Friday, August 29, 2014

"Horrible" Common Core Math Problems #1

As many of my readers may know, I just finished a run for the Arizona State House of Representatives.  Unfortunately, I came up a little short.  With the conclusion of that opportunity, I would like to return to sorting out some of the fact and fiction about Common Core.  Throughout my campaign, most of the serious complaints I heard about Common Core dealt with the math portion of the standards.  Many people told me about horrible math problems and worksheets their elementary students were receiving.  So as I return to my analysis of the Common Core, I would like to jump to the math section and take a slightly different approach.  I will search the Internet for "horrible" Common Core math problems and analyze them looking at several questions:

1) What, if any, Common Core standard does the problem address?
2)  How will solving this problem (or similar ones) help and/or hurt students?
3)  What is the more traditional way of teaching the concept?
4)  Is there any research that supports either the old way or the new way?

When I did a search for horrible Common Core math problems, one of the first sites that came up was "The Ten Dumbest Common Core Problems."  So I will start with their first problem and go from there.  Here it is.

In case you can't see the problem very well, it asks students to use number bonds to help them skip-count by seven by making ten or adding to the ones.  Here is my analysis:

1) What, if any, Common Core standard does the problem address?
I did searches for "number bonds" and "skip-counting" as well as a quick skim of the math standards for the elementary grades.  There is no mention of "number bonds" anywhere in the math standards for any grade.  "Skip-counting" is mentioned once in 2nd grade as such:

2.NBT.2 Count within 1000; skip-count by 5s, 10s, and 100s.

In this context, it is clear that by "skip-counting," they simply mean to count by 5s, 10s, and 100s.  But skip-counting by seven is certainly not mentioned, nor is anything called "number bonds."  Now, I realize that the top of this worksheet clearly says, "NYS COMMON CORE MATHEMATICS CURRICULUM," but this goes to show that just because something is labeled "Common Core" does not make it so.

After searching some more, I found this standard in 1st Grade Mathematics:

1.OA.6. Add and subtract within 20, demonstrating fluency for addition and
subtraction within 10. Use strategies such as counting on; making ten(e.g., 8 + 6 = 8 + 2 + 4 = 10 + 4 = 14); decomposing a number leading to
a ten (e.g., 13 – 4 = 13 – 3 – 1 = 10 – 1 = 9); using the relationship between
addition and subtraction (e.g., knowing that 8 + 4 = 12, one knows 12 – 8
= 4); and creating equivalent but easier or known sums (e.g., adding 6 +
7 by creating the known equivalent 6 + 6 + 1 = 12 + 1 = 13).

I bolded the applicable section of the standard because I think the above problem is an example of making ten to add.  However, I think it is also clear in the standard that students should be able to add and subtract and should know a variety of ways of doing so.  This standard doesn't seem to dictate that this particular method has to be taught, but that various ways of adding and subtracting should be taught so that students become capable of adding and subtracting fluently.

As I researched a little more, I found that the term "number bonds" seems to come from Singapore Math, something from which the Common Core math draws heavily.

2)  How will solving this problem (or similar ones) help and/or hurt students?
My mother learned to add by playing Dominoes - the kind where the ends of the strings of dominoes have to add up to multiples of five in order to get points.  Then, when someone goes out, you add up the dots on your remaining dominoes and those points go to the person who played their last domino.  We occasionally played growing up.  I remember my mother teaching me that the quickest and easiest way to add up the points was to make groups of tens.  So, if you had an eight, you would group it with a two, and so on.  When we reached the last dominoes that no longer made tens, we regularly used the above method.

Of course, adding 7 + 7 is a simple problem that children should be able to answer from memory, but that doesn't mean that the concept of making tens is useless.  What if we replace the problem with 38 + 5?  When I do a problem like this in my head, I automatically break the 5 into a 2 and a 3, group the 2 with the 38, and know the answer is 43.  I don't have to think of the individual steps in my head, but it is certainly the way I visualize the problem.  And it helps me get to an answer much more quickly than thinking, "5 + 8 is 13, carry the one, add to the 3 in the 10s place, the answer is 43."  Both methods work fine, but I like knowing both and being able to choose the one that works best and most quickly for me.

But these are both anecdotal evidence that tell us little about whether learning this method will help or hurt students.  How does solving this problem help students?  What can they learn from the problem?  I would assert they learn the following:

  • Numbers can be broken down into their parts and then added back together without changing the outcome.  
  • Grouping numbers in 10s can be a quick and effective way of adding. 
  • Adding in your head is simpler when utilizing groups of 10s.
  • If you can't remember a simple math fact, you can figure it out quickly.
And how does it hurt students?
  • Some students may not memorize their math facts because they know an easy way to come up with the answer without memorization. (Not sure this is entirely a bad thing.  I would rather students know how to come up with the correct answer than just memorize it.)
  • Parents who do not understand this type of problem become frustrated and are unable to help students.  This can alienate parents from school involvement.  This is a HUGE problem, but one that can be solved by better teacher-parent communication.
3)  What is the more traditional way of teaching the concept?
Memorization.  Rather than number bonds, fact families were used.  Here is a site I found that explained some of the difference between the two.

4)  Is there any research that supports either the old way or the new way?

In searching for research on the topic, I came across a study entitled "Teaching and Learning Mathematics."  It is a fairly extensive list of things research can tell us about teaching and learning math.  These are just a couple of the claims listed.
Practice toward mastery of basic skills and procedural algorithms should not occur until students develop the meaning underlying those skills or algorithms.  Research results (and frustrated teachers) consistently suggest that if this practice occurs too soon for a student, it is very difficult for that student to step back and focus on the meaning that should have been developed at the very beginning (Brownell and Chazal., 1935; Resnick and Omanson, 1987; Wearne and Hiebert, 1988a; Hiebert and Carpenter, 1992).
Students trying to master the basic addition facts should be given experiences with the derived fact strategies. For example, 5+6 can be transformed into [5+5]+1, which can be solved by the sum of the easier double [5+5]=10 and 1. Because this strategy builds on a student’s number sense and meaningful relationships between basic combinations, it improves fact recall and provides a “fall-back” mechanism for students (Fuson, 1992a; Steinberg, 1985).

The above paper lists several studies that support the claims.  I found additional studies to support these claims fairly easily, but none that refute them.  All of the studies I found showed that student who understood concepts like number bonds or skip-counting were significantly better at mastering math facts.  If anyone knows of studies to the contrary, I would love to know about them.

In summary, this type of problem is not dictated by Common Core, but is certainly in line with the standards.  Solving problems of this type has several benefits for students.  Research supports this assertion.  The only negative is misunderstanding on the part of parents.  This is a major issue that must be addressed.  Parents must be given enough information to help students understand and complete homework assignments.  They should also receive some sort of explanation of the reasons a new concept such as this one is being taught to their child.  Getting parents and teachers on the same page is essential to student success.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Types of Writing

          This post continues the comparison between Arizona's old writing standards (part of the English Language Arts standards) and the new Arizona Common Core writing standards, now known as Arizona's College and Career Readiness writing standards.  But before I begin, a brief note on the recent name change (for those of you in Arizona).  Frankly, I find the name change and associated declaration (which can be viewed here) a little absurd.  All of the "whereas" statements are certainly true and most of them deal with issues addressed in previous blog posts.  Also, all but the first of the numbered executive orders are true even without this order.  The first one asks that we start referring to the standards as "Arizona's College and Career Ready Standards."  It is the only change in policy in the entire document.
          I certainly understand the reasoning behind releasing such a statement.  Common Core opponents have argued ceaselessly that the federal government is taking over school curriculum, that certain reading materials are mandatory, and that local parents and school boards have lost all say in the matter.  Superintendent Huppenthal has spent the last several months speaking to groups and attempting to inform them of the reality of the situation much as I have on my blog, through speaking engagements, and by emailing and speaking to individuals as concerns have arisen.  Many others have embarked on the same journey after having studied the new standards and found them desirable for our students' success.  But these voices of reason have largely been drowned out by untrue or exaggerated claims and indictments of the standards themselves and those who developed them.  It has been a difficult and often thankless battle fighting for standards that are designed with the goal of better preparing our students for the future.
          Despite the bad publicity the standards have received from some groups and factions, I think the name change is counterproductive.  I believe two main goals of public policy should be clarity and consistency - and this name change runs contrary to both.  While architects of the name change argue that it makes it more clear that these are Arizona's standards and includes the goal (college and career readiness) in the name of the standards, I think it is obvious that it is also an effort to confuse opponents.  All of the websites and pamphlets and other materials railing on Common Core are now one step removed from the argument in Arizona.  Likewise, proponents can now talk about the standards themselves and people might actually hear what is in them before they realize that it is Common Core and inherently evil (yes, I am exaggerating a little).  But I vastly prefer clarity and dispelling myths through proof and reason to the tactic being employed here of obfuscation and redirection.
          Furthermore, business leaders have lined up to speak for and support the new standards as many believe they will prepare students to be better future employees.  These business leaders have bought in to the Common Core label and money and effort (both public and private) have been spent promoting Common Core, describing the new standards to parents and the public, and preparing teachers to teach them.  While changing the name does not render these efforts entirely useless, it does lessen their impact in various ways.
          One of my favorite articles about the name change (which can be seen here) compared the reluctancy to call the standards by their rightful name to the fear of Voldemort's name in Harry Potter.  As a huge fan of Harry Potter, it is incredibly tempting for me to refer to the new standards from this time forward as the "standards-that-must-not-be-named," but since my goal is clarity, I will refrain.  Instead, I will refer to them as the "new Arizona College and Career Readiness Standards (Common Core)" the first time in my posts and simply the "new standards" thereafter.  I hope this will avoid any confusion on the topic.
          This post will contain an overview of the types of writing required of 12th graders by both the old standards and the new.  Later posts will go into detail about what is required within each writing genre.  Today's will simply evaluate whether or not both sets of standards require the same types of writing; whether or not those types of writing are sufficient preparation for college, career, and civic involvement; and whether the types of writing required by each show any type of political bias or slant.

The Facts:

  • Both the old and the new writing standards require students to show an ability to produce specific types of writing.
  • The old standards contain a section for each type of writing: expressive (personal narrative, poetry, stories. etc.), expository (non-fiction; describes, explains, or summarizes), functional (specific directions), persuasive, literary response, and research.
  • The new standards are arranged differently but specifically require the following types of writing: informative/explanatory, narratives, functional, and research projects.  Students are also required to demonstrate through writing an understanding of foundational works of American literature and constitutional principles.  They also must be able to write arguments to support claims in various forms of texts.

My Opinion:

          Both sets of standards require functional texts, some form of expressive writing, literary responses, expository texts, and research projects.  The new standards fail to specifically mention poetry or persuasive texts.  However, the standard that deals with writing arguments to support claims (with its additional criteria) clearly speaks to writing persuasive texts.  Also, writing persuasive texts is required to begin in 3rd grade with the new standards, so it is certainly not a topic that has been in any way neglected in the new standards.  It is simply not entitled "persuasive" writing in this section of the standards.  Perhaps this is something that ought to be added.
          Is the exclusion of poetry writing something to be concerned about?  Perhaps.  It also is required in earlier grades but neglected as a requirement for 12th graders.  Poetry can be a very powerful art form and a great opportunity for self-expression.  However, I would argue that it is less important to preparation for college and careers than the forms of writing emphasized in the new standards.  I hesitate to say whether it is more or less useful than other forms of writing for civic involvement.  Certainly, there have been pieces of poetry and song lyrics written that have had a great impact on this country (The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, the Star Spangled Banner, etc.).  And the new standards do not require that writing poetry be banished from the 12th grade English class, they simply do not require it.  Actually, the old standards require that some forms of expressive writing be done and list several examples of types of writing including poetry, but they do not absolutely require it, nor do I believe writing poetry has been included (or should be) on the AIMS test (Arizona's test to measure students' grasp of the old standards).  So I doubt the new standards will have much impact on the amount of poetry writing (or complete lack thereof) that takes place in our 12th grade English classes.
          Finally, in looking at the types of writing required, it is very difficult to see any political bias one way or the other.  The types of writing required are fairly broad.  It would, however, be possible to comply with these standards without doing any creative writing at all.  I think this is inadvisable.  A good teacher/curriculum will include creative writing in the narrative portion of the requirement.  Also, neither set of standards is meant to be an exhaustive list of everything covered in a class.  Standards are a set of minimal requirements.  That being said, teachers will emphasize the areas that are to be tested (and upon which their own evaluations are judged) to the possible detriment of other topics.  So if Arizona were to add anything to the list of types of writing, I would explicitly require some form of creative writing.

Sunday, September 29, 2013


          Are the vast majority of those opposed to Common Core misinformed?  I was recently quoted as saying as much in a local newspaper.  Today I will depart from my standard format and delineate my reason for believing that, at least locally, most of the people who stand ardently against Common Core do so at least in part because of the exhaustive propagation of misinformation.  I have not done a scientifically valid and reliable study on the topic and offer this solely as my opinion.  However, I will include specific examples and evidence that have led me to form my belief on the matter.
          First, I would like to make something utterly clear: there are people with legitimate, fact-based concerns about Common Core.  There are those who have read and studied the standards and come to the conclusion that they are bad for our students and our education system for various reasons.  They may believe the math standards are too low or that there should be more emphasis on character building through in-depth studies of the classics (as opposed to increasing emphasis on non-fiction).  They may disagree with teaching the why in math alongside the how.  Perhaps they continue to advocate for more "readable" texts in subjects other than literature rather than concentrating on improving reading comprehension.  There are those that feel these standards will not mean students are adequately prepared for college and careers.  These are not the people I am talking about.  Such issues are absolutely valid concerns and need to be addressed and discussed and researched.  But very few of the discussions I have had with Common Core detractors are about these types of issues.  In fact, I have not spoken to a single individual who was fighting against Common Core that focused solely or even primarily on any of these types of issues.
          I have attended at least three anti-Common Core presentations, spoken to various parents and groups of parents with concerns, watched several Glen Beck segments, and read countless websites against Common Core.  I am emailed back and forth with concerned citizens and have done countless hours of reading both the standards themselves and arguments for and against them.  One thing I have noticed is that those who are against the standards would have you read numerous "expert" analyses about the evils of Common Core.  Those who speak for the standards, would have you read the research that led to them and the standards themselves.  Those who are against the standards rarely quote from the standards themselves.  They quote people's negative opinions of the standards.  Those who speak for the standards, often quote directly from those standards as evidence of their virtues.  They know them well enough to realize that the standards themselves are the key to dispelling the rumors and myths surrounding them.
          Recently I attended an event where Diane Douglas, a candidate for Arizona State Superintendent of Public Education railed on the "evils" of Common Core.  I could not write fast enough to jot down all of the fallacies and misinformation she presented.  She began the presentation by saying that she had studied education for the past twenty years and had vigorously studied the Common Core standards.  She presents herself as an "expert" on the subject.  I responded by email to many of the fallacies she shared and invited her to respond, giving her a fair chance to clarify anything I may have misquoted or misunderstood about her presentation.  Perhaps she has responded to the leader of the group she spoke to that night, but she has not responded to me.  As such, I will include much of the letter I sent as an example of the types of misinformation that is being spread by Common Core "experts."

           There are a lot of important considerations that need to be examined rationally and truthfully.  Adding untruths to the complex conversations that need to take place does not help, but instead muddies the water and sends concerned parents, citizens, and politicians chasing wild geese.  So I would like to clear up some of the misconceptions propagated at Monday’s meeting.  I am also copying Diane on this email so that she has a chance to respond to both of us.  If I misunderstood what she was saying then I would like to know that too.
1)      “Restaurant menus are required reading under Common Core.” – Diane Douglas
Although I knew this statement was blatantly false, I read through all of the English Language Arts standards again as well as doing word searches for “restaurant”,  “menu”,  and even “food.”  The word “menu” occurs twice in the standards as such:

For 1st grade: Know and use various text features (e.g., headings, tables of contents, glossaries, electronic menus, icons) to locate key facts or information in a text. (1.RI.5)

For 2nd grade: Know and use various text features (e.g., captions, bold print, subheadings, glossaries, indexes, electronic menus, icons) to locate key facts or information in a text efficiently. (2.RI.5)

It is pretty clear this is not talking about restaurant menus.  It is possible that some districts or teachers may use restaurant menus in some of their lessons, but that decision would be made at the local level and is certainly not mandated by Common Core.

2)  The Common Core seeks to move science away from biology, chemistry, etc.  
This is not a direct quote, but the general gist of what Diane said.  However, the Common Core should not have any impact on what subject matter is taught in science.  They are English and Math standards.  The only inclusion of science is that students must be able to read, comprehend, and write about scientific topics.  Nowhere does it specify which topics.  It certainly doesn't encourage them not to teach biology or chemistry or physics.  Here is a sample of what it does say.

For Kindergarten: Actively engage in group reading of informational and functional texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, with purpose and understanding. (AZ.K.RI.10)

For 2nd Grade:  Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., read a number of books on a single topic to produce a report; record science observations). (2.W.7)

For 6th Grade: By the end of the year, read and comprehend informational and functional text, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, in the grades 6–8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range. (AZ.6.RI.10)

For 11th – 12th Grade:   Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to important distinctions the author makes and to any gaps or inconsistencies in the account. (11-12.RST.1)

This is only a sample of the types of references to science that exist in the standards.  Feel free to look through the entire document to see that the statement about these moving students away from biology and chemistry is patently false.  Here is a link to the EnglishLanguage Arts Standards.

3)      Common Core mandates data collection.  
There is no mention whatsoever of data collection in the Common Core.  Actually, there is mention of students recording science observations and thus recording data, but that is clearly not what Diane was talking about.  The state longitudinal database is a project that began long before Common Core.  I have written two different blog posts on the topic and rather than rewriting what I have learned, I will include links to the two relevant posts below.

Instrusive Monitoring
Is My Student's Data Safe

4)      PARRC tests are federally mandated.  
States were given two choices regarding assessments if they wished to apply for NCLB (No Child Left Behind) Waivers and to compete in Race to the Top.  They could a) join or create a testing consortium with other states, or b) create their assessment that would test students on whichever college and career ready standards they adopted.  (States were also given the option of either adopting Common Core or creating their own College and Career Readiness Standards.  Two states (Vermont and Alaska) chose to develop their own standards.  The two testing consortiums that emerged were PARRC and Smarter Balance.  Clearly PARRC was not federally mandated.  There were multiple choices available.  (By the way, I don’t believe the Dept of Ed has any right to insist on this or any other requirement even if there were multiple choices, but I am simply letting you know that Diane’s statement was fallacious.)  I think what she must have meant was that assessing students was federally mandated, but this has been true long before Common Core.

5)      PARRC is becoming Smarter Balance?  
I have no idea what Diane meant by this.  PARRC and Smarter Balance are two separate testing consortiums.  There has been no discussion of them merging or one taking over the other.  This statement really confused me.  The only thing I can think of is that she meant that the AZ Dept of Ed is looking at other potential assessments and assessment providers to make sure we get the best assessments for the least money.  There are several options being weighed currently.  One of those options is to use the tests developed by Smarter Balance rather than PARRC.  Perhaps this is what she meant?

6)      I see evidence of whole language in the Common Core.  
I have no idea where this is coming from.  The standards are very clear that phonograms must be taught.  Reading by sight is mentioned one time in the ELA standards.  This standard is in the middle of three that talk about single letter and double letter phonograms, distinguishing between similar words based on letter sounds, and associating long and short sounds for the five main vowels.

For Kindergarten: Read common high-frequency words by sight (e.g., the, of, to, you, she, my, is, are, do, does).

7)   Diane mentioned she felt we should be using the GED, ACT, or SAT as our graduation readiness test rather than PARRC in order to save money.  Perhaps this is any idea she simply has not researched very thoroughly.
Cost for PARRC: $30 per student
Cost for GED: $70 to $95 per student
Cost for ACT: $52.50
Cost for SAT: $51

Clearly this is not a feasible solution.

          This was the bulk of the content of my letter.  But I would like to point out one more fallacy that particularly bothers me.  This is something I have heard twice from Diane.  It is that when we speak of lifelong learners we mean students who know just enough to get a job and be trained on the job.  I find this statement both completely false and insulting to everyone's intelligence.  I know many educators who advocate for helping students become lifelong learners.  They speak of engaging students in enjoyable reading so that it will become a lifelong hobby.  They speak (particularly in the new standards) of developing ample reading comprehension so that students can extract information from newspapers, voter pamphlets, instruction manuals, and other non-fiction texts.  They speak of a thirst for learning that leads students to take voluntary on-line courses or enroll in community classes or study something on the Internet just because they are interested in the topic.  They speak of not quenching the insatiable curiosity with which our children are born.  This is what is meant by lifelong learners.  Students who grow up to be adults with a thirst for knowledge and an ability to satisfy that thirst through continuous learning.
          It seems that if this Common Core "expert" were actually an expert on the topic, she would be able to respond to my evaluation of her talking points with proof of at least some of her allegations against the standards.  To date, this has not happened.  And I do not consider this presentation any kind of an exception to the rule.  I have yet to attend a presentation against Common Core that does not emphasize these or similar fallacies as their main arguments against the standards.  Perhaps I am wrong in saying that most Common Core detractors are misinformed.  Perhaps it is just the most vocal of them and the self-proclaimed "experts" who speak with religious fervor about the evil conspiracy to ruin our children.  
          In the end, if people are confused, they should do as the Common Core standards teach.  They should go to the primary source - the standards themselves.  They should read the standards looking for both good and bad.  If someone says or writes something bad about the standards, discerning individuals should open up the standards and verify for themselves the veracity of such statements.  We should ask for and expect proof from both supporters and detractors.  Only when we get the facts straight can we have a meaningful discussion of the pros and cons of the Common Core State Standards and what they mean for our students.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Old Versus New - Writing Process and Mechanics

          Today's post deals with a comparison between writing process and mechanics standards in the old Arizona English Language Arts standards versus the new Arizona Common Core ELA Standards for 12th grade students.  As with the previous post, consideration will be given for whether or not the new standards are superior or inferior to the old standards in these subject areas, whether or not the new standards represent a threshold for college or career readiness, and whether or not development of the required skills is necessary and sufficient for involved participation in our society. 
          I would define writing process standards as anything that deals with the method students use to write: pre-writing, editing, etc.  Writing mechanics, on the other hand, is adherence to conventions like spelling, capitalization, etc.  Together, these two topics speak to the more technical aspects of writing.

The Facts:

  • The old standards include an entire strand (1 of 3 strands) on Writing Process.  This strand includes 5 concepts: pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing.  Each of these concepts is further broken down into individual standards. 
  • The new standards have only one standards dealing with writing process.  It reads, "Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience."
  • The old standards have a single concepts that deals with conventions, but it includes 12 sub-concepts which take up a page and a half of the 9 pages of writing standards.  These sub-concepts are 1) capitalization, 2) comma usage, 3) quotations marks, 4) underlining/italics, 5) colons, 6) semi-colons, 7) apostrophes, 8) hyphens, dashes, parentheses, ellipses, and brackets, 9) spelling, 10) paragraph breaks, 11) grammar and usage, and 12) formatting.  Many of these categories have additional bullet points describing situations in which students should be able to apply relevant principles.
  • The new standards require students to "establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing."

My Opinion:

          It is clear upon looking at the stark contrast between the old and new standards that the old standards place much greater emphasis on the steps necessary to produce writing.  The new standards, as pointed out in a previous post, describe what a student needs to be able to produce in terms of writing rather than how it is to be produced.  Teachers and parents who worry that the new standards will force teachers to teach writing a specific way and take away options that have worked well in the past, need not worry in the regard.  The new standards open the door to any methods teachers feel work best so long as the result is good, appropriate writing.  In my eyes, this makes the new standards much more like standards and much less like prescriptive teaching plans.
          Although I have looked through the old standards or several occasions, it was not until I compared the two that I realized just how prescriptive the old standards are in this regard.  The level of detail of what students should be able to correctly abbreviate and punctuate surprised me.  It seems to make much better sense to simply say that students should use correct abbreviation, punctuation, and spelling in their writing than to say each and every instance in which students should know correct punctuation.  Beside taking up a large chunk of the writing standards, if there are situations that were missed, are students not also responsible for proper punctuation and abbreviation in unlisted situations?  Plainly and simply put, graduating seniors need to be able to write with correct mechanics.  That is basically what the new standards say.  To me, this makes them superior to the old.
          My second consideration is whether or not the skills listed for writing process and convention are sufficient and necessary for successful freshman level college work or entry-level career work.  I think adherence to either set of writing standards above will produce students who are ready for college level work.  As stated in the previous post, many of the students with whom I worked in groups or performed peer reviews struggled mightily with proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar.  Some of them were undoubtedly successful with being skillful in these regards.  However, it greatly hindered their work and required them to do many more revisions than those who had better honed their skills in following writing conventions.  With the advent of spell-check and grammar check and the fact that virtually all college papers are prepared on the computer, perfect mastery of these skills may not be as important as they were previously.  However, I believe they should continue to be one of the focuses of teaching students to write - perhaps not the main focus, but certainly something to be addressed.
          Familiarity with the writing process is perhaps more important in the age of computer editing than knowledge of particular conventions.  A student who receives a writing assignment and doesn't know where to start without a teacher beside him walking him through the process is going to flounder in college classes.  Likewise, a student who fails to take advantage of proof-reading and revision opportunities will struggle to write successful college papers.  These are absolutely essential skills to develop before beginning college.  Further, in a career where writing is prevalent, employees will be expected to plan out, organize, write, and revise without prompts or too much additional support.  In short, both adherence to writing conventions and knowledge of and familiarity with the writing process are essential to college and career success.
          Finally, I do not see any way political bias could be suspected in regards to the new standards for writing process and conventions.  Furthermore, adults who have been taught the writing process and proper adherence to writing conventions will be more confident engaging in the political process by writing letters to politicians, writing opinion pieces for newspapers or voting pamphlets, or communicating their thoughts to other through use of the written word.  The ability to write a well-crafted resume or application is likewise essential to business success for many.
          The best standards state what a student should be able to do with as few restrictions as possible.  In this regard, the new standards get an A+.  They remove all of the unnecessary details found in the previous standards and cut to the chase.  Students need to be able to follow the writing process to produce various types of papers and students need to follow appropriate conventions in their writing.  Teachers need to teach these precepts in whatever way works for their students.  This is what the new standards require and allow.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Writing - Use of Evidence

          Today's post will begin to move into the particulars of 12th grade writing.  I will compare and contrast the requirements for use of evidence in the old Arizona standards for English Language Arts  and the new Arizona Common Core English Language Arts Standards.  My three major areas of concern in this area, as with each of the standards are: 1) Are the new standards better, worse, or the same as the old? 2) Does proficiency in the new standards represent the degree of skill necessary for college or career readiness? 3) Do the standards show any political bias?

The Facts:

  • Both sets of standards require students to use sufficient, relevant evidence in expository, persuasive, literary, and research writing situations.  In both cases, they speak to the necessity of using details, facts, examples, etc.  Both also require that direct quotes be correctly included and citations and works cited pages be formatted according to an appropriate convention.
  • Both sets of standards also require students to use evidence from the texts to compare the treatment of a common theme from two different literary works.  The new standards include the requirement that students do such comparison between two foundational works of American Literature.
  • While both sets of standards require students to weigh and consider the relative value of multiple sources and pieces of evidence, the new standards put a much greater emphasis on this topic.  While the old standards mention this skill as a bullet point in the Research strand of writing, it is a common theme running through several of the new writing standards.  For example, the new standards require that students "develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience's knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases."
  • The new standards also require students to "clarify the relationship between claim(s) and reasons, between reasons and evidence, and between claim(s) and counterclaims."  This is something that was not mentioned in the prior standards.
  • Technology use is also required in the new standards.  Students must use technology to post and update their writing "in response to ongoing feedback , including new arguments or information."  They must also "[use] advanced searches effectively" to gather "relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources."
  • The new standards require students to evaluate evidence from "seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning". 

My Opinion

          While both the old and new standards required students to use evidence appropriately in their writing and cite it correctly, the new standards give much greater emphasis to the development of this skill than the old.  In fact, of the nine writing standards for 12th graders, six of them deal, in some part, with proper use of evidence in writing.  The old standards list use of evidence in 6 out of 18 main concepts.  Part of this discrepancy is due to the way each set of standards is organized, but it is very apparent when reading through the new standards that skillful use of evidence is paramount to proficiency in writing.  Because of the additional emphasis on evidence and the fact that the new standards lack nothing on the topic that was present in the old, my analysis is that the new standards are superior is this facet.
          My next concern is whether or not these standards (if followed with fidelity) will produce college and career ready writers.  As I consider my own college experience (warning: anecdotal evidence to follow), I think that there were two main struggles preventing high grades in writing.  The first, poor use of conventions (spelling, grammar, etc.) will be addressed in subsequent posts.  But the second was definitely: making assertions without evidence or relying wholly on a single unreliable source for evidence.  The new standards make it clear that neither of these choices are acceptable.  In this regard, the new standards focus teachers and students on a topic that will certainly better prepare students for college coursework.  As far as careers are concerned, those careers that require evidence based research and/or writing are also looking for people who can accurately analyze and synthesize relevant information.  This is certainly a required skill for many careers.  However, most of those careers also require a college degree.
          Finally, I am always watching for political bias in academic standards.  As both standards require ample use of evidence and even a warning in the new standards to be on the look-out for potential biases, I think this passes the test of political neutrality.  Real, solid evidence is not political.  It is sustained by fact.  It outweighs bias.  Further, the new standards require an emphasis on seminal U.S. texts and historical American literature.  They require students to understand constitutional principles and apply them to their writing.  While teachers may choose historical documents and texts that fit their own political bias, the standards themselves are certainly not biased in this regard.
          As the standards apply to use of evidence in writing, my opinion is that the new standards are superior and place greater emphasis on proper use and evidence.  I see no reason to oppose this section of the standards or to add to it in any way.  Students who master the concepts outlined will doubtless be proficient writers as they enter the next stage in their lives.  Regardless of whether or not they attend college, students who know how to use evidence appropriately in their writing will be better able to participate in their communities, to make their voices heard through writing, and to influence those around them.  This is what I want for my own children and for all students who attend our schools.

Monday, August 19, 2013

What if ... We Completely Changed the Way We Fund Schools

          Today I am going to diverge completely from the topic of Common Core and the controversies surrounding it and think out loud (or rather on electronic paper) about an idea I have for revamping the way we fund schools.  For some time I have been considering how the state might change the funding formula to put less emphasis on seat time and more emphasis on the amount of learning that takes place.  I have also wondered how we might more adequately reward truly exceptional teachers.  The idea that is currently forming in my head would, I believe, address both of these issues (although it does not dramatically increase the amount of funding to schools).  Further, I have worried about funding to help gifted students reach their potential as well as encourage those who teach Special Education students to continue to progress at the fastest pace possible.
          As all of these concerns (and many more) have been floating around, colliding in my head, an idea emerged.  My inclusion of it on my blog does not mean that I am sure this is a brilliant idea that should immediately be adopted and pushed.  It simply means that I am thinking through the idea and find writing down my thoughts beneficial as I question my own assumptions and conclusions.  I would love feedback and comments so that I might continue to refine the idea into something that might actually work and benefit our students, teachers, and schools.
          In order to understand my idea, readers must first understand some basics about school funding.  Most of our public school funding comes from the state and is given out based on Average Daily Attendance and/or Average Daily Membership.  So for every student at a school, the state pays a certain amount of money per day that a student is enrolled in that school.  As long as attendance for a school is above a certain percentage (I think 97%), the school is funded based on membership rather than attendance.  Most of the time this is the case.  Attendance is counted based on a number of hours required in each grade.  So an elementary student is required to be in school something like 6 hours per day (except Kindergarten); a junior high student has about the same requirement; and a high school student should be in school at least 20 hours a week to count for 100% attendance for that week.  Even when classes are taught on-line at a "virtual" school or in a "virtual" class, parents or teachers must vouch that students were working on the class for a certain amount of time in order to get full attendance (and thus, full funding).  As such, schools and districts are paid for "seat time" or the number of hours students spend in school.  This funding is in no way linked to what students learn and does not reward schools for helping students catch up or get ahead.
          As stated earlier, most of public school funding is distributed in this way, based on seat time.  In addition to seat time, certain student characteristics prompt additional funding.  In Arizona, students with special needs, students in grades K-3, and a few other factors prompt multipliers that supply extra funding to allow for appropriate class sizes, interventions, etc.  There is also federal funding for schools with a certain percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches, transportation funding, and extra funds for districts with a higher percentage of highly experienced teachers (because their salaries cost the district more).  There are voter approved funds, some of which are tied to incentives.  And in the past, there were funds for building new schools and maintaining older ones, but these funds have not been available for several year.  Some districts pass bonds to help cover their building and maintenance needs as well as new technology.  I am sure this is not an exhaustive list of school funding streams, but suffice it to say that the vast majority of funding comes from the state and is based on seat time.  This is the portion that I would propose altering.
          My proposal would be to change from seat time funding to funding based on individual student progress.  For each subject taught in our schools, progress or growth levels could be set.  Each student coming into our schools will be at a different growth level for each subject.  Growth levels may or may not correspond with specific grade levels.  They definitely should align to state standards for each subject that has corresponding standards.  A students' progress level can be determined based on testing, portfolio, or a combination of these and other methods.  It should not be determined based solely on standardized test results.
          Each subject and progress level within that subject should be given a relative value based on three things - the skill set's necessity in future education, the skill set's relative value in the work force, and the skill set's value in civic/community engagement.  So a skill like writing that is extremely important in all three fields would receive a significantly higher value than many other subjects.
          Once progress levels are set and each progress level for each subject is given a relative value, schools could be funded based on the progress levels that students attain over the course of the year.  Multipliers should be added for students who struggle to progress, are significantly behind their age group peers, or are economically disadvantaged.  In this way, schools would be compensated for the extra work it takes to help these children progress.  Gifted education would automatically receive additional funding simply because gifted children progress more quickly.  And there would be much greater reward for identifying economically disadvantaged gifted children and helping them reach their potential.  Schools who make sure they fill in gaps for children who are behind will be compensated for each gap they fill because those children will continue to meet new progression levels even if they do so behind their peers.  Special education would continue to need a significant multiplier as well as, perhaps, more appropriate progression levels for students with significant mental handicaps.  This way, schools are given the flexibility to teach students in whatever way is necessary to help them progress.  And no matter what level a student is at when he enters a school, the school will be compensated for each gain he makes.
          The final part of the plan is what I believe would make it truly powerful.  Teachers should receive a percentage of the compensation received for each of their students' gains.  In this scenario, teachers who teach kids with multipliers (students who are behind or economically challenged) or who are gifted will have greater opportunity for reward.  This is appropriate since they are both more difficult groups to teach.  (If you don't think gifted children are more difficult to teach than average children, then you haven't spent much time around gifted children).  And teachers will have to know the progress level of each student in her class on each subject.  Great teachers will be rewarded for each skill set they teach a child.
          Now, for the stumbling blocks that make this a very difficult pathway to pursue.  First, setting progress levels for every subject taught in every school in the state would be a difficult and perhaps highly contested process.  Educators must decide which progress levels must be accomplished in a designated order and which are more stand-alone skill sets.  Assigning values will also be challenging.  These designations will be difficult to make, but I am certain it is possible to do so.  Perhaps even more daunting is the task of determining a means by which progress levels of individual students can be judged.  As stated earlier, I do not believe this should rely solely or even primarily on standardized tests.  Nor should students wait until the end of the school year to find out how far they have progressed.  Progression from progress level to level should be assessed regularly.  I prefer a portfolio approach.  However, judging portfolios is both time consuming and subjective.  I am not sure what the best answer is.  It may be that each progress level or subject requires a different means of showing mastery.  In music is may be performing music that is at a certain level of difficulty with minimal errors.  In math, it may be completing a certain number of assignments above a cut-rate score.  In PE, it may be doing a specific number of push-up with proper form.  Regardless, teachers will have to be trusted to make truthful assessments throughout the course of the year; dishonesty in these assessments would have to be handled fairly harshly (because there is such a reliance on teachers' honesty); and results that differ widely from those on standardized tests should be investigated (especially if there are a high concentration in a single class or school).
          If all of this could be accomplished (and I am by nature a very optimistic, can-do person), I believe our students would receive several benefits.  First, there will be a much greater incentive at both the school and teacher level for individualized learning.  Second, schools and teachers that do a poor job progressing students will have to either improve dramatically or close.  This applies to both public and charter schools.  Those charters that do a poor job educating students will not be able to compete.  However, schools that serve underprivileged students or those who are significantly behind will continue to receive adequate (yes, I know that is debatable) funding as long as their students make appropriate progress.  Finally, there is an incentive to help kids who are ahead continue to progress at the fastest rate they can.  There is no longer an incentive to keep them back until everyone else catches up (something that never happens with truly gifted children).  Likewise, there is an incentive to help special needs children progress even if it takes much greater time and patience.
          Having taken a peek into my convoluted, perhaps overly optimistic mind, I would love to hear (or rather read) your thoughts.  Would it work?  Would teachers prefer this type of compensation (I am not saying entirely replace salary, but rather that a portion of salary would be directly tied to student progression)?  Does anyone else out there have an idea how to move away from seat-time based funding to something more meaningful?  Has anyone ever heard of something like this being tried and whether or not it worked?  Please share your insights.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Writing Standards Overview

          Having completed my analysis of the reading standards, I have decided to move on to the next part of the English Language Arts Standards - Writing.  Both the old Arizona standards found here and the new Arizona Common Core standards found here consist of the three major sections - reading; writing; and speaking and listening.  However, the sections themselves are organized very differently in the two sets of standards.  Today, rather than go into details of the two sets of standards, I would like to address their organization and share my first impressions of each.  For those who may not have read my previous posts, I have started with 12th grade standards because they are the dividing line between high school and college or career.  Since the new standards claim to be college and career ready standards, I decided to start with the 12th grade standards and work my way backwards.

The Facts:

  • The old standards have three strands: Writing Process (28%)*, Writing Elements (39%), and Writing Applications (35%).  Within each of these strands are concepts, each of which contains multiple standards.  Writing Process has five concepts: Prewriting (8%), Drafting (2%), Revising (10%), Editing (4%), and Publishing (4%).  Writing Elements concepts are: Ideas and Content (4%); Organization (5%); Voice (5%); Word Choice (4%); Sentence Fluency (4%); and Conventions (17%).  The final strand, Writing Applications is comprised of: Expressive (4%), Expository (8%), Functional (2%), Persuasive (4%), Literary Response (12%), and Research (5%).
* The numbers in parenthesis indicate the percent of the writing standard that each encompasses.  Because I rounded to whole numbers, the total may not be exactly 100%.
  • The new writing standards are broken into four main areas: Text Types and Purposes (58%); Production and Distribution of Writing (16%); Research to Build and Present Knowledge (23%); and Range of Writing (4%).

My Opinion / Observations:

          The reasons I decided to do this overview were two-fold: 1) I wanted to better acquaint myself with the writing standards so I would know how to break them up for analysis, and 2) I immediately noticed a huge difference in the emphasis from the old standards to the new.  I included percentages of each strand (and, where nested, each concept) because I think they show some of the first impressions I had upon reading them. 
          My main impression was that the old standards focused primarily on the steps of writing (with special emphasis on pre-writing and revising) and following conventions (spelling, capitalization, etc.) while the new standards focused more on the final product - quality writing.  I definitely prefer the latter for standards.  In my opinion, standards should focus on whether or not students can do something (in this case write well in various genres), not the steps they should take to get there.  Should good writing include correct spelling and appropriate punctuation?  Of course.  Is prewriting important?  Yes.  But myriads of terrible papers have been written with proper pre-writing, review, and punctuation.  These things do not make a good article or research paper. 
          In my opinion, it is essential that students graduate high school capable of writing well thought-out, coherent, compelling papers.  This will indefinitely benefit those who proceed to college, those who gain careers that require any sort of writing, and those who want to be involved citizens who are capable of making their voices heard through the written word.  The new standards focus on this.  They leave teachers, administrators, and school boards to determine how they get the students to the end goal.  In contrast, the old standards focus primarily on the process and whether or not conventions are met with little emphasis on the actual quality of writing.  In other words, the old standards focus on the puzzle pieces, while the new standards examine whether or not the puzzle pieces can be put together to form a compelling picture.