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August 21, 2014

Common core support drops, local control rules, and other public opinion trends

Back to school season means it’s also time for the yearly ritual of gauging American attitudes about their public schools. Two major surveys released this week once again show that the public says its local schools are great even though they think U.S. schools overall are in the tank (a mathematical impossibility, by the way). The surveys also highlight some inconsistencies in public thinking as well as widespread acceptance of misinformation, particularly regarding the common core. So let’s start there.

First, what a difference a year makes! The 46th annual PDK/Gallup poll registered a big increase in public awareness about the Common Core State Standards between 2013 and 2014. Last year, only 38 percent said they had heard of them. This year, awareness has more than doubled to 81 percent. But that wasn’t the only shift. Of those who knew about the Common Core in 2013 a majority liked them, but that pendulum swung, too. Now according to PDK, only 33 percent support the new standards while a full 60 percent are opposed.

A new poll from Education Next shows the same downward trend in public support for Common Core as PDK, although EN shows that a majority are still favorable: 53 percent of the public supported them in 2014 compared to 65 percent the year before. EN teased out attitudes by party affiliation and found that Democrats were more far more likely to support Common Core than Republicans — 65 to 43 percent, respectively. Still, even among Republicans, support is significantly higher than PDK reported.

EN also conducted a small randomized experiment. They asked the same question about Common Core standards to one half of the survey pool, except they eliminated the words “Common Core” in the brackets below:

As you may know, in the last few years states have been deciding whether or not to use [the Common Core, which are] standards for reading and math that are the same across the states. In the states that have these standards, they will be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance. Do you support or oppose the use of these [the Common Core] standards in your state?

Now it gets interesting. When the words “Common Core” are eliminated, public support rises from 53 to 68 percent. Moreover, Republicans approved of the non-Common Core statement at the same rate as Democrats. The conflicting poll results could suggest that the Common Core critics are winning the media war. As EN puts it, the words themselves may have become “toxic.” As further evidence, the poll found that the majority of the public believed statements about the Common Core that were not true, such as the federal government requires states to use the Common Core. Yet these beliefs have entered into the information stream and are affecting public attitudes.

Of course, it’s also possible that we are seeing a sea change in attitudes. The EN survey raises an issue that should be of major concern: teacher support for the Common Core declined the most. In 2013, a full three-quarters of the teachers polled were in favor of the Common Core. In just one year their support plummeted to slightly less than half (46 percent). One has to wonder if teachers are expressing their frustration with inadequate implementation support. If this is the case, state and district policymakers should pay close attention.

On other topics, the public continues to view public schooling as a mostly local concern, according to PDK. The majority of the public — 56 percent — say local school boards should have the “greatest influence in deciding what is taught in public schools,” followed by 28 percent who say the state should, and only 15 percent who say the federal government should. In addition, to know public schools is to love them. Consistent with results of the last 20 years, the public gives public schools nationally poor grades, but grade their local schools highly. In 2014, 50 percent of the public and 67 percent of public school parents gave their local schools an ‘A’ or ‘B’ compared to 17 percent who gave the nation’s schools high grades. However, this represents a slight drop from 2013 overall.

Both PDK and EN found that the public continues to like the idea of charter schools. But the polls conflict over voucher support. PDK reported that nearly two-thirds of the public opposed vouchers, while EN showed that about half support vouchers for students in “failing public schools” and even for “universal vouchers.” Surprisingly, only a third told EN they would support vouchers for low-income families.

As always, polls can be useful in understanding what the public is thinking. But this year’s polling seems to further cast a light on winners and losers in communicating their messages. – Patte Barth






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





October 9, 2013

Can tests be worth teaching to?

It’s widely accepted that teaching to the test is a bad thing. The phrase itself summons images of robotic children reciting factoids and filling in bubbles with their number 2 pencils. The practice is said to suppress creativity and critical thought, and crowd out subjects and topics that aren’t tested. Classrooms become joyless.

But what if test prep didn’t mean memorization drills and a stripped down curriculum? What if students couldn’t tell the difference between assessment and a really interesting lesson?  What if the test was something teachers wanted to teach to?

That is one of the challenges the “next generation assessments” are attempting to meet. Two state consortia (PARCC and SMARTER Balance) are currently at work on tests aligned to the Common Core that will “measure the full range” of the new standards. This will include the abilities to think critically and creatively, reason mathematically and communicate effectively — skills that aren’t typically associated with standardized, multiple choice tests.

The consortia greatly benefit by the involvement of the country’s leaders in performance assessment, that is, tests designed to mimic rich “authentic” classroom instruction. The $346 million in federal dollars doesn’t hurt either.  Still, developing these tests while making sure they meet high psychometric standards for validity and reliability is an enormous task. Even if they succeed at creating the instruments, will the tests have the desired effect on teaching?

A new report from the RAND Corporation seeks to answer the question, can standardized tests be worth teaching to? The authors of New Assessments, Better Instruction reviewed over 130 studies examining the relationship between high stakes testing and instruction. They offer a qualified “yes”— as long as certain conditions are met.  These conditions don’t only relate to the test design, but also to policies governing implementation and accountability that lawmakers at all levels should heed.

First, the tests themselves. According to the report, the assessments should “mirror high-quality instruction.”  So-called “deeper learning” isn’t easily modeled in multiple-choice format. The authors caution that producing rich assessments may require sacrificing some reliability related to scores, but add that the resulting impact on instruction may be worth it.

The RAND authors also recognize the importance of finding the right balance for accountability. They write:

Research on the ways that high-stakes tests influence instruction suggests that if the test is unimportant or irrelevant to students, teachers, administrators, and parents, it is unlikely to have an effect on instruction. On the other hand, if there are very high stakes attached …. there may be severe “teaching to the test” that does not promote real deeper learning but focuses on superficial features of items.

The solution? Multiple measures for teacher and principal evaluation , accountability based on growth as well as status, and an integrated system that includes low-stakes, formative assessments for tracking student progress along with the high-stakes, end-of-year summative tests.

Already examples are emerging from the consortia that illustrate what tests worth teaching to might look like. The CPE team has been having a lot of fun trying out the SMARTER Balanced practice tests.  We admit some of these items had us momentarily humbled, but we still maintain we’re smarter than a 5th grader.  Try them out for yourselves here.

More importantly, we think that assessments like these could drive deeper learning and instruction especially if combined with sensible accountability policies.

Filed under: Assessments,Common Core,instruction,national standards — Tags: , , , , — Patte Barth @ 10:53 am





September 10, 2013

New CPE report examines what’s wrong with current teacher PD offerings and how to fix it

CPE_AAG_inlineGraphic_HalfwidthMy first introduction to professional development as a young teacher was underwhelming to say the least.  When I first entered the profession, I was excited to meet other teachers and get down to the business of having lengthy, intellectual conversations about how to best teach our subjects.  Surely, we would debate which concepts to teach, which texts to use, and how we could get our students active and intellectually engaged.

Much to my dismay, in my first years of teaching, there was not one day carved into the expansive school year where I was able to meet with fellow teachers to really get down to the nitty-gritty questions of teaching.  What I did experience, though, was time set aside for “professional development” that did little to inform or improve my own teaching.

For example, when I started my first year of teaching, I sat through an entire day’s all-staff session devoted to the book Who Moved My Cheese?  The book chronicled how different mice responded to the cheese in their maze being moved somewhere else.  As valuable planning time before the first day of school ticked away, the entire staff analyzed which mouse they were in the book.  While I did learn that my department head was a “Sniff,” and another new teacher was a “Scurry,” I certainly didn’t learn anything that made me a better teacher.

Unfortunately, this session was just a taste of the prevalent realities of professional development in American schools, and as time went by, I had to realize that my job was not a place where I would learn to be a better teacher—I had to seek that out myself. I would have conversations after school with fellow teachers about teaching, or pay out of my own pocket to attend “real” professional development sessions that addressed real concerns of teaching my content, but these were isolated experiences, and they didn’t occur in a regular fashion as part of my work.

In all my years of teaching, I can’t think of one professional development experience sponsored by my school or school district that really addressed core issues of my instruction.  I’d like to think that my own experiences are an anomaly in a sea of schools with profound, helpful professional development, but unfortunately, this isn’t true … as you will learn in my report and the latest edition to the CPE library, Teaching the Teachers: Effective Professional Development in an Era of High Stakes Accountability.

-Allison Gulamhussein






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