Finn’s math: One (correct) solution is enough

“Huck Finn” is subbing for math teachers who are away from class learning how to teach to the new Common Core standards. Finn worries that teachers will be told to require students to find multiple ways to solve the same problems, he writes in Out In Left Field.

There’s nothing wrong with finding multiple ways of solving problems.  But in early grades, students find it more than a little frustrating to be told to find three ways of adding 17 + 69.  Putting students in the position of not satisfying the teacher by producing a correct answer and showing how they got it unless they find multiple ways of doing it is a recipe for 1) disaster and 2) rote learning, the bugaboo of the purveyors of “find more than one way to solve it”.

If a student can do a proof or solve a problem correctly, he or she shouldn’t “also have to do 25 fingertip pushups,” Finn believes.

When my daughter had to do a “problem of the week” in pre-algebra, the last question always was: How do you know your answer is correct?  She’d write: “I double-checked my answer,” leaving out the fact that she’d double-checked with her smart friends or her father, who majored in math at Stanford. I think students were supposed to say they’d solved the problem in multiple ways, but nobody was dumb enough to do the extra work.

The ‘me’ curriculum teaches nothing

The “me” curriculum is undermining learning, writes Mark Bauerlein, an Emory professor, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

In its attempt to implement Common Core’s new standards, the Georgia Department of Education is telling teachers that narrative writing is all about me, all the time. A recommended writing prompt for 11th graders:

The characters in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” are all seeking a home, a place of refuge, a place that is “clean and pleasant.” Describe your own “clean, well-lighted place,” the place where you feel safe, secure, and most “at home.”

The prompt asks students to “reveal things about themselves, not analyze” the story, Bauerlein writes. It’s typical.

In her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston defines her personal experience as an African-American female in early 20th century America. Using Hurston’s essay as a model, define how it feels to be yourself (as a male, as a female, as a member of any group) in early 21st century America.

“Demonstrating character” cites the Cuban Missile Crisis and asks seventh graders:

If you were President of your own country and had the power to make laws, start or stop wars, end hunger, etc., what would you do? Write about an imaginary country where you are the president. Make your country the way you wish it could be.

A president has the power to make laws and end hunger?

“As a college teacher of freshman English, I can see no sense in these assignments,” writes Bauerlein. Students don’t develop the analytical, reading and writing skills they’ll need in college or an eventual job.

The units claim to align with Common Core’s English Language Arts standards, which Bauerlein helped develop. Teaching students to write about their navels is not what he had in mind.

Common Core’s critics are pushing states to withdraw approval, reports Ed Week. The campaign is focused on on Colorado, Idaho, and Indiana.

Alabama is withdrawing from the two consortia developing core-aligned tests.

 

Will ‘drill and grill’ replace kindergarten play?

Rigorous new Common Core standards endanger young children by requiring “long hours of direct instruction in literacy and math” and more standardized testing, argue Edward Miller, a teacher, and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a retired early childhood education professor, on Answer Sheet.

. . .  “drill and grill” teaching has already pushed active, play-based learning out of many kindergartens.

. . .  Didactic instruction and testing will crowd out other crucial areas of young children’s learning: active, hands-on exploration, and developing social, emotional, problem-solving, and self-regulation skills—all of which are difficult to standardize or measure but are the essential building blocks for academic and social accomplishment and responsible citizenship.

There’s little evidence academic instruction in the early grades leads to later success, they write.

Miller is the co-author of Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School.  Carlsson-Paige is the author of Taking Back Childhood.

Children should play — but not with straw men, counters E. D. Hirsch, a stanch defender of Common Core State Standards. The new standards don’t dictate how teachers should teach, writes Hirsch.

Children have a lot to learn about the world, past and present. They need to learn some things as efficiently as possible—through direct instruction. But they also need opportunities to explore—through well-constructed spaces and activities that invite creative problem solving and role playing.

Some educators are misreading the new standards, writes Hirsch, citing the New York Post story on kindergarteners expected to write “informative/explanatory reports” and demonstrate “algebraic thinking.”

But the status quo isn’t good enough, he concludes.

Kindergarten demands ‘algebraic thinking’

Kindergarten is too tough for little kids these days, New York City teachers complain to the Post.

Way beyond the ABCs, crayons and building blocks, the city Department of Education now wants 4- and 5-year-olds to write “informative/explanatory reports” and demonstrate “algebraic thinking.”

Children who barely know how to write the alphabet or add 2 and 2 are expected to write topic sentences and use diagrams to illustrate math equations.

Under newly adopted Common Core State Standards, kindergarten teachers read aloud “informational texts,” such as “Garden Helpers,” a National Geographic tale about useful pests.

After three weeks, kids have to “write a book about what they’ve learned,” with a drawing and sentences explaining the topic.

In math, kindergarteners learn about the “commutative property.”  (I recall learning that in middle school.)

 The big test: “Miguel has two shelves. Miguel has six books . . . How many different ways can Miguel put books on the two shelves? Show and tell how you know.”

Teachers rate students’ performance as “novice,” “apprentice,” “practitioner” or “expert.”

An “expert” would draw a diagram with a key, show all five combinations, write number sentences for each equation, and explain his or her conclusions using math terms, the DOE says.

Cathleen Vecchione, a kindergarten teacher at PS 257 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has taught her students to count by 10s, but hasn’t started teaching addition.

Her students are expected to write simple sentences, such as “I have a pet.”

I tutor first graders in reading and I once volunteered in my daughter’s kindergarten class. Writing is very challenging for little kids. Some can’t form letters. Most can’t spell. It’s especially tough for boys. And I haven’t met many five- or six-year-olds who are ready to write equations.

In fact, I’m 60 and I’m a little puzzled by Miguel’s book options. The Post suggests there are five combinations. I get 14 ways if it’s just about how many books go on each shelf. (Zero books on Shelf A and six on Shelf B and so on, then zero books on Shelf B and six on Shelf A and so on.) But what if Miguel is putting some books on their side, and other backwards and . . . Is he organizing by subject matter? Perhaps he’s got his physics books on Shelf A and his philosophy books on Shelf B.

In Developing the Habits of Mind for Algebraic Thinking, Barry Garelick implies that fifth graders aren’t ready to write algebraic equations. “Giving students problems to solve for which they have little or no prior knowledge or mastery of algebraic skills is not likely to develop the habit of mind of algebraic thinking,” he writes.

Cutting to the core on scores

In the era of Common Core State Standards, all high school graduates are supposed to be ready for college or careers. That means the new tests must measure grade-level readiness in every grade, writes Checker Finn on Gadfly. Setting cut scores — how good is good enough? — will be difficult.

State officials fear “soaring failure rates, and not just among the poor and dispossessed,” Finn writes.

. . .  about half of eighth graders with college-educated parents fail to clear the “proficient” bar on NAEP. If (as mounting evidence suggests) “NAEP proficient” is roughly equivalent to “college ready,” and if the new assessments hew to that level of rigor and honesty, many millions of American youngsters will be found unready—and millions more will learn that they’re not on track toward readiness. Such a cold shower should benefit the nation over the long haul, but in the short run, it’s going to feel icy indeed.

Finn favors setting multiple passing levels, such as NAEP’s advanced, proficient and basic.  And, at least in the transition period, states will need to offer two levels of high school diploma rather than expecting everyone to meet the college-ready level.

He raises more questions about how Common Core testing will work. Will colleges and employers accept young people who’ve passed these tests as “ready” for college-level classes and skilled jobs? Does anyone know how to define “career readiness?” Will the GED be aligned to CCSS tests? What about credit-recovery programs?

In Getting Ready for Common Core Testing, Diane Ravitch posts a quiz question that a reader’s seven-year-old son got wrong.

Kings and queens COMMISSIONED Mozart to write symphonies for celebrations and ceremonies. What does COMMISSION mean?

A. to force someone to do work against his or her will
B. to divide a piece of music into different movements
C. to perform a long song accompanied by an orchestra
D. to pay someone to create artwork or a piece of music

It’s not clear who wrote the quiz or whether the second graders has read a story about Mozart. But I have to agree with the boy’s parent: Expecting second graders to understand “commission” (or “symphonies” with “movements”) is “nutso.”

Teachers are test experts, writes Arthur Goldstein, who teaches English to immigrant students in New York City.

A large part of my job entails assessing the progress and motivation of my students. And I do, in fact, write tests. I’d argue that my tests are far better than those designed by the city or state. This is at least partially because I cater my tests to the needs and abilities of my students and give them as my students need them, not on wholly arbitrary dates determined by the Board of Regents.

New York City teachers are sent to different schools to grade exams, so they won’t inflate their students’ scores, Goldstein writes. “If I can’t be trusted to design tests and I further can’t be trusted to grade them, I ought not to be teaching. If the state feels that we teachers are so incompetent and untrustworthy it ought to fire us all en masse.”

Core standards will boost equal opportunity

“Millions of young people are having their right to a world-class education violated every day, writes sociologist Peter W. Cookson Jr, president of Ideas Without Borders, in The Quick and the EdCommon standards will advance equal educational opportunity, he argues.

Cookson studied five high schools serving “very different economic and social communities.”

If a student is not lucky enough to attend a high school located in an upper-middle or middle-class neighborhood, he or she is likely to get a watered-down, uninspiring, and inadequate set of academic choices—often taught in a hit-or-miss manner. If a student attends a school in an area of concentrated poverty, his or her course of study often consists of worksheets, out-of-date textbooks, and more worksheets.

Common Core State Standards won’t solve the problem, but it will help, Cookson believes.

A wealth of words

Vocabulary is (academic and economic) destiny, writes Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch, Jr. in City Journal.  Teaching “a systematic curriculum that presents new words in familiar contexts” enables students to build a large vocabulary, while “acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds.”

Countries that use a “coherent, content-based curriculum to teach language” show the highest verbal achievement and narrow the gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children, Hirsch argues. Korea, Finland, Japan and Canada combine excellence with equity.

In those countries’ classrooms, opportunities for a student to make correct meaning-guesses and build vocabulary occur frequently because the schools follow definite content standards that build knowledge grade by grade, thus offering constant opportunities to learn new words in contexts that have been made familiar.

France slipped on the equity index when its elementary schools abandoned a specific sequential curriculum to follow the American roll-your-own model, Hirsch writes. But French preschools remain excellent.

Nearly every child in France attends a free public preschool—an école maternelle—and some attend for three years, starting at age two. The preschools are academically oriented from the start. Each grade has a set curriculum and definite academic goals, and the teachers, selected from a pool of highly qualified applicants, have been carefully trained.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the French conducted an experiment with 2,000 students to determine whether sending children to preschool at age two was worth the public expense. The results were remarkable. After seven years of elementary school, disadvantaged students who had started preschool at age two had fully caught up with their more advantaged peers, while those who had started at three didn’t do quite as well, and those who had started at four trailed still further behind. A good preschool, it turned out, had highly egalitarian effects.

U.S. schools have adopted “how-to-ism—the notion that schooling should concern itself not with mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing, but rather with giving students the intellectual tools to assimilate new knowledge,” writes Hirsch. “These tools typically include the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself flexibly to the world of the unknowable future.”

 In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author.” These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary. The increasingly desperate pursuit of this empty, formalistic misconception of reading explains why our schools’ intense focus on reading skills has produced students who, by grade 12, can’t read well enough to flourish at college or take a good job.

Hirsch recommends French-style preschools, classroom instruction based on immersing students in a field of knowledge and “a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool.” He hopes Common Core State Standards for language arts will move U.S. schools in this direction.

Algebra 2 exam will test ‘college readiness’

Passing an Algebra 2 exam (or Math 3 for integrated math) will show college math readiness in 23 states that belong to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers, or PARCC.

In PARCC states, students will be forced to take Algebra 2 or Math 3 if they want to avoid remedial classes in college.  That’s controversial, reports Ed Week.

Richard Freeland, Massachusetts’ commissioner of higher education, said he was reluctant to base a college-readiness determination on Algebra 2 or Math 3, noting that many students who don’t plan to major in science, technology, engineering, or math may not take such classes in high school.

But James Wright, the director of assessment for the Ohio education department, cautioned against going down that road. It’s a “dangerous slope to differentiate” among different types or levels of college readiness in math, he said, when the aim is to assess students against all the common-core standards in math. He noted, however, that the group’s math tests will not gauge mastery of the so-called “plus standards,” which are designed for students aiming to take more-advanced math courses in college.

All but five states have adopted Common Core State Standards in math; all but four have signed on to the English Language Arts standards.  The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which has 25 members, plans an 11th-grade “summative” math test.

From Core Knowledge to civics

After five years writing the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio is moving on. He’ll help “launch a new organization to advocate for civic education, to renew and revitalize the civic purpose of education.”

He says some guy named E.D. Hirsch will take over the blog for now.

Pondiscio will remain focused on “the content of our children’s education–what teachers teach and children learn.”

With the advent of Common Core State Standards, much of the energy around school improvement is now squarely focused where it belongs: inside the classroom.  Does this mean K-12 education is now safe for content?  That curriculum is the most favored reform lever?  Not hardly.  CCSS implicitly rescues literacy from its status as a content-free, skills-driven intellectual wasteland, but questionable, ineffective literacy practices are the seven-headed Hydra of Greek mythology—cut off one head and two more grow in its place.

I choose to be optimistic.  The essential point made by E.D. Hirsch for nearly 30 years – literacy is a function of background knowledge – is settled science. For the first time in the reform era, American education is having a deep and fruitful conversation about what gets taught.  The understanding that the more kids know across knowledge domains, the more likely they are to read, write, listen and speak with comprehension and confidence, is enshrined in the Common Core ELA standards.

But the fight “will never be over,” he writes. “Education has a peculiar talent for endlessly re-litigating disputes, regardless of the weight of evidence, and relabeling old ideas as new and innovative.”

Also on the CK Blog, check out Jessica Lahey’s Epistle to the Romans on teaching Latin.

Latin students learn more, Lahey writes. But the best part “lies in the evolution of our language, the stories revealed through etymology, the history of our culture articulated through the words we preserve and the words we discard.”

 As Robert’s post points out, a big vocabulary does not come from sheer memorization. Anyone who has ever been subjected to an 11th-hour SAT prep course knows that. It comes from a deeper understanding of word origins and repeated exposure to novel words through reading. If I know that the Latin acer means “sharp,” I can deduce that “acid” has a sharp taste, an “acute” angle is sharp, “acrid” is a sharp smell, and an “acerbic” person has a sharp wit.

I am all for the memorization of vocabulary; in fact, my school teaches vocabulary using a lovely series called Vocabulary fromClassical Roots and my students memorize their share of vocabulary lists. However, if we want our students to achieve true depth and breadth of vocabulary, it’s worth spending some time among the Romans. A working knowledge of Latin is worth more than the weight of its word roots. It is an exercise in reverse-engineering our own language in order to understand how all the parts fit together to create a whole.

I learned Greek and Latin roots in a seventh-grade class called Vocabulary Reading. Etymology really is fun.

Vocabulary is destiny

Words are the new black,” writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. “With Common Core State Standards emphasizing the importance of academic vocabulary and the release of new NAEP results raising awareness that vocabulary mirrors reading comprehension levels (no surprise to readers of this blog) vocabulary is hot.”

“Students don’t know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens,” writes Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch in a   Wall Street Journal op-ed. Content provides the context that drives vocabulary growth, writes Hirsch.

“If a child reads that ‘annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming,’ he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words “annual” and “fertile” if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.”

Children don’t build vocabulary by memorizing word lists, writes Pondiscio. They need to be “exposed to increasingly complex words in context.” It takes time.

This is the reason we want kids to read or be read to a lot.  It exposes them to rich language; it’s not about practicing the “skill” of reading, which is not a skill at all. Even the simplest texts tend to have more rare and unique words than even the richest spoken language (the language of children’s books is more linguistically rich and complex than the conversation of even college graduates).  And this is why we want kids to learn a lot across a wide range of range of subjects:  the broader your knowledge base, the more likely you are to be able to contextualize and understand new words, as in Hirsch’s Egypt example above.  Knowledge acts as a mental dragnet.  The wider and stronger your net, the more vocabulary gets scooped up.  More content equals more context equals more fertile ground for vocabulary growth to occur.

A student’s vocabulary size in grade 12 correlates strongly with “the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income,”  Hirsch writes in an upcoming City Journal article. Vocabulary is destiny.

Common Core State Standards cannot mandate but strongly recommend “a coherent, content-rich curriculum, writes Pondiscio. Content knowledge gives students a context for what they read, which enables them to learn new vocabulary.

Here’s a letter from a former inner-city high school teacher, who says his students “could not read anything, because nearly every sentence had at least one word they had never seen before.” And they didn’t have the background knowledge to figure out what unfamiliar words meant.