Category Archives: Common Core Standards

Word Gap, Play Gap

A recent report, Little to Gain and Much to Lose, calls for a moratorium on kindergarten Common Core reading standards. The report argues that the “many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten.” Therefore, expectations for reading in kindergarten should not be forced on children, who “learn through playful, hands-on experiences with materials, the natural world, and engaging, caring adults.”

The report raises a pressing issue that we face every day at Harlem Link. We are struggling to balance the developmental needs of children to play and explore with the academic demands that are heaped on us not only by Common Core but also by the imperative to improve college and life outcomes that were the impetus of Common Core’s development. Every year we at Harlem Link want children spend more time with blocks, developing spatial awareness, nimble brain functioning and problem solving skills. At the same time, we feel pressure to put the blocks away and take the pencils out. While talkative experts are ready to pounce on Little to Gain to attack Common Core, the esteemed authors of the report and other critics point out a dilemma we will never resolve as long as we ignore the root of the problem.

Unstated in the report is the socioeconomic divide of “developmental readiness.” Here’s the sad and scary truth: children from higher economic classes and whose parents have a higher level of education enter kindergarten with far more literacy and language experiences than children from lower economic classes. In simpler terms, wealthier parents tend to read and talk to their kids a lot and do those things with purpose and verve. Lower income parents, much less so.

The authors throw “developmental readiness” around as if it were an innate, biologically determined quality that each child brings to school. Nonsense. Child development is highly dependent on environmental factors, and home experiences trump just about everything else when it comes to being “developmentally ready” for kindergarten. The now-famous 1995 study by Hart and Risley demonstrated that by age three children from lower-income families typically hear 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the Little to Gain report says to me, “Some kids just aren’t going to go to college. They enter kindergarten not ready to read, so why force them?”

On the other hand, study after study shows, “If you aren’t ready to read in kindergarten, you better catch up fast because by the time you should be going to college, the odds are you’ll be looking for a minimum-wage job instead because you won’t be qualified for higher education.”

So implicit in the report, for me, are two real questions, neither of which is answered by the report:

  1. What do we educators and policymakers do about the massive word gap that lower income children face even before they enter kindergarten?
  2. What do we do for the children, regardless of the income of their families, who enter kindergarten “unready” for reading?

As I said above, we’ll never have a satisfactory answer for Question #2. I know; I’ve been trying to find the balance for the last 10 years. It’s a wild ride on this particular pendulum.

But Question #1 does have an answer, and done well, it will attack the root of the problem and break the cycle of poverty.

The answer is about parent education and parent resources. Our school has many families who prove that a low-income doesn’t have to mean a literacy-poor home (although some parents need extra support and creativity; how can you read to your child every night when you are a single parent working the night shift?).

There are multiple organizations working to educate parents on how to support literacy at home, beginning at birth. As part of our new Start to Finish program, we partner with Reach Out and Read, through which pediatricians provide books and training to new parents. The Parent-Child Home Program sends literacy specialists on structured visits to low-income homes to teach literacy-supporting parent-child interactions.

It’s time that elementary schools saw contributing to the solution for Question #1 is a central part of all of our efforts. We must work together to ensure that no community is labeled “developmentally unready.” Every school should be engaged in supporting community members to meet the vision of the Parent-Child Home Program: “Every child enters school ready to succeed because every parent has the knowledge and resources to build school readiness where it starts: the home.”

When that vision is met, there could be a proper celebration in every kindergarten, and a developmentally appropriate one: a block party!

This post also appeared on Chalkbeat NY.

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Response to Activism: Math letter from a 10 year old

A friend posted her daughter’s math curriculum complaint letter on Facebook.  It was so good I had to respond.

Dear Charlotte,

Congratulations on your thoughtful and downright important letter.  Since Mayor Bloomberg is probably too busy to write back to you in the waning days of his administration (or he might be in Bermuda right now), I took it upon myself to respond.  As a principal and a lifelong fan of mathematics, I urge you to continue your activism and to speak truth to power.

All the same, I disagree with some of your comments and I want to offer an alternative view.

I assume by the “new math curriculum” you are referring to the Common Core Standards, or at least some new program that was bought by your district in order to align with Common Core.   Dictating that there is one “way it is supposed to be done” is antithetical to Common Core.  In fact, your teachers should be urging you and your classmates to explore and learn a variety of ways to solve problems.  As long as the answer is correct (barring any errors in arithmetic), all ways are valid—but only some are efficient.  You should be learning the difference, and learning to choose and apply the best strategies for a given situation.

Based on your example, it sounds like in your classroom you have been explicitly taught to do multidigit division with one particular strategy.  If so, that’s not cool.  Instead, I hope your teachers in Port Washington instead are showing you a variety of ways to divide, and letting you and your classmates argue about what is best.  In doing so, you will not only discover a fast method that works for you, but you will gain a little more number sense in the process.  The kids in your class who will be confused by dropping zeros are the very ones who need more practice trying different strategies, to be flexible with working with different orders of magnitude, and more freedom to make up their own strategies, not less.

So in the end, while I’m telling you that I disagree with you, I think we actually agree on a lot.  If you school could explain the purpose and philosophy of Common Core math standards better to you and your classmates, you might not be writing your essay.  Instead, you would be saying, “Thanks for letting us try all these different methods, just like grown up mathematicians, and settling on what works!”  And then, “Thanks for showing us the standard algorithm of long division too—it makes much more sense now that we’ve tried a lot of other different methods.”

Oh and one more thing: I think front end estimation is awesome too.  (I’m not sure what the adjustment is, but it sounds useful.  And please don’t give up on estimating to check; with more practice, you and your classmates might find how useful it is…grown ups who deal with big numbers estimate to check all the time.)

Good luck and keep up your thoughtful math learning and your taking action!

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Time to Plan Math Curriculum

Thank you, State Education Department, for releasing a memo on August 17 prioritizing the new Common Core state math standards.  The memo details which standards are “Major,” meaning they will be emphasized on the new state tests in April, and which can wait until May and June.

Now we can start planning our curriculum for the year!

Wait a minute, school started at Harlem Link two weeks ago.  When the memo came out we were already in our fourth day of staff training, and we had rolled out our curriculum units, including those for math, for the year and our instructional priorities during the first two days of that training.

We are now analyzing this Education Department memo—after all, the state test is how the effectiveness of our curriculum and our interpretation of the Common Core standards will be judged—and comparing it to the arrangements we had made when we mapped out our math standards in June.

Did the state really want us to wait until August 17 to start planning curriculum for the year?  I don’t think so, but the tone of the memo vividly illustrates the year-to-year thinking that has long plagued the system.  The memo says, “Schools and districts are encouraged to use this guidance when reviewing local curricula and in designing their Grades 3-8 instructional programs.” 

Last year one of our biggest issues as a school was that we were designing our “local curriculum” and “instructional programs” during the year, right before or while teaching them.  This frenzied approach resulted from the need to shift quickly and wholly to state and Common Core standards, coupled with our commitment to a home-grown curriculum, not relying solely on off-the-shelf, pre-packaged programs. 

I’m not writing to condemn the Education department for issuing this guidance.  Actually, it’s more than I thought we would receive, since the state has promised that henceforth state tests would be obscured and unpredictable to prevent the gaming of the system that has characterized the recent testing regime.

Instead, I’m writing to illustrate the complexity of doing genuine education reform with a sense of urgency and seriousness when, for example, the state bureaucracy fails to sets its major requirements in a timely way.

This little memo is a big window into an important shortcoming of large systems.

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21st Century Skills? I’ve Got One Word for You

And It Isn’t Technology

Recently a candidate for employment at our school observed one of our teachers working with students using laptops for a research project.  “How wonderful, teaching 21st century skills,” she cooed.  Her sentiment echoed the popular view that our students’ familiarity with the medium, independent of the merit of ideas being researched, will determine whether they’ll be prepared for the global marketplace.

I disagree.  Instead of “technology” as the educational byword for this century, I propose a different word: “curate.”

To curate is to judge quality and separate it from what is less worthwhile, and to interpret for a purpose.  Museum curators may begin with hundreds, if not thousands, of works before choosing a dozen or two to appear in an exhibition.  Each work is carefully selected for a reason, and the viewer is treated to a thoughtful, sensible experience as he or she wanders through the exhibit.

I (and others, as you will see below) would argue that in the 21st century access to information and the ability to retrieve it will become commonplace, if they aren’t already.  Even in Harlem Link’s high-poverty student population, which is supposedly on the wrong side of the so-called digital divide, the latest devices are commonplace.

But as The New York Times pointed out in a recent article, lack of access to technological tools is not the biggest issue facing our most-at-risk families and children.  Rather, having the reason and wherewithal to use these tools for constructive purposes is what is missing.  We need to teach our young scholars to be curators of the flood of information that comes their way on a daily basis.  The real 21st century skill is an old one.

Teaching Curating

At Harlem Link, we have embraced the new, national Common Core standards with gusto.  In the last 18 months we have completely revamped our curriculum around Common Core’s refreshing call for classrooms and lessons filled with more authentic literature, deep textual analysis, argumentation and discussion, and strategic thinking.    There is a role in this pedagogy for technological devices, but they are in their proper place as resources to be directed, not as the focal point of learning.

I have plenty of company in my warning against undue reliance on technological tools.  The rise of the Common Core standards has fostered a groundswell of support for the notion, until recently often dismissed as quaint, that schools should be in the business of teaching children to interpret, judge and critique information rather than simply learn where and how to find it.

The Common Core website hosts an open letter from a diverse array of education reformers arguing against the aims of a panel called the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.  The premise of the open letter is that the Partnership is advocating a curriculum that would rob our schools of the valuable instructional time traditionally devoted to such subjects as literature, history, civics and geography.

One of the most vocal signatories of this letter, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, went a bit further in a provocative 2009 blog entry as the Common Core standards were rolling out.  In this piece she calls not for a panel on 21st century skills, but one on 19th century skills!  Whither individualism, initiative, courage, intellectual curiosity and a host of other attributes that have been increasingly marginalized by the relentless technology drumbeat?

Going further, the Common Core leaders used Ravitch’s ideas as the focus of a debate about educational standards.  The debaters came away less than enthused about organizing future curriculum requirements around “technology skills.”  Six minutes of video highlights and a host of coverage on media outlets are archived here.

A New Old Idea

Who better than a science futurist to give us thoughtful ideas on what’s needed for us to thrive in the 21st century?  Famed quantum physicist Michio Kakui joins me on the curatorial bandwagon.  In Physics of the Future, his recent book on what impact to expect from technology by the year 2100, he takes for the granted the widespread availability of fancy new tools.  He compares the added powers humans will have with those of the gods of the ancient world.  But he laments our ability to use these tools to solve problems and evolve in an increasingly interconnected world without being able to critically analyze:

“Since we are drowning in an ocean of information, the most precious commodity in modern society is wisdom. Without wisdom and insight, we are left to drift aimlessly and without purpose, with an empty, hollow feeling after the novelty of unlimited information wears off.” (p. 350)

Wisdom.  Insight.  Curiosity.  Initiative.

It’s time to teach our children to curate.

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Innumeracy on the Faculty!

I’m writing on Christmas Eve day, and I’m sure by the time you read this we are long into 2012 and possibly past it. But this moment is so important for math instruction in our 40+ states that have adopted Common Core standards; we are also on the eve of significant ramping up of Common Core implementation.

I’m looking forward to the Standards for Mathematical Practice. I have a lot to say about these eight mandates, which are repeated on each page of the Common Core content standards in each grade. They appear as a floating reminder that math instruction is not (only) about memorization and regurgitation, but about deep understanding, proof and argumentation, focused exploration and interpretation.

I’m convinced that the Standards for Mathematical Practice are doomed to fail in most schools.

Why? Because it seems that most teachers and principals don’t understand a simple fact: to teach elementary school math well, you have to know elementary school math really well. And most people (be they teachers, principals or otherwise) simply don’t understand much elementary school math.

I don’t know what teacher preparation programs are doing out there when it comes to math instruction, but from my experience in hiring teachers and my stint as an adjunct in one program, my guess is that if there is a math course in most of them it consists of something like, “Here’s the Harcourt Brace textbook. Here’s the Saxon textbook. Here’s the Scott Foresman textbook. Here are some tricks for teaching long division.”

One of the beautiful babies in the bathwater of teacher preparation is the program I went through at Bank Street College. At Bank Street, where theories of learning were developed by watching and learning from children rather than from following a bureaucrat’s mandate, my math mentor taught me that children need to struggle with mathematical concepts, and teachers need to guide them through that struggle with strategic questioning that builds understanding, always with the next math concept in mind. Children also should know why they are learning math concepts and facts, and have an authentic contextual basis for their study.

Linda Metnetsky said, “When the teacher gives the answer, all math thinking stops.”

And of course, the easiest thing to do is to give the answer, and demand that the kids memorize it. After all, that’s what Scott Foresman tells you to do. Teaching math progressively is far from the fluffy, no-facts, fuzzy math of popular culture. If done correctly, it’s a far more rigorous and intellectually demanding exercise than traditional math instruction on the part of the teacher.

Common Core. Lack of math knowledge among teachers. No concern in graduate programs for this problem. What are we to do?

As always, in times of crisis, I turn to books for advice. (Real books, written by authors, not textbooks written by committees, that is.) I’m not talking about how-to books, manuals of how to teach mathematics. I’ll take plenty of time to explore those in a future post, including books by Marilyn Burns and Cathy Fosnot among others. I’m talking about books that inspire or make clear the importance of loving and learning more about math.

Luckily there are a few friendly books out there that do a good job of either laying bare the crisis of math deficits or of explicating just why it’s so beneficial to understand math.

I’m going to describe a few of these books here, but I’d love to hear some reader comments recommending more. And please, don’t say, “The McGraw Hill series has some great looking times tables in it.”

Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos: Paulos wrote this tract around 25 years ago but its message is still relevant. While there is tremendous shame associated with illiteracy, society still finds it acceptable to be innumerate. And the consequences for that portion of our society that can’t read a stock table or tell an increasing rate of oil production in a foreign power from a drop in GDP from one quarter to the next extend far beyond the realm of whether 2 + 2 is always equal to 4.

How Mathematics Happened: The First 50,000 Years by Peter Rudman: Rudman is not quite a feminist, and you have to avert your eyes at some of the turns of phrase, but he brilliantly catalogues the timeline of the use of mathematical concepts beginning with our hunter gatherer days. Two powerful ideas I took away from this book are that (a) the development of mathematical knowledge in our concept mirrors the development of these concepts in individual children (that’s self-similar like a fractal, although he doesn’t use those words; you will if you love math as much as I do) and (b) there really is a reason why we should explore our base-10 system and other bases with children as we study math. I hadn’t understood it before, but after reading this book every time I look at a clock I think about it.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter: As I’m kind of slogging through it right now (because it’s dense, not because it isn’t interesting), this tome is not nearly as accessible a read as the two books above. It didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for nothin’—the author calls it a “metaphorical fugue” inspired by Lewis Carroll, and that’s pretty much what it is, tracing the history of mathematical thinking about patterns and puzzles, their relation to paradoxes, music and computers. Imagine Willy Wonka wrote an autobiography but his obsession was puzzles, not chocolate.

What do you think about the math thinking behind math teaching? Any great books to recommend?

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