Monday, April 29, 2013

The Common Core: Drawbacks

Yesterday, I posted about the benefits of the Common Core standards, an educational development sometimes (erroneously) labeled the most significant educational change of the last hundred years. I would say universal education, integration, expansion of post-secondary education, etc., were somewhat more significant than new standards. However, they represent a significant shift in school policy and resource allocation. I fear that their primary goal is not the stated goal (of improving student readiness for college and careers) but instead labelling more schools and teachers (and students) as "failing," then closing schools, firing teachers, and blaming students for their poverty as a result.

I have just read Diane Ravitch's discusssion of why she does not support the common core standards, and I agree with most of it (except, as noted yesterday, that I am not bothered by the increased English focus on non-fiction texts). The development of the tests is a very mysterious process, and we will begin testing students on standards that have guided their education for at most two years. Surely, students will fail these exams in record numbers. Some people will, in fact, profit enormously from these new, more expensive tests, and people pushing to close public schools and open for-profit charter schools will also benefit from the huge numbers of schools that will be declared "failing" as a result of the tests. Never mind that the charter schools don't have any better success rates, on average; once the public schools are closed down, it's very hard to get those schools back into the common public trust.

One major reason I suspect the standards have an insidious unstated goal is the lack of resource development to support teachers in this implementation. I just attended a major math teaching convention where everything claimed to support the Common Core standards, but very few of these materials actually conformed to the standards that we have studied or to the sample test questions that have been released. I have seen only one math textbook that even approached what I perceive as the common core, and that is something of a "fringe" book (little promotion by publisher--you can ask for it, but it's not advertised). Writing a question for my students that actually gets at these standards takes me in the realm of six hours; no teacher can actually come up with a dozen questions like this per day, per class. That should be the job of textbook developers; the frightening lack of these resources shifts that burden onto already overworked teachers.

Promoters claim that the standards were developed by teachers, but Ravitch's blog post indicates that very few teachers were involved in actually developing the standards. A teacher that I know was working on the in-progress science standards, and he/she informed me that the teachers actually were only allowed input on how those standards were worded; the standards themselves were handed down from on high, and the teachers' involvement was but a veneer on the product.

There is a sharp divide here between the English and math standards, though. High-stakes standardized testing is nefarious in either case. But at least we know what the English standards ARE. On the other hand, I have started referring to the math standards as "The Canon, " a set of mysterious statements handed down without research-based justification from the unknown testing gods that be. Since the statements are completely indecipherable, we must depend on Talmudic interpretive books released by different publishers who translate what the standards MIGHT mean for actual classroom practice. Of course, this is another money-making opportunity. Then there are the deuterocanonical textbooks, which offer some publishers' impressions of what school districts will interpret as common-core-compliant.

Understanding the math standards as religious rather than scientific texts has increased my patience with them, as they make a great deal more sense in this context. At this point, the seven teachers affiliated with our math department have spent 24 hours each in desperate attempts to decode the standards' meanings. That is 168 hours of teacher time spent squinting at screens in bafflement and despair, NOT ONE SECOND OF WHICH has focused on student learning, or HOW to teach these standards, or how we might coax students into this kind of engagement with math.

Additionally, the standards require most of Algebra I (traditional 9th grade math) to move into 8th grade; most of traditional Algebra II moved to Algebra I; and most of college alegbra moved to Algebra II, which all students are expected to master in this new regime. I understand that the elementary school curriulum accelerates similarily. Simply stating that students will learn material more quickly will not make them learn more quickly. This compounds the problem that not all students have the brain development to succeed in Algebra by 8th or even 9th grade. Standard defenders claim that they invite a deeper engagement with fewer general ideas (more depth, less breadth), but we have found nothing eliminated in breadth. As the standards are stated, we are simply supposed to teach more material in less time with fewer resources and more pressure.

As I mentioned yesterday, these changes might be beneficial for students of average to excellent ability in math. But there are multiple indices of fairness and multiple ways to educate all students with an eye to equity and excellence. Even assuming the best of these standards, they require every student to learn exactly the same thing at high levels. Now, I do believe that nearly all students can learn rigorous math at high levels. But I do not believe that all students can learn the same content in the same amount of time. Material that takes someone with a natural bent towards math one hour a day to master might take a student with less natural bent three or more hours a day to master. Meanwhile, that same student who is wonderful at math might have no gift at all for woodshop. The student who has to work three hours a day to master those math standards might be a cabinet making genius. I have worked with both these students. Under uniform and rigorous standards, the student who excels at math gets the basic content, but the math teachers' time is occupied with helping the struggling students, and there are no advanced or elective math classes offered to help her achieve her full potential in math. The student who struggles with math must devote massive blocks of time to achieving that mastery, at the cost of developing her talents and passions.

Common standards in this instance serve neither very high achievers nor moderately low achievers in the tested areas. This vision for equitable education sees all students mastering exactly the same things, without regard to their interests, abilities, or needs. Another vision for equitable education sees all students encouraged and enabled to learn to the best of their abilities in a wide range of disciplines. Certainly, everyone should have a basic competency in math and English; we would be remiss as adults, educators, and parents if we encouraged illiteracy, numeric or otherwise, in our youth. And if we could help each child achieve a very high proficiency in math and English with no detrimental side effects, of course we should do that.

But that is not the case. School days are limited, and years of free public education are limited; given these constraints, every hour a student spends in a remedial math class is another hour s/he is not in a class s/he enjoys that can help propel him or her to a meaningful career. Students and parents should have some flexibility to weigh the benefits and detriments of every course offering; even as a proponent of math and English education, I believe some students should be able to choose different vocational preparation than adding fractions with trinomials in the denominator. The common core, and more specifically the onerous testing requirements related to it, cut off student choices to the detriment of students with varied talents.

For teachers to be able to teach all this material successfully, we must have more and better resources, and we must consider placing all children in double blocks of math and English. We simply cannot teach a great deal more material in the same length of time to the same students. If we don't want to double all children up on math and English (and I would argue, vehemently, that it's a terrible idea), we probably need to adjust the testing expectations and allow more flexibility. If I could be assured that the math standards would be rewritten for clarity, that the process of developing tests was open to stakeholder input and done by the government instead of a for-profit corporation, that students could choose to follow their non-math and English passions, and that schools would not close and teachers not lose their jobs as a direct result of the increased rigor of the Common Core, I could get behind the standards a lot more enthusiastically. But those are a lot of "ifs." I hope to revisit this topic in three or four years and laugh at my concerns, as I contemplate the wonderful strides our educational system has taken. Alas, that is not my expectation.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Common Core: Benefits

I have had a lot of people ask me about the Common Core standards, inasmuch as they are becoming the education law of the land and I'm a teacher in the most affected areas and some state legislatures have been trying to outlaw them and all that. So today, I'm going to explain them to you as best as possible and also offer some thoughts on their good elements. I'll offer another post on their less good elements soon.

First of all, the idea of universal standards across state lines is a very good idea. It is centralizing, a little bit fascist (because it imposes one standard everywhere), and dictatorial--yes, all those things. But if you live near a state border, as I do, and if your school serves students from low-income backgrounds, as mine does, the concept of shared standards is marvelous. I have students that move in for three months, move back across the border, return a couple weeks later, then leave to finish the year somewhere else. Of course, every school they attend is doing something completely different. Kids experiencing this kind of transience would benefit enormously from some continuity between their educational experiences. Not that common standards ensure this, but they help.

Secondarily, the Common Core standards do not represent a federal takeover of education. The Obama administration did encourage their adoption by making them a factor in the odious "Race to the Top" (aka No Child Left Behind, but more insulting coming from a Democrat who was supposed to support teachers). But the National Governors' Association, not the department of education, called for their development, and states decided whether or not to implement them. Forty-five states elected to use them; four elected to use state-developed standards; Minnesota opted to use the English but not the math standards. Of those forty-five, Indiana recently outlawed them. The Kansas legislature attempted to outlaw them but fell a few votes short. Concerned parties cited the "federal takeover" as the motivation. I am still not exactly sure how you "outlaw" standards.

The standards certainly represent education reform in the sense that all education should be based on essential skills and objectives, but this is basically the only kind of "reform" from the current movements that I actually support. My own experience has reinforced my belief in standards-based education, and thinking about the essential content my students need to be successful (in personal finance, in further education, in careers) has transformed my teaching. In my math department discussions of the Common Core, we have analyzed the essential skills from our course content extensively. Those conversations have been productive and useful in classroom praxis. They also represent a kind of equality in that we are supposed to make sure all students are mastering these standards, not just the "best" students. I appreciate the Common Core inasmuch as, if it works, I will have a much better idea of what students entering my classroom have mastered in the past.

The Common Core insists that students at all schools are exposed to rigorous content, and this is a great development. I had a student transfer in from a severely under-resourced school, and s/he told me that our school was amazing because the teachers would stop and answer questions when you asked them, and help you until you understood the material. Also, we have science labs! That this represented a break in this student's educational experience horrified me. If the common core makes sure every school teaches real content to every student, that would be a wonderful thing. That is a massive "if," but more on that tomorrow.

The standards are split into two parts, English/Language Arts and Math. I have been teaching math for four years, and next year (big happy dance) I will be teaching English--all to 9th graders. I have only read the English language arts standards a couple of times, but so far I am very impressed with them. Many people have critiqued them for their focus on non-fiction and informational texts as opposed to literature, but I believe the ability to decipher written information is crucial to student and community liberation. There's a lot of great non-fiction out there, and I look forward to teaching it. Also, a lot of people (especially male people) who identify as non-readers actually consume a great deal of non-fiction text, and I want to help those people reclaim their reading identity (and if, by declaring themselves readers, they work up the courage to read a novel or poem sometime, I won't be disappointed). The ELA standards are broad enough to adapt to local contexts and, in general, provide a good base for literacy education. I say that now but will revisit the theme after teaching under them for a year!

The math standards, alternatively, are a mess. But today I am focusing on the upsides of the Common Core. The focus on "mathematical habits of mind" could be revolutionary. They are great, and as teachers reorient their classes to focus on them, students will find their math education applicable across other disciplines and contexts.

One of the features I really like about these "habits of mind" is that they are easy to extend into the world of people who think they "don't do math." Most people do look for structure and patterns, even if they do not conceive of that as a mathematical task. Most people, eventually, must learn to persevere in problem solving, or they will not experience a lot of success in careers, community organizing, parenting (I hear), or a host of other necessary roles.Math habits of mind
Mathematical habits of mind

The math standards themselves, when we understand what they mean, include a needed focus on functions (i.e. what variables are related, and how they are related), and an emphasis on knowing how mathematical processes operate.

But everything else I think about the math common core belongs in another post.

Anyway, my professional opinion is this: if you have a kid in the school system (or are a kid in the school system), you should be cautiously optimistic about the changes the common core standard will bring to you or your child's education. Potentially, the classes you or child takes will be more focused on important ideas, and there will be more connections across disciplines. If you should move during your K-12 education, you may experience more continuity in learning because of these standards. The goal of these standards IS to make a high school diploma communicate mastery of a good set of skills, and if you or child does master those skills, s/he will be more equipped for success in post-secondary schooling and careers. These benefits are more likely to apply to students with average to excellent ability in math and English (not necessarily with low or exceptional ability in those particular topics--again, more on that tomorrow).

If you are a teacher, you already have a long and complicated relationship with the Common Core and I do not presume to tell you what to think. As a teacher, I think there are really good possibilities to improve my teaching and boost student learning through the common core. If all stated goals are the genuine goals, I can mostly get behind the English standards and the comprehensible parts of the math standards. Inasmuch as they can guide education, the standards might do more good than harm.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Atlanta: Failing the Test

As you may have heard, there is a standardized test cheating scandal going on in Atlanta. It appears that many teachers and administrators collaborated to change wrong student answers to correct student answers, thereby improving their schools' reputations and reaping many personal benefits including sizable bonuses. Both the New York Times and Bill Ayers have written cogent commentaries on this, and I thought I would add this educator's voice to the mix.

First of all, cheating is wrong. It nullifies whatever good can come from standardized tests (i.e. exposing weaknesses in the curriculum that need to be addressed), it masks actual deficiencies that should be addressed, and it serves to prop up a system that is inherently worthless. The teachers involved were wrong to participate in the cheating, and the administrators were even more wrong to encourage and/or coerce that participation. If cheating goes undetected, it reinforces the whole system of testing and provides fake successes for the pro-testing and "reform" movement.

The heroic way to resist the testing regime is the way of the Garfield High School faculty, who refused to administer a test they felt did not measure student learning and took time away from useful classroom instruction. They are an inspiration to all teachers who know that high-stakes testing is not the key to student success.

But not all of us can be heroes. This cheating may be a kind of desperate sabotage of untenable work conditions, where your whole value as a human being is boiled down to a number that you ultimately don't have much control over. Many teachers (sometimes me included, but not today) feel helpless in front a system madated at the state and federal level. We know that those tests are of no value to the students involved, and it's hard to help our kids take ownership of testing that has no impact on them but lots of impact on their schools.

Here's the thing: no students were harmed by teachers erasing their answers on a standardized test. In fact, they helped bring money into the district by gaming a corrupt system to get ahead. It's still wrong, and people who participate should face professional punishments--losing their job, perhaps; losing their bonuses, certainly. And some other cheating scandals, where students were actually injured (like this one in El Paso) certainly merit some harsh punishment WHILE AT THE SAME TIME inviting reflection on systems that would lead professionals to think such horrific actions were a good idea.

But the criminal prosecutions being pursued are preposterous. Yes, the testing officials made a difficult work situation (albeit one mandated by Arne Duncan and the feds) by forcing teachers to do something they knew was wrong. But the superintendant is facing up to 45 years in prison, and bail has been set for several teachers and administrators in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are being punished for resisting in the non-heroic mode, for doing what human beings do under extreme pressure. And guess what? Nearly all of the accused are African American.

This reminds me of other large scandals, like when the bank HSBC funded Mexican drug cartels that kill lots of people, both funding and killing in violation of lots of laws and ethics, and none of their officials went to jail or had to pay a single fine. Bizarre. I bet, though, that their officials weren't middle-income African American people. They had to make a profit! That's how the system works!

So, when people of color working in social welfare organizations screw up and cheat the system out of a few thousand dollars, they deserve massive fines and long jail sentences. When people, primarily rich white people, in large banks screw up and cheat people out of their lives and livelihoods and take their houses and fund killers and launder billions of dollars, the people involved are just too important to prosecute and cannot possiblly be held responsible.

This is an outrage. Both systems are wrong (testing to determine school funding, and banking to fund truly criminal enterprise), and both deserve some punishment--but people who did not hurt children deserve much less punishment than people who help murderers and steal peoples' homes out from under them. We should not jail people for their non-heroic resistance; we should jail the people that made them feel cheating was necessary for the survival of a good institution (public schools). Conversely, maybe we could focus prosecuting power on drug cartel enablers and actual child abusers, and then we could focus other energy on creating excellent educational opportunities for every young person.