Yesterday’s NYTimes featured an op ed piece by Christopher J. Philips titled “The Politics of Math Education”. The premise of the article was that even a subject like how to teach mathematics, a subject that appears to be based on unequivocal facts, can be politicized. He explains how in this section:
This is because debates about learning mathematics are debates about how educated citizens should think generally. Whether it is taught as a collection of facts, as a set of problem-solving heuristics or as a model of logical deduction, learning math counts as learning to reason. That is, in effect, a political matter, and therefore inherently contestable. Reasonable people can and will disagree about it.
Philips uses the balance of the article to describe the recent history of mathematics instruction, from the Sputnik era where it was handed off to mathematicians through NCLB where it was highly charged politically.
In the comment I left, I noted that the “new mathematics” designed by real mathematicians emphasizes the fact that mathematics is a mental construct and, as such, one needs to look carefully at the premises to determine if there is a clear “right answer”. A quick example: in non-Euclidean geometry two points define a curve and not a line. By changing that one premise, all of the premises of the Euclidean geometry we learned in HS become worthless. One’s faith in the order of the world can be challenged when you realize that the “rules of geometry” can be rendered useless… and that lack of faith might compel one to question the fundamental premises of a political system.
My comment concluded with this unequivocally political comment:
Those who think it is plausible that a Democratic Socialist could become President, like the new math. Those who want to reinforce the dominant paradigm are more comfortable with Euclid.
I generally support the notion that decisions are best made closest to the action and, therefore, generally support the idea that State and Local school boards should be delegated as much latitude as possible in setting policy and determining the program of studies for their schools.
I generally oppose the imposition of academic standards based on the desires of businesspersons because they tend to focus on workplace skills and diminish the value of the humanities.
But I also strongly support the notion that we need a common set of facts to draw from if we want to have an informed electorate: we need to have a common understanding of history and accept the rarity that scientific facts change and when they change whole theories change with them.
As I’ve written previously in tho blog, the Common Core is a good idea that was poorly executed… and idea that should be– indeed MUST be– recast. In a post where I proposed an education platform for the 2016 presidential campaign I offered this recommendation for the Common Core:
- Revise the Common Core: Recent actions by state legislatures (g. Texas) and local school boards (e.g. Jefferson County, CO) underscore the need for a common set of standards for education. The Common Core, underwritten by extraordinarily wealthy businessmen, was developed in response to this legitimate need. Unfortunately, the Common Core was developed without any meaningful input from classroom teachers and, to make matters worse, once it was issued the authors of the Common Core were not responsive to the revisions recommended by teachers, academics, and child psychologists. We should not scrap the Common Core because we need to make certain that students across the country learn the facts about health, science, and history. But instead of unilaterally imposing these standards from Washington, we should use the Common Core as the basis for the development of a standard curriculum for each state. If elected I will require each state to create Standards Teams to use the Common Core as the basis for the creation of a rigorous but realistic set of State standards. The Standards Teams will include curriculum content experts from state universities, representative classroom teachers, and developmental psychologists.
Stories like this one about the Texas school board from the Christian Science Monitor reinforce the need for a national set of standards. The headline and subheading say it all:
Texas rejects allowing academics to fact-check public school textbooks
Texas’ education officials rejected allowing university experts fact-check textbooks approved for the state’s 5.2 million public-school students.
And why might some fact checking be needed? This anecdote explains:
The Board of Education approves textbooks in the nation’s second-largest state and stood by its vetting process — despite a Houston-area mother recently complaining that a world geography book used by her son’s ninth grade class referred to African slaves as “workers.”
This is the same group who do not allow teaching on climate change, evolution and other myriad scientific facts that are contrary to their cultural norms. It is important in this day and age that we face inconvenient truths and weigh evidence carefully. But when children are being taught that African slaves were “workers” it is difficult to see how they will understand the root causes of the civil rights movement and why Black Lives Matter.
The reauthorization legislation before Congress effectively hands all curriculum decisions back to states. I am dismayed that children in some parts of this country will graduate from high school with gaps in their scientific knowledge and warped perspectives on history.
Diane Ravitch had several posts yesterday on the deficiencies of Outcome Based Education, posts that yielded several strong dissents based on B.F. Skinner’s theories, computer-based individualized instruction, and early attempts at outcome based and self-paced education that relied heavily on handouts. I remain convinced that until we abandon our current mental model of education as one based on lockstep progression based on age based cohorts we will remain stuck in the same arguments I’ve witnessed for the four decades I’ve worked in public school administration.
We’ve used OBE based on common standards for decades in one area that requires students to demonstrate mastery with both academic and performance assessments… and a brief history of the delivery of this content in this discipline might shed some light on this issue and also on the direction public education could be headed.
Everyone in our country who possesses a drivers license passed both an academic assessment (typically a multiple choice test) and a performance assessment (typically an over-the-road review with a police officer). The standards a student must master in order to obtain a driver’s license are universal. The time required to master the academic and performance skills varies widely. Students who fail the assessments can re-take them as many times as is needed, but once an individual masters the skills as measured by the written and performance tests they receive a license that is no different from anyone else’s. Students who received the training in a structured program offered by a certified instructor received an additional benefit: insurers rewarded the completion of such a program with a reduced rate because their data showed that such students experienced a lower accident rate.
Students used to receive training for these OBE assessments in public schools but in most states the responsibility for learning these skills has shifted out of school and into the private sector. The rationale for this shift was two-fold: the cost for providing the equipment needed for training was high and the insurance benefits that resulted from the attainment of certificate would enable parents to fund the program out-of-pocket instead of having the program funded by taxpayers.
When public schools dropped Drivers Education, private drivers education schools proliferated. Some of the schools were staffed by former certified teachers whose compensation ad benefits were lower than those offered by public schools and others were staffed by instructors with credentials determined by insurance companies. Oh… and some of the students who might have experienced the financial benefits of taking a publicly funded course lost the opportunity to do so because their parents could not afford the out-of-pocket costs associated with enrolling in a privately operated school operated by an accredited teacher. Most of them DID get their drivers license but paid an insurance premium for several years thereafter.
I trust that readers of this blog can see how this brief history of drivers education might apply to the trends in public education we are witnessing today… and might highlight the consequence of our obsession with having everyone learn at the same pace. Because we accept the current model of schooling we fail to ask some basic questions:
=>Why do we group students in grade levels based on their age?
=>Why do we group students within a particular grade level based on their rate of learning?
=>Why do we group students at all?
=>Why does school take place in a limited time frame?
=>Why do we believe there is “one best way” to educate ALL children?
All of these practices are in place because they result in “efficiency” in the factory school… and until we change our minds about how schools are organized, until we replace our conception of schools as a factory with a new mental model, we will continue measuring “quality” by giving standardized tests to students grouped in “grade levels” and recycling “new ideas” and “reforms” based on ways to run the factory more efficiently.
Several years ago public schools decided to outsource the attainment of the drivers license “badge”. The “badges” being developed by private sector enterprises (e.g. IT certifications) are superseding the “diplomas” on the back end of the factory. How long before the same phenomenon occurs in public schools?
Dartmouth writing instructor Ellen Bresler Rockmore’s article earlier this week described the subtle impact grammar has on the presentation of Texas’ newly revised social studies curriculum. As noted in earlier blog posts, Texas is one of many states that has refuted the Common Core while adopting their own standards that are embarrassingly anti-intellectual. Ms. Rockmore flags one of the particularly egregious changes that resulted in slaves being characterized as “workers” whose lives were relatively good. The article highlighted how the use of the passive voice in describing the horrors of slavery contrasted with the use of the active voice in describing it’s purported benefits, a contrast that brought to mind the blamelessness of language like “mistakes were made”.
As I trust Ms. Rockmore knows, presenting misinformation with poor grammar is only part of the problem. This whole episode underscores the real reason many states oppose a common curriculum and why one is needed if we are sincere in our desire to maintain our standing as the most educated nation in the world. Texas’ misrepresentation of slavery is bad and might be mitigated by the use of the active voice, but their exclusion of teaching on climate change and evolution cannot be fixed by improved grammar because nothing about it is written at all. States that rely on oil for revenue are unlikely to adopt curricula that address the effects of carbon emissions on the climate or unlikely to present information linking earthquakes to fracking. States with a legacy of slavery and lynchings are unlikely to bring those misdeeds to light or may, like Texas, misrepresent the impact of them on African Americans.
Unless we can agree on a common set of historical facts as a nation we will be hard pressed to find common ground on the causes of many of the social problems we face as a nation today and we will be more likely to continue the discriminatory practices that continue to divide us. It is a shame that we did not spend more time reaching a clearer and more common understanding of our past and more time learning the facts about science instead of spending time preparing for mindless examinations that prove what we already know: children raised in affluence do a better job on tests that children raised in poverty.
Today’s NYTimes article by Mokoto Rich reports on the shenanigans going on in various states in their reporting of test results. The headline on her article, “Test Scores Under Common Core Show That “Proficient” Varies By State”, and the article itself summarizes the facts on the impact of setting cut scores on the standardized tests that are linked to the Common Core, but fails to underscore the political consequences of the practice… and makes no mention of how NYS gamed the tests to create large numbers of “failing” schools.
The setting of cut scores works like this: thousands of children across the country took the same standardized test. When the tests were graded, state departments of education determined what scores would be deemed “proficient”. Some states might require a student to get 40 correct answers to be deemed “proficient” while others might require a student to get 55 correct answers. If a governor who is running for president, say Governor Kasich, wants to be able to boast that his policies resulted in high rates of passing, he could prevail on his appointed Commissioner of Education to set a low score as “proficient”. If a governor wants to use test scores to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of teachers and public schools, say Governor Cuomo, he could insist that the Board of Regents and Commissioner of Education set a high score as “proficient”. In the meantime, no one is asking if these tests help teachers gain a better understanding of their students or of their pedagogy…. because everyone knows the answer is that they do not.
In the meantime, the focus on the inappropriateness of using standardized test results based on age cohorts is not called into question. Instead of questioning how and when students are tested parents and teachers are questioning what they are tested on. It’s the wrong question… for clearly all students need to master the same set of mathematics skills and develop the same reading comprehension skills at some point in their education. Our obsession with determining precisely what students need to learn at the end of first and second grade seems absurd to educators in other developed Western countries, many of whom do not even begin formal schooling until their children are 7 years old.
Moreover, our questions about what students learn results in countless hours of debates over settled science (e.g. evolution vs. intelligent design and climate change), settled history (e.g. the latest flap over the textbooks in Texas that described slaves as willing immigrant workers), and, as always, religion (e.g. the recent brouhaha over teaching about Islam in TN). At some point we need to shift the debate to the question of why it is important for a child to progress at the same rate as his or her age cohorts intellectually when we have no such expectation in terms of that same child’s physical growth. Alas, such a debate will not score points politically or result in the ability to measure teacher and school performance with seeming precision.
I just read a maddening article by Natalie Wexler from the September 24 Washington Post titled “Why American’s Can’t Write”. Ms. Wexler’s reason for this situation?
Surely one reason so many Americans lack writing skills is that, for decades, most U.S. schools haven’t taught them. In 2011, a nationwide test found that only 24 percent of students in eighth and 12th grades were proficient in writing, and just 3 percent were advanced.
Ms. Wexler writes a well thought out explanation of how writing could be taught in schools, noting that the punctuation and grammar skills need to be developed incrementally and hierarchically and that teachers need to spend time reading and correcting increasingly lengthy pies of writing. She notes that the common core delineates the skills needed but implies that teachers might lack the capability to deliver instruction on those skills.
What Ms. Wexler fails to note is that writing is not tested effectively… and when it IS tested creativity and flow are far less important than consistency and format… because computers cannot “measure” creativity and flow nor can “readers” who must scan “essays” quickly in order to get tests graded quickly.
We are reaping bad writing because grading writing is complicated, slow, and expensive and we want to measure our students with standardized tests that are easy, fast, and cheap… We won’t get good writing until we are willing to provide the time needed to teach it effectively and the time needed to grade it well.