Hirsch: If kids learn content, they’ll ace tests

Students will ace Common Core language arts tests if they’ve learned history, civics, literature, science and the fine arts, write E.D. Hirsch on the Core Knowledge Blog. But it’s a big if, concedes Hirsch, who backed the new standards.

He quotes a comment from an “able and experienced teacher” on the blog: “A giant risk, as I see it, in the implementation of Common Core is that it will spawn skills-centric curricula. Indeed, every Common Core ‘expert’ we hear from seems to be advocating this approach.”

The best-selling books about teaching the Common Core advocate techniques for “close reading” and for mastering “text complexity,” independent of content.

. . . students’ ability to engage in “close reading” and to manage “text complexity” is highly dependent on their degree of familiarity with the topic of the text. And the average likelihood of their possessing the requisite degree of familiarity with the various topics they encounter in life or on tests will depend upon the breadth of their knowledge. No amount of practice exercises (which takes time away from knowledge-gaining) will foster wide knowledge. If students know a lot they’ll easily learn to be skilled in reading and writing. But if they know little they will perform poorly on language tests—and in life.

The new Common Core standards call for “a well-developed, content-rich curriculum” that is “coherently structured,” writes Hirsch. But will schools switch their focus from teaching skills to teaching the knowledge children need to understand what they read?

McKinsey: Teachers overestimate students’ skills

Teachers overestimate their students’ employability, according to research conducted by McKinsey & Co. Graduates often are judged unready for the workforce by potential employers, leading to underemployment.

While teachers more or less understood which skills employers would value, they had overly rosy view of how well their students had mastered those skills pretty much across the board. In particular, educators think their students are significantly better at problem-solving and more computer literate than potential employers do, and that they have far more hands-on and theoretical training when they graduate from a post-secondary school.

Employers complained the most about job applicants’ “ability to take instruction, their work ethic, their problem-solving skills and . . . language proficiency.”

How to teach writing, reading and thinking

“Explicit teaching of writing makes kids better writers” and readers. Does writing improve thinking? Dan Willingham looks at the evidence in The Atlantic.

Not all writing instruction is helpful, Willingham writes. Students learn to write well if they’re taught “the nuts and bolts,” such as “text structure, how to use specific strategies for planning, revising, or editing text, and so on. . . . if a teacher does not show students how to construct a paragraph or a well-written argument, some will figure out it anyway, but many will not.”

Writing instruction improves reading comprehension, but again the details matter. When students write about what they’ve read — analyzing, interpreting, summarizing and answering questions — they build comprehension, Willingham writes. Explicit teaching of writing conventions helps students understand how authors use conventions.

It’s worth noting that these two advantages — better writing and better reading — will probably not accrue if most writing assignments consist of answering short questions, writing in journals, and completing worksheets — exactly the writing tasks on which elementary school kids spend most of their time (Gilbert & Graham, 2010). Students need assignments that include writing in longer formats with some formal structural requirements.

The research is not as clear on the question of whether teaching writing improves thinking, he writes.

There is a certain logic to the idea that students can become better critical thinkers by completing writing assignments. Writing forces you to organize your thoughts. Writing encourages you to try different ideas and combinations of ideas. Writing encourages you to select your words carefully. Writing holds the promise (and the threat) of a permanent record of your thoughts, and thus offers the motivation to order them carefully. And indeed some forms of writing–persuasive or expository essays for example — explicitly call for carefully ordering thinking.

However, studies on teaching thinking through writing have “mixed” results. Asking students to write isn’t enough. They need to write about subject matter.

Willingham suggests asking history students to write about ” how World War II might have ended differently if the plot to assassinate Hitler had succeeded.” If they don’t have background knowledge about the war or German history, they won’t know how to research the question. They’re likely to write drivel.

Standards for quality of mind?

Marion Brady describes Eight problems with Common Core Standards (just to start with) on WashPost‘s Answer Sheet. Marc Tucker begs to disagree (he doesn’t really beg) on Ed Week‘s Top Performers.

Brady:

Standards shouldn’t be attached to school subjects, but to the qualities of mind it’s hoped the study of school subjects promotes.

. . . The world changes. The future is indiscernible. Clinging to a static strategy in a dynamic world may be comfortable, even comforting, but it’s a Titanic-deck-chair exercise.

. . . The Common Core Standards assume that what kids need to know is covered by one or another of the traditional core subjects. In fact, the unexplored intellectual terrain lying between and beyond those familiar fields of study is vast, expands by the hour, and will go in directions no one can predict.

He adds: “No amount of schooling can effectively counter” childhood poverty, which is the main reason for poor school performance; the Common Core kills innovation and the standards will lead to “national standardized tests, tests that can’t evaluate complex thought, can’t avoid cultural bias, can’t measure non-verbal learning, can’t predict anything of consequence (and waste boatloads of money).”  Also, the standards will “standardize” minds. Finally, the goal of “success in college and careers” is “pedestrian” at best. “The young should be exploring the potentials of humanness.”

Tucker guesses that “qualities of mind” would include synthesizing material, analyzing, problem solving and writing. These are “grounded in the disciplines,” he argues.

 . . .  the core academic disciplines (the core subjects in the school curriculum) provide the conceptual underpinning for deep understanding of virtually everything we want our students to know and further, that learning does not transfer easily or well, or sometimes at all, across those disciplines. . . . Like it or not, if we don’t have standards for the disciplines, we will have no standards at all.

The world changes, Tucker concedes.But a solid foundation of knowledge will help today’s kindergarteners learn and adapt throughout their lives.

It is hard to imagine that, by some time next year, arithmetic will be obsolete, along with ratio and proportion.  Or that it will be unnecessary to be able to write a short essay that clearly and concisely expresses a few key ideas.  Or that no citizen of this country will need to know anything about the history of the development of freedom and the conditions under which it thrives and perishes. Or that the earth revolves around the sun . . .

The Common Core Standards don’t try to cover everything a teacher might want to teach or a student might want to learn, Tucker adds. The point is to “define a much smaller core that all teachers should teach and all students should learn.”

Should we focus more on poverty? OK, writes Tucker. But when there are no or low standards for low-income students, they’re taught less and learn less.

What Brady calls “innovation,” Tucker calls “chaos.”

Here is what the research shows about what happens when teachers are free to “innovate” in this way:  the teacher in any given grade, having incoming students who have been taught by many teachers, some of who have taught a given topic at length, others who have taught it only superficially, and still others who have taught it not at all, start at the beginning, at the introductory level for this topic. . . . Researchers, when asking students what they are doing as late as February, are told that, “we are reviewing last year.”

Bad tests? Nothing in the standards calls for tests to be designed badly, Tucker writes.

Standardized minds?

There is not a country that has consistently high student performance that does not have some form of student achievement standards.

Finally, Tucker defends the “pedestrian”  goals of career and college readiness, rather than exploring the “potentials of humanness.”

Fewer than 20 percent of any given cohort of students entering the ninth grade end up with a 2-year degree or certificate within four years of entering postsecondary education or getting a 4-year degree with 6 years of entering postsecondary education.  I’m all for the “potentials of humanness”, but the American people are hurting, the American standard of living is falling and the American economy is suffering because we are wasting the potential of our students by failing to give them the skills they need to make a decent living.

While I have concerns about Common Core Standards, I’d be a lot more worried about schools devoted to instilling “qualities of mind” and “humanness”  but no particular set of knowledge and skills.

BTW, here’s ACT on Rising to the Challenge of College and Career Readiness.

Calculators: Useful or not?

In response to Konstantin Kakaes’ Why Johnny Can’t Learn Without a Calculator, math teacher Paul J. Karafiol argues that Calculators in the classroom are useful.

Teaching math requires actually understanding math, and people who understand math have always been in short supply, in and outside of the teaching profession. So a different, simpler explanation for the failure of students to learn math is that there aren’t a lot of excellent teachers out there teaching math. Technology doesn’t enter into the picture.

Where it does enter the pictures is in a new and completely unexpected change in mathematics education. Excellent teachers who use technology can increase access to higher mathematics for students with poor computational skills, by allowing these students to reason about concepts without getting bogged down in computation. This year, my AB Calculus class included some students who couldn’t reliably add fractions. By the end of the course, almost all of them could explain what the derivative of a function means (in abstract and contextual terms), how it is calculated, and what it could be used for. They could do all this because they used calculators with computer algebra systems—calculators that give algebraic answers, not just numbers—to do the heavy lifting.

Finally, Kakaes never engages what is, to me, the central question that technology poses to the mathematics teacher, namely, what of the traditional pencil-and-paper mathematics is worth teaching?

“The argument should be about when and how often students should be taught to use their calculators,” Karafiol writes.

Kakaes responds here.

Help wanted: educated workers

Worldwide, demand for high-skilled labor is growing faster than supply in advanced economies, concludes a report by the McKinsey Global Institute. Demand for low-skill labor remains weak. Lower-skill workers —including 75 million young people — are struggling with unemployment, underemployment and stagnating wages.

The global labor force will approach 3.5 billion in 2030, the report predicts. By 2020, the global economy will face skills shortages:

– 38 million to 40 million fewer workers with tertiary education (college or postgraduate degrees) than employers will need, or 13 percent of the demand for such workers

– 45 million too few workers with secondary education in developing economies, or 15 percent of the demand for such workers

– 90 million to 95 million more low-skill workers (those without college training in advanced economies or without even secondary education in developing economies) than employers will need, or 11 percent oversupply of such workers

The population in China, as well as in many advanced economies, is aging. Most new workers will live in India and the “young” developing economies of Africa and South Asia.

Scientific illiteracy disqualifies many young Americans from good white-collar and blue-collar jobs, writes Rishawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. “The average American working in science, technology, engineering, and medical fields will earn $500,000 more in their lifetime than peers outside of those fields — and are more likely to stay employed even in periods of economic recession.”

Do timed tests cause math anxiety?

One third of students end up in remedial math in college and “the level of interest in the subject is at an all-time low,” writes Jo Boaler, a Stanford math education professor, in Ed Week.  She blames timed math tests — solve 50 multiplication problems in three minutes — for causing math anxiety that cripples learning

Math has become a performance subject. Children of all ages are more likely to tell you that the reason for learning math is to show whether they “get it” instead of whether they appreciate the beauty of the subject or the way it piques their interest. The damage starts early in this country, with school districts requiring young children to take timed math tests from the age of 5.

Common Core State Standards, which call for math “fluency,” may encourage timed testing, Boaler worries.

Stress caused by timed testing can lead to changes in the brain, permanently hurting children’s ability to learn math, she writes.

There are many good teaching strategies for encouraging fluency in math, but the ones that are effective are those that simultaneously develop number sense—the flexible use and understanding of numbers and quantities—without instilling fear and anxiety. Strategies that involve reasoning about numbers and operations, such as the pedagogical approach called “number talks,” are ideal for developing fluency with understanding.

Beyond the fear and anxiety, timed tests also convey strong and negative messages about math, suggesting that math ability is measured by working quickly, rather than thinking deeply and carefully—the hallmark of high-level mathematical thinking.

Children can learn math skills and concepts in tandem, writes Barry Garelick on Education News.

Reformers criticize traditional math instruction as “skills-based,” implying “students who may have mastered their math courses in K-12 were missing the conceptual basis of mathematics and were taught the subject as a means to do computation, rather than explore the wonders of mathematics for its own sake.”

Students have struggled with math for a long time: If one dinosaur eats two cavemen per hour, how many cavemen can four dinosaurs eat in 30 minutes?  When I was in elementary school in the ’50s, before calculators or timed tests of math facts, many kids were anxious about math because there were right and wrong answers. We didn’t tackle the lowest common denominator to appreciate math’s beauty or explore its wonders. We though the point was to “get it.”

“New math” came in a few years later, when my brother was in first grade. In trying to teach concepts, it made kids even more anxious.

My daughter did timed tests of addition and subtraction problems in first grade — 25 years ago! They probably did multiplication in second grade.  She thought the tests were fun. Of course, she was good at it. But Boaler says math anxiety is worst for high-ability students.

New standards will help kids read, understand

Nobody loves standards (and that’s O.K.), writes Robert Pondiscio. But teachers could come to appreciate Common Core State Standards (CCSS) approach to “turning children into readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers.”

“A student never thanked me for teaching the main idea,” a teacher wrote to me recently. “But many thanked me for teaching them about animal migrations.” CCSS remind us to engage children not just with rote literacy skills work and process writing, but also, and especially, with real content—rich, deep, broad knowledge about the world in which they live. The conventional wisdom has become that CCSS “add nonfiction to the curriculum,” but that’s not right. Common Core restores art, music, history, and literature to the curriculum.

Why did they ever leave? Reading is “domain specific.” You already have to know at least a little bit about the subject—and sometimes a lot about the subject—to understand a text. The same thing is also true about creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. Indeed, nearly all of our most cherished and ambitious goals for schooling are knowledge-dependent. Yet how many times have we heard it said that we need to de-emphasize teaching “mere facts” and focus on skills like critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving? CCSS rescue knowledge from those who would trivialize it, or who simply don’t understand its fundamental role in human cognition.

CCSS calls for “the systematic teaching of explicit phonics skills” and “building knowledge systematically” by choosing texts “around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.”

Turning reading into a bore

Students spend too much time practicing reading strategies that won’t improve comprehension, writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham on his blog. A little dab’ll do ya, he writes in a longer article. More is a waste of time — and it makes reading a bore.

The chart shows the various strategies:

Picture

Too much strategizing turns reading into drudgery, Willingham writes.

How can you get lost in a narrative world if you think you’re supposed to be posing questions to yourself all the time? How can a child get really absorbed in a book about ants or meteorology if she thinks that reading means pausing every now and then to anticipate what will happen next, or to question the author’s purpose?

My daughter’s second-grade teacher thought she read too quickly. I guess she wasn’t using reading strategies. She was just reading.

Job growth is in low-wage, low-skill fields

The recovery isn’t jobless, a new report finds. However, most new jobs are in lower-wage, lower-skill occupations such as cashier, shelf stocker or food preparation worker, according to The Good Jobs Deficit (pdf), a National Employment Law Project report. Sixty percent of jobs lost in the recession were in middle-wage occupations, while 73 percent of jobs added pay less than $13.52 an hour. That explains all those college-educated bartenders.

Net change in occupational employment during and after the Great Recession.
Source: National Employment Law Project analysis of Current Population Survey

The number of lower-wage jobs is close to the pre-recession peak, while mid-wage jobs are 8.4 percent below the peak and higher-wage jobs are 4.1 percent below their former peak.

The lowest third of the nation’s occupations pay $7.51 to $13.52 an hour, according to the report. That would equal $15,621 to $28,122 a year for a full-time worker. In the middle third, workers earn $13.53 to $20.66 an hour or $28,142 to $42,973 a year. High-wage occupations in the top third range from $20.67 to $53.32 an hour or $42,994 to $110,906 for yearly full-time work.

Real wages are down 0.6 percent since the recession’s start, the report concludes: Median wages fell 2.3 percent for the bottom third and 0.9 percent for the middle third. Wages rose by 0.9 percent for workers in the top third.