Reflecting on the Common Core…

photo credit: flickr user "Irargerich" - Used under Creative Commons

photo credit: flickr user “Irargerich” – Used under Creative Commons

A lot has been said about the Common Core State Standards in the last year. Some of it has been by me. Some has been by guys like Glenn Beck who is not a big fanMost (if not all) states have some sort of a “Stop Common Core” group. There is even a #stopcommoncore hashtag on Twitter that turns up quite a few results (although some use that hashtag as a means of highlighting objections in the arguments of CCSS opponents.)

The pub isn’t all negative. Some groups, The NEA among them, have come out in favor. Phil Valentine has some good things to say in support.

It is possible that both sides are probably overstating the impact that the CCSS will have. That being said, I will admit that I have some opinions on the CCSS. This year is our first year introducing a new geometry curriculum that we designed around the CCSS. I’ve written a few pieces before this one that have chronicled my journey through a CCSS-aligned geometry class. For example, I’ve documented that the CCSS places a greater emphasis on the use of specific vocabulary that I was used to in the past. I have also discussed (both here AND here) that the CCSS has present the idea of mathematical proof in a different light that I have found to be much more engaging to the students.

As I read the different articles that are being written, it seems like the beliefs about the inherent goodness or badness of CCSS has a lot to do with how you view the most beneficial actions of the teacher and the student in the process of learning. It’s about labels. Proponents call it “creativity” or “open-ended”. Opponents call it “wishy-washy” or “fuzzy”.

I suspect they are seeing and describing the same thing and disagreeing on whether or not those things are good or bad.

To illustrate this point further, a “Stop Common Core” website in Oregon posted a condemned CCSS math lesson because the students “must come to consensus on whether or not the answer is correct” and “convince others of their opinion on the matter.” The piece ends with “What do opinions and consensus have to do with math?”

The authors of this website are objecting to a teaching style. They are objecting to the value of a student’s opinion in the process of learning mathematics. Fair enough, but that was an argument long before the CCSS came around. I can remember heated discussions during my undergrad courses about the role of student opinion and discussion. (My personal favorite was the discussion as to when, if ever, 1/2 + 1/2 = 2/4 is actually a correct answer. One of my classmates rather vehemently ended his desire to be a math teacher that day.)

The CCSS have become a lightning rod for a ton of simmering arguments that haven’t been settled and aren’t new.

Consensus-building and opinions in mathematics vs. the authority of the instructor and the textbook. Classical literature vs. technical reading. The CCSS have woken up a lot of frustrations that are leading to some high-level decisions such as the Michigan State House of Representatives submitting a budget that blocks the Department of Education’s spending on the CCSS.

It is a little strange thinking that I am making a statement in a fairly-heated national debate every time I give my students some geometry to explore, but it seems like I do.

And I am prepared to make that statement more explicitly as I continue this reflection.

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Creativity in Education: The Growing Publicity

Podcaster Dan Carlin recommends a reassessing the value of a K-12 education... he's not the only one.

Podcaster Dan Carlin recommends a reassessing the desired outcomes of a K-12 education… he’s not the only one.

I’ve discussed before the ideas on the increasing need for instructing our young people in a spirit of increasing creativity and flexibility in their learning. Sir Ken Robinson (@SirKenRobinson) is my favorite speaker on this need. He has some fantastic TED Talks that make the point strikingly clear. His book, Out of Our Minds, is a fantastic manifesto relating to this issue as well.

Until today however, the only people I was hearing making this point were educators. Until today. Today, I heard a podcast from Dan Carlin (@DCCommonSense), who is a political commentator formerly from the radio who has spent the last several years podcasting exclusively. His podcast, Common Sense with Dan Carlin, comes out every other week or so and usually stays to topics like the economy, foreign policy, and governmental corruption. He tweets to nearly 10k followers and his podcast is downloaded by probably five times that many people. I am a regular listener and he normally doesn’t discuss the education system.

Yesterday, he went there. He referenced Sir Ken Robinson and went on to echo much of what I find exactly correct about Robinson’s message. Says Carlin: “[The education system in the United States] was put into place 100 years ago to make good factory workers out of people, basically, to count change back at retail establishments, to be able to read the directions on the machines at the assembly line at auto assembly plant. Whatever is was, we were trying to create a level of middle class job-seekers that had the minimal skills required for their employer.”

He goes on to add, “The economic situation is such now that that is not the right kind of education for our students to have. [Our schools need to create] a different kind of person. You don’t need a person who is trained for a job. You need a person with a firm foundation that will enable them to be flexible and creative.”

And he doesn’t blame the teachers: “It isn’t that anybody in teaching doesn’t see the value in creativity. People who do are as stuck in the machine as any of the rest of us. If you are a teacher who is saying, ‘my goodness, the worst thing that is happening at my school is that the music programs are getting cut,’ what the heck can you do about it? Right? You’re trapped in an inflexible system just like we are when we talk about problems the government has.”

In his latest podcast, he expresses concern over whether or not the needed changes to the education system are going to be realized. Carlin’s skepticism is pointed at the structures that would likely put up roadblocks in the path of true progress in this regard: state and federal governments and the teacher’s unions. Whether or not he is correct in that regard is a matter of debate, but at the very least, innovation in education is lagging the innovation in most other areas of society.

So here we are. The days of industrial education should be coming to end. Many of us in the educational community are becoming aware of it and now those outside of the educational community are echoing the message. People from all over, in different fields, are recognizing the problem and are understanding the solution. At least Sir Ken Robinson and Dan Carlin seem to agree.

Our education system is designed for a world that doesn’t exist anymore.

The quotes are taken from Dan Carlin’s podcast entitled “Pie-in-the-Sky Cynicism” released 30 Jan 2013. It is currently available for free on iTunes.

Advice for the MEA, Part 2

This is part two of a two-part series. If you find yourself getting lost and need some background, then please go back one post and pick the story up from the beginning. And on we go…

So, in my last post, we established that the public face of the MEA is one that is dedicated to lobbying, healthcare, benefits, and otherwise interacting in the political and legislative process.

But, the new MEA, the right-to-work MEA, the MEA that has to sell its services to attract members should consider being able to answer one very important question:

What is the MEA going to do to help me become a better educator?

Education is what my job is all about and it is the “E” in the MEA. The MEA is fighting to help me become a better paid educator. The MEA is fighting to help me become an educator with a good healthcare plan.

But what if my main objective is to become a better educator? Can the MEA help me there?

I believe they can. If I were in charge of the MEA, here’s what I’d do. I would begin a major change. The MEA is dedicated to providing Michigan students with the very best educators in the world. So, we are going to cut our lobbying budget in half and instead, the dues that you pay us will be redirected to providing monthly professional development conferences. We will bring in the foremost educational reformers who will provide expert analysis and research-based techniques for improving instruction, assessment, scheduling, sequencing, community relations and instructional leadership.

Also, we will be altering the job descriptions of our building representatives. From now on, local EAs building representatives will be co-observers who will assist the administrators see to it that each member gets observed and evaluated by multiple sets of eyes. The building representatives will be thoroughly and continuously trained to ensure that they are of the highest quality.

Also, the MEA will continue to produce the legislative critique journal, the MEA Voice, but it will also be providing two top-notch professional educational journal for a modest $3 per month cost each. In either the elementary or the secondary version, this monthly journal will include an article from each of the 6 main core areas (math, science, ELA, social studies, fine arts, and foreign language) written by MEA members, approved by a board of 15- to 25-year veteran teachers.

Also, for far too long, the plight of the first-year teacher has been ignored, so in the new MEA, local officers will be personally responsible for the mentorship of the first-year teachers. They will meet weekly with the first-year teachers. The MEA will make sure that Uniserv directors’ offices have a room dedicated to creating a library of effective resources for consumption by first- and second- year teachers. Under the guidance of the local president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer, the first- and second- year teachers will be expected to read books quarterly and be observed by local union members who the staff elects as exemplary teachers to offer support and feedback to the young teachers. The MEA will sponsor a weekend conference that all first- and second- year teachers MUST attend in order to remain in good standing. The conference will be free to all first- and second- year teachers. It will include rap sessions with exemplary teachers, opportunities to observe master teachers, group sessions evaluating student work, and a keystone address by a cutting-edge expert in the field of education.

So, why should you join the MEA? Because, we are going to provide you the resources, the support, and the community to help you become the very best educator you could possibly be. Without us, you might be great, but you are doing it on your own. With us, you will become the very, very best.

How different a message would that be?

MEA, I know you didn’t ask for my advice, but there it is.

Now, let’s go have a great 2013.

Advice for the MEA, Part 1

I am a member of Michigan’s largest teacher’s union: The Michigan Education Association (MEA). (It actually represents several other groups of public and private school employees as well).

The last quarter of 2012 was a tenuous time for those actively involved in union activities. Proposal 2 (which would have constitutionally protected collective bargaining and union workplace procedures) was campaigned for the November election and the public voted it down more than 2-to-1. Then, during the lame duck session, the Michigan Legislature passed a series of “right-to-work” laws that give current union members the ability to remain employed in their current positions while ceasing to pay dues to a union. The reality of 25% to 40% of members accepting the new option is putting the MEA in a tricky position.

It has to sell it’s services.

MEA, I know you didn’t ask, but I have some advice for you. You provide a service to your members. No time would be better than now to begin to convince your members how vital your services are. I have spent some time trying to get a sense for what the mission of MEA is, not from reading the mission statement, but instead by looking at the publication: the MEA Voice. The journal that gets mailed to each member. THe contact that you keep with your members is contained within. In inspecting the MEA Voice, I have made a few observations.

1. The MEA Voice for December 2012 is a 24-page document (including the cover). In that document:

  • The cover is dedicated with a pretty cool picture of a rocket from a school’s rocketry program, which is competing against a quarter-page, bright red, “CRISIS” statement about legislation in the lower right corner.
  • The table of contents treats the rocketry program like a footnote to the huge picture of picketing, campaigning members in the middle of the page
  • The fantastic rocketry program is explained in a 2-and-a-half page article, which is split across the 5-page list of names of members who gathered at least 24 signatures for the Proposal Two petition drive.

All of this reveals one possible conclusion: The MEA is much more interested in the political side of education than it is about the academic side of education. At least that is what one could deduce from the organizations main publication.

But, I understand, 2012 was an election year. The lame duck session was very stressful and eventful. What about a non-election year. How about April 2011? That was 6 months past the 2010 mid-terms and a year-and-a-half from the 2012 elections. Surely if the MEA were going to publish some good academic articles, it would be then, right?

Well, here are some observations from that issue.

  • The cover shows a group of adults standing in a group looking up at the camera with the headlines “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH: ‘Ed Reform’ vs. Building Effective Schools. How to best help students.” A good start…
  • A letter to the members all about legislation and concerns about it.
  • A flash back to a 1934 essay about how public policy is conspiring against public education.
  • A top ten list in which the only item on the list regarding good teacher was a paragraph dedicated to an award-winning social studies teacher from Kalamazoo (which came in at #7… one spot below the save-the-date for the MEA member golf outing at #6.)
  • The first real article is a 4-page spread on the cover issue in which all of the pictures show protesting members with signs.
  • 3 pages about health care, 2 about retirement, 6 pages dedicated to officer elections, and exactly NO advice for a young teacher trying to get better. Also, there was no notices of conferences, workshops, or professional development (aside from some advertising space given to local university programs.)

In fact, I went looking through the rest of the available issues. Here’s what I found:

  • February 2011 – One page (out of 24) dedicated to a column on good ELA instruction. It was pg 22. Last of the whole magazine. For the record, it got the same amount of paper and ink dedicated to it as the one-page ad for the member golf outing.
  • December 2010 – One-and-a-half pages about an effective band teacher.
  • October 2010 – A notice of a instructional support PD conference appears on pg 3, and 2 pages dedicated to school improvement at Adrian High School. (This amidst the 6 pages dedicated to supporting Virg Bernero as Michigan’s next governer.)

You get the idea. A trip around the website says the same thing.

The MEA is a political organization that is now in the position of having to market itself to its prospective members. It is clear to me what the MEA does to support its legislative beliefs. it is clear to me what partnerships the MEA has for healthcare and retirement services.

But what if I don’t want to be a member of a political organization? What if my goal is to excel as an educator? What evidence do I have that you will support me in that venture?

In Part 2 of this series, I will complete my (unsolicited) advising of the MEA.