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April 23, 2013

The Common Core: Too Much, Too Fast?

The short answer: no and maybe.

Now to the long answer.

As a new teacher, one of the first concepts you learn is “scaffolding.”  Like the scaffolds beside a building, scaffolding in teaching is about building a supportive structure piece by piece so a student can get somewhere he or she couldn’t get by themselves.  A teacher might model with a “think aloud” of how to read for tone or teach symbolism with an easy text as a scaffold for analyzing symbolism in a more difficult text.  However, with a scaffold, a teacher doesn’t let the student off the hook, settling on an easier task the student can easily accomplish.  The student also isn’t just thrown into the deep end, urged to master a complex skill with no support.  The student is supported until he or she achieves a challenging goal independently. 

It struck me that just like teachers have to scaffold for students, we might think about scaffolding districts’ implementation of the Common Core and the bevy of high stakes tests that accompany the new standards. Just this month, students in New York City public schools took their first round of Common Core aligned exams, and the results were not pretty .  Teachers, parents, students, and principals reported the test elicited a number of responses, from humorous, to ludicrous, to heartbreaking:     

  • A child waking up from a nightmare where he was murmuring about bubbling in an exam
  • Weekend and after school test prep classes
  • Teachers teaching students yoga to help students relax during testing
  • Pep rallies to encourage students before exams
  • Rampant student stress and anxiety
  • Students crying at the end of the exams

In response, many have begun to question adoption of the Common Core, period.  Several parents have even decided to opt their children out of testing all together.  To some degree, one can certainly understand their frustration. 

Common Core implementation (which is soon to be met in many places with rigorous exams aligned with the more rigorous standards which are tied to high-stakes decisions like a teacher’s employment) is coming at an exceptionally fast pace.  Right before the start of the 2010-2011 school year, many states decided to adopt the Common Core.  However, after adoption, states had to coordinate their own roll out of the standards, and districts likewise had to process and design approaches to the new standards.  In the midst of all of this, classroom teachers had to learn a new curriculum and rewrite their own curriculums, learning and mastering new ways to teach in response to the Core. For teachers in New York, (assuming the most generous timeline where time for realigning the curriculum was given to teachers immediately upon state adoption) teachers would have had a maximum of two years before being held to high stakes tests aligned to the Core.  For anyone whose ever written the curriculum for a course within the time constraints of a public school teacher’s job, you know this is not enough.

In fact, that’s exactly the argument that’s been coming out of New York.  New York Times journalist, Kyle Spencer characterized the rapid pace of adoption in New York:

The standards are so new that many New York schools have yet to fully adopt new curriculums—including reading material, lesson plans, and exercises—to match.  And the textbook industry had not completely caught up either. State and city officials have urged teachers over the last year to begin working in some elements of new curriculums, and have offered lesson plans and tutorials on official Web sites.  But they acknowledge that scores will most likely fall from last year’s levels.

There’s a frenetic, sink or swim approach to implementing these reforms, and in that rush, policy makers are risking losing the Core altogether as backlash builds.

However, while the frustration of parents, students, and school faculty is valid, the answer is not to completely get rid of the Common Core.  The Common Core is a step forward in making schools locations of critical thought.  Consider some of the criticism of the Common Core coming from the New York area.  After taking a Common Core aligned test, a sixth grade student noted that, “When they ask, ‘What’s the main idea?’ and you have to put it in your own words, it’s a lot harder.”  Another student felt like she didn’t have enough time to fully complete her written essay on the exam.  Both of these tasks ask students to do things that we as a society want citizens to do, read something, comprehend it, and then respond with one’s own ideas.  After all, isn’t this the heart of a democracy—being able to understand ideas and express your own? Of course, this would certainly be less difficult for students if they weren’t asked to write, and instead only had to fill in multiple choice bubbles based on easier readings.  However, is reverting back to these easier tasks really the answer?   

Though getting rid of the Common Core isn’t the answer, districts and teachers (just like students learning new, complex concepts) do need scaffolds to transform classroom instruction to align with the Common Core.  Modeling a skilled teacher, policy makers could and should give teachers and schools support and time as they learn to raise instruction to the level of rigor the Core demands, delaying implementation or offering the tests first as low-stakes assessments so teachers can learn from them.  After all, a teacher doesn’t merely tell a student, “balance this chemical equation or else.”  The teacher also doesn’t let the student simply not balance the equation, but instead a great teacher gives supports and time for the student as he or she learns to balance the equations independently.

In our debates about the Common Core, let’s parse through what part of the policy we really disagree with.  Is asking our students to think, read, and write more the problem, or is it the rapid, breakneck speed by which the Core has been implemented?  I think for many of us it’s the latter rather than the former.  The good news is that thoughtful policy makers can craft solutions to create scaffolds for Common Core implementation, such as making the first two years of testing low stakes instead of high stakes, giving teachers more time to work collaboratively to rewrite the school’s curriculum, or lowering the percentage of teacher evaluations based on test scores as teachers get to know the standards more.  Hopefully what we won’t do, though, is throw the baby out with the bathwater by getting rid of the Common Core altogether.  -Allison Gulamhussein

Filed under: CPE,instruction,national standards,standards,teachers,Testing — Allison @ 2:14 pm

March 14, 2013

Study examines links between the rigor of Algebra I and Geometry course content and test scores

The National Center for Education Statistics recently released a study examining the relationship between the rigor in Algebra I and Geometry courses high school students take and student test performance in those areas on the 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  This study was spurred by positive findings from the 2005 NAEP  High School Transcript study, which found that in 2005 high school students earned more math credits, took higher level math courses, and obtained higher math course grades than in 1990. 

While it is certainly good news that more students are taking more math courses at higher levels and earning higher grades, it’s not clear whether students are taking courses that are truly rigorous or whether or not this uptick in math course enrollment is resulting in more student math achievement.  This study aims to answer that question.  The study was unable to actually observe classroom instruction in order to measure rigor; however, the researchers gained access to math textbooks used in 550 public schools, analyzing the rigor of the problems in the textbooks to determine how demanding classes are.  Previous studies have shown that math textbooks are closely related to math classroom instruction and serve as a good proxy for actual course rigor.  After coding the textbooks to determine whether or not they represented basic, intermediate, or advanced levels of rigor, the study matched those rigor levels to math NAEP scores to see if there’s a relationship. 

The overwhelming finding is there is a clear relationship between classroom rigor and NAEP scores.  Students in rigorous Algebra I courses and Geometry courses scored higher on NAEP than students in basic or intermediate courses.  On the other hand, the study also finds that the labeling of a course (i.e.-whether a course is regular or honors) often has little relationship to the true rigor offered in a course.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of the findings:

  • Graduates in rigorous Algebra I courses and Geometry courses score higher on NAEP.
    • Algebra I rigor level with corresponding NAEP scores (10 points is roughly equivalent to a year’s worth of learning):
      • Beginner: 137 points
      • Intermediate: 143
      • Rigorous: 146
    • Geometry rigor level with corresponding NAEP scores:
      • Beginner: 148
      • Intermediate: 152
      • Rigorous: 159
  • School course titles often do not truly represent the level of rigor a course offers.
    • 73% of students who took an honors Algebra I course actually received an intermediate Algebra I course.
    • In fact, a higher percentage of students in a regular class received a rigorous course than those in courses labeled “honors”
      • Regular title, but curriculum was rigorous: 34%
      • Honors title, but curriculum was rigorous: 18%
    • In Geometry classes, only 33% of courses title honors were actually rigorous, while 62% were intermediate, and the rest were basic.
  • Generally, about two-thirds of an Algebra I or Geometry course covers core content; the rest is a review of lower level material or a preview of higher level material.
  • Most students, regardless of race or course title, took an intermediate level Algebra I course.
    • 54% of high school students took an intermediate Algebra I course, while 14% had a beginner course, and 32% had a rigorous course.
  • Most students, regardless of course title, took an intermediate level Geometry course.
    • Classes titled “Informal”: 54% had an intermediate course (30% basic, 14% rigorous)
    • Classes titled “Regular: 68% had an intermediate course (11% basic, 19% rigorous)
    • Classes titled “Honors”: 62% had an intermediate course (4% basic, 33% rigorous)
  • While racial differences weren’t present in differences in rigor level for all other courses, racial differences were present for Honors Geometry rigor levels.
    • 37% of white students had a rigorous Honors Geometry course, while 21% of Black graduates and 17% of Hispanic graduates had a rigorous Honors Geometry course.
  • While a higher level of rigor in a Algebra I or Geometry course resulted in higher NAEP scores, white graduates still scored higher than Black or Hispanic graduates on the Algebra I and Geometry portion of NAEP, regardless of the rigor level of their math test:
    • White students rigor level of Algebra I and Geometry course and corresponding NAEP scores:
      • Algebra I
        • Basic: 142
        • Intermediate: 148
        • Rigorous: 151
      • Geometry
        • Basic: 155
        • Intermediate: 159
        • Rigorous: 165
    • Black students rigor level of Geometry course and corresponding NAEP scores:  
      • Algebra I
        • Basic: 128
        • Intermediate: 129
        • Rigorous: 134
      • Geometry
        • Basic: 120
        • Intermediate: 129
        • Rigorous: 133
    • Hispanic students rigor level of Geometry course and corresponding NAEP scores:
      • Algebra I
        • Basic: 127
        • Intermediate: 132
        • Rigorous: 132
      • Geometry
        • Basic: 140
        • Intermediate: 138
        • Rigorous: 138


February 20, 2013

Are schools replicating the mistakes of American car companies?

Yesterday I caught the Charlie Rose show, and while the topic wasn’t education, a comment a guest made got me thinking about whether we have a fatal flaw in our leadership structure in the public schools.  Rose had invited Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist with Sequoia Capital, onto the show.  The conversation meandered in many directions, but they paused for a moment to talk about leadership in major corporations.  As they pondered the nature of who should be in charge of companies, Moritz argued that no company can rely solely on “business” people; instead, you must have product people involved in leadership.  He noted that this was one of the fatal flaws of American automakers, contributing to their decline.  As the companies grew, they added more and more business people, and neglected to have product people in leadership, pushing the company towards a better car, towards innovation.

As I heard Moritz speak, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the same might be happening now in education.  Are we stacking our leadership teams with only business people and no product people?  In schools, the “product” is learning, so product people are experts in curriculum and instruction—the process of creating learning in students.  However, research shows time and time again, that most principals in schools spend very little time on the product, student learning.

In his report, “Building a New Structure for School Leadership,” Richard Elmore notes that multiple studies have shown that instruction is an area principals spend the least amount of time on.  In our own report about the function of principals in schools, we found that while principals are told to focus on student achievement, they still must perform a bevy of administrative duties, leading many principals believing that focusing on student achievement simply isn’t doable as the job currently stands.  Some might argue that such a lack of instructional leadership has little to no impact as long as teachers are experts in the product of learning and excel at teaching; however, this too contradicts research.

Just like in companies, leadership in schools does matter.  In fact, the impact of the principal on student achievement is only topped by the impact of the teacher in the classroom.  Research has shown that in schools with highly effective principals: students perform on average 10 percentage points higher than if in a school lead by an average principal, student absences are lower,  and graduation rates are 3 percent higher.

Interestingly, highly effective principals are set apart by one quality: instructional leadership.  In other words, principals make a distinct impact on student learning by being product (i.e. learning) experts, not business (i.e. administration and organization) experts.  Unfortunately, today we’re left with many schools lead by those with little time to focus on the product, student learning.  In the world of automotives, that left us with far too many years of the Ford Taurus.  In education, it’s left us with far too many years of underperforming students.

February 19, 2013

From trust to kindness, how one teacher TRICKed her students into learning

California educator Esther Wojcicki shares how putting student’s in charge of their learning, helped her build one of the largest high school journalism programs in the country.

February 8, 2013

When ‘academic freedom’ really means ‘bad science’

Several state legislatures have introduced variations of a so-called “Academic Freedom Act” that purports to encourage openness and critical thinking in science classrooms. To critics of these laws — which include virtually every scientific professional organization and a slew of Nobel laureates — it is a thinly veiled effort to insert unscientific ideas into the science curriculum.

Similar bills have already been voted into law in a few states including Tennessee and Louisiana, and are pending in Arizona, Oklahoma among others. An attempt to introduce one in Colorado failed to make it out of committee. Among those testifying against it were our friends at the Colorado Association of School Boards.  The bills have different names but the language is surprisingly the same: they call on schools to “help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to become intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed students” and specifically name the teaching of “scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

There’s a reason for the uniformity: the model language for these acts originated with the Discovery Institute, a think tank that promotes “intelligent design.”  Intelligent design is an attempt to bring scientific legitimacy to the idea that a supreme hand was behind the origin of the universe and it should therefore be allowed to be taught in public schools.  Yet this notion was famously shot down by the 2005 Kitzmiller v Dover court decision that ruled intelligent design  “is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism” and has no place in the science classroom. And although the courts have allowed for other origin explanations like Intelligent Design to be taught in humanities courses, there remains a push to treat them as another scientific theory.

The new bills try to circumvent Kitzmiller through re-purposing. They don’t explicitly call for teaching intelligent design alongside evolution. Rather they propose to protect “academic freedom” and promote “critical thinking” in public school science classes. The bills further assert that the provisions “must not be construed to promote religious or nonreligious doctrine.”  Yet the specific inclusion of evolution and global warming as “scientific controversies” belies their words.

To be absolutely clear, there is no scientific controversy on these issues. There is plenty of political and ideological controversy, however.  How these topics are presented, then, means a lot when the goal is to develop scientifically literate students.

I wrote about this science-ideology conflict as it relates to evolution in the September 2012 American School Board Journal. The main point I make is that a scientific theory is not just an opinion or educated guess, but must meet rigorous standards of scientific evidence. Other such theories include plate tectonics and the idea that living things are made of cells, although these do not seem to be controversial to anyone.

Global warming has been debated for years, and not just in the political arena. Scientists have also disagreed on certain aspects. But the science community overwhelming agrees that the planet is warming and that human activity is at least partly to blame.  The University of Illinois-Chicago surveyed earth scientists in 2008 on these questions. Of the over 3,000 who responded, 90 percent agreed that “global temperatures have generally risen” compared to pre-1800s levels, and 82 percent reported that “human activity is a significant contributing factor.”  The consensus among those who specialize in climate science was even stronger:  96.2 percent agreed that temperatures are rising and 97.4 percent agree on the question of humans’ contribution.

The fact that the response is not 100 percent is all the evidence climate-change deniers need to argue that there is a scientific debate, and that the domination of climate change-accepters in the discipline is somehow a sign of academic bias. But such thinking is itself a denial of the scientific zietgeist with its emphasis on skepticism and questioning as a guard against bias.

Better for me to let astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explain:

Filed under: instruction,national standards,Public education — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 8:00 am

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