Saturday, August 1, 2015

Common Core and Politics

I wonder if the Common Core will survive the 2016 election campaigns? It's been quite astounding how already the Common Core State Standards are mentioned in negative terms almost every time a politician, regardless of her/his party, gets onto the topic of education. The main question to them has to be "HOW MUCH OF THE COMMON CORE HAVE YOU READ?" Then, the next question should be "HOW MUCH OF THE COMMON CORE DO YOU UNDERSTAND?". I wonder how they would respond.

Having become intimately familiar with the Math CCSS I have to say they are pretty good. The authors seem to have included something for everyone. For example they want students to understand what they are learning, a nod to the liberal side of the populace, and the want students to develop rigor in their learning, a nod to the conservative side. Perhaps this is the very reason why both sides are attacking them. The CCSS contain something that everyone can point to as being not what they want in an education system. Instead of seeing them as an entirely complete piece of work they are selecting small pieces to support their argument for dropping the Common Core. It is always much easier, of course, to chop a tree down in 30 seconds that to grow one in 30 years.

Perhaps it is the name "Common Core" that politicians don't like. The word "common" for example has somewhat negative connotations: It's hard to get excited about something called "common". Then there's the word "core". Again it's a word that you tend to find in somewhat negative surrounding such as in the phrase "cut me to the core".

Then, of course, it's all part of "Race To The Top", a phrase clearly not coined by someone involved  intimately in the education of children. I sometimes imagine a kindergarten teacher saying on the first day of the semester "OK kindergartners, now pay attention. I just want to remind you that you are just about to start the "Race To The Top". Since this is a race, some of you will make it to the top first and some of you won't. No pressure, I just want you to be aware of what lies ahead of you".

Here are some interesting links re CCSS and Politics; US News and the Huff Post.
NPR and the Washington Post.



Thursday, July 30, 2015

CFES at SMC in VT in the US

It's always a neat experience doing something you've never done before. This morning I presented an activity on Fractals to a group of students participating in the College For Every Student (CFES) program. CFES is a leading nonprofit designed with the goal of: 
"helping under-served students get to and through college, and ready to enter the 21st century workforce".
CFES currently "supports 20,000 students through partnerships with 200 rural and urban K-12 schools and districts in 27 states and Ireland".

I have worked with many, many different populations of students but this is the first time I have worked with H.S. students considering pursing a college education. We completed a number of activities related to fractals and mathematical patterns using my motto "Math is the science of pattern and the art of making sense". I was so impressed by the quality of their work and their ability to persevere with one particular activity that was not at all easy.

On their website, CEFS describes raising the students' aspirations  since most of them come from families with parents who haven't attended college. Neither of my parents attended college so I have a sense of how they view the whole idea of what it means to attend college and get a degree. I must admit that I think sometimes we are a bit misguided in the way we promote a college education as a way of getting a good job although I do acknowledge this is true.  I'm probably being somewhat idealistic in a material world but I believe a college education for as many people as possible is vital for the promotion and continuation of a civilized world. We need a caring and educated population that values knowledge, understanding and wisdom as they relate to our culture as much as we need skilled workers.

We concluded the activities with my favorite Vi Hart video. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

NGSS - A Worthy Vision

So this week I began my long journey into intimacy with the Next Generation Science Standards. The time has come when I have to know them inside out, be familiar with all the nooks and crannies, find out what resources are available and generally make them part of who I am as a math, science and engineering educator.

My journey began a few months ago when I joined a group of HE faculty working with the science folks at the Vermont Agency of Education to find ways of making sure that the implementation of the NGSS in Vermont schools goes as planned in 2016.

Using John Dewey's pedagogical dualism the NGSS present us with a worthy "inspired vision" of how science education should exist at the elementary school level in the context of the elementary school curriculum which includes ELA, math and social studies. It's interesting that the latter discipline is missing from the Venn diagram above.

The other part of Dewey's dualism, of course, is one's "executive means" or ones ability to put into practice one's "inspired vision" of teaching. According to Dewey's theory there must always be proximity between one's vision and one's executive means but one can never truly achieve one's inspired vision. . The two can never be exactly the same because the practical world of the classroom comprises children who are unique.  The relationships between the students in a class is also unique. Our task as teachers is to continually work to get as close to implementing our "inspired vision" through the use of our "executive means" as we possibly can.

This is a grand task that requires a growth mindset by everyone involved.


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Common Core - Yes; SBAC testing - No

I've said this before, probably many many times, but it's worth saying again because things are starting to happen.
The Common Core is great. In mathematics, the CCSSM clearly identify the math that students should be expected to learn in each grade level. What is not good are the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium standardized, computer-based tests that students are expected to take starting in third grade. Having just watched four third grade teachers and their students suffer through these anachronistic evaluation devices (they are clearly not assessments)  I think it's time for parents and teachers and everyone involved in Education to say enough is enough. American students are still the most tested and the least examined.

More and more people are beginning to boycott the tests or opt out such as these students. There is also a growing body of evidence that suggests that the PISA test scores that consistently show the US at a lower ranking than most would like are not a true reflection of the quality of education in American schools. More and more research, and opinion papers by scholars such as this one in the Guardian, are casting doubt upon the authenticity of comparing tests in cultures that are so different. The most odious interpretation of these international results based on false comparisons is to say that higher test scores in many Asian countries are the result of better teaching. There are so many other factors that contribute to differences in test scores.

Perhaps if all the parents of third grade students were to go on-line and take the sample SBAC test items they would see why such testing is so invalid. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

It's a "Testing-Crazy" World.

So this might turn out to be a bit of a "blog-rant" but the constant testing HAS TO STOP!. The BBC reports today that 4-year-olds are to be tested in the UK in reading, writing and maths. It seems that politicians, in particular, see the only solution to the improvement of education is to do more testing; test infants, test children, test students, test pre-service teachers, test teachers. Why do we never test politicians?

As stated in the Beeb article the primary reason for testing 4-year-olds is to provide a baseline by which the education system can be evaluated. This is basically another cry for teacher testing and yet another example of politicians' lack of confidence in teachers and the teaching profession.

And all this happens, of course, at a time of a general election in the UK when each party needs an extra plank in their platform. Education is  an easy target because it is so easy, through the manipulation of numbers, to show how poorly students in one country such as the UK or US are doing compared to students in another country such as Singapore. The same is beginning to happen in the US as we gear up for the 2016 presidential election. International test score comparisons such as TIMMS and PISA are readily available and provide instant numerical comparisons. The unfortunate thing is that politicians, of course,  fail to mention the fine details such as in Singapore there are special schools where all students with special needs are sent so the scores do not reflect the effort that goes into teaching the whole student population.

Tests, such as the SBACS, currently being administered in Vermont schools, test only what is easy to test. They only provide a brief, momentary, narrow snapshot of what children know and understand. The scores are also heavily swayed by a students ability to master the computer skills required to take the test.

Nobody knows a student as well as the teacher who teachers the student. Nobody who lives 300 miles away can possibly be in a position to truly assess what a student knows and understands. 

Why the Bridges 2 Math Program is So Good

This morning I observed one of my student teachers teaching a lesson on remainders from the Bridges 2 Math Program. As the student teacher struggled with her understanding of the mathematics involved it became incredibly clear to me why the program is so good. The activities are so rich with mathematical opportunity  for what Bob Wright called the mathematization of children's minds.

The third grade activity I was observing involved rolling two die and multiplying the subsequent numbers to get a product. Then, using a neat worksheet, the students had to divide the product by 2,3,4,5, and 6 to see what happens. The demonstration roll the student teacher used was 4 x 4 for 16. Dividing by 2 yielded 8, but 8 what? The children were using tiles to make 2 x 8 arrays vertically. Here the 2 referred to the number of columns and the 8 to the number of rows. So the 8 was 8 rows. She could have shown 8 groups of 2 or 2 groups of 8, demonstrating the commutative property of multiplication. This is only true abstractly as the actual arrangement looks quite different. This is known as psychological non-commutativity.

She then went on to divide 16 by 3 getting 5 R1, then divided it by 4 getting 4 (proving 16 is a square number), then by 5 getting 3R1 (showing the commutative property), and finally by 6 getting 2 R4 .  
The interesting thing about the commutative property in division is if you then give the remainder as a fraction. 16 ÷ 3 would give 5 1/3. 16 ÷ 5 would give 3 1/5. So the question is; what do the fractions represent? 1/3 of what and 1/5 of what? A fraction has no value unless you know the size of the one to which it refers. It depends, of course, on what the referents for the 3 and the 5 are. If you had 16 cookies divided between 3 people, each person would get 5 and 1/3 cookies. If you had 16 cookies and divided them  into groups of 5, 3 1/5 people could get a group of cookies; which makes absolutely no sense at all.  

The neat thing about the Bridges Program 2 activities is that they are so rich with mathematical possibilities.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Teachers Need Support with NGSS

We are living in a time of unprecedented change in the teaching profession. While we are still incorporating the changes brought about by the Common Core State Standards we are now getting ready for the implementation of the new Next Generation Science Standards. Current times in Education are also characterized by a significant lack of support for public education brought about primarily by politicians jumping on band wagons and looking for political planks or angles in preparation for the upcoming national election. It is so easy for a politician to compare test score results by waving pieces of paper about which they know nothing, and so difficult for those who are experts in education to correct all the misinformation that is spread in the name of political advantage. 

Amidst all of this, I recently volunteered to teach a new course; a Science Practicum that places students in public schools to learn how to teach science and engineering at the elementary K - 6 level. It will involve introducing students to the new Next Generation Science Standards and helping them learn how to implement inquiry-centered science activities based on these standards.

To do this I am hooking up with the Flynn Elementary School in Burlington, Vermont, which recently became a STEM Academy. It will be the third specialized K - 5 academy in Burlington joining the Integrated Arts and Sustainability Academies. The more I think about this partnership the more excited I become. I want to use this course as a way of supporting teacher and the school as they begin to implement the changes required of becoming a STEM academy. I want my students to be able to gain all sorts of experiences such as creating inquiry activities, science and engineering units of instruction,  bulletin boards and web-sites, as well as working in the after-school STEM program and the anticipated garden project.

I want to be able to support the teachers at the school as they adapt their curriculum materials to incorporate the NGSSs and I can't think of a better way to do this than have my students work to undertake all the time-consuming things that need to be done. The experience of doing this will provide my students with unique opportunities to develop their own skills and understanding of what it means to teach science and engineering.