Top teachers trump standards

Standards and tests won’t improve American public education, argues Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita at the University of Arkansas and an author of Massachusetts’ standards. Policymakers should focus on improving teacher quality and training and the K-12 curriculum, she writes.

The U.S. Department of Education (USED) and its narrow circle of Gates Foundation-funded or Gates Foundation-employed advisers . . . have spent their initial energies on first getting states to adopt the kind of standards they think low-achieving students can meet to be declared “college-ready” (i.e., generic, content-light skills in the English language arts); and then, on arguing with teacher unions about the percentage of students’ test scores for which teachers and administrators should be held accountable.

Only one characteristic of an effective teacher — subject-matter knowledge — is related to student achievement, according to the 2008 final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, writes Stotsky.  “The more academically competent the teacher is, the more students learn.”

In high-achieving school systems, only the very best students can gain admittance to teacher training programs, she writes. Training is far more rigorous than in the U.S.

In Finland, prospective elementary teachers complete a three-year bachelor’s and a two-year master’s in education. Prospective secondary teachers usually complete a three-year degree and a two-year master’s in their subject, followed by a two-year master’s program in education. In both cases, the master’s focuses on educational research.

An academically stronger corps of educators is more likely to establish and teach an academically stronger curriculum, do better designed research, and make more soundly based educational policy.

Stotsky lists seven things states could do to improve teacher quality. It starts with restricting admission to teacher training to the top 10 to 15 percent of students.

Would the brightest students compete for a chance to teach? The career would be more prestigious if it was reserved for top students. But . . . I have my doubts.

Back to Balanced Literacy in NYC?

To those familiar with the history of New York City schools, this should come as no surprise: NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña is pushing for a return to Balanced Literacy, which she has long supported and which she sees as compatible with the Common Core.

Some dispute her claim; a New York Times article by Javier Hernández  quotes Common Core architect Susan Pimentel, who says that part of the Balanced Literacy philosophy is “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.” Later, it states that she sees the two as potentially compatible. Compatibility aside, is this return to Balanced Literacy a good idea? I say emphatically no–and will give two reasons that weren’t mentioned in the article. It was in large part my objection to Balanced Literacy (as dogma) that spurred me to write Republic of Noise.

Balanced Literacy, which traces back to initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s, rests on the premise that children learn best when allowed to teach each other and themselves. The teacher is a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage”; students have frequent opportunities to choose their own books; and most lessons involve small group work (or sometimes independent work). The program was extensively developed in NYC schools in the 1990s. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein mandated it throughout NYC schools in 2003. It is the foundation of the Reading and Writing Project, founded by Lucy Calkins.

While certain elements of Balanced Literacy, applied prudently, could be part of good teaching anywhere, the program as a whole has dangerous weaknesses. Many critics have pointed to the lack of curricular focus and the implied disparagement of direct instruction. The NYT article quotes Robert Pondiscio, who became an eloquent and passionate critic of Balanced Literacy as a result of teaching it in the South Bronx:

“One of the best things you can do to build reading proficiency is to build a strong base of background knowledge,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization. “When you have 24 kids reading 24 books, you’re not accounting for that.”

Indeed. Moreover, when there’s no specific content that the students are learning together, what do they get instead? Strategies, strategies, and more strategies. Reading strategies, writing strategies, strategies for remembering your strategies. In the absence of content, such strategies become vapid. Forget about holding a candle; they can’t even hold hot air to subject matter. Also, some of these “strategies” involve sidestepping the text–for instance, a teacher might encourage students to figure out unfamiliar words (that is, to figure out what they actually are) by looking at the pictures.

Here’s my contribution to the discussion: Balanced Literacy is to be distrusted because it is an all-encompassing pedagogical package that comes with both a worldview and a fever. Moreover, its emphasis on group work discourages high-level, sustained, and original work and thought. [Read more...]

Why more kids are reading Kafka

Common Core’s list of books, stories, poems and plays isn’t supposed to be an assignment list, but teachers may be using it that way, reports Vox. “Appendix B” is boosting the popularity of stories such as Kafka’s Metamorphosis, according to a Renaissance Learning report.

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A Weed Is a Flower: The Life of George Washington Carver, a picture-book  example of nonfiction reading for kindergartners and first-graders, was more than 100 times more likely to be read in 2012-13 than it was 2010-11.

Classics such as The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird are even more popular.

Some worry that students won’t read authors who didn’t make the list, such as James Baldwin.

“It’s a misuse of Appendix B to make it a curriculum,” says Carol Jago, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, which helped develop the standards. “It was never intended to be so. But people are just nervous about doing exactly what the Common Core says.”

Starting in middle school, students choose independent reading that’s below their grade level, according to the report. In sixth through 11th grade, students choose books written at the fifth-grade level. That pops up to seventh grade in 12th grade.

Core opens door to ‘garbage’ math

You’ve seen the viral “Common Core” math problem and the letter from the engineer father who thought it was idiotic. The “stupid” problem predates the Common Core, says Brookings’ scholar Tom Loveless. But it’s only “half right” to say you can’t blame the Core for this. The new standards are  opening the door to “garbage math,” says Loveless.

One of the Core’s messages is: “Kids need to be doing this kind of deeper learning, deeper thinking, higher-order thinking in mathematics,” says Loveless. This is a blast from the past.

“It gives local educators license to adopt a lot of this garbage, this really bad curriculum . . . under the shield of the Common Core,” says Loveless. “And that particular problem is just a terrible math problem and should not be given to kids.”

Phrases such as “mathematical reasoning” are like “a dog whistle to a certain way of approaching mathematics that has never worked in the past,” says Loveless. It’s been tried in the 1960s and again in the 1990s and “failed both times.”

Louis CK ignites belated Core debate

The Common Core revolt started with baffled parents who went online to complain about their children’s “core-aligned” homework. Now a parent with 3 million Twitter followers — comedian Louis CK — blames the Common Core for making his kids hate math. 186296970-290.jpeg Louis, we feel your pain write Rick Hess and Michael McShane, American Enterprise Institute fellows and editors of Common Core Meets Education Reform, in the New York Daily News. Common Core defenders think Louis CK really is upset about testing, not about the new standards, write Hess and McShane. The homework “questions he flagged should not be blamed on the core,” defenders argue. But there’s a reason for the anti-Core backlash, write Hess and McShane. Common Core state standards — billed as a “landmark” change in American education — slipped in under the radar. The press didn’t do its job. The issues were not “hashed out in robust public debate.” In 2009, the year the draft standards were first released, a search finds only 453 mentions of the “Common Core.”  That goes up to 1,729 in 2010 when the final standards were introduced and adopted by 38 states and Washington D.C.

That year, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Michael Petrilli, the president and vice president of the pro-Common Core Thomas B. Fordham Institute, cheerfully observed, “This profound … shift in American education is occurring with little outcry from the right, save for a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with.”

By 2013, when “the issue exploded into the national consciousness,”  most “states had been implementing the standards for years.”

Some criticism of the Common Core has been hyperbolic and rife with dubious claims. But today’s seemingly “misinformed” pushback may be mostly a case of frustrated citizens waking up to a fait accompli. . . . Stealth is a dubious strategy for pursuing fundamental change in 100,000 schools educating 50 million children.

If Common Core standards had been debated openly five years ago . . . But they weren’t.

Core “supporters cannot claim credit for the adoption of clearer and more rigorous standards and then wash our hands of anything bad that happens in the name of implementation,” writes Kathleen Porter-Magee on Flypaper.

Parents don’t distinguish between standards, curriculum and instruction, she writes.  “And what more than a few parents are seeing is confusing curriculum, too much time spent on test prep, and too many days spent toiling on assessments.”

The core problem

Why is this Common Core math problem so hard? asks Hechinger’s Sarah Garland.

A frustrated father posted a subtraction problem from his second-grade son’s math quiz on Facebook.  Students are supposed to write a letter to “Jack” telling him what he did right and wrong in using a number line to subtract 316 from 427.
Common core math problem
The father, Jeff Severt, who has a bachelor’s in engineering, told “Jack” he was stumped by the problem himself. “In the real world, simplification is valued over complication,” Severt wrote.

Severt’s son is on the autism spectrum and has problems with attention and language, so this kind of problem is especially difficult, the father said.

Jason Zimba and William McCallum, lead writers of Common Core math standards, blamed a poorly written curriculum for the problem, writes Garland. Common Core requires fluency in the simple skills of adding and subtracting, just what the critics want, said McCallum.

The question appears to be aiming for several Common Core math standards for second grade, writes Garland.

Students are supposed to understand place value and to add and subtract using “models or drawings and strategies based on place value … and relate the strategy to a written method.” They must “explain why addition and subtraction strategies work, using place value and the properties of operations.” The standards call for using number lines.

“Being able to explain how you arrived at an answer – not just memorizing a formula – is also one of the standards’ key goals for students,” she writes.

In the math problem encountered by Severt’s son, “What the kid did is kept subtracting 10. So they didn’t go down to the smaller unit. And whoever is looking at the problem is supposed to see that the student was confused about place value,” said McCallum. “A discussion in the classroom is supposed to talk about how 10 is 10 times bigger than one, and 100 is 10 times bigger than 10.”

But mashing together the different standards for place value and the number line is potentially confusing. “The number line is not an appropriate model for place value,” Zimba said.

The writing component is also problematic. “The standards don’t require essay writing in mathematics,” Zimba said.

The Common Core isn’t a curriculum, said Zimba. “The curriculum authors are going to interpret the standards in different ways.” Some of them will do it badly.

There’s going to be lots of bad implementation. It’s inevitable. Test scores will drop. That’s inevitable too, if only because the tests will be new and unfamiliar. Parents and teachers can share their frustrations on social media. Politicians are getting cold feet. Arne Duncan is out of bribe money. I think Common Core is in trouble.

Getting started with core standards

Fordham’s Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers examines how school leaders and teachers are implementing new standards “in a high-performing suburb, a trailblazer, an urban bellwether, and a creative implementer.”

“In the absence of externally vetted, high-quality Common Core materials, districts are striving—with mixed success—to devise their own, the report finds.

Delivering quality CCSS-aligned professional development also is “crucial” and “patchy.”

Core-aligned tests aren’t ready either. 

Seventy-three percent of teachers in Common Core states say they’re enthusiastic about the new standards, but think implementation will be challenging, according to a survey by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation.

Many teachers say they need more training and resources, especially for low-achieving students.

Fifty-seven percent of teachers believe the new standards will be positive for most students; only 8 percent predict a negative impact.

Knowledge at the Core

Knowledge at the Core, a new Fordham e-book of essays, argues that Common Core standards won’t work without a “sequential, content-rich curriculum.”

The essays in Knowledge at the Core also pay tribute to the work of E. D. (Don) Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy  and other education reform books and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Essays include: Me, My Sons, and E. D. Hirsch by Sol Stern, Complex Texts Require Complex Knowledge by Ruth Wattenberg, There Are No Shortcuts by Robert Pondiscio and Building Teacher Enthusiasm for Core Knowledge by the Farkas Duffett Research Group. Hirsch contributes Sustaining the American Experiment, Romancing the Child and Why I’m For the Common Core.

What should students know?

What should students know? Robert Pondiscio asks Deborah Meier on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences blog.

In an earlier post about the “hidden curriculum,” Meier said a good school is judged by how it  “responds to the cultural norms, conditions, language, relationships that all the constituents bring to school with them.”

What about history, math and science? asks Pondiscio.

Meier’s schools — Central Park East Secondary School (Harlem) and Mission Hill (Boston) — set very clear graduation requirements, she responds.  The schools teach history, math, physical and natural science, literature and the arts in a “more interdisciplinary manner.” The schools encourage “curiosity, debate, skepticism, and a commitment to getting at the truth about the ‘essential questions’ in each discipline.”

Students work was expected to demonstrate five intellectual habits of mind:

 What’s the evidence? Is there a pattern?  Is there an alternate perspective, explanation? What if? And who cares?

. . . Students were rated on their written and oral ability to present their views and defend them.  We thought the five “habits” met both academic and “real life” standards. (We developed a separate list of work and social/moral habits—meeting deadlines, etc.)

“Our students’ record of success” satisfied many skeptics, despite the lack of a list of “specific information” to be taught, writes Meier. 

“I want our students to be prepped for the real world, and I hope colleges do, too,” Meier concludes. Students did well in college interviews — and in college — because “they were unusually well prepared to carry on a conversation with adults in a thoughtful and lively way.”

If you like your curriculum, you can …

“If You Like Your Curriculum, You Can Keep Your Curriculum,” Common Core advocates promised. But it ain’t necessarily so, writes Jason Bedrick at Cato @ Liberty. “Common Core’s primary backers have been assuring us for years that the standards do not mandate any specific curriculum or prescribe any particular method of teaching,” he notes.

Six months ago, Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern wrote in National Review Online:

Here’s what the Common Core State Standards do: They simply delineate what children should know at each grade level and describe the skills that they must acquire to stay on course toward college or career readiness. They are not a curriculum; it’s up to school districts to choose curricula that comply with the standards.

Now Porter-Magee and Fordham’s Chester Finn argue that the standards must change “classroom practice” to be effective, notes Bedrick.

Furthermore, the National Council on Teacher Quality, backed by Fordham, is grading teacher training programs on whether “the program trains teacher candidates to teach reading as prescribed by the Common Core State Standards.”

“Prescribed?”  I thought Common Core didn’t prescribe pedagogy.  But that was back when I was young and we were dating.

“Fordham and others trying to hold down the right flank of the Common Core advocacy campaign” need to “keep their story straight,” concludes Bedrick.