Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Education blogging -- Common Core, accountability and the cost of deadwood

I've started digging into the Common Core standards and one of the things that hit me was the large amount of what I would consider deadwood, topics of limited value that take up valuable class time (my favorite example is synthetic division, but there are plenty of others).

The damage caused by deadwood is not that great when teachers are allowed some leeway in deciding what to focus on, but in an age of standardized tests and fetishized accountability, teachers are forced to make difficult decisions. Math teacher Gary Rubinstein has a truly depressing example.
When teachers have to teach too many topics, they do not have time to cover them all in a deep way.  The teacher, then, has to choose which topics to cover in a meaningful way, and which to cover superficially.  It would be as if an English teacher was told to cover fifty novels with her class.  Not being able to have her classes read all fifty books, she would pick some to read fully while having her class read excerpts or even summaries of the other ones.

I got to witness an extreme example of this decision making when I graded the Geometry Regents at the centralized grading center this past June.  A huge part of Geometry, in my mind the most important part, is deductive proofs.  I’d say that over half of a ‘true’ Geometry course would involve proving different theorems.  Well, on the Geometry Regents these proofs are not a large percent of the test, less than ten points out of eighty.  So on the June Regents the last question on the test, a six point question, was the proof question and I was assigned to grade about 200 papers from a school, I won’t say which one, to grade.  As I graded I noticed that many of the students left the proof blank.  By the end of my grading I realized that out of 200 papers, all that could have received up to 6 points for the proof — a total of 1,200 potential points to have been earned on this question, I had awarded only two points total.  That’s two points out of a possible 1,200.  I asked around and the consensus was that teachers, knowing that proofs would take months to cover but be only worth less ten percent of the points on the test, would be too risky to teach.  All the time spent on this tough topic would only, at best, get the students a few extra points while they would lose all that time they could use to teach some of the easier topics that were more likely to be on the test.
Of course, we could have a long discussion on whether proofs belong in HS math classes (I tend to agree with Rubinstein on this one, at least when it comes to geometry), but it's important to realize that's not what happened here. There was no discussion. No arguments were made. No supporting data was gathered. The people who wrote the curriculum simply dodged the question of what to leave out.

When you overstuff a curriculum you guarantee that certain topics will be skimmed or skipped entirely and when you apply tremendous pressure on teachers to raise test scores, you force teachers to make the kind of choices you've seen here.

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