Testing at the speed of… change.

I have a question:

Will the problems the public education system be solved by employing standards-based solutions like Common Core (or some other standard-based curriculum)?

This seems like an interesting question. A lot of follow-up questions would be needed.

1. What are public education’s problems?

2. What’s causing the problems?

3. What do we do about problems that aren’t solvable under current law?

4. Are certain standards-based solutions better than others?

5. What will education look like when all its problems are solved?

 

I don’t want to sound like a skeptic, but, here in Michigan, we’ve been at this for a while.

In Novemeber 2005, the National Governor’s Conference decided that high schools weren’t rigorous enough to prepare students “for an increasingly competitive global economy.” In Michigan, this led directly to the development of the Michigan Merit Curriculum.

The results weren’t good. By 2011, the state set the proficiency “cut scores” at 39% of the MEAP Test questions correct. (Got that? The Michigan Department of Education was cool writing a test, giving to every student in the state, and calling “proficient” any student who could get 40% of the test right.) This, of course, showed that 90% of 3rd graders were proficient in mathematics statewide. By 2012, when the cut score was raised to 65%, statewide proficiency dropped to closer to 40%.

So, after all this, apparently, the people of Michigan wanted Common Core. So, along with that, we passed some other laws to try to get Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top money (We failed, by the way. Then we failed again. Then we failed for a third time.)

After all that, we’d changed a number of laws, including approving the Common Core standards. However, a lot of those laws were designed to appeal to Arne Duncan and his several billion dollars, which never came.

So, we have a department of education that has approved Common Core. By January of 2012, the state was gearing up for the Smarter Balance Test. We even had school districts running trials and pilot testing situations (my district included), even as the state legislature determined that it didn’t have the funds to support Common Core.

Bear in mind, these changes had all come quite quickly. If this upcoming junior class (class of 2016) is to take the Smarter Balance Assessment, it would have done so after an education that included no standards (from kindergarten to 2nd grade), Michigan Merit Standards (3rd grade until 7th grade), and Common Core Standards (since 8th grade). Keeping in mind the implementation dip that is going to accompany the transition periods, it’s really any wonder why we have any expectations for this group beyond simply finishing the test.

And the speed of change wasn’t being lost on people. Common Core dissent is gaining publicity and some think that is makes for some pretty compelling television. So, Michigan is stuck having blazed a trail that isn’t exactly popular and isn’t exactly funded.

Moreover, in the past month, a new set of questions is brewing in Michigan: What test will those students be taking next year? The public pressure is mounting. Business leaders and education groups support it, but there is a lot of apprehension over the online nature of the test. (And Bill Gates suddenly isn’t a huge fan of high-stakes testing anyway.)

So, it looks like we’ll stick with MEAP another year, except we might steal some of the Smarter Balance questions. We currently don’t have a test written, or dates to plan on. The only certainty we have is that we can rest assured, there will be some test we will have to give.

I started teaching in 2006. This has been my experience for the entirety of my career. All of this flurry over which standards, which test, which questions. For what? People are yelling, negotiating, quitting their jobs over all of this. But we still don’t have an answer to the original question.

Will the problems the public education system be solved by employing standards-based solutions like Common Core (or some other standard-based curriculum)?

Oh, and don’t forget. We need to grow consensus on those five questions BEFORE we get to the original, bigger question. Here’s the problem. We aren’t prepared to try to build consensus on those five questions, at least not in the right way. Discussions like these require cooler heads. (Every been in a meeting when people start to get worked up? All progress stops until everyone calms down.)

Oh, and there’s these other questions that are going to come into play.

6. Should kids who fail to meet a proficiency standard move on with support and accommodations? or be held back to start the program all over again?

7. What are the academic grounds on which a student should be eligible to be a varsity athlete? What level of participation is acceptable if the student doesn’t meet all the standards?

8. What is the acceptable age at which a young person, or their family, should be able to freely opt a student out of the state’s preferred education program without penalty? What are the conditions on which an opt-out application is accepted?

All of these questions I have seen people yell and scream in disagreement with each other. Yelling. Over athletic eligibility and the disagreement over social promotion vs. retention.

Education is filled with passionate people. We don’t need any more passion. We need more wisdom. We need calmness. Patience.

I would love to see the State of Michigan (or any state) just stop all of this madness until it can issue a research-based negotiated document answering those 8 questions with rationales, just so that we know that those answers have been factored into any plan to move forward.

I hate to sound like a skeptic, but until we are prepared to clearly build consensus on those eight questions, all of our “fixes” are much more likely to make the problems worse, not better.

 

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Thoughts from Outside the Education Community

Dan Carlin (@dccommonsense or @hardcorehistory) is not a professional educator. He is a podcaster about politics and history. His podcasts are fantastic. A ton of substance in manageable doses, and he is a fantastic story-teller. He describes himself as a “fan of history” as opposed to “historian” because calling himself a “historian” would create academic structures that would keep him from adding a lot of the sensational pieces to his history podcasts that make them such awesome listening. Historians and academics might consider that irresponsible and reckless. But, he’s got something like 500,000 people currently waiting part III of his current series on World War I. Dan Carlin is clearly not a professional educator.

And yet, Edutopia decided to post a short column by him that they supplemented with a podcast that Dan recorded directly addressed to the Edutopia community. It’s worth recognizing that Dan does a fantastic job of recognizing some problems with history education that are consistently problematic in the math arena, too. From the podcast, about a minute in:

“… we teach it the same way we always did, except we’ve learned over and over, haven’t we, that the vast majority of people don’t like it taught this way. And they don’t remember it. And because they don’t remember it, any rationale you have for why it has to be the way it is because people have to learn these things goes right out the window, right? Because if they don’t retain them, they didn’t really learn them.

Maybe they were good students, studied them for the tests and got a good grade, but they didn’t keep that information a couple years later. It’s like learning a foreign language that you don’t keep up on, right? It doesn’t matter if you took Spanish back in high school if you don’t remember how to say anything, you know, ten years later.”

Educational professional or not, that is a pretty accurate observation of the major symptom plaguing education today. Many teachers I talk discuss how unprepared the students are for their particular class. This problem isn’t a secret. And it isn’t new. (Sam Cooke Sing-along anyone: “Don’t know geography… don’t know much trigonomety…“) In the podcast, Dan urges that the education should be less about what we teach and more about how we are teaching it.

From about the 10:00 mark.

You have to awaken a desire to continue with the subject, and not just in an educational sense, but in their lives – to have an interest in the past. Allow them to choose the subject and you’re halfway there. If a kid’s into motorcycles, let them do a report on the history of motorcycles. They will quickly come to understand how that motorcycle they admired in the showroom window today came to be. They’ll understand the value of knowing the past about any subject, right?

If you have a person in your classroom that’s interested in fashion – same thing. The history of fashion’s a wonderful subject. It’ll teach you how we got to where we are now in terms of fabrics, and colors, and styles. You’ll be able to recognize, “Oh, I see a little bit of ancient Egyptian influence in that dress I saw the other day on the runway.” This is how you begin to teach people that the past is infinitely exciting if you get to pick the subject.

… They can learn all the social studies aspects of these stories down the road, if it matters to them. If it doesn’t matter to them, they’re never going to learn it anyway. Now I don’t know if teachers have any control over this in the classroom, and I realize this doesn’t give them many tools to use, does it? But the truth of the matter is that if we’re going to teach history in a way that less than 10% come out knowing anything 5 years down the road, we’d be better off using that time to teach math.

 

Now, Dan recognizes his limitations as an adviser of educators, but he brings a lot to the table of value – and not just in the teaching of history. Replace history with math in most of that quote and you’ll find that his sentiments are still pretty applicable.

Why are we teaching math? What are we doing to put students in a position to leave us with anything of value to take with them? We’ve known for years that students often forget the math they study in school. (I am reminded of this every year at parent conferences when the parents remind me how little they remember of their high school math.)

So, why do we continue to do what we’re doing? Why are we spending so much time at the top levels stressing about WHAT we should teach and so much less about HOW we should teach? What should the goals of math class be?

The goals of math class are perplexity, problem-solving, organized logical reasoning, creativity within constraints, patience, persistence, perseverance, the ability to guess well, and then to design a way to check the accuracy of the guess…

THESE are the reasons for math class. THESE are the long-lasting takeaways. THESE are the things that make math class useful to 100% of the students. And THESE are things than can be taught regardless of the content. You can teach those things with linear functions, or visual patterns, or number lines.

And it’s okay that the advice came from a “fan of history” and not an educator.

Feeding The Elephant in the Room

I am going to ramble a bit in this piece, but as you read, keep a specific thought in your mind:

When our students have graduated high school, we will know we educators have done our job because _____________________.

Now, onto the ramble:

So, a lot gets said about the struggles of American secondary education. Recently, Dr. Laurence Steinberg took his turn in Slate coming right out in the title and calling high schools “disasters”. Which, as you can imagine, got some responses from the educational community.

Go ahead and give the article a read. I’ll admit that education is not known as the most provocative topic in the American mainstream, but Dr. Steinberg has written a piece that has been shared on Facebook a few thousand times and on twitter a few hundred more. It’s instigated some thoughtful blog responses. You have to respect his formula.

He starts with a nice mini Obama dig.

Makes a nice bold statement early (“American high schools, in particular, are a disaster.”)

Offers a “little-known” study early to establish a little authority.

Then hits the boring note and hits it hard. High school is boring. Lower level students feel like they don’t belong. Advanced students feel unchallenged. American schools is more boring than most other countries’ schools.

Then he goes on to discredit a variety of things education has tried to do over the last 50 (or so) years including: NCLB, Vouchers, Charters, Increased funding, lowering student-to-teacher ratio, lengthening the school day, lengthening the school year, pushing for college-readiness. I mean, with that list, there’s something for everyone

Like it or hate it, that is an article that is going to get read.

However, there isn’t a lot in the way of tangible solutions. The closest Dr. Steinberg comes is in this passage: ” Research on the determinants of success in adolescence and beyond has come to a similar conclusion: If we want our teenagers to thrive, we need to help them develop the non-cognitive traits it takes to complete a college degree—traits like determination, self-control, and grit. This means classes that really challenge students to work hard…”

Nothin’ to it, right? It’s as easy as making our students “grittier”.

Now, I will repeat the introductory thought: When our students have graduated high school, we will know we educators have done our job because _____________________.

That blank gets filled in a variety of ways from the area of employability, or social responsibility, or liberation and freedom, or social justice to a variety of other thises and thats that we use our high schools for. We are using our high schools as the training ground for the elimination of a wide variety of undesirable social things. We’ve used our schools to eliminate obesity, teen pregnancy and STIs, discrimination based on race, gender, or alternative lifestyles. We have allowed colleges to push college-readiness to make their job easier. We’ve allowed employers to push employability to make their jobs easier. The tech industry feels like we need more STEM. There’s a push-back from folks like Sir Ken Robinson who feel like it’s dangerous to disregard the arts.

And they all have valid points. I’m certainly not mocking or belittling any of those ideas.

However, very little is getting said on behalf of the school. We are treating the school as a transparent entity with none of its own roles and responsibilities. It is simply the clay that gets molded into whatever society decides it should be. Well, since the 60’s, society has had a darned hard time making up its mind about what it wants and so the school has become battered and bruised with all the different initiatives and plans, data sets, and reform operations. Reform is an interesting idea when the school hasn’t ever formally been formed in the first place.

So, we have this social institution that we send 100% of our teenagers to in some form or another and we don’t know what the heck its for. No wonder, as Dr. Steinberg puts it, “In America, high school is for socializing. It’s a convenient gathering place, where the really important activities are interrupted by all those annoying classes. For all but the very best American students—the ones in AP classes bound for the nation’s most selective colleges and universities—high school is tedious and unchallenging.”

Public enemy #1 needs to be the utter and complete lack of purpose in the high school system. We are running our young people through exercises… why? For what? What do we hope to have happen at the end? When we decide the answer to that question, then we eliminate the rest. It isn’t lazy to say, “I’m not doing that, because that isn’t my job.” It’s efficient. If you start doing the work of others, you stop doing your work as well.

We’ve never agreed on the work of the American high school, but I suspect some of what we are asking it to do should belong on the shoulders of something or someone else. I suspect as soon as we establish a purpose and simplify the operations around that purpose, we can start to see some progress on the goals that we have for our schools, which will spell success for our students and start to clean up the disaster that so many feel like the high schools currently are.

Getting algebra and geometry to play nice with each other…

There's a time and place for everything...

There’s a time and place for everything…

There is a statement that I hear quite frequently that I’m not sure what to do with: “Well, I’m not really an algebra person. Maybe I’ll like geometry better.”

I mean, obviously there is a basic sensibility to it in the same way as a historian who studies the Roman Empire finds something in it more exciting that studying the crusades of Alexander the Great. “Well, I’m not really an Alexander the Great person. Maybe I’ll like the Roman Empire better.” (I don’t know, do history teachers hear stuff like that?)

But like differentiating the Great Alexander and Rome, it is difficult to fully understand one without, at least a mild working understanding of the other. Julius Caesar was said to be incredibly motivated by all that Alexander accomplished. Pompey the Great (one of Julius Caesar’s brothers-in-law turned rival) returned from campaign and wore the cloak of the Great Alexander in Triumph. To assume that you can study Rome while completely ignoring Alexander would be to leave a lot of the story untold.

Likewise the other way around. If someone were to try to consider the greatness of Alexander (“great” in the sense that he was mighty and powerful, probably not because he was a fantastic guy…), to ignore how his conquests contributed to the formation of the ancient world would be to leave a lot of the story untold.

They aren’t the same, but they are connected.

And so it is with Algebra and Geometry.

Yes they’re different. They need to be taught differently, but they require each other. There are times when algebraic methods and thinking fit in really, really well with geometry concepts (similarity, 3-D figures, and circles, for example). There are also time when it doesn’t fit in as well (rigid transformations and triangle congruence, for example). It’s the same with Algebra. There are times when geometry works well to support the learning of algebra (distance formula, numeracy with the number line, slope and rates of change, for example). There are also time when geometry doesn’t fit in as well.

As math teachers, we need to have a discipline to let the content dictate the techniques. My main critique of most geometry textbooks is that they are incredibly heavy in the algebra.

(c) Holt Geometry, 2009 Ed, pg 246, #11

(c) Holt Geometry, 2009 Ed, pg 246, #11

This problem is probably working too hard to try to put Algebra in a place where it isn’t a natural fit. If a student were going to try to prove that triangle NPM is congruent to triangle NPQ, wouldn’t trying to prove a reflection be a much more reasonable choice?

So, I suppose that I am simply recognizing that as we meander through the wonderful course of geometry, it would be wrong to make it algebra-heavy. It would be wrong to make it algebra-free.

Perhaps our goal as teachers whose course is between Algebra I and Algebra II is to show the students what algebra looks like and how well it works when it is used in the appropriate spots.

Or as my father-in-law often says, “proper tool, proper job.”

Mainstream Media Flips Out over Flipped Classes

Well, it seems the secret’s out…

Right on the heels of a series of decent Twitter conversations I had regarding blended learning, I noticed two articles on the benefits of Flipped Class structures, oddly enough, in mainstream news outlets.

Yesterday The Sacramento Bee published two articles: Flipping Class Gaining Momentum Among Educators which offers some praise for the blended learning model, and Khan Academy is a Flipped Classroom Pioneer.

So, this got me wondering how many other mainstream news outlets have done stories on flipping. The Herald Democrat (out of Texas and Oklahoma), The Columbus Dispatch, The News Messenger (A Gannett paper out of Ohio), all have recently ran pieces.

Then I noticed The Hawaii Tribune Herald picked up an Associated Press piece called “Teachers flip for ‘flipped learning’ class model“…

… which was printed… well… practically everywhere including USA Today, Yahoo!, and The Salon. The story, out of Santa Ana, California, was printed nationwide, from Hawaii to Maine. Here’s the Bing search results for the AP article.

Well, I know that I’ve only been in the game since 2006 when I got my first job, but I can’t say as I’ve ever seen a teaching model EXPLODE on the mainstream media quite like this.

It seems that I’m not the only one noticing the media’s infatuation with the flipped model.

 

So, the mainstream media is excited.

But see, according to much of the media fanfare, it was “invented” in 2007. That’s 5 years ago, folks. Elementary teachers who’ve embraced this haven’t seen their students graduate from high school yet. So, is this all fluffy frenzy?

Mark Frydenberg wrote a piece for The Huffington Post “The Flipped Classroom: It’s Got To Be Done Right.” From the middle:

With help from the Internet, word grew of the flipped classroom. Teachers tried it. Today, there are social networksblogsnewspaper columnsvideo contests, and websites to flatter flip fans, and flummox the flippant.

It would appear that the internet isn’t the only support that this movement has. Mainstream print media are jumping on the bandwagon, too. It’s starting to sound like the flipped model is the magic bullet that will solve all of education’s problems.

Which, of course, isn’t true.

That isn’t to say flipped model isn’t without its virtues. It has opened up conversation about the use of class time (especially in math) which was perhaps overdue. It has certainly energized some positive media coverage about the education sector which was also overdue. And, it has allowed equally as devoted new media bloggers and podcasters who aren’t sold on the flipped model to present conflicting, non-traditional viewpoints. There are worse problems to have.

Frydenberg offers some excellent advice mentioning that for this model to be effective, the proper amount of prep time is needed, the at-home piece must be short and to the point, and the in-class piece must be focused and well-designed. Which, by the way, is the same advice for any of a dozen other models of instructional delivery.

Eventually, the frenzy will die down and we will know the truth about flipped class. Is it a hip new trend? Is it a vision of the future? Is it the answer we’ve all been waiting for? Is it a way for traditional lecture models to find a niche in the 21st century?

Forgive me, but I am going to withhold judgement at least until 2008’s flipped out first graders become college freshman.

Show me the money… or something else useful…

It's not all about the money... photo credit: Flickr user "401(k) 2013" - used under Creative Commons

It’s not all about the money…
photo credit: Flickr user “401(k) 2013” – used under Creative Commons

In Sir Ken Robinson’s (@SirKenRobinson) book Out of Our Minds, he describes an economic model for our education system that is grounded in Enlightenment era philosophy.

According to Robinson, The Enlightenment is responsible for the labeling of topics as “academic.” At the risk of oversimplifying it, things that can be empirically supported are academic and things that cannot are non-academic.

For example, imagine a sunny day. According to our Enlightenment-conditioned minds, we could talk about “academic” things like the convection caused by the warming earth, the refraction causing the sky to appear blue, the air pressure causing the gentle breeze or the photosynthesis making the grass grow.

We could also talk about a lot of supposedly “non-academic” things like how beautiful the deep blue of the sky is, the lift in our spirits that comes from the sunshine, or the memories of when we were kids in the summertime. (Of course, we could try to make these academic by talking about the sunshine releasing hormones that effect the brain which lifts our spirits, or something like that.)

We’ve also labeled people as academic and non-academic. You see, anyone can feel the warmth of a sunny day, but only the smart, academic kids can understand and discuss heat transfers due to radiation from the sun, right?

And those are the smart kids who do well in math class. And those are the smart kids who get good jobs. By good jobs, we mean jobs that pay a lot of money. And if, you can make yourself academic, you can get a good job that pays a lot of money. You’ll be a smart person, too!

This message has created websites like this or this .The message: The good jobs need smart people. Math is the key to being (or looking) smart. Be smart and get paid well for it.

This message has understandably fostered a response in websites like this, which exist to assure kids that they are able to make money without the mathematics.

But wait, wait… WAIT! Why are we connecting math class to money? Does my “useless” math class only exist to get people high-paying jobs? Surely their must be a REAL reason that my classroom is full five times every day. What about people who don’t want one of those smart, mathy jobs that pay well? Equating math to money excludes significant chunks of students. It excludes future homemakers, military personnel, farmers, people who intend to follow into the family business, or people whose future goals include jobs that they KNOW aren’t going to pay well (teachers, artists, musicians, trade laborers, to name a few). To these folks, a math class that exists to get them paid well truly is useless.

Have we convinced these people they’re dumb because my math class is useless on those terms?

The worst part is that “useless” math classes (like the ones that I teach) are actually useful to all of those people. Math is more than a future paycheck. It is more than getting labeled smart or dumb. It is more than a key to some future door that you won’t appreciate now, but will be so thankful for later.

Maybe my “useless” math class can be for them. All of them. To use right now. To learn how to solve problems. To develop a linear sense of logic. To practice the art of questioning, of guessing well, and of learning to check an answer. To increase numeracy. To learn to struggle and to be patient. If my math class can do these things, then maybe my “useless” math class isn’t actually so useless after all.

“Useless” Math Class – Misconception #3

Photo credit: Flickr user "Hades2k" - Used under Creative Commons

There must be a reason for doing this homework other some job you’ll get ten years from now, right?
Photo credit: Flickr user “Hades2k” – Used under Creative Commons

In a previous post, I commented on how struck I was upon reading an embittered writer’s rant about having to take a “useless” math class. I mentioned four main misconceptions that we math teachers have allowed to take root in the modern academic mindset. I will now address misconception #3:

“The value of math class is defined by the eventual occupation of the student in the class.”

Okay, the oft-mentioned Sir Ken Robinson (@SirKenRobinson) and Dan Carlin (@dccommonsense) both speak out on this one. This is grounded in an economic viewpoint that education’s role is to provided able-bodied laborers to supply the national workforce. This wouldn’t be a scandalous view of education except that able-bodied in 1900 (when the system was being designed) is not the same as able-bodied in 2013… or 2025 when this year’s kindergarteners graduate high school.

But this misconception is perpetuated by posters like this issued by the State of Michigan’s Department of Education.  There is message sitting under the surface of posters like this, and it isn’t very far under the surface.

The message is that you aren’t going to appreciate this math class until you get to your future job. This math class is of no value to you now. Just invest your time in this class. Accept the challenge. You’ll thank us later.

Is it any wonder that we are having a hard time selling that message to our students? Remember this is a generation of kids who have grown up on online shopping, on demand TV, DVD’s mailed to their house, and texting and social media. This isn’t new to them. The world is an instantaneous place. And we are sitting them in a class with some of the most challenging material telling them, “Just wait ten years. Boy, then, you’ll be really glad you took THIS class.”

But surely that can’t be true. There must be a way to design a math class that is useful tomorrow in any circumstance for a civil engineer or a McDonalds employee. The latter being quite important because several of my students are currently employed at McDonalds.

So what will be useful tomorrow? Well, we math teachers would say they need a general numeracy, the ability to model life situations mathematically, and patiently solve complex problems.

That is, “useless” math classes, like the ones that I teach, exist to provide the general public with the ability to read and analyze statements with numbers, recognize common elements of different life situations, and solve complicated life problems with unknown solutions effectively and patiently. There is no job (or state of unemployment, either desired or undesired) that won’t make frequent use of those abilities.

It seems like if The State of Michigan wants to create a sign listing all of the areas that make use of my “useless” math class, they are going to need quite a bit more paper.