Tag Archives: education

Teachers, you’re killing us with this Common Core stuff!

If you asked a hundred teachers their thoughts and observations about Common Core, you would probably get a hundred different answers.  A recent poll done by The Association of American Educators showed that teachers are completely split on their views of Common Core, with a bit less than a third (30%) reporting they believe Common Core State Standards will improve the quality of education in their community, about 1/3 (34%) believe the new standards will decrease the quality of education, and a bit more than a third (36%) believe the standards will have no effect.  But despite their thoughts and feelings one thing is clear; teachers who teach in states that have adopted Common Core will be teaching the concepts outlined in these standards.  While teachers represent a widely varied group of attitudes and beliefs one thing that most of them have in common is a desire to be effective teachers.  Most teachers, no matter the curriculum, the standard, the materials or the challenges, will find ways to be as effective in instructing their students as possible.  A few weeks back I wrote about why we hate Common Core, and my main point was, we are doing it wrong.  The news and the internet overflow with examples of Common Core gone wrong.  We, as a society, don’t get it, we don’t see the point, it may even be detrimental and designed to circumvent our liberty, and we don’t even really get what the standards are or why we need them.

Fortunately, the research that convinced me we were doing it wrong, also helped me to pinpoint what we could do to adopt these standards more effectively.  My findings, along with some personal experience, leads me to recommend three changes I believe teachers should make in regards to Common Core:

  • Stop letting the popular media dictate what parents know about Common Core
  • Be smart with class time and
  • Be careful about assigning Homework, and mindful of brain research.

Now, when all of my recommendations are for teachers it all may seem a bit like blame the teacher, but contrary to the way it may sound I don’t think it is mostly the teachers’ fault.  I say mostly because although most classroom teachers have very little control over if and when Common Core happens, they have a lot of control on the how.  While I think there is a lot that schools, districts and states can do to better transition to and implement Common Core effectively I think I have very little power to change or affect that.  What I think I can have an effect on is my little part of the world.  And I think that if every teacher that read this took my advice and had an effect on their little part of the world, then that will affect much more of the world than a top down approach would.  So my focus here will be what can, and should, individual teachers do in their part of the world, with their limitations of time and resources to make this transition smoother and most successful for their students.

#1- Stop letting the popular media dictate what parents know about Common Core

I hate to say it teachers, but I think we really blew it here.  Much of what the general public knows about Common Core was fed to them by the media, and often not even the mainstream media.  The spread of social media at about the same time as the implementation of Common Core standards provided the ideal environment to spread rumors and accusations on how and why the standards came to be, how they will be taught, and even what they are.  Even though the public does not have a lot of confidence in the public school system in general, most people have confidence in teachers in their local area and rate them as being above average.  With that fact in mind it is time that we teachers speak up and share with the public what we really think.

Now, as I said earlier, what we think about Common Core is widely varied, so I am not necessarily talking about sharing your preference of Common Core.  What I am talking about is sharing what you know about the standards, how you are working toward implementation, the positives about the standards and yes, the challenges.  I don’t think the general public quite understands the plight of the public school teacher when it comes to shifting expectations.  I don’t think they understand how often we are called upon from those above to completely change the way we do things.  I don’ t think they understand the hoops we need to jump through, or how much our workload has increased with all that we are now called upon to do.  When we share with our friends, our neighbors and community members and parents of our students about our experiences they have authentic information, instead of information spun through groups with an agenda.  When we share that, “Yes, there may be some issues with new standards (or new anything) but there may be some strengths.  And, we are using whatever changes come along to our benefit to educate our children,” then the public starts to see things through our eyes, instead of those who would tear down educators.

Speaking out and telling the public what we think may not come easily for many of us.  We teachers have no problem speaking up in our classroom and with our students, but for some reason we are not all that good about speaking up in our communities. Teachers have gotten pretty used to letting groups that represent them do the talking, like administrators and teachers’ unions.  But I am not talking about administrators explaining to parents, I am not talking about teachers’ unions or union reps communicating with our communities, I am talking about regular, everyday teachers opening their mouths and sharing their thoughts and experiences.  Not complaining, not whining, not blaming it on someone else, but sharing what our work is, how we do it, what is rewarding and what is frustrating.   With the spread of social media there has never been a better time.  Don’t let those who know little about public education be the ones who dictate what the public hears and believes.  And, don’t let school districts or teachers’ unions paint us with a broad brushstroke that makes us look like we don’t have minds of our own.  When we speak up in a respectful and professional manner we become known for the varied, highly educated, highly trained group that we really are.

#2- Be smart with class time

Most teachers probably already know this, but contrary to many of the rumors circulating about Common Core, the shifts in the standards are based on research on how children learn best.   For my teacher friends who may have forgotten, or the general public who may also be reading this, they include basic shifts in not only what is taught, but, ideally, the way it is taught.  The shifts include:

    • Greater focus on fewer topics
    • Coherence: Linking topics and thinking across grades
    • Rigor: Pursue conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application with equal intensity

In math, and in ELA:

    • Regular practice with complex texts and academic language
    • Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and informational
    • Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction

In recent years, to explore the seeming disparity in proficiency scores between countries around the globe, educators have studied how students are educated in different countries.  In their book, “The Teaching Gap, “ James Stigler and James Hiebert observed math lessons in Japan, the US and Germany.  The team observed many differences in the way concepts were taught, but one of the main findings was in the German and US classrooms much of the class time was spent in listening to a teacher, whereas the majority of time spent by Japanese students was spent in problem solving.

Some of the shifts associated with the move to Common Core are based on the evidence that the Japanese model, focusing on problem solving rather than teacher lecture on “how to,” improves achievement.  But, are teachers really shifting the how they teach, and not just what they teach?

As I have already mentioned teachers are a very diverse group.  So, some teachers have probably made many changes, while others are determined to pour a new standard into the same old mold.  As I reported in my previous post part of my job is to assist other teachers.  The research that I did to assist our middle school math teachers better incorporate the new standards is what prompted this entire line of thinking on my part.  From my understanding of what had been learned from Japanese instruction, the shifts in Common Core and what I observed in the typical middle school math class it seemed that most teachers were just not doing enough to shift their classroom teaching.  Teachers reported a great frustration to fit the new standards into their class time, so I determined that I would look for ways to assist them.  To assist me I did a very small, very unrepresentative study of how much time our math teachers spent on typical classroom tasks.  What I found backed up what I had observed, and gave me thoughts on what needs to happen to better address the new standards in the classroom.  My examples will all be from the point of view of a math class, however I believe the concepts are very similar in other subject areas.  Keep in mind, however, that in some ways math is very different than other subjects.  Math requires much more practicing of skills than many content areas, so not everything I found here may apply.

Part of what makes the Japanese model so different than the US model is the amount of time students spend engaged in performing math.  Not taking notes, not listening to the teacher, not watching the teacher solve problems, but actually doing math.  Part of the philosophy behind which a typical US classroom operates is that the teacher has advanced knowledge about a subject and the teacher’s job is to impart the learning to the students.  In turn, the students performs some sort of task, an assignment, a test, etc., to demonstrate that they absorbed and understood the knowledge.  The philosophy behind which the Japanese method, and to some extent the principles of Common Core, operates have less to do with the teacher imparting knowledge to the student, and more to do with the student gaining knowledge through their own enquiry, exploration, activities and  experiences.  This is a bold and risky change for teachers because instead of just telling kids what they need to know, we need to develop activities for students that will lead them to the knowledge that we believe is important for them to learn, and trust that they will indeed discover the important elements.

If this type of a model were implemented you would expect to see students spending the majority of their class time doing math.  So here is where my very unscientific study comes in.  I polled our math teachers and asked them to group their class time into 4 categories: 1-Homework- correcting and going over the previous night’s assignment, 2-             Direct Instruction- teacher talk, notes, examples, etc., 3-     Guided Practice- teacher guides students through the steps of the process and 4-                Independent Practice- students are solving math problems.  What I found with our teachers, and I believe this is typical, is that they were spending their largest proportion of their time, an average of 34 minutes in an 84 minute block period, in direct instruction and only an average of 19.2 minutes in independent practice, or actually doing math.  Now some may argue that much more of the period is really doing math.  After all, they are watching problems being solved, writing down notes filled with math problems, and being walked through the correct process to solve problems.  But I submit to you, that none of this is doing math.

The brain operates quite differently when we watch someone doing something, versus when we do it.  When you learned to drive, did you take notes on where the brake was, how to shift and when to look in your mirrors?  Probably not.  You may have had instruction on driving laws and rules, but the procedures you learned by doing.  In my work with children who struggle quite often I have a child come to me needing help.  They listened to the lecture, they wrote the notes, they completed the guided practice but they have no ability to duplicate the process.  This is because they were not doing math at all; they were copying what the teacher was doing.  Teachers do need to teach students about the rules that govern mathematical concepts, but it seems that our students are stuck in math training, and spend very little time “behind the wheel” and solving problems on their own.

So what should the ideal classroom look like?  In my opinion, and based on my experience working with all types of students and many teachers, here is what will help teachers better move toward the Common Core shifts.

First, limit time spent going over previous homework.  In most middle school classrooms I have observed the first part of class is spent going over homework from the night before.  Our teachers reported that they spent between 10 and 30 minutes on this.  While it is important that students get feedback and help if they struggle, I submit that spending a lot of time on this does not give you the best bang for your buck.  More about this below, but I submit if you restructure your time as I am recommending you won’t even need that much time for this activity.

Second, some notes and examples are good, but the sooner kids actually engage their brains in math activities, not just notes or copying, the more time they have to understand the concept.  Find a way to streamline this, and understand that not every lesson has to start with directions.  For some concepts an exploratory activity that gets kids immediately into doing math may be better.  Then follow with notes, and the “rules of the road” later.

Third, build in procedures to check for understanding as soon as possible.  Work a problem, check with your neighbor; work problems on a whiteboard; using hand signals to show understanding are all ways that students can all be working, and show they understand.  Try to stay away from, or limit, teaching methods that require only one student to answer at a time.  I have observed plenty of students who will quite happily just sit there and not participate at all unless required to.  Make sure you have procedures that require all to actually engage their brains, not just their eyes and ears.

Last, leave plenty of time for independent practice, in class.  This is the most key part and will do two things for you.  First, it will increase the likelihood that students will actually complete and understand their homework.  Students should not be sent out your door with homework that they do not know how to complete.  Unless you know who understands what, it is impossible to assure that this happens.  Also, if you have students who just are not getting it, this gives you an opportunity to modify their work, or suggest when and how they can get extra assistance so they can complete their homework.  In the past teachers relied an awful lot on parents as the “at home” teacher to get homework complete.  With Common Core, concepts may be taught so differently that teachers cannot really expect that parents can help.  Students should go home with practice they understand, not homework that parents need to re-teach.  The second benefit to leaving plenty of time for independent practice is that this is where you save time in the beginning of class.  If you are sure that most of your students understand the homework, then the checking and review portion is greatly lessoned and shortened.  This allows you to display the answers for self or peer checking, and then spend time answering questions on the most tricky, difficult or misunderstood items, instead of the concept you went over the day before.

Teaching is a very complex skill.  When a new way of doing things comes along it is not really advisable, or even possible, to just throw out the old and put in the new.  Change will and should be gradual, but that change should be guided by evidence on how children learn best combined with an understanding of what we are really changing.  I believe that if teachers will gradually shift the way their class time is spent that not only will they better be able to teach Common Core Standards, but they will also increase their practice and effectiveness.

#3- Be careful about assigning Homework, and mindful of brain research

Homework is probably the area that will most affect, and confuse, parents in the shift to Common Core.  This is where we get topics of blog and Facebook posts of, what was this teacher thinking? Or, just what are they teaching my child?  Not to mention the ever popular, what does this even mean?

It is easy for teachers to get defensive and defend their homework choices, but I think a better strategy would be to just admit a few things.  First, we might not get it all either.  New terms, new ways of doing things and new procedures can have us all a bit confused.  Second, some of the transition materials are just not very good.  The hope is that as we begin to adopt new materials they will better reach the new concepts, but some of the things we are currently using are just not very effective, and sometimes they are just plain confusing.  And third, we need to be picky and careful about what and how we assign homework.  I think if nothing else, all of the bad publicity should have taught us we can’t just grab some worksheet and assign it as homework.  When the terms and procedures are so vastly different from what students have been taught in the past it does not work very well.

This is where we go back to the article, “How Can We Make Homework Worthwhile” by Annie Murphy Paul which I quoted in my previous post.  Remember, her focus was on brain research and how it relates to homework?  Paul has five main suggestions on how to make homework worthwhile, the quality of the homework space reputation, retrieval practices, cognitive disgluency and interleaving.  We will discuss each of these areas and how teachers can use these skills to better implement Common Core, especially in the area of math.

Quality is more important than quantity.  One thing that Paul reported that parents complain of is that much of their child’s homework appears to be busy work.  The trick is not to make homework shorter or longer, but smarter.  Homework should be worthwhile and provide value.

  1. Spaced repetition– When I was an undergraduate psychology student I studied learning and how the brain operates to best learn and retrieve material. One concept of memory is that learning is enhanced when the method of retrieval matches the method of learning.  In other words, if you learn to drive in a car, you will better remember how to drive when you are in a car than in another location.  If you want to remember how to do something in the early morning, you are best learning that process in the early morning.  And if you want to remember something over a long period of time, you are better off learning that information over a long period of time.  That does not often match the way we teach.  Often we teach, assess, then move on to a new concept.  Students will remember concepts better if we expose them to material in brief periods over long periods of time.  This would indicate that a good use of homework is a brief review of concepts already learned that needs to be remembered on an ongoing basis.
  2. Retrieval practices– Teachers understand the important of assessment to determine what learning has taken place, but Paul asserts that assessment can also be used to enhance learning. There is evidence that frequent assessment enhances learning because it strengthens neural pathways.  If I ask your name you can immediately pull up that information, and answer the question.  Little thought, no searching for the correct answer, your brain knows just where to retrieve that information quickly and effectively.  Your brain is like that, it can best retrieve information that is frequently accessed.  So, frequent assessment ensures frequent use of the stored information, and enhances learning.  I find it also enhances homework completion rates.  If students are aware that they will be assessed often, they are more likely to keep up on homework assignments, and the practice has meaning, not just mindless practice.
  3. Cognitive disfluency– One thing I enjoy is singing, and I have sung in choirs for much of my life.  After years of singing many of the same songs I made an interesting discovery.  Sometimes, our choir will sing a song that we performed many years ago, and yet I have trouble remembering my part.  Other times, the part is so familiar that I could almost perform after not seeing it for many years.  One thing I began to notice is that often the parts I remembered the best were the most difficult to learn.  This illustrates the concept of cognitive disfluency.  I used to think that I remembered those parts better because I had to practice them more to learn them.  But, according to Paul, that does not quite explain the phenomenon.   Paul says that when we learn material that is a bit difficult to learn it signals the brain that this information is important and needs to be remembered.  As important as it is for homework to be something that students can complete, the concept of cognitive disfluency illustrates that it is equally important that homework be meaningful and rigorous.  Homework, and classwork for that matter, should not be busy work or meaningless.
  4. Interleaving– This concept has to do with mixed practice. When homework or practice of any kind is all of the same type, for instance and entire page of similar addition problems, learning is compromised.  Studies show that when students practice skills of mixed types that learning is enhanced.  This makes sense when you think about the way the brain works.  An entire page of similar problems only requires the brain to make one trip down the neural pathway to that information.  When the task contains mixed practice, however, the brain must visit the locations of several memory locations, thus strengthening those neural pathways.

This week a teacher friend of mine posted a picture of an assignment that his kindergarten son brought home as homework.  I have included it as the image for this article.  He was not quite sure what the directions meant, or if his son had completed the assignment correctly.  Several other middle school teachers, including math teachers, commented on the post and no one could understand what was being asked or if what was done was correct.  There were a few theories, but no definitive conclusion.  I think the child’s teacher probably assigned this activity in good faith that the student could complete it, but it appears there is a problem.  If a handful of highly educated teachers cannot figure out what needs to be done, what of the typical parent?  Teachers, help us all out here, look at my advice and help make the move to Common Core a little bit smoother.  We can do this, but it needs some work before we can say we are doing it right.

Next, advice for parents.

Why we Hate Common Core

My plan was to write a post about parents’ struggles, and teachers’ struggles and why so many people are hating on Common Core Standards. I was going to talk about how change is hard, and how the Internet has blown small complaints into large issues that are not really issues. I was going to explain that were it not for the internet, Common Core standards would probably have come into being with the public hearing very little about them, just like the last set of standards. I was going to talk about standards vs. curriculum, and No Child Left Behind, the federal government and how they try to influence education with money and how so much of what is wrong with education has to do with the unintended consequences of those things, that are not new, and not necessarily connected to Common Core standards. But I wanted to be sure that what I thought I knew about people’s complaints and why they had them was true and valid, so I waited to write and I listened and I read.
What I found started me thinking in another direction, and so this article became about something else. Instead of telling you about everyone’s point of view and details about standards, I decided to tell you that we are doing it all wrong. I still think Common Core math will really help our kids, and I still think the new standards are much better than the old, but we have been going about it all wrong. Stay with me for a bit, and see if you agree.
As I listened to what people were saying frustrated them about the new standards, their struggles seemed to align with my thoughts. I was looking for a list of things, or something really insightful. It turned out the real ahha moment came when I started to do some research. You see, part of my job as a resource specialist is to assist teachers. My main goal in this capacity is to give teachers resources and assistance so that students who struggle, and especially those with disabilities, can better access the curriculum at their grade level. During my research to better do this I also come across overall tips to help teachers in their classes, and will often have an opportunity to share my findings.
All teachers are struggling to learn and implement the new standards, but the change seems particularly difficult for math teachers. Some of the classes at the middle school where I teach have a cluster of students with disabilities, and then the classes are support by a resource specialist. The teachers of these supported classes seem to be having a really hard time with the move to common core, so I was researching ways to assist them. I began my search looking for how to structure class time, which led me to articles about independent practice (in class practice) vs. homework, and eventually I found an article on brain research and homework. This was my big ahha moment. This is when I realized that we were doing it wrong.
The article, “How Can We Make Homework Worthwhile” by Annie Murphy Paul on Mind/Shift talked about brain research and how it relates to homework. She reports that research shows that the amount of time students spend on homework has steadily risen, but that the quality of that homework has not necessarily improved. A 2008 student reported that parents believe that the quality of the children’s homework assignments are fair or poor, and 4 in 10 believe that some or a great deal of homework is busy work.
One study that Paul referenced in her article, “Are we wasting our children’s time in giving them more homework?” (Erin & Henderson) was of particular interest to me because it involved middle school students. The findings were interesting, but the implications of the findings were even more telling for me.
In this study they looked at homework in various subjects, and it was found that the number of hours of homework had little or no effect on tests scores, except in the area of math. Not really surprising, because math homework usually requires practice, whereas homework in other content areas seldom included primarily practice. The interesting thing was that when they looked at parental education, homework was most beneficial for students who had educated parents.
So, what does this have to do with Common Core and how we are doing it wrong? I will get to that, but first I want to give you a snapshot into the typical middle school math lesson. It goes something like this:
• Correct and go over Homework and questions
• Direct Instruction by teacher of new concept and notes
• Modeled practice- Teacher models the task, may include more notes
• Guided practice- Students practice with teacher assistance
• Independent practice- may begin in class, but usually finished as homework.
If you look at the typical math class structure it becomes clear why students with educated parents have more success. A student who understood the lesson and/or can take good notes and understand them would do well under any circumstances. But what about the little guy who did not understand the instruction? What about the kid who struggles with note taking, or listening or paying attention and only got bits and pieces of both the instruction and the notes? When she takes her notes and Independent practice home and has no idea what to do, then what. Well, if Mom or Dad knows some math, she in in luck, until Common Core entered that is. For many years there were some variations, but for the most part math was taught basically the same way and so educated parents were able to help their kids. Even if they didn’t know the exact way the teacher taught it, parents knew some way to solve it, so they helped their kids. The parent became the “other teacher.” And in some ways this was very beneficial to kids. You see with this method they were able to practice the skills with new eyes, and possibly even a different way to solve it. They had practice in more than one environment, with more than one expert and often more than one method.
This has been a great tried and true system that teachers have been using for years, and it worked great, for kids who came from educated families who spoke English. Using the parents as the “other teacher” helped to fill in whatever gaps are bound to happen when a group of students learn a new skill.
Enter Common Core, and math doesn’t look the same any more. Parents can’t be the “at home teacher,” even educated ones, because they weren’t taught this way. They don’t understand the purpose or how to do it. Here is the interesting thing to me: Common Core did not create a new problem with homework, it simply amplified an old one. You see, there we always kids who did not benefit from help with their homework at home, now there are just more. There were always kids and parents who “didn’t get it,” now there are just more. What Common Core did is put the average, educated parent in the same shoes as the uneducated ones have been in all along. We, the educated parents who usually do get it, don’t like it when we don’t get it. So what do we do, we scream.
“This Common Core makes no sense;” “This is not the way I learned, so it must not be beneficial;” “This is too hard, my kid will never get it,” are among the complaints heard about Common Core. Here is the news flash, just because you don’t get it does not mean your kid won’t, so just stop it. Stop yelling at your school and your kid’s teacher, stop posting uninformed articles on your social media, stop petitioning your local educators, just stop it, and listen.
And, I don’t mean just parents. We educators need to stop too, and really look at what these standards are asking us to do, and decide if we are really doing it. If we take a completely different way of thinking, and just put it in the same framework of how we have already been doing things, it just won’t work. Look back at the “typical math class” above. Is that the way your class operates? If so, I say stop it. It just won’t work.
Look for part 2 and 3, what we should do.

We have Successfully Taught Them Not to Think!

Any idea what is happening here?  Me either.  A lack of critical thinking skills and an ability to judge the reasonableness of answer is a real problem with today's students.
Any idea what is happening here? Me either. A lack of critical thinking skills and an ability to judge the reasonableness of answer is a real problem with today’s students.

Today I was working with a group of 6th graders who struggle a bit in math.  We were working on some fraction concepts so we made some manipulatives; fractions bars.  We labeled, cut and colored the bars, then we looked for fractions equivalent to ½.  A few of the kids caught on and gave some suggestions, so we worked together on several of them, and then worked on notating them.  One other teacher and I walked around to be sure that everyone had the example, then it was their turn.

“Okay,” I said, “Go ahead and see how many equivalent fractions you can make.”  The few students who had initially understood how to form equivalent fractions got started, but the rest just sat there.  No moving of the fractions bars, no writing anything, they just sat there, and waited.  What were they waiting for?

Eventually, my co-worker and I were able to get the students moving with some encouragement and prodding, and a lot of assistance.  But, the experience got me thinking, why were these students so reluctant to jump in and get to work?  Why didn’t they get to work on figuring it out?  I remember being a kid that age, and I just couldn’t wait for the teacher to stop talking so I could work on something myself.  I don’t think I was all that uncommon, so why were this group of students so different?

As I spoke to some of my teacher friends about this experience and thought about it I realized it had finally happened.  We have successfully taught students not to think.  This is not to say that there are not some particularly bright and stubborn students who continue to think for themselves.  But somehow this group of students had learned to just sit, and wait, and do nothing until directed.  I tried to imagine what would teach this behavior and I came up with two things; learning to listen and a focus on grade level standards.  Seems like a strange combination, but bear with me while I explain.

This was a group of students who typically have struggled, and often needed more time to complete tasks.  I think many of these students have learned that if they listen and wait long enough others (other students or the teacher) will just give them the answer.  Why work hard and engage your brain on something that is hard if someone will eventually give you the answer?  But why would the teacher give out the answer when the goal is for the students to learn?  Well, face it, time is limited.  Sometimes it seems to make most sense just to give out the answer to the struggling students so you can move on.  And sometimes other students are asked to help struggling students so they can move along.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all for students working together.  But most young students do not really know how to “help” other students.  It is the rare student who can really tutor others without some training in this area.  And so, often instead of helping, they just give the other students the answer.  The unintended consequence is that many struggling students don’t even bother to try and engage their brains, but have become quite adept at engaging their ears.  They have learned to listen, and wait, and when the clue comes, to write down what clues they gather.

The second cause I believe of this behavior is the focus on grade level standards.  I think there are some real plusses to standards.  Before grade level standards were enacted who knows what many teachers taught?  And, many students who struggled were stuck learning the same material year after year, often with no progress or success.  But, once again, unintended consequences rear their ugly head.  I remember the first time I heard a colleague explain it.  The students would take district benchmark tests to see how well they had learned the material.  After the tests, we would move on to the next set of standards, no going back no re-teaching, no review, just move on.  Huh?  In my experience one of the main reasons for assessments was to determine what to teach, reinforce or re-teach.  But these assessments, it seemed, were only to determine how well students would perform on state assessments, not to inform instruction.  It made no sense to me, but my colleague was more experienced than me, and she seemed pretty confident that this was a good plan, so why argue?

So what is the unintended consequence of a decade or more of this practice on struggling students?  Let’s say someone is trying to teach you a skill, and it is real hard for you.  It is so hard, that you really have no desire to learn it.  But, you find out that there is a limited amount of time to learn the skill.  Once the time period is over you will be assessed, but if you don’t understand, there is no accountability, and no one will go back and make sure you learned it.  You may get a bad test score or grade, but you never get good grades anyway.  So, you learn to lay low.  You learn to just wait it out and that skill will go away.  Maybe the next one will be easier.

2014 was the year.  No Child Left Behind called for all students to show grade level proficiency in each state by 2014.  Okay, really?  When can any group of people meet 100% proficiency in anything, and does it even have any meaning when each state makes up its own mind about what proficiency means?  And what made anyone think that tests given to children could have 100% reliability?  But this was not just pie in the sky wishing on the part of our federal government to get everyone there, this law came along with all types of “accountability” measures that put in place what amounted to punitive measures for schools and districts.  The stakes were high, so it is not surprising that administrators did all they could to raise scores as high as possible.  Teach to the test.  Focus on the kids who are most likely to reach proficient.  Hit all of the most tested items, and don’t go back and re-teach.  All good advice to bring up scores.  All poor advice to teach students critical thinking skills, to stick with it until they learn something and to solidly build foundational skills.

And so I sit with my little group of 6th graders as they look at me, and wait.  Wait for someone to give them the answer.  Wait for me to decide they just don’t get it and move on to something else.  Wait for me to give up on teaching them to think for themselves.  Once they know me better they know that won’t work.  They will find out that I don’t give them the answers, I make them work for them.  They will find out that I don’t give up on teaching them a skill and move on to something else, I stick with it until they get it.

So, have we hopelessly turned our schools into institutions of non-thinking, or is there hope of change?  In my opinion there is room for optimism, and the optimism springs from Common Core Standards.  I know, it sounds strange, after all much of the media publicity claims that the new standards teach students not to think.  However, critical thinking skills, showing evidence of an answer, being able to solve a problem in more than one way, and finding new ways of doing things are all hallmarks of the new standards.  Weird huh?  Here the media claims that the Common Core Standards will strips kids of the ability to think, but I think that ship left the dock over a decade ago.  Of course, the direction the new tests will take or the future of No Child Left Behind is a bit unclear, but I do think there is hope for our kids.

What Common Core Math and Your Auto Mechanic Have in Common

What if I were to tell you that we have a new way of training auto mechanics.  It seems that it takes an awful lot of time to train auto mechanics about all those parts of an engine, and how they all work and there are so many kinds of engines.  You see, there are lots of parts on a car, but only a few of them break often.  And, some cars are much more common than others.  So, the plan is we will streamline the training.  We will teach mechanics to do just the most common repairs, how to get in, get out, no need to know how the thing works.

So, how effective would this teaching technique be?  Well, I suspect, for the most part it would be very effective.  These new mechanics would be able to do the large majority of repairs on most cars.  Some of the mechanics would even pick up some knowledge of how the engine worked, just through this process of knowing how to do a few common repairs.

But, what if you have a problem with your car that wasn’t covered in this expedited training course?  What if you had a car that didn’t fit the mold?  What if you had a problem that was hard to locate?  Would your mechanic be able to find it?  Maybe, but then again, maybe not.  If you had a really sharp mechanic he may be able to figure it out.  He may have come up with strategies to solve the unexpected problem.  But with no training on how it all works, you have no guarantee.

Well, that is how we have been training our children in math for a lot of years.  How were most of us taught to do math?  Algorithms.  How do you subtract 38 from 52?  Well you probably line up the digits, subtract the ones place first, borrowing from the 10’s place because you can’t take away 8 from 2, then subtract the 10’s place.  That process you go through is not really subtraction, it is an easy way to figure it out.  For most of us, we understand what is really happening here.  We get a picture in our head of 52 items and removing 38.  The algorithm is a shortcut, a way to figure it out quickly.

But here is the thing, we educators have been moving at such break-neck speed to teach the standards, that we have run out of time to teach kids what is really happening.  The last few years of crazy standards, standardized testing and moving at an astronomical pace to keep up with who knows who (specifically in the state of California), has left no time to teach what it really means.  It is like the mechanic who can only perform one action.  Most kids can do the algorithm, but they may have no idea what it means, how it works, or how it fits all together.

Enter Common Core math.  You’ve seen the examples of what seems to be long, crazy, drawn out ways to compute something.  Testimonials from parents, professionals, smart people saying, I don’t do math like this, why should my kid?

Well, I will tell you why your kid should learn with Common Core math: your kid should learn Common Core math for the same reason your mechanic should learn everything about an engine instead of just how to do a few repairs.  Your kid should learn Common Core math because it teaches kids how math works, not just how to solve algorithms.

I remember learning math as a kid.  The plan was to teach us how it works, but here was the process.  Teach a skill, show exactly how to do it, give an example, have the kids practice, then they practice alone.  Classic teaching, I do, we do, you do.  So, as a kid, I would take my example, my few I practiced in class, and my book home and do my homework.  Everything worked fine, as long as the problems looked exactly like the example.  When it started to diverge, I started to get lost.  And then, here is the part where the plan was for kids to figure out how it worked, we would get an extension problem.  Take what you have learned, apply it to something completely different, and figure it out.  I would look at those, look at my example and have no idea.  No one taught me how to do that, how are we supposed to do it?

Well, I am no one’s dummy, as a matter of fact I was very good at math, and it eventually became my favorite subject.  But, I wasn’t taught, encouraged, or really even given permission to think on my own (except perhaps in those extension activities I was supposed to do at home).  I had the process, the directions the way to do it.  As long as I followed the directions, I could do it.  Any variation, anything that looked different, and I was stuck.  I had no idea where to start or how to solve it.

Move ahead about 40 years, and now instead of learning math, I am teaching math, as well as a few other subjects.  Guess what, up until Common Core, not a lot had changed.  It was still I do, we do, you do.  And, kids still do not understand those extension activities.  Here is what did change between then and now: someone decided that kids should learn more math faster.  Never mind developmental levels, never mind the time in a school day, never mind that kids can only learn so fast, they should learn more, faster.

Did it work?  Did kids learn more math faster?  Well, if you look at the scores they did go up, but only on the specific tests that teachers were teaching to.  Kids did not really understand math, but many were able to perform a lot of algorithms, as long as it didn’t look different than the example.  Yes, just like the mechanics in my original example, for most students it worked fine.  They were able to perform prescribed operations as taught.

But here are the unintended consequences: kids can solve math problems, the math problems that were specifically taught, but how often will they see those exact problems in real life?  Using this method many students, I may even venture to say most, really don’t know math.  Most of us would recognize ¾ as their pieces of a whole cut into 4, or three out of 4 wholes.  I have worked with all sorts of students who may be able to perform some operations on fractions, but ask them to draw a model, and many just can’t do it.  Ask them to take away half of 8 and tell you the answer, and they may say 7 and a half.  They have memorized the rules (if they have a good memory), but they don’t understand the process.  And, the kids who don’t have good procedural memory are really lost.

So what does this have to do with the crazy Common Core examples?  It is teaching kids how it works, how it looks, what it really means.  Does this mean we don’t use algorithms anymore?  Absolutely not.  They go hand in hand.  The algorithms are short cuts, quicker ways to do things.   They should learn both, what it really means, and the quicker way to solve it.

This is not to say that Common Core math is the perfect solution, or the only way to teach math, but from where I sit it is the best alternative I have seen to what we have been doing for a lot of years that does not work all that well.

Want to know more? Stay tuned for my view on why parents are frustrated and why teachers are unhappy.  Or, check out this link from another point of view.


7 Suggestions to be part of the Solution

Are you part of the solution or part of the problem?  That was the question I asked in my previous blog post, along with a call for those who wanted to be a part of the solution to step forward.  After my open letter to the Westminster School District a few of my friends did indeed step forward to tell me they did want to be part of the solution.  I also received a call from the district superintendent, Dr. Marian Kim Phelps.  Dr. Phelps wanted me, and also everyone else who read my message, to know that she was on board.  She wants to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and hopes the steps she has been taking are the right ones to do that.  She also explained that she did not want to be a part of that revolving door that has become our district administration in recent years.  Her hope is to lead the district for many years, and to retire from this district.  I found her candor and desire to be a long-term fixture to be refreshing and promising.  Unfortunately, it will take a lot more to turn things around than the efforts of a few of my friends and possibly even more than Dr. Phelps’ concerted effort.  It took many years and many people to drive us into the state where we now find ourselves, and it will take time and many people to improve things.

So, what is the secret?  How can we turn things around?  In my opinion there is one important key, communication.  It may sound trite and simplistic, but in my experience many problems can be solved, and potential problems can be alleviated through full, open, continuing 2-way communication.  Here are 7 ways that we can all be a part of the solution, instead of the problem, through communication.

#1- Administrators, please explain Yourself– Public education has had a theory for many years.  It goes something like this, “We are the experts; we have had years of training and education and we use research to back up our methods so we know how to do this; we know what we are doing, and we know best how to educate the masses; you don’t know anything about how to best educate children, so we won’t bother you with the details; and, if you try to get in our way we will put up all kinds of roadblocks to keep you out of our business.”

I come to public education from a little bit different avenue than the average teacher.  Before I was a teacher in the public system, I was a parent.  And, I was a parent who was involved in different sorts of ways.  I worked as a volunteer.  I was involved with PTA.  And, I had children with special needs who did not fit the mold of what a student in a public school “should look like.”  The journey to help those children, as well as my other parental experiences, gave me many opportunities to interface with administrators, and often see the way they communicate with parents and the community.  Through all of these involvements, as well as subsequent involvements as a teacher and a grandparent, I came across this attitude in multiple ways, at multiple times, at all levels of education and in multiple school districts.

Administrators, if you think you can just go about your business of doing your job and not communicate how and why you are doing it you are sorely mistaken.  The day is far past when the public will just trust that you know what you are doing.  The day is gone when parents put their full trust in your expertise.  The day is gone when teachers just follow along and believe that all of the latest (method, curriculum, program, etc.), is always the greatest.  We have seen the pendulum swing too many times, and too far to believe that this will be the time when the true way to fully educate children comes out.  We need good and strong administrators, but we also need administrators who will let us know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing it.

Here is a piece of information about human nature that many people forget.  If you do not communicate with others, they will use their imagination to fill in the gaps.  And guess what, people have great imaginations, so when they fill in the gaps they usually do it in an overly dramatic manner.  And, people will often tell their exaggerated or contrived form of the truth to others, and eventually it becomes the accepted “truth.”  The best way to stop a rumor is to communicate the real truth before rumors have a chance to start in an honest, open and transparent manner.  Most news, usually even bad news, is best conveyed straight from the source.

Let me give you an example: Common Core Standards.  They are all over the news today, and being touted as too hard, too easy, a way for the government to get information on us, etc.  Do you remember when the last standards come into being in the state of California?  Me neither.  I mean, I remember hearing about them, standardizing what we teach kids and all.  But, it was not all over the news, it just happened.  No one voted on them, no one questioned them.  Well, educational administrators made an error this time.  They thought it was business as usual, and that they could just bring in new standards and the public would say, “Oh we have new standards.”  Not so.  Public schools have been under more and more scrutiny of late, so people from all walks of life and with all types of agendas started their own educational campaigns about the new standards.  Instead of educators telling the public, and in some cases teachers, what the standards were, what they contained, and why they were important, people were educated by the media.  Who knows how differently this may have gone if educators themselves would have shared their views first rather than letting the media dictate what Common Core Standards are and are not?

And one more piece of advice to administrators.  Remember, I said real communication is two way so you need to listen also.   While it really helps us to know what is going through your mind, and why you do what you do, if you don’t really listen to our input, you may miss some of the important things you need to know.  Because, while all of those degrees you hold give you a lot of book learning, there is a whole lot of learning going on out there that is not taught in a university.  As the old adage goes, we were all given 2 ears and only 1 mouth, so we should try listening twice as much as we speak.

#2- Teachers, don’t keep it to Yourself– Just as administrators need to communicate what they are doing and why, we teachers also need to explain what we are doing and why.  Part of my job as a Resource Specialist requires me to meet with many parents, and often these parents are unhappy because their children are struggling educationally or behaviorally.  It is not uncommon for me to go into a meeting with a parent who is very unhappy, even angry, and to come out with a parent who is satisfied.  This does not always occur because sometimes people’s views are so far apart that they cannot be reconciled or, just face it, some people are just difficult to please.  However, I have found that, more often than not, when I fully communicate, and I mean listen, not just speak, we can come to a consensus.  You see, some of us have forgotten the goal.  The goal of public education is to educate children.  And, when I communicate that this is my desire to parents, and when I listen to their concerns, I can share my expertise in a way to help us come up with strategies to bring us all closer to the goal.  In turn the parents, as the expert on their own child, often can give me insights I could not have gained without the parents’ input.

However, teachers are in a sticky situation.  Not only must they communicate with parents, they are also the middle men and must communicate with administration.  Teachers need to let administrators know what is going on in the trenches.  They need to pass on their difficulties, as well as their successes.  Of course all of this is easier when districts have administrators who have instilled a policy of open communication.  However, teachers need to continue to share upwards, even if it seems futile, difficult or even scary.  Sometimes it can feel as if sharing things can put your job at risk or make it more difficult.  However, when we only share and complain with our colleagues and friends, we become part of the problem and not part of the solution.

#3- The School Board should be the Ultimate Listener- I would like to speak for a moment to our school board members, our elected officials who represent our community.  Yes, that is what we elected you for, to represent us.  The school board member should be the voice of the community.  As much as the community would love to be involved in what makes our school system tick, face it, we just don’t have time.  Life is busy, and we have a lot going on.  What the community really wants is to elect people they trust to be a watchdog over the district, and then trust that you do a good job.  Are you doing that?  Are you really doing things based on the best interest of the community’s children?  If you think you are, how do you know this?

I submit that if you don’t really listen then you don’t know.  The temptation for school board members is to gravitate toward communication with administrators in the district.  It is good for school boards and administrators to have good working relationships with each other, but I submit that if you spend the majority of your time interfacing with administration you don’t really know what is going on.  If you don’t talk to teachers, parents and community members you have a very narrow view.  If you don’t really listen, and make sure you fully understand, you are just a rubber stamp.

In addition, I think it is important to let the public know what you really believe, what your goals are and what you stand for.  In preparation for the upcoming elections I did some research to find out what the candidates for the school board stood for, believed and wanted to work for.  Information was greatly lacking, and some candidates had no information at all listed.  How can the voters make an informed decision without information out there?

#4- Parents, know your Audience– Parents, here is some advice.  Your local public school really does employ teachers and administrators who are highly trained and often very experienced.  Before you throw out your opinion you may want to listen first.  I know your kid is the best and brightest in your world, but schools have hundreds of students who look a lot like your kid and while it is true no two are exactly alike, there are some typical developmental stages that they all go through.  There is not a lot that educators have not heard before, and they may even be able to share some insights with you.  That being said, everyone needs to realize that all of that expertise can only go so far.  It is not that uncommon for educators to be a bit off the mark, and many times they are just plain wrong.  But, here is the thing, if you treat those educators with respect and really listen to their point of view they are not normally unreasonable.  There are exceptions, and I have seen examples of that myself, but if you go in with an idea of facilitating open communication, more times than not the outcome can be positive.

The other important thing that parents must remember is that really, they wield all of the power.  It is not uncommon in our society today for public schools and teachers to be depicted as the ones totally responsible for educating children.  But really, this is not true at all.  Parents are children’s first teachers.  In addition, much goes on in the home and family that has so much effect on student learning.  In addition, while school attendance is compulsory in our society for children, it is up to parents to choose the local public school or an alternate place to educate their child.  Ultimately, parents not only have the most power in their child’s education, they also have the most responsibility.  Be careful how you wield that power, and how you take on that responsibility.

#5- Share, and listen, Open Mindedly– Many of us love to share.  We share our thoughts with our friends, we share out status with our Facebook friends, and we share our opinions with whoever will listen.  One thing many of us are not as good at is listening.  According to Stephan Covey, most of us spend most of conversational time preparing our answer, not really listening to our counterpart.  What a different world this would be if we all learned, and actually practiced, communication as a 2 way process: listening with real intent, and sharing your views only after you fully understand.  Covey calls this process, Seek first to understand, then to be understood.  If educators at all levels, parents and the public really took the time to do this I think all would be better edified and many typical problems could be alleviated.

In recent years I tried an experiment and started to really listen to others point of view.  Of course today’s social media makes that a little easier, as so many want to tell everyone exactly what they think.  Often we want to gravitate to those who share our opinions, but I made an effort to really read and try to understand the opinion of those who did not agree with me.  While I still enjoy hearing the opinions of those who agree with me, I have found the process of really studying the views of those who disagreed to be highly informative and interesting.  I have come to feel more respect for the opinions of those with whom I disagree, and having a better understanding of where those points of view come from.  At the same time, I have strengthened my own opinions and developed good arguments as to why I believe the way I do on many issues.

I submit that this process of really listening, studying and trying to understand could lead all of us to better understanding and more collaborative efforts at all levels.

#6- Understand Bias- When I talk about bias I don’t mean prejudice against certain groups of people, and I am not talking about the fact that you think your kid is the best kid in the world.  I am talking about the bias that we all have due to certain life experiences we have had.

Let me give you an example.  Because I have 2 children of my own with special needs and because I work with many students who struggle academically I have a real bias for the underdog, the underperforming and the under achieving.  Put me in a group of kids and I tend to be unimpressed by the best and the brightest, I look for the poor little guy hanging out in the corner.  I gravitate toward the awkward, the misunderstood and the struggling.

So what does this have to do with communication in a public school setting?  We all have biases.  We all have our own little piece of the world where we believe more is needed.  We all have our own friends, family members and co-workers who we are more willing to give attention to.  The problem is not bias, as much as not paying attention to bias.  First, we need to know and understand our own bias.  What motivates me to do the things I do?  I am only willing to help those I am drawn to, or do I take steps to give equal attention to all?  Second, we need to be aware of, and pay attention to other’s biases.  People involved in public education at all levels should be watching for unchecked biases.  Unchecked biases, I believe, are one of the biggest downfalls to all sorts of organizations, and especially to public education.  We all need to be vigilant to keep the focus on educating all students, not personal biases based on a personal agenda, furthering someone’s career or someone’s pet project.

And here is one interesting thing about bias and communication; it colors not only our actions but our perception.  When we listen, we listen with our biases fully intact and operating.  That means when someone speaks, what they say is filtered through our understanding, our experiences, our own ideas on how the world is and should be.  Do you take the time to really understand what others are saying?  Sometimes that means extra questioning, and takes way longer than most conversations.  However, if we don’t take the time to do this, especially when people don’t agree, when stakes are high, or when tempers are really charged, miscommunication will ensue.

#7- Be a good Citizen– Elections are coming up.  Will you be voting?  I know will be.  But just voting isn’t enough.  Do your homework.  Read all you can about the candidates.  Here is a website that lists information about the candidates running for the Westminster School Board.  http://ballotpedia.org/Westminster_Elementary_School_District_elections_(2014)

While it can be hard to get valid and detailed information about candidates, especially local ones, voting based just on what you glean from ads and hearsay does not constitute really being a part of the solution.  Do your homework, talk to people who know and have worked with the candidates, look for those with promising backgrounds and good values.  Then, use your best judgment to make your best choice.

What I am recommending is not easy.  It takes a lot of work to fully communicate with others, to really listen, to monitor the biases of yourself and others and to do your research and vote responsibly.  However, those who sit by and do nothing are part of the problem.  As the old adage goes, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  Step up and be part of the solution.