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August 7, 2014

Math wars redux

A distinguished Berkeley mathematician took to the Wall Street Journal’s pages this week to criticize the Common Core math standards for being “several years behind” the old California standards, which she called “among the nation’s best.” Given the author and its substance, the op-ed is going viral through the anti-Common Core blogosphere, adding more proof that the nation’s math wars may yet rival the Hundred Years’ War between England and France for longevity.

(The op-ed is behind the WSJ paywall. However, non-subscribers can find this summary of it at Breitbart.com.)

The author, Marina Ratner, a professor emerita of mathematics at UC-Berkeley, devotes most of her column to describing ways Common Core math are lower than those that preceded them. She bluntly concludes that “adoption of the Common Core standards represents a huge step backward … [and] will move the U.S. even closer to the bottom in international ranking.”

While I respect Dr. Ratner’s professional expertise, her criticisms should be viewed in the proper context. As EDifier readers know, CPE has no political or organizational stake in the Common Core standards. But we do believe two things: that there is a legitimate public conversation to be had at the state level about whether to participate in national standards; and that this conversation should be based on good information about the Common Core.

That said, I like the Common Core math standards overall even though I have some quibbles. For example, I think the K-3 standards may be a little too much, too soon. But here’s what I like about them:

For one, the Common Core defines fewer math concepts in more depth. One of the biggest problems of mathematics in the U.S. compared to other high-achieving nations is that our math curriculum tends to be, what researcher William Schmidt called, “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The Common Core is the latest attempt to change that, hence the fewer, deeper thing. Typically, U.S. students spend the first three to six weeks at the beginning of each school year re-learning mathematics they were taught earlier, but forgot. That’s a ridiculous waste of time and resources. What’s worse, it hasn’t helped our students learn mathematics any better.

Dr. Ratner held special contempt for her sixth-grade grandson’s math work that called for the visualization of fractions, writing “simple concepts are made artificially intricate and complex with the pretense of being deeper—while the actual content taught was primitive.” But in fact, all of the modeling is designed to help students learn the concepts, basic concepts included, well enough the first time so they don’t have to repeat the same lessons over and over again.

I also like that the Common Core puts more emphasis on mathematical practices and data, probability and statistics (DPS) than we usually see in state standards. Dr. Ratner echoes criticisms from a handful of university mathematicians who privilege algebra/calculus-based mathematics over all other math domains, even though DPS is the dominant math of other disciplines, work and citizenship. From my point of view, the new emphasis on DPS and mathematical practices is the biggest strength of the Common Core. It should also be noted that graduates meeting the Common Core will, at minimum, have mastered what my math friends call “substantial Algebra II” and nothing precludes students from taking more math. Neither eighth-grade algebra nor high school calculus is going away.

As a Californian, Dr. Ratner was most distressed by her belief that the Common Core are lower standards than the state had before. She claims, in part, this is because California’s previous standards defined expectations for higher math courses, including pre-calculus and calculus. While this is true, this argument is missing some very important context. That is, the advanced math standards applied only to students who took those courses — not to all California students. In truth, California’s existing high school graduation requirements call for only two years of high school math and do not include Algebra II. A high school diploma in the state, therefore, does not mean the graduate has had exposure to higher math.

Finally, Dr. Ratner goes on to repeat a statement from one of the Common Core architects, Jason Zimba, that has been circulated among anti-Common Core activists as proof the standards are lower. As Dr. Ratner tells it, Dr. Zimba admitted in testimony that “the new standards wouldn’t prepare students for colleges to which ‘most parents aspire’ to send their children.”

Dr. Zimba, of course, is exactly right. The Common Core are intended to prepare all graduates to enter a two- or four-year college without the need for remediation. Many (not sure “most”) parents aspire to more selective colleges that will be looking for more on the high school transcript, especially for students wanting to enter STEM fields. Those parents will continue to make sure their child gets pre-calculus and calculus just as they did before the Common Core, and schools will continue to provide those courses. But for the vast majority of students, the new math standards will be a big step up.

In related news, Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia provides a look back at earlier attempts to change math pedagogy so that students would learn concepts with deeper understanding. Beginning with the often-maligned New Math in the 1960s through the NCTM standards and now the Common Core, Willingham shows that the expectations were right, but that past efforts failed because of inadequate time and attention to helping teachers change their instruction. Whether we can muster the commitment this time to do it right remains to be seen. But if we don’t, we can expect the math wars to continue and the casualties we amass will be our students. – Patte Barth

 

Filed under: Common Core,Course taking,High school — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 4:44 pm





July 30, 2014

Hysteria to revised AP history framework shows prioritizing is hard

History is the most difficult subject to write K-12 standards for, and for one simple reason: the discipline is bursting with information. There’s not enough time, even over 13 years of public schooling, to teach students everything that is good to know in the subject. Of course, that doesn’t stop pundits and parents from protesting — often loudly — when some preferred person or event is left out.

The new AP U.S. history framework is the most recent effort to raise howls. The College Board has begun revising many of its frameworks and tests in order to reflect changes in scholarship and better align with current college freshman-level survey courses. According to the College Board, the new AP course will emphasize students’ “ability to think critically, construct solid arguments, and see many sides of an issue.” Gone are the lists of topics, replaced by a list of 27 “key concepts” each supported by 3-4 related concepts.

By my estimate, that’s over 80 content standards. That sounds like a lot, yet it’s still not enough for some. In an analysis for the Heartland Institute, retired AP teacher Larry Krieger denounced the framework for, among other things, the alleged “excising” of James Madison and Benjamin Franklin from the historical record (because they were not specifically named); its “dismissal” of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Washington (although all are specifically addressed, just not enough); and an imbalance in content that, Krieger claims, stresses America’s negatives over its good.

Krieger’s critique was soon picked up by the National Review , Breitbart and Glenn Beck who see something pernicious in the rewrite amounting to “left-wing indoctrination.” They have also conflated the AP revisions with the Common Core standards, even though one has nothing to do with the other. In Texas, the possible connection concerned a member of the state board of education enough that he is introducing a resolution to “rebuke and reject” the teaching of AP U.S. history in the state. Texas could be just the first.

Which brings me back to the first point: it is really difficult to write history standards. I am reminded of a very sensible question a former colleague would often ask: “if we add [favorite topic here] to the standards, what are we willing to take out?” History courses are already packed. Great political figures and major military engagements represent only a part of what a rigorous program should provide today’s students. A half century of scholarship has opened up social, economic, cultural and other lenses for viewing the past that add depth and texture to the historical picture. Every subject area — math, sciences, the arts and technology — also has a history that contributes to our understanding of those fields. On top of all this, teachers need time to help students develop their capacity to think critically and analytically about the material.

So educators have to make choices, and there’s the rub. Every story has its champions ready to engage in metaphorical combat over what should survive out of the many worthwhile stories to tell, not to mention how to tell them. And nowhere is the battle more contentious than in deciding what is important in U.S. history to teach our future citizens.

That leaves standards writers with the thankless task of trying to reconcile disparate camps. Compromise has typically been achieved one of two ways: by drafting statements that are so broad they please everyone, offend no one, and provide little guidance for teachers; or by including every topic that everyone wants, resulting in history standards that move from one fact to the next with no room for students to develop any real understanding.

Educators have often charged that the AP U.S. history framework took the latter route, something the College Board was attempting to correct with the new revision. How successful they were is clearly a topic worthy of discussion. But as a long-time standards reviewer, I’d like to offer a few things to keep in mind when considering the content of the new AP framework:

  • The framework is not a curriculum. Rather it is designed to leave decisions to teachers about the particular topics to teach and concepts to emphasize. Likewise, the AP test will feature questions that can be answered effectively by drawing from a range of historical topics for evidence. This means that no AP classroom will look exactly like the next.
  • Approximately 400,000 out of 15,000,000 high school students, or 2.6%, took the AP U.S. history exam last year. If this is a coup by the College Board to impose a national curriculum on American high schools, they really have their work cut out for themselves.
  • AP courses are intended to model college-level survey courses, and the College Board consults with universities and faculties to validate that they do. Critics who are concerned about the content might do better to direct their barbs toward higher ed.
  • Finally, students have history every year in public school beginning in at least first grade, and likely study American history yearlong in both fifth- and eighth-grades. We can assume AP students already know who George Washington is. If they don’t, we have much bigger problems to deal with than worrying about what the College Board is up to.

I have my own quibbles with the new framework. For example, I think it could have done more with science, technology and the arts and their role in defining the U.S.  But in order to include this content, what am I willing to take out?

I’ll need to think about that. – Patte Barth

Filed under: Common Core,CPE,High school,national standards — Tags: , , , , — Patte Barth @ 11:29 am





July 3, 2014

Remembering a beloved writer

Earlier this week, contemporary literature lost one of its brightest stars. Walter Dean Myers was the author of over 100 books, recipient of multiple honors including two Newberys and three National Book award nominations. His books were especially popular with middle-school readers, many of whom read them first in English class. Myers died at the age of 76 on Tuesday, July 1 following a brief illness.

Myers primarily wrote about young characters for young readers, but his themes could hardly be described as adolescent. Often drawing from his own youth in Harlem, he told stories of youngsters’ struggles to grow up in an environment where crime, poverty and the specter of racism were constant companions to the events. As the New York Times put it, Myers wrote about “teenagers trying to make the right choices when the wrong ones were so much easier.”

A confession: I was dragged kicking and screaming to my first Myers’ book. I was — and to large degree still am — an insufferable snob when it comes to young adult fiction. The way I see it, the world has an abundance of good “real” literature that is easily accessible to young readers. Why pander to them with a dumbed down substitute? (Which I still maintain describes the bulk of the genre.)

Fortunately, there are plenty of good educators out there who don’t share my snobbery. I worked with one such person during a time when my job involved helping teams of teachers align their instruction to state standards. My colleague and I were bound for the west coast where he was going to demonstrate model lessons, including a multi-part unit based on Myers’ best-seller, Monster. He insisted I read the book first. So I started the book on the plane from D.C. with about the same enthusiasm as one approaches a root canal. I did not look up again until I finished it long before the Rockies.

Boy, was I surprised! Yes, in terms of character and plot, the book clearly shows its appeal to younger readers. Monster tells the story of a teenage boy who is on trial for a murder he may or may not have been guilty of. Told as part-memoir, part-news account, part-screenplay, the book is incredibly sophisticated, structurally complex and contains enough ambiguity to provide chum for the most discerning bookshark. Myers may have young people in mind when he writes, but the themes and the critical demands he places on the reader place him among our more innovative story-tellers.

I can see why teachers like to use his texts in their classrooms. His books provide so many riches to be mined in class discussions. They elicit many reactions. Moreover, they are open to very different, but equally valid interpretations based on the evidence in Myers’ text. As such, Myers not only relates to teenagers on their terms, he provides them with the stuff to help them develop into strong, critical readers and analysts.

Myers leaves many fans, young and old alike, who, I’m sure, will assure his legacy for many years to come. – Patte Barth

 

Filed under: High school,instruction,Middle school,Reading — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 2:44 pm





June 5, 2014

New report shows high school graduation rate at an all-time high

EdWeek’s annual Diplomas Count report shows that the U.S. high school on-time graduation rate has hit an all-time high with 81 percent of students graduating within four-years of entering high school.  You may remember back in April another report also found high school graduation rates were at an all-time high. Both reports were based on similar data so it is not surprising they found similar results. But this most recent report sheds a brighter light on how state graduation rates have changed over time, especially between 2007 and 2012 —the most recent year available to calculate graduation rates. An examination of EdWeek’s data shows that in 2007, 19 states had graduation rates below 75 percent. By 2012 that number dropped to just six states. In fact, just two states (Nevada and Mississippi) currently have graduation rates under 70 percent compared to 11 states back in 2007.

So, states are in fact making tremendous progress in improving their on-time high school graduation rates at a time when many states have actually made it harder to earn a high school diploma. What remains to be seen is if this trend will continue t as states implement the Common Core State Standards, a more rigorous set of benchmarks that aim to prepare all students for college and careers. If states provide districts with the resources they need to effectively implement the CCSS, it is likely more students will not only earn a high school diploma but be more successful after high school as well.

 

The Findings

State Graduation Rates

  • Most states have improved their graduation rates since 2007.
    • All but three states (Rhode Island, Michigan, and South Dakota) improved their on-time graduation rates between 2007 and 2012.
    • Ten states were able to improve their graduation rates by 10 or more points during this same period.
      • New Mexico made the greatest improvement by increasing their graduation rate from 59 to 74 percent.
  • Large gaps remain between states
    • There is a 33 percentage point gap between Vermont -the state with the highest graduation rate- (93 percent) and Nevada which has the lowest graduation rate (60 percent).
    • Six states have graduation rates under 75 percent while 15 states have graduation rates of 85 percent or higher.

National Graduation Rates

  • The national graduation rate hit an all-time high.
    • Eighty-one percent of students who entered 9th grade in the fall of 2008 graduated with at least a standard high school diploma by the summer of 2012. This is the highest level seen since the late 1960s.
      • From 2007 to 2012 the graduation rate increased by seven points.
      • Graduation rates had remained relatively stagnant between the late 1960s and 2007.
  • Attainment gaps have narrowed
    • While graduation rates for white students have improved, graduation rates for black and Hispanic students have improved at a faster rate.
      • The graduation rate for Hispanic students jumped from 62 percent in 2007 to 76 percent in 2012— a 14 percentage point improvement. However, the graduation rate for Hispanic students was still nine points lower than that of their white classmates.
      • Black students made headway as well by improving their graduation rate at a greater rate than the national average of seven points. Yet, there is still a 17 point gap in graduation rates between black and white students.
      •  Large gaps also remain for other groups of students.
        • 14 point gap between economically disadvantaged and non-economically disadvantaged students (72 and 86 percent).
        • 22 point gap between students with and without disabilities (61 and 83 percent).
        • 22 point gap between Limited English Proficient and English Proficient students (59 and 81 percent.)





May 7, 2014

U.S. 12th-graders make small gains on national assessment

Today, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released the results of the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in mathematics and reading for our nation’s 12th graders.  While the nation as a whole has seen significant improvements at the 4th and 8th grade levels, the same improvement has yet to show up at the end of high school. In neither math nor reading did scores significantly change from 2009—the last time 12th grade NAEP was administered. However, scores in math are higher than they were in 2005—the furthest back math scores can be compared. On the other hand, reading scores have remained relatively unchanged over the past decade and were slightly lower than in 1992—the first year the reading assessment was administered.

It is important to keep in mind that results for our 12th graders are dependent on how many students remained in school. Unlike at 4th and 8th grades where students are required to be in school, at the 12th grade level most students have the option of dropping out. When our high schools retain a larger proportion of students it could impact the results. This indeed may be the case as it was reported last week that our national graduation rate is at an all-time high of 80 percent– with a significant improvement since 2006. So it is possible that scores would have been higher if graduation rates remained near 70 percent as they were for most of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Yet, higher graduation rates can’t fully explain why scores at the 12th grade have basically flat-lined while they have accelerated in earlier grades because scores have not changed much for most student groups. The exception is math where Black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander students made significant gains from 2005 to 2013 (5, 7, and 10 points respectively) although none of that increase is due to any improvements since 2009. Most scores were relatively unchanged no matter if groups were defined by parent’s highest education level, male or female, or high or low-performer.

What is clear is that those students who took more rigorous courses achieved the highest scores. Those students who took Calculus scored the equivalent to nearly 4 more years worth of learning than students whose highest math course was Algebra II or Trigonometry and nearly 7 more years worth of learning than those students who never completed a course beyond Algebra I. In reading, those students who say they discuss reading interpretations nearly every day achieve the equivalent to nearly two years worth of learning over students who rarely discuss reading interpretations.

Last week’s news about our historic graduation rate is certainly worth celebrating. Schools have also made strides at enrolling more students in high-level courses. But today’s NAEP results show that much more work still needs to be done. Simply earning a high school diploma is not enough. Students need to succeed in rigorous courses in high school to gain the knowledge and skills needed for the 21st century labor market.– Jim Hull

 






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