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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Common Core leading districts to adopt unproved math programs and failed approaches

By Laurie H. Rogers
Many of America’s public schools have incorporated “student-centered learning” models into their math programs. An adoption committee in Spokane appears poised to recommend the adoption of yet another version of a “student-centered” program for Grades 3-8 mathematics.

It’s critically important that American citizens know what that term means. Aspects of the Common Core State Standards initiatives are leading many districts to adopt new curricular materials that have “student-centered learning” as a centerpiece.

In Spokane Public Schools, student-centered learning (also known as “inquiry-based” learning or “discovery-based” learning or “standards-based” learning) has been the driver of curriculum adoptions for nearly 20 years. This approach has not produced graduates with strong skills in mathematics. Spokane now suffers from a dearth of math skills in most of its younger citizens.

Nor is Spokane alone with this problem. Student-centered learning has largely replaced direct instruction in the public-school classroom. It was pushed on the country beginning in the 1980s by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the federal government, colleges of education, and various corporations and foundations. Despite its abject failure to produce well-educated students, student-centered learning is coming back around, again pushed by the NCTM, colleges of education, the federal government and various corporations and foundations.

Despite the lack of supporting research for the approach, trillions of taxpayer dollars were spent on implementing it across the nation. Despite its grim results, trillions more will be spent on it via the Common Core initiatives. But what is student-centered learning, and why do people in public education still love it?

Student-centered learning is designed to “engage” students in discussion, debate, critical thinking, exploration and group work, all supposedly to gain “deeper conceptual understanding” and the ability to apply concepts to “real world” situations. New teachers receive instruction in student-centered learning in colleges of education, and their instruction in the approach (i.e. their indoctrination) continues non-stop at state and district levels.

The popularity of student-centered learning in the education community rests on: a) constant indoctrination, b) ego, c) money, and d) the ability to hide weak outcomes from the public.

Ask yourself this: How does one actually quantify “exploration,” “deeper conceptual understanding” and “application to real world situations”? How do we test for that? We can’t, really, which helps explain why math test scores can soar even as actual math skills deteriorate.

With student-centered learning, teachers are not to be a “sage on the stage” – they are to be a “guide on the side.” Students are to innovate and create, come up with their own methods, develop their own understanding, work in groups, talk problems out, teach each other, and depend on their classmates for help before asking the teacher. Student-centered learning is supposed to be a challenge for teachers, whereas direct instruction is considered to be too easy (basically handing information over to students on a silver platter).

Ask yourself this: How much learning can be done in a class with 28 students of different abilities and backgrounds, all talking; a teacher who guides but doesn’t teach; and classmates who must teach each other things they don’t understand? How do students get help with this approach at home? What happens to students who don't have a textbook, don't have proper guidance, and don't have any help at home? Direct instruction does make learning easier; that’s a positive for it, not a negative. Learning can be efficient and easy. How is it better to purposefully make children struggle, fail and doubt themselves?

But adult egos can be stroked by the enormous challenge of making student-centered learning work, even as it utterly fails the children.

In student-centered learning, student discussion and debate precedes (and often replaces) teacher instruction. “Deeper conceptual understanding” is supposed to precede the learning of skills. But placing application before the learning puts the “why” before the “how,” thus asking students to apply something they don’t know how to do. How does that make sense?

In student-centered learning, it’s thought to be bad practice to instruct, answer student questions, provide a template for the students, teach efficient processes, insist on proper structure or correct answers, or have students practice a skill to mastery. It’s OK for a class to take all day “exploring” because exploration supposedly promotes learning, whereas efficient instruction is supposedly counterproductive. Children are supposed to “muddle” along, get it wrong and depend on classmates for advice and guidance. Struggling is seen as critical to learning. Getting correct answers in an efficient manner is seen as unhelpful.

Ask yourself this: How can “efficient” instruction be counterproductive? Math is a tool, used to get a job done. Correct answers are critical, and efficiency is prized in the workforce. Quick, correct solutions reflect a depth of understanding that slow, incorrect solutions do not. Students do not enjoy struggling and getting things wrong. For children, struggle and failure are motivation killers.

The focus of a student-centered classroom is on supposed “real-world application.” (My experience with “real-world application” is that it’s typically a very adult world rather than a child world, and that now, it’s also a political world with a heavily partisan focus.)

Ask yourself this: How does it help children to be enmeshed in an adult world of worries, prevented from learning enough academics, and basted in a politically partisan outlook? (It doesn’t help them, but it suits adults who want a certain kind of voter when the students turn 18.)

All of this is at the expense of learning sufficient skills in mathematics.

Here is one example of an adult perspective of student-centered learning. We can only guess whether students would enjoy this lesson or learn from it. The article is called “Messy monk mathematics: An NCTM-standards-inspired class session.” It’s dedicated to Stephen I. Brown, who is said to be “an inspiration for inquiry-based teaching and learning.” The author, Larry Copes, has a doctorate in mathematics education (not in mathematics). His doctoral work was on the ways math instruction can “encourage intellectual, ethical, and identity development.”

After reading Copes’ article, did you say: “Wow! I love the method! The students were so engaged!” Or, did you say: “What a waste of time! The ‘lesson’ was obviously designed to stroke the teacher’s ego and not to provide students with the math concept.”

I see the teacher in that anecdote as egotistic, holding knowledge over the students’ head, refusing to give it to them, making them jump for it over and over. It seems selfish. The students didn’t appear to ever understand the concept. What’s the point of tossing in the name of a Theorem (the Intermediate Value Theorem) without ever explaining it? Although the students wrote down the name, they didn’t pursue it, and the anecdote ended without a resolution or proof that they learned anything. I wonder if the teacher cared whether they learned the Theorem, or if his little game and his complete focus on himself were what mattered to him.

My daughter read Copes’ article, and she wrote (as if the author were speaking): “I am an individual afflicted with an extraordinary amount of hubris, which has affected my research.”

My daughter is funny, but it does seem impossible to bridge these gaps in perception:
  • Proponents of the “student-centered” approach see themselves as hard workers, suffering with opponents who are stuck in the 18th century. The “deeper conceptual understanding” that they believe they foster in students seems more important to them than building math skills that consistently lead to correct answers.
  • Proponents of direct instruction see the students’ weakening self-image and poor skills, and we view the student-centered approach as limiting and even unkind. Math skills and correct answers are the point of math instruction, and we don’t believe students can have “deeper conceptual understanding” if they lack procedural skills.
Proponents of student-centered learning like to call their approach “best practices,” “research-based,” “evidence-based,” and so on, but no one has ever provided verifiable, replicable proof that student-centered learning works better than direct instruction as a method for teaching math. There is actually a wealth of solid evidence to indicate the contrary.

Unfortunately, the pushing of the Common Core on states has encouraged many districts to pursue “student-centered learning” models all over again, as if they were required to do so. Some folks are already making pots of money off the Common Core and the new, unproved materials that are supposedly aligned with the Common Core. But student-centered learning hasn’t worked for the children in the last 30 years, and it won’t work in the next 30.

Nevertheless, the stated mission of Spokane’s adoption committee is to “deeply” align to the Common Core. (Not to choose a curriculum that will – oh, I don’t know – lead students to college or career readiness?) In supporting their stated mission, committee members asserted that the Common Core was vetted by “experts,” so they believe the initiatives will produce internationally competitive graduates. They provided no data, no proof, no solid research or studies for their belief. And they can’t because there aren’t any. The Common Core initiatives are an obscenely expensive, nation-wide pilot of unproved products.

Welcome to public education: Another day, another experiment on our children, except that this time, there is strong evidence that this experiment – a rehashing of the last experiment – will again fail. Try telling that to education and political leaders. No one seems to see the evidence. When you tell leaders about it or show it to them, no one seems to care. Meanwhile, many of those leaders get tutoring or outside help for their own children. (FYI: I have never seen a professional tutor use the “student-centered” method to teach math to any child.)

The Spokane adoption committee’s mission of “deep” alignment to the Common Core has caused them to choose to pilot – you guessed it – several sets of new (and unproved) materials that are distinctly more “student-centered” in their approach, heavy on words and discovery, and light on actual math.

Kicked to the bottom of their preferences were proved and rigorous programs favored by homeschooling parents and tutors, including Saxon Mathematics and Singapore Math. Saxon got my own daughter almost all of the way through Algebra II by the end of 8th grade, most of that without a calculator. When I asked my email list and various online contacts for their preferences, the majority picked Saxon over every other math program, and by a wide margin.

But a member of the Spokane adoption committee – a district employee – told me the Saxon representative called Saxon “parochial” and that the publisher initially refused to send Saxon to Spokane because it was unlikely to be adopted. (“Parochial” means provincial, narrow-minded, or “limited in range or scope.”) Do you believe the Saxon rep would call his product narrow-minded and limited in scope? Saxon is efficient, thorough, clear and concise. If there is a stronger K-8 math program out there, I don’t know of it. Naturally, the Spokane adoption committee does not want Saxon.

One of the programs the committee did choose to pilot is Connected Mathematics, a curriculum already being used in Spokane, one of the worst programs on the planet, excoriated for decades by mathematicians from border to border and from coast to coast. The district employee assured me the committee is hiding nothing from the public, but the committee didn’t mention to the public that it is again piloting Connected Mathematics. They don’t seem to see its failure. They love its focus on student-centered learning. The devastation it wreaks on math skills appears to matter naught to them.

There is one more community meeting for this adoption committee, on Tuesday, Jan. 29, at Sacajawea Middle School in Spokane. Whether you can attend or not, please take a moment to fill out the district survey – either the short version or the long version. Tell the Spokane superintendent what you want in a math program. If we want Spokane teachers to ever be allowed to actually teach mathematics to the children, we’re going to have to say so.

I know district administrators and board directors have not been good about listening to community wishes on math, and that it seems pointless to talk to them. But for the good of the children, please try. Perhaps this time, someone will listen.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (January 2013). "Common Core leading districts to adopt unproved math programs and failed approaches." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site: 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Fatal flaws in Common Core standards for ELA beg the question: Which way for Indiana and other states?

By Sandra Stotsky
 -- originally posted on the Indiana Policy Review

The defeat of Tony Bennett as Indiana’s State Superintendent of Education was attributed to many factors. Yet, as one post-election analysis indicated, the size of the vote for his rival, Glenda Ritz, suggests that the most likely reason was Mr. Bennett’s support for, and attempt to implement, Common Core’s badly flawed standards.

Common Core’s English language arts standards don’t have just one fatal flaw, i.e., its arbitrary division of reading standards into two groups: 10 standards for “informational” text and nine for “literature” at all grade levels from K to 12. That’s only the most visible; its writing standards turn out to be just as damaging, constituting an intellectual impossibility for the average middle-grade student — and for reasons I hadn’t suspected. The architects of Common Core’s writing standards simply didn’t link them to appropriate reading standards, a symbiotic relationship well-known to reading researchers. Last month I had an opportunity to see the results of teachers’ attempts to address Common Core’s writing standards at an event put on by GothamSchools, a four-year-old news organization trying to provide an independent news service to the New York City schools.

The teachers who had been selected to display their students’ writing (based on an application) provided visible evidence of their efforts to help their students address Common Core’s writing standards — detailed teacher-made or commercial worksheets structuring the composing of an argument. And it was clear that their students had tried to figure out how to make a “claim” and show “evidence” for it. But the problems they were having were not a reflection of their teachers’ skills or their own reading and writing skills. The source of their conceptual problems could be traced to the standards themselves.

At first glance the standards don’t leap out as a problem. Take, for example, Common Core’s first writing standard for grades six, seven and eight (almost identical across grades): “Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.” This goal undoubtedly sounds reasonable to adults, who have a much better idea of what “claims” are, what “relevant evidence” is and even what an academic “argument” is. But most children have a limited understanding of this meta-language for the structure of a composition.

So I explored Common Core’s standards for reading informational text in grades three, four and five (and then in grades six, seven and eight) and discovered nothing on what a claim or an argument is, or on distinguishing relevant from irrelevant evidence. In other words, the grades six, seven and eight writing standards are not coordinated with reading standards in grades three to eight that would require children to read the genre of writing their middle-school teachers are expecting them to compose. Middle-school teachers are being compelled by their grade-level standards to ask their students to do something for which the students will have to use their imaginations.

Do elementary and middle-school teachers need this problem spelled out for them? Yes, I also discovered in talking to several of the teachers at this event. They apparently knew nothing about the research on — and value of — prose models, a well-known body of research just a few decades ago.

This raises a common-sense question: How can middle-grade children be expected to understand how to set forth a “claim” and provide “relevant evidence” to support it if they haven’t been taught (and won’t be taught) how to identify an academic argument, a claim and irrelevant evidence in what they have read? No wonder New York City teachers are spending an enormous amount of time creating worksheets to structure students’ writing, and their students are spending an enormous amount of time filling these worksheets in.

One teacher, for example, admitted spending a lot of time trying to help her students come up with a topic sentence (it is close to a “claim” but is also not mentioned in Common Core’s reading or writing standards). And her worksheets showed the dutiful efforts of a few children to do this. A topic sentence doesn’t come easy to many middle-school students, especially if they haven’t read a lot of well-written articles with topic sentences that the children have been asked to identify until they really know what one is and what one does for the rest of the paragraph.

Two other teachers had first assigned some short stories (maybe to engage their students?) before asking their students to come up with a “thesis” or a “claim” and produce “evidence” for it. Needless to say, the children’s writing didn’t show a “claim.” Not surprising. The only prose models the children had been given were two- to three-page stories.

But some teachers were forging ahead despite the conceptual difficulties their students were encountering. Another teacher, for example, acknowledged the lack of a visible “literary thesis” or “claim” in her middle-school students’ writing (most were not strong students). She was pleased they were learning to cite page numbers for the location of their “evidence,” even though their “thesis” or “claim” had to be “inferred.”

The problem deepened when I examined another writing standard for middle school. Common Core’s architects did suspect that writing was related to reading. They just didn’t know how it was. The ninth writing standard for grades six, seven and eight asks students to apply grades six, seven and eight reading standards as they “draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.”

What are these reading standards? Here are the first two:
  1. “Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.”
  2. “Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.”
The problem here is that the reading standards are almost identical in grades six, seven and eight for both literature and informational text. It seems that children are also being expected to analyze literary and non-literary texts as if they are both genres of expository prose. No well-trained English teacher would expect children reading a short story or novella in grade six to figure out first its “theme” and then “analyze its development over the course of the text.” That’s something one would do with children with a controlling idea in the introductory paragraph of an informational piece. The architects of these standards don’t seem to have a firm grasp on the differences between literature and informational texts.

Years ago, it was common practice for English teachers to introduce students to the art of the essay in grade nine. Now students in grade six are to attempt composing an essay with a thesis or a claim. One New York City teacher saw this as a healthy “challenge” for her weak students. Others might see this challenge as a Utopian expectation, with teachers the ultimate scapegoat.

Some children, already strong readers, are, of course, going to get it. Their English teachers will eventually figure the problems out, or their parents will. But guess which children are going to be the most confused? Probably the least able readers and writers, the very ones Common Core wants to make “college-ready.”

It’s time for the standards that the National Governors Association and the Council for Chief School State Officers have copyrighted to be drastically revised. The problem here is: Who is to do the revisions? And what should Indiana be doing while the legal issues get sorted out?

Here is my two-cents worth: 1) The Indiana state board of education should re-adopt its own, first-class English Language Arts standards (with perhaps minor changes), as well as its own first-class math standards (which the latest Trends in Mathematics and Science Study results suggest are working well in Indiana); and 2) label them Indiana “college-readiness” standards just as other states have labeled their own standards.

Sandra Stotsky is professor of education reform emerita at the University of Arkansas, where she held the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality. She is a well-known evaluator of states’ standards, and she served on the Common Core Validation Committee. She has provided testimony about the Common Core Standards before the Indiana Senate Education Committee. She is an authority on curriculum standards, having helped many states (including Massachusetts and Texas) to write their own. She received her doctoral degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Professor Stotsky wrote this article at the request of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.

Comment from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at . Please limit columns to about 1,000 words, give or take a few. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.