real mastery.

How We Should Be Teaching Math
Like NGOs disbursing foreign aid, the Common Core had to build on the culture that was already there.

The culture that's already there inside public schools pits "knowledge" against "thinking," "problem solving," and "understanding," with knowledge the loser. Here in my district, in fact, our curriculum director has produced a new Powerpoint, titled "Teaching for Understanding," which poses a rhetorical question:
Is it possible to have a great deal of knowledge but limited understanding?
Harder tests aren't going to raise student achievement inside a culture whose denizens believe that knowledge is an impediment to understanding.

Auntie Ann points out the obvious

Lot of these studies about the problems with reading on screens--including amount absorbed and lack of sleep--need to get through to schools that putting everything on electronic media instead of good old books is a bad idea.

Yes, carrying 3-4 textbooks home every night is like lugging a backpack full of bricks, but there has to be some happy medium out there somewhere.
Thank you!

Can't believe I didn't think of that.

(I did think of it where my own kids are concerned. I've been bugging Chris to get off his laptop in the evening, and I've been asking myself whether I have what it takes to pry Andrew* from his.)

Put together the finding that e-readers affect circadian rhythms with the fact that teenagers' circadian rhythms are already delayed ....


* For passersby, Andrew is 20 years old and autistic.

Jason Zimba teaching his children math

For passersby, Jason Zimba is one of 3 writers of the Common Core math standards.
Every Saturday morning at 10 a.m., Jason Zimba begins a math tutoring session for his two young daughters with the same ritual. Claire, 4, draws on a worksheet while Abigail, 7, pulls addition problems written on strips of paper out of an old Kleenex box decorated like a piggy bank.

If she gets the answer "lickety-split," as her dad says, she can check it off. If she doesn't, the problem goes back in the box, to try the following week.

"I would be sleeping in if I weren't frustrated," Zimba says of his Saturday-morning lessons, which he teaches in his pajamas. He feels the math instruction at Abigail's public elementary school in Manhattan is subpar — even after the school switched to the Common Core State Standards.

But Zimba, a mathematician by training, is not just any disgruntled parent. He's one of the guys who wrote the Common Core.

And four years after signing off on the final draft of the standards, he spends his weekends trying to make up for what he considers the lackluster curriculum at his daughter's school, and his weekdays battling the lackluster curriculum and teaching at schools around the country that are struggling to shift to the Common Core.


Zimba gave up an academic career in which he had the freedom to wonder about abstract physics problems in the peace and quiet of his Vermont barn. But, he says, "I'm now participating in a much more urgent problem."

That problem is how to elevate the academic achievement of American students, especially the most disadvantaged, so the country can maintain its competitive advantage in the global economy. These days, Zimba and his colleagues acknowledge better standards aren't enough.

"I used to think if you got the assessments right, it would virtually be enough," he says. "In the No Child Left Behind world, everything follows from the test."

Now, he says, "I think it's curriculum."

The Man Behind the Curtain
The theory behind CC was that common tests were the ticket.

Common standards would produce common tests would produce common curricula.

No more race to the bottom.

Monday, December 29, 2014

TimesWatch, Day 1

I need to stop reading education stories in the New York Times.

Because life is short.

Since I'm probably not going to stop reading education stories in the New York Times, I've decided to document the badness.

Or at least list it:
  • 12/19/2014 Raising Ambitions: The Challenge in Teaching at Community Colleges:"Data on what kind of teaching works most effectively at the community college level is scant. But what is known from learning theories generally is that constructivist methods, which prize active student participation over passive receipt of information, are intensely valuable." 
  • 12/26/2014 Colleges Reinvent Classes to Keep More Students in Science: "Hundreds of students fill the seats, but the lecture hall stays quiet enough for everyone to hear each cough and crumpling piece of paper. The instructor speaks from a podium for nearly the entire 80 minutes. Most students take notes. Some scan the Internet. A few doze....Multiple studies have shown that students fare better with a more active approach to learning...
  • 12/27/2014 Rage Against the Common Core: "Many teachers like the standards, because they invite creativity in the classroom — instead of memorization, the Common Core emphasizes critical thinking and problem-solving."
If you haven't read the stories, don't waste your time.

Instead, spend it listening to Education Next's pod cat with Guido Schwerdt:
More Lecturing, More LearningIn this podcast, Guido Schwerdt talks with Ed Next’s Paul Peterson about his new study finding that students learn more math and science when their teachers devote more time to lecturing and less time to problem-solving activities.

Today, on average, teachers spend more time on problem-solving activities than they do making lecture-style presentations. If teachers were to spend 10 percent more time lecturing, this would be associated with a rise in test scores comparable to about 1 or two months of additional learning in a year.

1 space after periods redux

I knew there was a reason why you're supposed to use just one space after a period when you're typing on a computer, but I couldn't remember what it was.

Turns out that, unbeknownst to me, my Downloads folder holds the answer, in a document entitled "Problems Noted on Student Writing":
This change occurred in academic writing as a result of the use of computers that have proportional fonts capable of adjusting the spacing as needed. This rule has been the standard in journalism and publishing since computers have been used for word processing purposes. 
Have I ever come upon a document I didn't download?

Sometimes I wonder.

Barry's Rifle Range on grit

In all my classes, I required my students to answer warm-up questions at the beginning of class. I used two types of questions:. One was a review-type question to apply what they recently learned. The other required them to some apply their prior knowledge –or what was familiar—in a new or unfamiliar situation. Some may view this as an inquiry-based approach, or an application of the “struggle is good” philosophy that adherents of Common Core seem to say is necessary to develop perseverance in problem solving, as well as the all-important and frequently undefined “grit”. I view a short amount of struggle as appropriate provided that explanation is provided shortly after. That way, even if students do not succeed in solving a problem, most are receptive to explanations that they might otherwise tune out.

Saturday, December 20, 2014
Conversations on the Rifle Range, 19: Grant’s Tomb Again, Alice in Wonderland, and the Eternal Question
Asking students to spend a few minutes applying prior knowledge to a new problem arouses curiosity.

That's a good thing because, according to Jaak Panksepp, curiosity is one of the seven core emotions driving all human behavior. He calls it "SEEKING."*

SEEKING may be the core emotion, in fact, the emotion without which the other six don't work.

So: arousing curiosity about math!

Good idea.

Panksepp's fantastic book: Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions

And I see he published a new book in 2012!

Ordering it now -----

The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions by Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven

*It's probably more accurate to say that curiosity is a facet of SEEKING.

"About that mom who's not bragging about her kid"

A friend sent me a link to this essay on the subject of kvelling moms, and I'm passing it along.

Very nice.