Monday, July 28, 2014

The Challenge of Implementation

Recently, a friend wrote me in response to article that I had forwarded to him. The article was "Why Americans Stink at Math" and was referenced in my previous blog. Here is my response to his comments.

I agree that patience and the possibility of change are necessary as the system seeks to assimilate the math changes. The public understanding of the purpose of common core math must align with their expectations. And in our public schools, the purpose and best ways to reach the mission are often the subject of divisive politics. This topic alone can be the subject of an extended dialogue.

Currently, our schools graduate a certain percentage of students ready for college-level mathematics. Each fall college freshman enter the universities as engineering, mathematics, and physical and life science majors prepared for the course of study. These students are successful given the multiple variables associated with traditional public school approach and parent values.

We also know that a significant portion is not ready for this level of learning. While not everyone is cut out to be an engineer, scientist, medical doctor, or mathematician, the opinion exists that our country needs a greater amount of students coming from our high schools prepared for such learning. From my experience, there are too many students unable to access the type of learning offered in our public schools. While statistics purport that improvements have been seen over the last twenty years, the public school system by and large is not set up for the type of increases desired.

With a mandate to educate the masses that began in earnest during the early 20th century in order to support our industrialized economy. public school successes (and failures) met a tolerable level. Always the subject of political fodder, public schools have nevertheless achieved the purpose that the systemic architecture fostered (i.e. age-based, homogeneous learning).

The changing world of the 21st century where globalization, access to knowledge, and communication media have upended the apple cart has stretched the public school model to meet this need. What we are seeing throughout our economy is a customization of services. From clothing to food to technology, the available options have multiplied exponentially.

And that leads me to ask how can we customize education so that there are more successes leaving high schools? Charter schools, pilot schools, schools-within-schools are examples of customizing the options. But can public schools accomplish this as well?

Returning to common core math instruction, can the instruction that is required for common core math occur for everyone or must it occur in a niche? Are we setting ourselves up for failure by mandating this instructional process uniformly across all schools, all classrooms?

For the record, I am a proponent of the common core math standards. I believe that through it, students can develop greater mathematical reasoning and communication skills. I worry about our ability to implement with fidelity.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Focusing on Common Core Math Implementation

            In a recent blog, (“How to solve big problems: Lessons learned from cancer scientists”, the author cites the personal example of his sister’s cure from leukemia as an example of how a focus on finding the solution to one type of cancer brought success. Research doctors who met with success in treating leukemia were then able to apply their findings successfully to other types of cancer. Clear concludes that when “you’re facing a complex problem or trying to do something bold, start with a smaller version of the larger problem. Focus exclusively on that small problem and solve it.”
            Shortly after reading this opinion, I stumbled upon a provocatively titled New Your Times Magazine article, “Why Americans Stink at Math”. My curiosity and annoyance in the title encouraged me to read it. The author points out the commonly shared statistics and stories of math learning in America and then cites the successes found by Japanese teachers who had the opportunity to develop their math teaching skills. Curiously, the type of math teaching that brought student successes was developed in the United States and promoted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Unfortunately, the recommended pedagogy did not take hold in America. Following in the tracks of other math reform efforts, fears of the same cycle of failure exist for the common core math standards. What the author holds out as key in changing student learning is teacher learning. Lesson studies, collaboration with peers, and opportunity to study the art of teaching are examples of strategies to build teacher learning to implement common core math.
            So how are school districts tackling the complex problem of implementing the common core math standards? Is this complex problem probed to identify the key factors likely to have the greatest impact? And what are they?  And if professional learning is identified as the key variable, how can the scope be focused so that classroom instruction is impacted? What is the small problem that can be solved?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Formatively speaking...

     Do you remember your first attempts to ride a bicycle, roller blade, or drive a car? Odds are you needed the help of someone who was watching you and who gave specific advice. Formatively speaking, your skills were formed based on trial and error coupled with feedback. Learning occurred based on someone observing your effort and advising you shortly thereafter.
     In the classroom, this type of support is replicated when a teacher adjusts instruction based on what he/she observes from a student. Formative assessment aims towards mastery of a skill, concept, or behaviors. In contrast, grades are used to evaluate student learning in a summative manner as if the time for teaching and learning has been completed. While there is a place for summative feedback, the impact of formative assessments guides the students to new levels of learning. 
     Knowing how the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) testing has grabbed the news, I am interested in hearing how you may be using formative assessments to guide students to reach the common core standards' results.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

High School Exit Exam

A recent article on the impact of the common core standards on the California High School Exam (CAHSEE) grabbed my attention. First, I support, not surprisingly, the use of an assessment tool to show levels of achievement. Yet even under the old standards, CAHSEE measured skills well below 12th grade. It focused on standards found in the 7th through 9th grades. Even the feds' NCLB expectation for passing the CAHSEE, referred to euphemistically as 'proficient', is higher than what California requires to pass this test. Due to its political consequences, the CAHSEE benchmark level was lowered thereby reducing its impact. So is this test truly a high school exit exam?

The more rigorous expectations of the common core standards make the current CAHSEE expectations even weaker. Indeed, raising the bar would lower the passing rate and create a political furor. As mentioned in the article, there are those who believe that vulnerable student groups would be more unlikely to not pass and not receive a high school diploma.

So what is the solution? Let's rename the test for what it actually measures, basic skills. And then let's raise the expectations to better align with common core. Students who pass the high school basic skills test would then have a stamp placed on their diploma showing this level of achievement. Let's make this level of ability something we point out rather than punish and then let the colleges and job market decide how to handle the results. 

I can tell you from firsthand experience, the current CAHSEE can be passed by nearly all regular education students prior to completing 12thgrade except those whose English literacy is below Intermediate on the CELDT.  But if the student completes the required course of study for graduation, a diploma should be awarded. Then the newly minted California test of high school basic skills test (CBaST) seal would demonstrate a higher level of minimum performance but not be tied down by the political fuss of lower graduation rates.