Friday, November 21, 2014

Why is Common Core More Precise About College Readiness in Kindergarten than 11th Grade?

Smarter Balanced:

...a score at or above "Level 3" in 11th grade is meant to suggest conditional readiness for entry-level, transferable, credit-bearing college courses.

I've looked at some of the supporting materials, and I think the 11th grade test is considered at the level of college readiness. It is "conditional" insofar as you might literally backslide so much in the 12th grade year as to be not ready at graduation time after initially passing the test in 11th grade. But if you don't pass in 11th grade, you'd take the 11th grade test in 12th grade to try so show your college readiness. I think! It is clear as mud.

Just the fact that it is ambiguous at all is bizarre. I mean, I'm sure in the logic of American post-NCLB accountability there is a good reason, but in the larger world it is just... crazy. If it is an end of school test it isn't reasonable to present it as an 11th grade assessment. It just isn't. If you want to give the end of 12th grade test to 11th graders fine. Or if it is really an 11th grade test, you should be able to clearly specify how it is different from the final college readiness standards, right?

This is particularly disorienting coming back from spending some time with the K and grade 1 math standards. There it is totally different. You need to learn to count to 100 in K because you need to be able to add within 100 in 1st grade, and it takes some time to learn the numbers in English so you aren't tripping up trying to add threety-four to fivety-seven (or at least that's the argument, as I understand it).

The wacky way this plays out in practice though is that we act as if we know in great detail what a student has to learn when in early elementary school to be on track for college, but once we get to high school, especially in English, it is basically shrugs and hand waving. You would think it would get more specific later.

I suspect the explanation for this is an overload of early literacy experts on the various panels.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

It is Sociology, not Physics

Fred Clark:

We should note that this Internet “entropy” isn’t random. The downward spiral always leads to the same place: racist, misogynist and homophobic slurs. That’s not really entropy — it’s a concerted attempt to impose order.

About a decade ago, I was briefly considered an expert (as much as anyone was) on social media. I gave some talks at influential conferences (not that I was influential), talked on BBC America radio once. That kind of thing.

I definitely leaned toward systems that would make it easy for people to create decentralized peer to peer conversations within trusted groups, and discourage open-ended commenting. For example, when Gary Hart became the first well-known politician to start blogging, I remember immediately leaving a comment (ironically) arguing that he shouldn't have open comments, that no good would come of it, and he should use trackbacks to other blogs, which is the way geeks thought (hoped) things were going in 2003.

Needless to say, when Twitter took off, it was a major move in the opposite direction. I guess my reaction was, "Apparently I don't know anything about what people want from social media, but there is no way this ends well," and I pretty much stopped talking about the subject.

I'm starting to feel like I was right all along.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

OK, Let's Look at This Counting to 100 Issue

Longtime readers know I avoid getting into math discussions, but I got sucked into this one, partly because my 5-year old spent a few dinnertimes recently proudly counting to 100, so I can relate.

Jason Zimba:

While it is true that many of the oldest state standards only asked kindergarten students to count to 20, more recent standards went higher, to “at least 20” or “at least 31” or up to 100 (see Washington D.C., Georgia, Minnesota, Virginia, and Washington). One reason older standards were limited to 20 was that those standards didn’t distinguish clearly between rote-counting (saying the number words) and cardinal-counting (telling how many). CCSS makes this crucial distinction evident. The National Research Council’s report “Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity” is also clear that counting to 100 is appropriate in kindergarten.

This is in response to Carol Burris referring to counting to 100 as "developmentally inappropriate" and citing the previous Massachusetts curriculum which only required counting to 20 in kindergarten.

The Common Core standard we're discussing is:

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.K.CC.A.1 Count to 100 by ones and by tens.

Getting caught up in what more recent state standards said is a waste of time. What does it prove? Besides, I looked up Minnesota's sandards, since I think they're the highest achieving of the lot Zimbra refers to, and their 2007 standards only required "Count, with and without objects, forward and backward to at least 20," so...? Virginia's SOL's, for what it is worth, are more rigorous than Common Core:

The student will
a) count forward to 100 and backward from 10;
b) identify one more than a number and one less than a number; and
c) count by fives and tens to 100.

Again, so...?

I would note that it looks like the NECAP GLE's do not include any specific expectations for counting in kindergarten at all, which would seem to be a serious oversight.

In terms of international comparison, it seems like most high performing countries do not require counting to 100 in the equivalent grade, but ultimately it is a little hazy from this distance because at this grade level (kindergarten), the exact start age becomes rather important, and it is hard to feel too authoritative about that from wikipedia and some web searches.

Anyhow, moving on, the line about earlier standards not distinguishing between rote and cardinal counting is beside the point if we're taking Massachusetts as the starting point, as it seems clear on the matter:

K.N.1 Count by ones to at least 20.
K.N.2 Match quantities up to at least 10 with numerals and words.

All this standards comparison is inconclusive. The only thing that would be convincing is if there was a consensus among the standards and curricula of high performing systems about counting in kindergarten, and there is not.

Finally in the last sentence, we get at least a reference to something substantial, a National Research Council report. Now this is an interesting read! They actually try to explain the rationale and refer to peer reviewed academic research! And, upon closer examination, insofar as I can follow everything up, it seems consistent in arguing that yes, five year olds can be taught to count to 100. Indeed, they argue that pre-school students can count to 39 at age four. So... this is a considerable outlier compared to the existing curricula of high performing countries.

They do discuss important international differences in counting based on the language. Asian languages handle counting more systematically, putting particularly young children at an advantage.

There is a strong equity angle in the report, emphasizing that because English counting is so irregular, less familiarity with the quirks of counting in English puts some populations at an immediate disadvantage, which should be remediated as soon as possible.

I found this convincing that kindergarten students can count to 100. This is not a huge leap anyhow because, as I mentioned, my kindergartener daughter just learned that in school.

There is one more point I would quote from the Common Core, from the introduction to the math section, which I think is telling about the course of this debate:

Standards define what students should understand and be able to do.

What do we mean by "should," when we are talking about five year olds? If we were reading an IETF specification (for example), we would know:

In many standards track documents several words are used to signify the requirements in the specification. These words are often capitalized. This document defines these words as they should be interpreted in IETF documents. Authors who follow these guidelines should incorporate this phrase near the beginning of their document:

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119.

Note that the force of these words is modified by the requirement level of the document in which they are used.

  1. MUST This word, or the terms "REQUIRED" or "SHALL", mean that the definition is an absolute requirement of the specification.
  2. MUST NOT This phrase, or the phrase "SHALL NOT", mean that the definition is an absolute prohibition of the specification.
  3. SHOULD This word, or the adjective "RECOMMENDED", mean that there may exist valid reasons in particular circumstances to ignore a particular item, but the full implications must be understood and carefully weighed before choosing a different course.

Why can't learning standards be written this way? Because the entire field is sloppy and immature.

As it stands, we never really know if we are arguing about whether all students "should" or "MUST" do something when we are talking about the Common Core, particularly down at the kindergarten level. In practice, it means MUST. To argue that it is appropriate to act as if students "can" do something at five is not the same as proving that they MUST.

And ultimately we slide back around to the question of curriculum vs. standards. The NRC report does a good job of arguing that counting to 100 should be a goal of the curriculum in kindergarten, but whether this MUST be achieved by the end of the year is not addressed. Indeed, first grade picks right up with "See, Say, Count, and Write Tens-Units and Ones-Units from 1 to 100" as a major goal and makes clear that this is an ongoing process throughout these years with students progressing at different rates.

My problem with the standard as written is simply that to me, to the extent you're going to have standards for kindergarten, they should reflect not what you want to include in the curriculum, but benchmarks that if not met would represent an issue that required immediate remediation. I am not convinced that not counting to 100 in kindergarten meets that test, but I suspect not counting to 20 would. But maybe that's not the right test? Who the hell knows? It isn't defined.

We simply don't have the language to speak clearly about these issues. It is a disaster.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In Case You're Looking for the Kindergarten Curriculum in Singapore

Here it is: Nurturing Early Learners: A Curriculum Framework for Kindergartens in Singapore.

In case you're wondering, for example, if in Singapore kindergartners are required to count to 100. For better or worse, they aren't. Just up to 10!

Depression at Blackstone Valley Prep

I've got a story in the new issue of Common Ground on student survey data on depression and suicide at Blackstone Valley middle schools, focusing on Blackstone Valley Prep. The centerpiece is this table of 2013 SurveyWorks! data from RIDE: blackstone-valley

Read the whole thing, but here are some additional thoughts on the piece:

  • This was a lot tougher to write than the standard test score snark. Much more sensitive, and frankly, greater opportunity to look like an ignorant jerk if you get it wrong.
  • The data set is weird. First, there is no way to determine the validity (i.e., whether the kids really did feel sad or hopeless for two weeks in the past year). The completion rate is very high for a survey and the question, so if this was a random sample the margin of error would be extremely low. But it is not a random sample, it may be very biased, and the bias may vary by site. A large percentage of non-responders may be depressed.
  • On the other hand, this may be the only school level depression data ever published for a "high-expectations, high-support" or "no excuses" charter school, so it is worth a look!
  • There have been anecdotal reports about stress and depression at "no excuses" charters. For example:

    Hello. My name is Katie Osgood and I am a teacher at a psychiatric hospital here in Chicago. I am here today as a concerned citizen and an educator.

    In my hospital, we are seeing a disturbing pattern among patients coming from the Noble St Charter School Network of schools. We’ve seen an alarming number of students being admitted to the hospital with depression, severe anxiety, and increasingly with actual suicide attempts all directly tied to these schools’ discipline, academic, and retention policies.

  • I just focused on the Blackstone Valley schools for four reasons:
    1. Most of the schools with the highest reported depression scores were there.
    2. The completion rates were relatively consistent and high across those schools (10% or more above most PPSD schools, for example).
    3. It is treated as a discrete market for school choice.
    4. The number of schools is small enough that you don't have to rely on what would be extremely complex statistical analysis (you'd have to try to correct for participation rate and selection bias at each school) to make sense of the entire state data set. With 10 schools, you can just look at all the numbers and draw your own conclusions.
  • If having non-experts look at all the data and draw their own conclusions is not sufficient, then data-driven parental and student choice can't work.
  • This data has been consistent over the past three years. It isn't an anomaly. I actually sat on this for over six months waiting for the 2013 data to come out.

Ultimately, all the caveats about this data only apply to comparison. The survey data about student reports of depression and suicidal thoughts among students at BVP (and Segue, at least) is clear, consistent, complete and disturbing. We don't know why -- what collection of out of school factors, in school factors, and selection bias among students choosing the school -- but the fundamental issue cannot be dismissed without explanation, especially if the schools in question are considered models to be emulated and expanded.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Pearson's Indigestible Potato Word Salad

Pearson's Weekly Test 8 for second graders:


Potatoes are one of the foods we eat. People eat potatoes for lunch and dinner. They also eat them for breakfast. They are not fruits or vegetables. They are part of the plant's roots.

It is very easy to grow potatoes in a garden. A potato grows from its "eyes." These are dark marks on the potato. Have you ever left one in your kitchen for too long? It will start to grow. You will see little green bumps. These bumps will grow into a new potato plant. But the plant will not do well in the kitchen. A potato needs to grow in the ground.

In the past, some people only have had potatoes to eat. One of these places was Ireland in the early 1900s. One year the potato crop did not do well. People had nothing to eat. Many of them came to America at that time. They hoped to find a better life.

The Irish found many ways to cook potatoes. That way no one got tired of eating them. Today, some of our favorite snacks come from potatoes. Who does not love potato chips and French fries?

There are a number of specific flaming issues here:

  • Mis-dating the Irish potato famine by nearly a century and misrepresenting its length.
  • Blandly asserting that potatoes are not fruits or vegetables with no explanation. What are they then and why?
  • Confusing green spots and eyes.
  • Weird, obviously false non sequiturs like "no one got tired of eating (potatoes)" for every meal.
  • The lack of distinction between the potato tuber and the entire plant.
  • This should be written specifically as if it was explaining a potato to a student who had never actually seen a potato, just potato products.
  • Complete lack of a "main idea" or coherent focus.

At this point, we have to seriously ask whether or not this essay was written by a human or a computer program. It could be explained by a sequence of indifferent editors chopping apart some other text(s), but it is almost impossible to imagine this as even a caffeine (or meth) fueled stream of consciousness from a single author.

You can't really blame the Common Core for this mess, although you can question the premise of the whole Common Core process -- that having the same players that wrote our supposedly bad old curricula our entire ELA curricula all at once in a big hurry to meet an equally rushed, vague yet over-specific, set of new standards would have a positive result.

The big, BIG problem here is that teachers should know that Pearson is also likely writing the tests which will be used to assess their students, their own performance, as well as the performance of their school, their supervisors, their district, the state, and perhaps the program which certified them to teach. While "multiple measures" will come into play, those additional measures will be either derived from the test scores (e.g., growth measures) or be considered valid insofar as they correlate strongly to the test scores.

Not only can the teacher not easily ignore these exercises, there is tangible risk in teaching students to question or critique them too closely, as this would be likely to lead to students answering questions "incorrectly" on standardized tests.

Pearson is committing educational malpractice right out in the open, and we need to get a little more bold about shining light on it. This is not a doctrinal or philosophical dispute, it is just negligence. This is worse than just giving kids Fun with Dick and Jane.

Monday, November 10, 2014

RIP Herb Neumann

Peter Verdone:

On Sunday, November 9th 2014, Herb Neumann died. It was cancer that took him down. He was one of the toughest guys there was but just one thing was tougher.

I never met Herb in person. Over the years I learned a lot about him. He was a legend in the New Jersey/NYC area. He skated and rode bikes and did it all his way. He was the guy who would go bigger and go faster. He published his ‘zine Geek Attack back in the day when zines mattered. He skated vert and down hills, he rode road and mountain bikes. He designed his own skate trucks and numerous other parts for skates and bikes. He owned a skate shop, Skate Werks, and passed his passion on to the next generation. He was a special part of his community. Many people are in mourning today.

I hadn't actually re-located Herb online since I started skating again, or for that matter met him when I was reading his 'zine and skating in the 80's, but his perspective on skateboarding and, well, being a geek sure resonated with me at the time I was stitching together the various parts of my identity. I'd come across my cache of Geek Attack stickers while unpacking Saturday and stuck one on my current board. I guess that's in memoriam now.


Peter Greene and I have a Remarkably Similar Job History

Peter Greene:

This is why I now say that all teachers should not only get a job outside of school, but also have the experience of being bad at something.

My lower functioning students have to get up every day and go to a place where all day long, they are required to do things that they are bad at. They have to carry the feelings that go with that, the steady toxic buildup that goes with constantly wrestling with what they can't do, the endless drip-drip-drip of that inadequacy-based acid on the soul.

It's up to us to remind them that they are good at things. It's up to us to make a commitment to get them to a place of success. It's up to us NOT to hammer home what they already know-- that there are tasks they aren't very good at completing.

I was also an incredibly bad farm hand for a summer.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Individualized Parental Homework

Following up my previous post, it should be possible, using the miracle of technology, to simply give parents the kind of math homework they desire for their early elementary students (with the default being "none"). Want 100 math facts every night? OK! Want a fun math puzzle of the week to discuss over dinner? We got ya' covered!

Just keep the parents happy. It has no effect on achievement anyhow. It is academic theatre.

A 7 Year Old + Intentionally Obtuse Math Homework is a Potentially Explosive Mix

My second grader had a full-on meltdown over her math homework this morning... to be sure, there were a variety of factors in play, tiredness, perhaps thrown off by having Tuesday off, etc. But this was also one of those Common Core worksheets where kids have to apply a specific math strategy, in this case, adding two digit numbers by decomposing them a bit so that you're adding groups of 10.

This is often a good idea and worth teaching, but the fact of the matter is that this particular presentation did not make it seem easier at all. It just seemed like a harder, more obtuse approach than the traditional method.

By the time I took over at the breakfast table, she was essentially done, except for howling over the last bonus question, which in the past might have been a more interesting variation on the day's theme, but today the approach seems to be to prepare kids for badly worded multiple choice questions on high stakes tests by intentionally giving them a badly worded multiple choice question at the end of every worksheet. I'm not being cute or flip when I say that, that just seems to be the strategy. In this case, Vivian was upset because she seemed to understand that since this was a bubble question she was not supposed to write the answer to the addition question in the blank in the prompt, but since the bubble answers were just about how to best decompose the addition problem not solve it, it drove her nuts to not have any place to write the "answer" to the addition problem.

This was an illuminating experience in understanding first hand why some parents get their knickers in a twist about this stuff. Put together a high-strung kid and a high-strung parent, and this'd hit critical mass real quick.

The funny part to me is that second grade math homework, in general, is just a waste of time anyhow. There is no benefit whatsoever to sending this stuff home -- even if it was of much higher quality. Unfortunately for the Common Core, most of the people who like it also like sending home homework. Make a mental note for future elementary math reformers -- cut the homework, or make up some fake palliative exercises designed exclusively to keep parents happy without screwing up the pedagogy.