Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Conversations on the Rifle Range 18: Another Late Start Monday, Ill-Posed Questions and Ill-Posed Answers

Barry Garelick, who wrote various letters under the name Huck Finn, published here, is at work writing what will become "Conversations on the Rifle Range". This will be a documentation of his experiences teaching math as a long-term substitute. OILF proudly presents episode number 18:

As a rule, I did not like “late start Mondays,” when school starts an hour later for students but teachers still need to arrive at 7:30 AM to attend meetings, though most of the time there were no meetings. Sometimes there were, however. One such meeting was for the math department and featured Mrs. Halloran, who presented a preview of the middle school math curriculum under Common Core. This is what she had been working on when she took her leave. Sally, the District person was in attendance as well.

During the chit-chat before the meeting, I heard one teacher talking about what her son thought Common Core is about. “He says ‘It’s terrible! It’s going to be real, real, hard and you have to do a lot of writing.’” Sally chimed in at this. “You should ask him ‘Don’t you want to learn to think and to problem-solve?’” I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut.

So I sat silently during the chit-chat and during Mrs. Halloran’s presentation. She began by saying "Next year there will be no more teacher at the front of the room saying ‘Open your books to such and such page and listen to me.’” She went on about how there would be no textbooks. Teachers would facilitate students collaborating.They would be given a list of websites from which lesson plans, tests, videos and other material could be obtained. She had also outlined the sequence of topics to be covered for both grades.

After the presentation, Sally led a discussion about how to deal with students who are currently performing below grade in light of Common Core being implemented next year. Nothing got resolved, but Jim, a fellow math teacher, brought up the fact that some of his pre-algebra students lack skills in basic math, which is a problem whether or not we have Common Core. Sally responded “That’s because they’re not teaching them to think in the early grades.”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “That isn’t it at all, Sally.” The discussion went nowhere, though in the course of it I recall Sally admitting that the ninth grade Algebra 1 standards under Common Core do not cover everything that the current non-Common Core Algebra 1 course does—the one I was teaching to eighth graders. Undeterred by such inconvenient facts, Sally went on about how Common Core was going to be so much better than the "procedural" approach we use now. "Procedures don't stick with kids; they forget them. They need to learn critical thinking and problem solving.”

The topic then turned to the SVMI (Silicon Valley Math Initiative) assessments for our classes. These were the tests to be given in addition to the usual placement tests of algebra readiness for the seventh graders in pre-algebra. The usual placement test had accurately placed students in Algebra 1 for 8th grade. The purpose of the additional test, as Sally had explained the last time the math department had met, was to limit Algebra 1 for eighth graders to the “truly gifted” since the powers that be preferred that students take Algebra 1 in ninth grade under Common Core.

“Can you tell us how the SVMI tests will be considered for placement in Algebra 1 for rising eighth graders?” I asked. Sally said something along the lines of they didn’t know yet, but since this was the first time it had been given, it probably wouldn’t be given as much weight as the other placement exam. And with that, the meeting ended and we were left to fend for ourselves.

The explanation of how SVMI was to be counted meant nothing to my students, which was no surprise since it didn’t mean all that much to me either. My pre-algebra seventh graders knew it was not good news. If we don’t get a good score does it mean we have to repeat pre-algebra?” someone asked. I assured them it would not count towards their grade in the class.

I suspected that this policy would prevent otherwise qualified students from taking Algebra 1 in eighth grade. As I’ve recently found out, I was correct. At the time I was teaching last year, I had 60 students in my eighth grade algebra classes and in the entire district, about 300 students were enrolled in Algebra 1. This year, the number dropped substantially to 46—again for the entire district.

I administered the tests to all my classes later that week. It was typical of the type of test math reformers like, which supposedly assesses how well students can go beyond their level of instruction and apply prior knowledge to new situations. Problems were wordy and convoluted and relied upon prior knowledge that some students didn’t remember and that others didn’t have. I was besieged with questions that I wasn’t allowed to answer, but could only say “Do your best.”

At the end of the first day (the test took two days to administer), one of my pre-algebra students—a bright girl with her hair dyed pink—handed me her test booklet with a rip down half of the front cover. “Is this a protest?” I asked.

She nodded.

“I concur with you,” I said.

In my algebra classes, things didn’t go much better, though by virtue of being in Algebra 1 in eighth grade, they were grandfathered from having to clear any more hurdles in order to place into Geometry in ninth, as long as they passed Algebra 1 with a C or better. I didn’t know this at the time, however and neither did they. I found out later. So while they weren’t under the same pressure as the seventh graders, they thought they were. I was continually besieged with questions.

Ill-posed, ambiguous test questions required them to parse through convoluted wording. And there were the usual diagrams in which they were to find the pattern of growth in the number of triangles. I heard Peter exclaim after the test: "I hate patterns. Math isn't about patterns." Well, although there are patterns in math, I have to agree with him, particularly when pattern-finding depends on inductive reasoning and application of the formula for the sum of consecutive integers, which they hadn’t yet learned: n(n+1)/2. .

Anna, one of the brightest algebra students asked at the end of the test “Will we learn all the stuff on the test in this class?" Good question. I suppose I could drill them on “pretend novel problems” so they could answer them on fuzzy tests and pretend to think and pretend to problem-solve and possess a rote understanding.

“I don’t think so,” I said, and there were no more questions.

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