Friday, July 17, 2015

Why Eureka (and implementation in general) belongs in the Common Core debate

Clyde Schechter had an extended reply to a recent post.
Let's follow the lead of the mathematicians here and first be clear about our definitions. Common Core is a set of standards: it is a list of behaviors that students are supposed to achieve at each grade level. And it is the intention that those who attain those standards will, at the end of high school, be prepared for college or for certain non-college-degree-requiring careers.

That is quite a separate matter from issues of textbooks and teacher-training. These are key for successful implementation of the Common Core standards, and I do not deny the importance of these things. But unless you want to argue (and perhaps you do) that the Common Core standards are inherently impossible to implement, you cannot rationally attack the standards by criticizing specific textbooks, or even the present lack of any adequate textbooks.

I think it would be helpful to your readers if you would make it clear whether you disagree in any substantial way with the Common Core Math Standards. I personally have read them and they strike me as quite appropriate. Do you agree or not? If not, what are your concerns?

Then if you want to blog about the inadequacies of Eureka math or other textbooks, do so--but don't cast it as a problem with the Common Core standards. My own daughter is learning math under the new Common Core standards--and, in plain English, her textbook sucks! So I'm with you on this.

But let's be clear what we're talking about: the standards themselves, the implementation of the standards in the classroom, or the assessments of achievement of those standards, or the utilization of those assessments to evaluate students, teachers, and schools. These are all separate issues and nobody is truly served by conflating them.
I'd take the opposite position that the issues involving the standards and those involving implementation are so tightly intertwined that they can and should be discussed as a unit.

1. Virtually no one discusses Common Core in narrowly defined terms. Not Wu. Not Coleman. Nobody. This is largely because the standards have no direct impact on the students. Their effect is felt only through their influence on curriculum and assessment. Pretty much everything you've read about the impact of Common Core was defining the initiative broadly. (Add to this the fact that, to anyone but another math teacher, actual math standards are as boring as dirt.)

2. Nor does treating the standards and their implementation separately make sense from an institutional point of view. Many of the same people and processes are behind both, and all phases were presumably approached with an eye to what would come next. This yet another reason for treating the standards, the lessons and the tests as an integrated unit.

3. If we are going to consider implementation when discussing Common Core, we will have to talk about Eureka Math. Not only is it held up as the gold standard by supporters; its success and wide acceptance make it the default template for other publishers. Barring big changes, this is the form Common Core is likely to take in the classroom.

4. All of this leaves open the hypothetical question: how much of the Eureka debacle could've been avoided had someone else handled this stage of the implementation of the Core math standards? The big problem with that question is that the education reform establishment still sees Eureka as a great success. That indicates a systemic failure. Unless you could find someone with sufficient distance from the establishment, I don't see any potential for a better outcome.

5. Finally, speed kills. The backers of Common Core have pushed a narrative of urgency and dire consequences so hard for so long that I am sure they now believe it themselves. The result is a hurried and unrealistic timeline that is certain to be massively expensive and generate tons of avoidable errors, particularly when combined with processes that lack adequate mechanisms for self-correction and a culture that tends to dismiss external criticism. On the whole, my impression is that the Common Core standards are generally slightly worse than the system of state standards and de facto national standards which they are replacing, but the difference, frankly, is not that great. However, even if the standards represented a big step forward, that would not justify implementing them at a breakneck speed that all but guarantees shoddy work (not to mention being massively expensive).

And as a footnote, the phrase "And it is the intention that those who attain those standards will, at the end of high school, be prepared for college or for certain non-college-degree-requiring careers" is deeply problematic on at least two levels:

First, we already have standards in place with basically these same objectives and which aren't all that different from CCS (the fact that we still have an unacceptable number of unprepared students is just another reminder of the limited impact of standards). If we were just interested in improving college and career readiness, it would be far easier and cheaper to simply tweak what we have (cover this earlier, spend more time on this, raise the test cut-off for this);

We don't see this because these reforms are about more. In a classic case of not letting a crisis go to waste, Coleman et al are looking to make sweeping administrative and pedagogical changes to the educational system and while I'm sure that they believe those changes will improve readiness, that's not the focus. If this were just a get-kids-through-college conversation, we would not be talking about mathematical formalism and close reading.

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