Et tu, Mrs. McCarthy

Julius Caesar’s assassination was “mean,” said one of Bridgit McCarthy’s third graders.

“JC helped get France for them — except it was, you know, Gaul back then,” said another. “Plus, his rules helped the plebeians get more stuff from the laws.” 

But students remembered last week’s lesson. “Well, it did kinda seem like he wanted to be a king—and the Romans said no way to kings.”

McCarthy teaches at New Dimensions, a public charter school in North Carolina that uses the Core Knowledge curriculum. Students learn about world civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt in first grade, ancient Greece in second grade and ancient Rome in third. They enjoy it, she says.

A student was playing a dune-buggy race car computer game in my room during indoor recess. I scoffed at its total lack of educational value. He pouted at me a bit and said, “Dang, that’s what my mom said last night! Et tu, Mrs. McCarthy?”

Children can learn a great deal in the early grades if teachers use “a really rich, cumulative curriculum in which the topics build off of each other,” concludes McCarthy on Core Knowledge Blog.

The man behind Common Core math

Hechinger’s Sarah Garland profiles Jason Zimba, The Man Behind Common Core Math for NPR.

Every Saturday morning at 10 a.m., Jason Zimba begins a math tutoring session for his two young daughters with the same ritual. Claire, 4, draws on a worksheet while Abigail, 7, pulls addition problems written on strips of paper out of an old Kleenex box decorated like a piggy bank.

If she gets the answer “lickety-split,” as her dad says, she can check it off. If she doesn’t, the problem goes back in the box, to try the following week.

“I would be sleeping in if I weren’t frustrated,” Zimba says of his Saturday-morning lessons, which he teaches in his pajamas. He feels the math instruction at Abigail’s public elementary school in Manhattan is subpar — even after the school switched to the Common Core State Standards.

And four years after signing off on the final draft of the standards, he spends his weekends trying to make up for what he considers the lackluster curriculum at his daughter’s school, and his weekdays battling the lackluster curriculum and teaching at schools around the country that are struggling to shift to the Common Core.

Zimba met David Coleman, who’d become the man behind Common Core English Language Arts, when they were Rhodes Scholars at Oxford.

Jason Zimba waits for his daughters (Photo: Julienne Schaer for The Hechinger Report)

Jason Zimba waits for his daughters (Photo: Julienne Schaer for The Hechinger Report)

In 1999, they started the Grow Network, which produced reports analyzing test results for districts, including New York City, and states, including California. McGraw-Hill eventually bought the business.

Zimba ended up teaching at Bennington, where Coleman’s mother was president. He started a “quirky math and parenting blog,” writes Garland.

In 2007, Coleman and Zimba wrote a paper for the Carnegie Foundation arguing for clarifying “vast and vague standards.” Two years later, they were picked to lead the standards-writing effort.

The backlash started in 2013, when states started using Core-aligned tests and gained force in 2014, writes Garland.

. . . a dad in North Carolina posted a convoluted “Common Core” question from his son’s second-grade math quiz on Facebook, along with a letter he’d written to the teacher. “I have a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electronics Engineering which included extensive study in differential equations and other high-math applications,” he wrote. “Even I cannot explain the Common Core mathematics approach, nor get the answer correct.”

Zimba and his colleagues agree it’s a bad problem. But they didn’t write it. Their standards “don’t include lesson plans, or teaching methods,” writes Garland.

They blame the implementation. Standards and tests aren’t enough, Zimba now believes. “I used to think if you got the assessments right, it would virtually be enough,” he says. “In the No Child Left Behind world, everything follows from the test.” Now, he says, “I think it’s curriculum.”

Why do teachers hate Common Core?

What is it teachers truly hate about the Common Core? asks Shawna on The Picture Book Teacher’s Edition.
The Picture Book Teacher's Edition common core

In Why I Want to Give Up Teaching Elizabeth A. Natalie complains that, “In English, emphasis on technology and nonfiction reading makes it more important for students to prepare an electronic presentation on how to make a paper airplane than to learn about moral dilemmas from Natalie Babbitt’s beloved novel Tuck Everlasting.”

Her worth as a teacher will be based on how well her students do on the new Core-aligned exams.

Shawna also links to Robert Pondiscio’s column, What’s Right About Common Core.

It makes sense to have students read more nonfiction, writes Pondiscio. Reading in different genres — “recipes, instructions on how to put something together, a contract, medical news, political views, sales ads and disclaimers, and reasons for or against something” — is a key to functioning in the world.

Pondiscio also says “Broad general knowledge of the world correlates with reading comprehension — the more you know, the more you take from reading.”

Common Core aims to achieve a “knowledge-rich curriculum,” but it’s school districts’ job to develop a curriculum for teachers to teach. “Has your district given you quality content?” asks Shawna.

Do I hate the Common Core Standards or the curriculum (or lack of) my district has given me?”

Do I hate the Common Core Standards, or the data that my district, the state, and the government are requiring me to track?

Do I hate the Common Core Standards, or the fact that I have to teach areas and content in which I am not used to or uncomfortable teaching?

Great teachers “take the standards, the curriculum and what they know is right and they just teach,” concludes Shawna. “They are having meaningful discussions about fiction books, they are using technical vocabulary when reading nonfiction texts, they are talking through different strategies for solving one math problem, and they are showing what they know in their writing and answers.”

Skimping on academics

When 20 Texas schools tried to emulate the practices of effective charters, gains were small in math and nonexistent in reading, notes Dan Willingham.

District schools couldn’t afford to lengthen the school day or provide tutoring in all grades and subjects, he writes. “It may be that researchers saw puny effects because they had to skimp on the most important factor: sustained engagement with challenging academic content.”

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.


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.