Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Common Core and the Teacher

Jenifer Fox, author of the book Your Child's Strengths, talks about the benefits of asking a child questions about who they are and what they love by digging more deeply with each question. To narrow in on the answer, an adult will ask "Why?" several times in a row, perhaps in different ways, prompting the child to think more deeply with each repetition. Fox is good at it; she gave many examples of conversations she has had, and how it enabled a child to figure stuff out that maybe he/she had not known before. I tried it with my daughter with no success at all; there is a skill to be learned, there.

I was on the receiving end of this kind of questioning recently, on Facebook. In a conversation about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I was asked four or five times, why my vision of education cannot happen under the Common Core. Each time I was asked, I dug a little deeper. As a result, a fact about the modern education reform movement became clearer in my head. I'd call it an epiphany, except that it was something I'd known all along. I just understood the impact more clearly; the evolution of an idea that has taken hold of the body politic:

The problems of public education lie in the teachers.

No, of course I don't believe that; but I do believe more than ever that the discrediting of public education has begun with the discrediting of teachers, and its success rests on this strategy.

Let's take on the role of conspiracy-theorist for a minute. Let's say that George W. Bush pushed through NCLB with the nefarious intent of producing evidence that the public school system is failing. He may not have had that exact intent; but the idea that testing and the subsequent punishment for not producing the right data was going to improve teaching and learning is so wrongheaded that you have to figure he didn't go too far out of his way to consult people who knew what would happen. Stating that his interests was that of of making all schools of equal quality, NCLB was made law.

Well, anyone could have predicted what happened, and many did. Public education took a dive. Narrowing the curriculum down to only that which is measurable on tests, children were left behind in droves. People demanded to know why, and the answer came: teachers.

Bad teachers. Lazy teachers. Teachers who were mailing it in. Teachers who were mean and uncaring. Teachers who were in it for the vacations and the retirement. Teachers who refused to change their dinosaur ways.

Unions. Unions that made teachers powerful, unions who were self-interested and self-perpetuating.

The only way forward was to institute a better system of standards that dictated what teachers did, and how,  when, and why. We needed to make public education teacher-proof. And new tests would catch teachers who weren't doing it right. State laws, plus Race to the Top requirements, would take those scores and put them where they would do the most good: in teachers' evaluations.

In the course of the conversation, I started thinking about how I learned grammar. My English teacher knew what to teach and how to teach it. How did she know? Because she was a professional; she studied this stuff! She did it, year after year, learning from her experiences, thinking, processing, talking to other teachers.  There is also the collective knowledge of all the teachers who may have spent their lives in the classroom.There is nothing in the Common Core that good teachers don't already know from their own education and experience; and there is a negative impact felt when you dictate what a teacher does. Teachers see student faces; the Common Core does not.

To quote myself from the original conversation: "Kids can learn nouns while working through their own projects and work. You maintain that this can happen with the Common Core and you are probably right; but who needs the Common Core to tell us how to write with correct English?  The important thing is for kids to work on stuff they find meaningful; and that the importance of the work to the kids is what dictates progress, content -- and quality. Reliance on an outside measure isn't what is making that process happen. It's the relationship between teacher and student; the level of enthusiasm from the student for what he/she is doing, and the dedication of the teacher to helping the student fulfill a vision, that is the important part."

What I learned by digging deeply into my beliefs about the Common Core is that those standards are, in effect, replacing a critical human element of the education process.

To use a somewhat indelicate analogy...when I was in labor the first time, I had a terrible labor nurse who was watching the contraction monitor instead of me, and when a contraction would come, I would be bearing down and my husband helping and after a minute she would say, "Ready set go push!" Her face was in the machine instead of on me, so her information was late and unhelpful.

If you have a Common Core as a guide, that means you're looking at that instead of the child. And I think that makes a big difference. For public schools to do their best to prepare students for the 21st century, they have to do better than deliver standards. Free teachers to turn away from the machinery of imposed standards; ask them to help students find their interests, goals and passions, and arrange their education around the most meaningful learning possible; meaningful, that is, to students.

So why was it so important to to set these events in motion? The discrediting of the teacher has played a very big role in the advancing the corporate takeover of education. So many opportunities open up!  When you have standards, you can have standards-aligned curriculum! Curriculum guides! CCSS-aligned textbooks! CCSS consultants!

Testing! New tests, new technology needed for tests! Data management systems! Data analysis consulting firms!

And all of the above is charged to the public dollar.

There you have it. Game, set, match. Teachers lose. And when teachers lose, children lose.

Let’s bring the power of the relationship back to education; bring it back and make it better than ever. Use all the means in our power to connect students to their world by the promotion of teaching. It can be a wholly new profession; it may be very different from what we have experienced in the past. Teachers may take on new roles: mentor, guide, consultant, advisor, connector, in addition to plain old explainer. They may even learn Jenifer Fox’s skill of focused questioning in helping kids figure themselves out.

But it is, has been, and will continue to be, a most honorable profession.

That is, if we all take our eyes off the monitor and turn it back to children.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Pessimist? Or optimist?

It is possible to read what I've written  and conclude that I am a pessimist about what is happening in public education. If you believe that, you really couldn't be more wrong.

I'm a total optimist about what education can be. No high-stakes testing or imposed standards; teachers who are given the time, resources and autonomy to focus on the identities of children, support them as they work toward their goals, whatever they may be. It can happen. It certainly can happen without increasing the amount of money that currently goes into education! In fact, think of the huge expense of testing, and implementation of the Common Core!

I'm told time and time again that the Mass Customized Learning system is "better" and therefore "best." I don't accept it; I can't accept it. Is that because I'm a pessimist?

Or are those who are pushing me to "settle" the ones who are the pessimists?

We are too afraid to envision an education system that is truly great! Don't give up your ideals because you doubt that they'll ever be implemented. It's your doubt that holds us back. Keep your eyes on the prize, like the man said, and hold on.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Does “Mass Customized Learning” Represent Real Education Change?

There are big changes taking place in some Maine school districts. These districts have joined a group called the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, and have embraced principles of what is called, “Mass Customized Learning” (MCL), or the Proficiency-Based System (PBS). 

What is the framework behind these changes? The excerpt, below, outlines the important points

Time is the Variable

  • Learners advance (progression) to the next performance level in a content area once proficiency or better has been achieved and validated.  There are no traditional grade levels.
  • Progression can occur at any point during the course of the year for any content area.
  • At the beginning of the traditional school year, learners resume their learning at the point where they left off the previous year (continuous flow). There is no social promotion.
  • Learners are typically in different performance levels for different content areas.
  • Multiage classrooms are the norm not the exception.

Learning is the Constant
  • Learners are placed at their appropriate developmental instructional level in each of ten content areas based on demonstrated performance.
  • Curriculum is “guaranteed and viable” where the standards and supporting materials are made explicit and available to teachers, students and parents.
  • Evidence toward proficiency for all learning targets is measured and recorded over time where the learner must score proficient or better prior to beginning the next performance level.
  • Learning progress is scored and reported on a proficiency scale from 0.0 through 4.0. There are no traditional letter grades.

Simply put, children can now grapple with the learning targets (curricula) developed by the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning (MCCL), and aligned to the Common Core, in their own way, and at their own pace.

Districts who have embraced this change have taken on a huge task. They have undertaken to change curricula, teaching methods, assessment, grading, and the reorganization of student levels, all in the interests of creating a system that  attempts to adapt to the learning needs of individual children and is wrapped around the Common Core State Standards.

For many, it is a purpose that seemed worth the disruption it would create in the districts that opted to go for it.  Some see the benefits taking place already...but in some school districts it has created turmoil, bitterness and mistrust among parents, teachers, school board members and administrators.


If this system is supposed to be a truly customized to each learner, why is it controversial? Personalized education; isn’t that what we want?

The Pros
Those who advocate for PBS claim that there will always be controversy when an institution is changed at its foundations. The advantages to be gained from this disruption outweigh the problems, say supporters. Kids would be released from “seat time,” opening up opportunities to learn and become involved in their interests and their passions; to take advantages of learning opportunities, instead of being stuck inside a curriculum that was fixed in time and space.  The choices they will be given in how they learn and at what pace will potentially put them in greater control of their learning.

The fact that a student, in pursuing interdisciplinary learning, can get credit for work done in both disciplines (i.e. music and physics) has the potential of breaking students out of the single-subject restriction.

When fully implemented and when teachers are trained and comfortable with the methods and techniques, struggling students will get the support they need, and more the advanced students will not have to be bored or frustrated. There will be a stamp of individuality about their learning. This is a positive advantage; there is no question.

The Cons
But for many around the State, PBS has turned out to lack the promise it advertised.

  • It is questionable that the progression of a student through predetermined learning targets will yield greater student achievement; it is still, in effect, as scripted as the old-school curricula. Student “voice and choice” over the least important parts of learning will have a nebulous impact on students’ long-term engagement;
  • The nature and quality of those learning targets, put together by MCCL, are the subject of debate;
  • It is questionable how the “unpacking” of a "measurement topic," the determination of how each child will learn that topic and of how the learning will be assessed, and the moving on to the next target once the learning has been measured will result in better, more valuable learning experiences for kids. Sometimes letting kids dive into material that is too advanced to completely grasp is a great way to motivate and engage them. But by following these measurement targets, one after another, kids are confined to baby-steps.
  • The focus on the ideas, interests and passions of children -- if they don’t happen to correspond with the learning targets -- is absent.
  • While the manner of the constant measurement of learning is different from the old way the impact is the same....or worse. “Will this be on the test?” has been replaced by, “Will this be part of my measurement target?” And in a system built around the possibility that EVERY aspect of their learning can be measured, there is no longer value for learning that is not. Does a child learn about musical dynamics so that they can better appreciate or even create more beautiful music....or because they can tick a word off a vocabulary list on the way to achieving a learning target?

I go to educator Gary Stager for my final word on the impact of assessment on learning:

“Assessment has nothing to do with learning. Without a school system, the term assessment would never be used. It would have no meaning. Indeed, assessment is something done to others. Learners learn, think -- perhaps even reflect, but they don’t assess themselves UNLESS coerced to do so. Learning is a natural act. Assessment is not.”

In a system that values student learning over the documentation of a student’s long-march through standards, assessment is invisible; hardly seen, embedded in student accomplishments.

Most critical of all is that MCL falls far short of its name: if all children are expected to master the same measurement topics, then the system is not customized. Nor is it personalized, or individualized, or any other kind of -ized.

The change that has the greatest potential for changing student lives moves away from a system that pushes content and measurement, and toward the support and encouragement of student passions and interests; individual students derive their curriculum from their goals.

We need to create the change that gives students the best chance of success by allowing them to determine their own direction.

But those tests!
Changing from one test-based system to another, while having a potentially positive effect on students in some senses, will not change the most critical factors in the work of school districts:

  • that the assessment of learning is the most important part of the work of a classroom;
  • that standards like the Common Core are the basis for student learning;
  • that state standardized testing will continue to be the yardstick by which a school’s value is determined.

There are many reasons why the industrial model of top-down teaching and learning no longer serves our kids well. The PBS system understands to a degree that children have to construct their own learning; but this philosophy can’t truly succeed if it is superimposed upon a system that teaches standards instead of students; and is evaluated through high-stakes testing.

One big leap forward for the PBS system would be to institute a system which allows students to determine their learning direction, and choose their own learning targets according to their interests. This would still not be ideal; a system like that, while possible under the Common Core standards, is definitely better off without it.

And there will still be those tests.

A little history always helps
Public education has been so manipulated by political winds, corporate greed, and the quest for power and influence that we hardly know what it really looks like. It’s as if the institution is functioning in a deep fog; we know life is difficult and we might even think we know why, but we can only see ten feet in any direction.

When the No Child Left Behind law first attached school funding to the results of testing, public education took a dive. There are few educators, politicians and education profiteers who would deny it in the face of overwhelming evidence. The curriculum contracted and narrowed; test results reigned supreme, and Campbell’s Law came into action:

"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."

According to education historian and activist Diane Ravitch: “Campbell’s Law explains why high-stakes testing promotes cheating, narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, and other negative behaviors.” The culture of schools changed radically in the ten years that followed, and the cry-out for change to a broken system increased. But the testing was the baseball bat that broke the system!

For many players in this public education game, the era of high-stakes testing and the cry-out about those broken schools opened up a world of opportunity. Our schools are doing badly, they said, for lack of Real Good Rigorous Standards. Bill Gates gave several million on pocket change to the National Governor’s Association, and the Association of Chief State Education Officers, and under their wing, the Common Core State Standards were born. Now we have a real national curriculum that will raise the bar and make sure our country Stays Competitive.  The Smarter Balanced assessments, aligned to these Standards are coming next.

“But! But! But!” splutter those who have been following along, “It’s the tests that broke the system in the first place!”

So what ought Maine to do?
The high-minded claims of the proponents of  PBS just don’t matter. They are swimming in deep waters.  The "old model," since NCLB is governed by testing; so is the "new model."

It is, in the most critical senses, the same model. PBS districts are taking a different path at a different pace to the same destination. We can’t look for real change that charges up kids’ interest in learning -- because that begins with who they are and what they love. We can’t allow kids to explore, to discover, to create, to change the world, if tests loom over them. “Rigor” (even in kindergarten!) will continue to be a word that means, “To make harder for no apparent reason,” rather than, the production of high-quality work that can be expected when kids are excited to learn; when they are engaged and passionate.

Look at it this way. A guy is in a prison cell. Ratty blanket and flat mattress. Someone decides to make this guy happier by replacing it with a Sealy Posturepedic mattress, sheets with bajillion thread counts and goose down pillows. The guy sleeps great. But when he wakes up, he is still in prison.

I leave it up to you to decide if you think the chance of a more comfortable prison cell will really happen under PBS, and also, whether it is change worth fighting for; or if we’d serve our children better if we stand up and insist that the Common Core State Standards and the associated high-stakes testing be removed from the Maine landscape completely.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Dive-into-Deep-Water Learning

"Can you make matter out of energy?"

I was sitting with a small group of middle-school kids celebrating the end of the school year when one of them asked that.

"I mean, you can make energy out of matter, but can you reverse it?"

I had no idea, and neither did anyone else, but the question was tossed around awhile. The subject moved to E=mc2. What did that mean? An attempt was made to explain it. I didn't jump in because as an adult, I know quite well that I can't possibly understand General Relativity. But nobody told these kids that.

This morning I saw one of those animated videos where a hand with a marker illustrates what a voice-over is talking about. This one was about the Common Core Standards. It explained how learning is step-by-step, and kids have to learn the bottom step before going up to the more complicated steps in a discipline.

But what these kids really want to know is...why does E=mc2?

Sure, lots of people will roll their eyes and say I'm off on a tangent again. What we really need to do is make sure those kids take those steps and get to the top effectively. Then they'll be ready for Einstein. Maybe.

But what bad things can possibly happen if we let kids pursue the understanding of General Relativity? I'm not saying, pursue it in the spare time you can carve out of the important business of "learning the basics"; I'm saying, let them learn General Relativity.

Drop kids into the deep water of concepts that seem to be too big for them and will they sink? Maybe they won't get every bit of it. But they will love that they are swimming into areas of advanced learning; and maybe they will learn that advanced topics aren't so advanced that they can't grapple with them, take what they get, and leave the rest for later.

And maybe they'll come to understand that, in this case, physics is a fantastic world of natural laws and weird, inexplicable things that happen. And maybe they'll say, "I want to understand that stuff, and I want to be able to explain it to other people."

And maybe they won't grow up like me: a person who understands perfectly well that there's no way she will ever understand General Relativity.

What's better -- instructing people to start with what they can accomplish to mastery? Or telling them, "You have an extraordinary brain. Use it and be amazed?"