Tuesday, June 2, 2015

It’s not just the Common Core: how vagueness and complexity entrench current practices

One of the problems with the Common Core Standards is their vagueness. Some people see this as a virtue: the Standards, they reassure us, don’t spell out how or what to teach. Local schools and teachers, they say, still have as much autonomy as ever. The downside is that the CC provides no guidelines on how to attain its goals—the more so because the goals are often vague, not just about how they are to be met, but about what precise skills they involve.

Worse, this vagueness can be used by the powers that be to further entrench current practices like Reform Math, which many experts outside the power structures find highly problematic. Because the CC standards are so vague, anyone can argue that their preferred curriculum and pedagogy are supported by them. While theoretically this empowers everyone, in practice it particularly empowers those who already have power and influence over today’s classrooms.

But the Common Core isn’t the only vague factor out there that particularly empowers the Powers that Be. There’s also the testing data. Consider the declines in U.S. test scores, or our poor rankings relative to other developed countries. Particularly when this occurs on measures that, like the PISA or this new test, emphasize conceptual understanding, reasoning, and applied problem solving, Reform Math advocates say it’s because we’re not doing enough Reform Math; student-centered discovery-learning advocates say it’s because we’re not doing enough student-centered discovery learning; and technology-in-the-classroom advocates say it’s because we’re not making enough use of classroom technology. So obvious are these solutions that their advocates find no reason to look at what’s happening, or not happening, in the countries that outperform us.

It’s the same with the economy—another highly opaque set of factors (opaque, especially, in their complexity). When the economy is perceived to be in bad shape (or, for that matter, in good shape), advocates of current practices say we need more of these practices. The difference, of course, is that advocates of whatever current economic practices are don’t generally have quite the power monopoly enjoyed by those in the educational industrial complex.


Barry Garelick said...

Quoting Ze'ev Wurman: "Many people are dissecting and interpreting [the Common Core] as if it were the Bible, where every word, spelling, and comma deserve an interpretation. The fact is, the Common Core is not the Bible, and it was written by inexperienced people under enormous time pressure. As such, it is only to be expected that it has errors and omissions that come out after a longer period of analysis and exposure to real life. Yet its defenders actually pretend it IS like the Bible, and hence they engaged in an extensive effort of re-interpretation to show that everything needed for excellent math program has been anticipated and put into it. So rather than argue about missing or misplaced content, they prefer to engage in discussions about the three pages of SMPs (standards for mathematical practice) that have such a broad language that they can be interpreted almost any way one wants. Rather than explain the absence of prime decomposition, or conversion between different fractional forms (percent, decimal, and fraction), they reach into a word here and an example there, to argue those things were not forgotten. Talmudic commentary is probably quite fitting as a description of what [William] McCallum and [Jason] Zimba (and [Hung-Hsi] Wu) have been engaging in over recent years. Yet standards are not a sacred document that needs an interpretation. Standards should be clear and obvious to any teacher and educated reader without priestly interpretation. If they are not, it simply indicates they are bad standards. [The Common Core national standards] are inherently flawed *because* we need such interpretations. And this is independent of their mediocre content and rigor."

SteveH said...

Also, the Common Core is ignored by many high school classes. Something has to be done for those very many students (and parents) who expect more than a maximum pseudo-algebra II and the highest expectation of no remediation in college. At my son's high school, all of the teachers, including honors and AP teachers, had to align their content with the book, chapter, and verse of CCSS. One teacher was so pissed off that he gave it to the students to do as homework. My son had an assignment where he had to not only do the assignment, but break it into CCSS tasks or goals - citing specific sections, and explain why each part fit the CCSS standard. I remember helping him with it. Our reaction was "Whatever."

Education is the only public policy area that I ever analyzed (and experienced) in detail. I'm still amazed by how stuck and entrenched it is. I am also amazed at the bias, the shallowness, and amount of misunderstanding. I call it a turf thing. That's all they have, and ironically, ed schools directly teach it to their students by rote. The problem is that if you take that away from them, they have nothing. However, when my son got to 7th grade, when our state required subject certification to teach, things began to change. High school was a completely different world (which is not true everywhere) where none of his classes cared about CCSS. For those parents who know better, CCSS is meaningless. They will have to ensure learning at home. For other parents, high school content focus comes too late.

Since "education" is now its own separate content (devoid of subject content), they assume that it informs them about best practices in other areas. I found it astounding to be lectured by a first grade teacher about understanding in math and why it's good for kids to explain why 2+2=4. Their position seems to be that content experts were naturally good in the subject so they don't know what's best for most other students. They also claim that parents only want what they had when they were young - that they just don't understand modern ideas of learning. Critical thinking? No. Bias and turf.

S Goya said...

Some people take common core too seriously. It is simply yet another set of standards of the myriads that already exist.