Monday, December 30, 2013

“Because she wanted to.”

Over at Valerie Strauss's essential Washington Post column, principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York has a must read guest post on Common Core. The whole piece is excellent but given our renewed focus on the math curriculum, I wanted to highlight the following:

My music teacher, Doreen, brought me her second-grade daughter’s math homework.  She was already fuming over Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s remark about why “white suburban moms” oppose the Common Core, and the homework added fuel to the fire. The problem that disturbed her the most was the following:
3. Sally did some counting. Look at her work. Explain why you think Sally counted this way.

177, 178,179,180, 190,200, 210, 211,212,213,214.

It was on a homework sheet from the New York State Common Core Mathematics Curriculum for Grade 2, which you can find here.
Doreen’s daughter had no idea how to answer this odd question. The only response that made sense to her was, “Because she wanted to.” My assistant principal and math specialist, Don Chung, found the question to be indefensible.
The teachers in her daughter’s school are also concerned.  They are startled to find that the curriculum is often a script. Here is an excerpt to teach students to add using beads from the first-grade module.
T: How many tens do you see?
T: How many ones?
S: 6
T: Say the number the Say Ten way.
S: Ten 6
Scripts like this are commonplace throughout the curriculum.
Similar headaches exist at the secondary level as well. A relative, who is required to teach Common Core Algebra from the modules, shared her worries about the curriculum’s conceptual gaps, disjointed and illogical concept progressions, and insufficient time to complete lessons.
I'll be filling these points out in more detail later, but here are a few quick points:

These examples and complaints are representative of most of the reaction I've been hearing about Common Core Math. Here's another interesting example I'll probably be discussing more soon;

As mentioned before, scripted lessons tend to produce more convergent learning. This is good for standardized tests;

Scripts also have a Harrison Bergeron effect on teachers. Even in a lecture, teaching is as much conversation as presentation. You always need to listen to the students -- even if it's just to their expressions and body language -- and shape what you're saying accordingly. Scripts discourage these conversations. But while scripted lessons are very seldom optimal for any competent teacher, they are the most sub-optimal for the best teachers;

Kids have a natural tendency to go off script. It is possible to suppress this tendency but it is not always advisable;

Note the complaint about "insufficient time to complete lessons." In many ways, the CC approach appears to have been designed to favor KIPP-type schools, institutions with extended school hours and calendars, regimented class culture and disproportionately inexperienced teachers. That's not that wild of a supposition when you consider the popularity of the model, the influence of its adherents and the antipathy of the reform movement to firewalls and conflict of interest concerns;

Deeper in the weeds but arguably more important is the role of Taylorism here. The reform movement has long had a weakness for certain kinds of business theory involving management and compensation, theories that resonate with consultants but fare badly in the field. Stack ranking is probably the example that's gotten the most press recently but I'd argue Taylorism is the most influential.

Fredrick Taylor always had a rather questionable foundation (particularly involving data) and his methods have been associated with some rather notable failures. Nonetheless, he set the business model and the culture of modern management consulting, a mindset that is tremendously important in the reform movement. Given all that, it's not too surprising to learn that possibly the most important figure in the new curriculum movement, David Coleman, got into the education field without any teaching experience due to his work as a consultant with McKinsey & Company.

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