NAEP Response: More than Words?

Now that the dust has finally settled on the most-recent dump of NAEP scores, we must admit that the results just aren’t good. For a decade now, student performance on our national reading and math tests have remained stagnant. And that stagnation is only because a few select demographics managed gains that kept everyone afloat.

At a time when we all seem to agree that today’s students need stronger and greater skills to succeed in tomorrow’s world, how can we be satisfied with stagnation? And how we can respond simply with words, with the rhetoric of how our students can and should do better?

Over on the BAM! Radio Network, we explore the topic, reflecting on both how we cannot be satisfied with our students treading water and how we need to take real action to improve teaching and learning in the classroom. Give it a listen. Then show your work.


Maybe Math is Hard

We often hear the parent horror stories about the homework their children are sent home with. The backpacks packed with books that force kids to tip over. The assignments that require advanced degrees to complete. The hours of work for the youngest of kids.

The stories have gotten worse with the introduction of Common Core State Standards. Now we have parents posting ridiculous student assignments (usually on the math side of the learning equation), blaming Common Core for forcing their kids to focus on everything from the ridiculous to sublime.

Eduflack usually writes off such rantings. Common Core, after all, is all about the standards. Good districts and good schools leave it to the teachers to determine the best ways to actually instruct our kids. And those who complain about the state of homework reflect nostalgically on their own childhoods, forgetting that we all had some pretty bad years and some pretty horrific assignments in the good ol’ days.

And then I saw the homework assignment my second grader brought home this week. Less than a week into the new school year. In a district known as one of the best school districts in the high-achieving state of New Jersey. I get home from work to find my little princesa frustrated with the math assignment of the day.

How hard can second-grade math be, I foolishly think? I take off my suit and tie, change into the fatherly uniform of shorts and a t-shirt and sit down to help my emerging learner.

I find a photocopied sheet of paper that is practically blank. The math assignment has two sentences typed across the top of the page. The remainder of the 8 1/2 by 11″ harbinger of doom is blank. Plenty of room to show your work.

What were those two sentences? How hard could it possibly be to follow such short directions?

The bolded sentence read, “What is mathematics? Use words or pictures to provide your answer.”


When did my lovely second grader transform into Euclid or Archimedes?

When did second-grade arithmetic become a Greek philosophy course?

I know I’ve seen more than my share of Big Bang Theory. I remember the episode when Sheldon explains the meaning  and roots of physics. But I seemed to miss the episode explaining the universal meaning of mathematics.

And as someone who once actually studied calculus and took college statistics, I can honestly say this was the first time in my 41-plus years I’ve ever been asked for the meaning of math.

So I did what any caring father did. I faked it. I pulled out of my daughter an answer that I felt would suffice. To her, math was numbers. We through in a some plus, minus, and equal signs as well. She even went on to note how she needed numbers to enter the password on her iPod, to work the TV remote, and to tell time.

I considered the assignment done at that point. She read for 20 minutes, and then I let her go outside to ride her bike until it got dark. The edu-wife thought I should have pulled more meaning out of the edu-princesa for the assignment. But she isn’t even seven years old yet. How much meaning does math truly have for a six-year old?

I refuse to chalk this up to Common Core. Nowhere in the standards do I remember seeing the philosophical implications of math. But it does make me wonder about how we translate what kids are expected to learn into what is actually taught.

I wonder if maybe that mid-1990s Barbie doll is right. Maybe math is hard. 

And I wonder how Sir Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein would answer the question. Or if there is even a right/wrong answer here. Or how many more times will I be stymied by elementary school homework.  

Common Core Math, Common Sense Approach

Earlier this week, EdSec Arne Duncan issued one of his strongest defenses of Common Core State Standards to date, taking CCSS haters to task for spreading misinformation and and offering “imaginary” criticisms of the non-federal standards issued in by the Federal government through Race to the Top and other new programs.

His defense is laudable.  Duncan is a firm believer in common academic standards for all students.  A fifth grader in Connecticut should be learning at the same pace as a fifth grader in Chicago or in Tuscaloosa or in Denver.  And like it or not, a state or a locality can still protect their academic autonomy even with CCSS as the guide.
But with so many folks focused on CCSS’ black helicopters and its role in leading an international takeover of our public schools where every child will be speaking French and using the metric system, and with critics on the other side of the ideological spectrum fearing CCSS assessments and believing that testing our kids in any way, shape, or form will destroy our children from the soul outward (despite decades of children who took California Achievement Tests, Iowa tests, Stanfords, SATs, ACTs, drivers tests, IQ tests, and Pepsi taste tests without too much damage), not much public discussion is being directed at HOW we actually go about teaching to the CCSS and ensuring that are kids are hitting the math and reading benchmarks we expect to see.
Last week, the State of Louisiana waded into this discussion, issuing guidance on what resources were best for teachers in teaching to the Common Core.  Interestingly, Louisiana’s Office of the State Superintendent did not recommend any specific math textbooks, finding that “none were sufficiently aligned to the Common Core State Standards.”
But it did recommend a new P-12 math curriculum created by a not-for-profit organization, praising it for its rigor and and alignment to CCSS.
The curriculum of note was developed by a national not-for-profit called Common Core (interestingly, the group was created years before the CCSS were ever adopted and is in no way affiliated with the CCSSI, though both share some words in their names).  Common Core “creates curriculum tools and promotes programs, policies, and initiatives at the local, state, and federal levels.”
Some might recall the K-12 ELA curriculum maps Common Core released in 2010 as part of its Curriculum Mapping Project.  To date, those ELA maps have been viewed more than 6 million times, with 20,000 educators from across the country formally joining the Mapping Project to ensure a “well-developed, content-rich curriculum.”
The math curriculum boosted by Louisiana is Common Core’s latest effort.  It was developed in partnership with the New York State Department of Education and is currently available on the Common Core website and through NYSED’s website.  The Common Core math curriculum will be available in print through Jossey-Bass at the end of the summer.
Why is this so important?  For one, Common Core’s efforts (in both ELA and math) are a direct response to the question of how do we teach to the CCSS.  They are real approaches to meaningful curricula that align to the standards, go beyond the basics, and really promote student learning and intellectual development.
Equally important, this is a curricular approach developed by educators for educators.  It wasn’t done “to” teachers, it was done by teachers, created with classroom needs and instructional improvement as a central driver. 
Clearly, we are still at the beginning of the CCSS implementation journey.  But Common Core’s efforts, starting with the ELA maps and rolling into this new P-12 math curriculum, is moving us beyond the CCSS rhetoric and vitriol toward some meaningful discussion and action in how to improve teaching and learning and how to ensure all students are meeting expectations.
(Full disclosure: Eduflack has worked with Common Core for years, including helping roll out the ELA Curriculum Maps.)

Education Policy and 2010 Elections

This time tomorrow (or possibly this time Thursday or Friday, depending on how close some elections out west may be) we will know what the 112th Congress will look like and we will have a clear sense of who will be sitting in the big desks in governors’ offices across the nation.  You have to be living in a cave (or be in complete denial) not to know that big change is coming.  So how will such change affect education policy plans for 2011 and beyond?

ESEA Reauthorization — We will likely see ESEA reauth in 2011, and it may actually be helped along by Republicans taking over the U.S. House of Representatives.  Rep, John Kline (MN) has already been working closely with Chairman George Miller (CA) on the legislation.  So while Kline is likely to give the draft a greater emphasis on local control and rural schools, it should still move. 

And the U.S. Senate will follow the House’s lead.  It is expected that Chairman Tom Harkin (IA) will remain in charge of the HELP Committee.  But major changes on the committee (due to election results and retirements) may change the Senate perspective.  If anything, it may help focus Harkin and get him to move on a meaningful piece of legislation.

Common Core Standards — Tomorrow, we are likely to see a lot of governor’s offices change parties.  Inevitably, that is going to lead to many seeking new GOP governors to reconsider their states’ adoption of the Common Core Standards (all in the name of local control).  And we may well see a few states pull out of the process, particularly if said states were RttT losers and are particularly proud of their state standards.  Texas and Virginia can serve as the model for these “rebel” states.

Phase Three Race to the Top and Phase Two i3 — Many are hoping for another round of both RttT and i3.  But additional rounds mean additional dollars.  And if the lead-up to today’s elections mean anything, it is that folks are frustrated with how many federal dollars have been spent over the past 18 months.  If we are seeing new RttT and i3 processes, it likely means having to move money from existing programs and existing priorities, a task that can be difficult during the reauthorization process.

Early Childhood Education — ECE has been the big loser in the last year.  Despite a great deal of rhetoric about the importance of early childhood education and plans on what should be done, ECE simply hasn’t been shown the budgetary love.  And that is unlikely to change.  ECE advocates will likely be fighting for the scraps in the larger picture for the coming year, particularly if they cannot find new champions on the Hill from both sides of the aisle.

Public/Private Partnerships — We have long relied on public/private partnerships to help move education issues forward, and STEM education is the latest in a long line of such efforts that the education establishment and the private sector have been able to work together on.  But will the Administration’s attack on business, particularly the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, make it more difficult to cut a deal to advance STEM in 2011?  Or will the business community move forward without Obama and company?  Only time will tell.

Teachers — EdSec Arne Duncan’s Teacher campaign is off and running, and it is likely to gain speed following the elections and stronger GOP representation in the states.  Many see the Teacher effort, led by Brad Jupp, as an alt cert campaign (an unfair characterization, but it has stuck).  So an anti-teachers union sentiment could give the recruitment effort some legs, particularly as new Republican governors look to model their administrations after NJ Gov. Chris Christie.

And what are the likely unsung issues in our post-election environment?  Parental and family engagement is at the top of ol’ Eduflack’s list, as folks see the need for community buy-in on reauth and other issues in a difficult budget year.  The assessments aligned with the Common Core will pick up steam.  And we are likely to see state legislatures take on an even stronger role in education issues, particularly as we look at the future for ESEA and Common Core.  And with all of our focus on reading for the past decade, math is likely to step into the forefront, particularly as more and more people raise issues with the math common core.

And so it begins …

STEM-ing the Rising Education Tide

It is hard to ignore the momentum that STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) education is gaining these days.  For years now, states and school districts have invested heavily in STEM education, first as a proactive step to allow our students to better compete in a flat, global economy and most recently as a reactive step to a changing economy and greatly changing job prospects.  No matter the reason, STEM is hot.  It is the only instructional area singled out for bonus points in Race to the Top applications.  Last fall, the White House announced a new federal initiative directing $250 million in new dollars to STEM efforts.  And that doesn’t even count the buckets of money that have been committed to the cause from the National Science Foundation, NASA, philanthropies like the Gates Foundation, and countless corporate entities.

Today, President Obama is slated to announce an additional $250 million to “improve science and math instruction,” essentially doubling the commitment his team made to the topic just a few short months ago in November.  The full story can be found here.

As someone who has worked in STEM education for many years, there is something satisfying about seeing the time, attention, and resources being devoted to this key issue.  There is little question that STEM literacy is a non-negotiable when it comes to an effective education.  The knowledge and skills learned through STEM instruction is not only important for the future rocket scientists and brain surgeons of the world, but it is essential for anyone who hopes to hold any sort of gainful employment in the coming years.  Coupling the necessary science and math with a STEM focus on problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking, is key.  Not only does it keep students engaged (and thus on the path to graduation), but it also demonstrates the relevance of what they are learning (at least when it is done correctly and effectively).

The public-private partnership proposed by the Obama Administration seems focused primarily on teachers, both in the training of new teachers and the in-service support of existing STEM teachers.  The details of both are still to be determined (we seem to have number targets, but not the how quite yet).  Regardless, there are a number of issues that dear ol’ Eduflack hopes are being considered as part of our increased commitment to STEM education:
* Mid-career changers — The changes in the economy have put a great number of STEM-skilled professionals out looking for new positions.  Just by looking at the pharmaceutical and telecommunications sectors alone, we have a great number of potential STEM educators ready, willing, and skilled.  We need to look at specific ways to equip these individuals with the pedagogy and support they need to be effective teachers.  Perhaps we can look to Pennsylvania’s plans for mid-career transition and IBM’s 2005 experiment to transition many of its employees into teaching as models to get us going.
* STEM certification — In the broad sense, STEM is an interdisciplinary field that demonstrates how the four components (and beyond) work together to meet the changing needs of a changing world.  We can’t expect a math teacher to teach engineering or science.  (And we mostly expect that “technology” is being taught through business departments that used to teach typing).  So what about a hybrid certification for secondary STEM teachers?  It may be broader strokes than some would want, but it can be far more effective than hopin’ and prayin’ that we are able to connect the S, T, E, and M in the current model. 
* Teacher Externships — With the private sector stepping up to the plate as a partner in this new endeavor, we need to do a better job of helping teachers communicate the relevance and importance of STEM education.  Like it or not, students look to teachers who have walked the walk.  So what about teacher externships in STEM fields, where teachers take a week in the summer to shadow in local industry (paid time, of course)?  They can then take these “real world” experiences back to the classroom, speaking truth to students about what is needed in the workforce and talking firsthand about the truly interesting opportunities that are out there.

And while we are at it, what about redoubling our investment in STEM internships for students?  As a nation, we are focused on increasing our high school graduation rates while moving more students into postsecondary learning experiences.  What better way to get high school students into internships, where they can explore job possibilities in the community, learn from those who do, and better understand the knowledge, skills, and degrees/certifications necessary to actually obtain the job.  When we talk about making the high school experience more relevant, what better way can we do that by linking lessons in the classroom today with lessons in the workplace today?

At the end of the day, STEM investment needs to focus on both the teachers and the students, with clear goals and expectations for both.  We not only need more STEM teachers, but we need STEM teachers that clearly demonstrate their effectiveness.  We not only need more STEM-literate students, but we need to use that literacy to fill the pipeline of secondary and postsecondary education, whether a child aspires to be an athlete, poet, chemist, or engineer.  And we need a community that places strong value on those STEM skills, recognizing that they are non-negotiables for virtually every citizen looking to contribute to the 21st century. 

Ultimately, $500 million and corporate partnership can go a long way in rising the STEM education tide.  We just need to make sure we are all taking full advantage of the crest.

Calling All Researchers: How Do We Use Class Time?

In our continued effort to bring additional perspectives to Eduflack’s discussion of education reform, following is a guest blog post from John Jensen, Ph.D.  We’ll be seeing a few more posts from Dr. Jensen later this week …

There are at least two good reasons for doing research about educational methods. One is for adults to decide whether or not to employ a particular strategy or condition. The other is to motivate students directly to alter what they do. If, for instance, you tell a boy playing basketball “You completed 70% of your passes today. Let’s see how you do tomorrow,” he is likely to think for the entire game about passing accurately so he gets to 80%.

By stimulating this motive, we can engage students in many ways to take objective account of themselves, teaching them communication skills, concentration, and classroom cooperation by means of specific, countable behaviors. I note several in my book (cf. below). To help adults decide what to do with classroom time, however, I’d like to suggest a study that could be valuable to your district.

First you need an idea or hunch to test out that makes theoretical sense. Your selection depends on the limitations you accept in your thinking. For a while after I discovered that the ERIC files contained over a million references, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of research. Then I discovered that it seldom influenced anyone; that instead people usually had an idea about what they wanted to do and chose the research that supported it. I surmised, maybe incorrectly, that we might just cut to the chase and do what we want to in the first place.

But to encourage rationality, I’m moved to welcome research. The fact that education has not yet been transformed despite the million pieces in ERIC hints that the field still awaits a transforming idea.

What theory do we want to test out?

We want something completely under our power and control to alter, first of all. There’s no point in studying the height and weight of our students if there’s nothing we can do about what we find; or their parentage or race or a myriad of other characteristics of students, teachers, and the situation. We want something that we can vary due to the data we get, so we look carefully at our own options, our flexibility of response..

One thing we can vary is our use of classroom time. We can specify so many minutes for this and this, alter the numbers, and see what happens to our results. If more of this and less of that shows different results in learning, then we’d like to be able to tell that to our teachers because, come Monday, they might shift gears that way.

The study I’d like to propose first is about the amount of time students spend recalling what they learn. The outcome can lead directly to something controllable, a specific use of time, this over that. And the conduct of the study can be objective and fair, measured with minutes spent and tallied.

And the theory? Making it a good candidate for a study is a core understanding about skill development: practice makes perfect. And practicing knowledge essentially means calling it up and expressing it. I was impressed many years ago when undergoing training as an ROTC officer. One class concerned how to train recruits in skills they needed. Our instructor passed on to us a statistic developed by the military’s long experience. To train someone in any skill, he said, spend 5% of the time explaining, 10% demonstrating, and 85% practicing. Applying this to a classroom, one uses about five times as much time practicing what’s presented as time spent presenting it. This fit with a report I encountered back in the 1960s in which researchers investigated the uses of time in the classroom leading to the most permanent learning. Their finding was that the most effective means was the effort to recall used with between 40% and 80% of class time. .

Despite the long-established effect of practice (top performers in any field practice more), there appears to have been a decision made decades ago by the teaching profession to avoid it. Its role instead was to present knowledge and it was up to students–if they were so motivated–to practice and learn it through completing the homework assigned (an assumption that has not proven out). Teachers were led to believe that class time was so limited that they could not allocate any significant portion of it just to deepening students’ learning.

So how could you set up a study about practice during class time? A district with two or more of any kind of school could do it this way: Select one school for the study and another with matching characteristics as a control. Pair up classrooms with comparable results, teacher competence, and teaching methods by subject and grade.

Reading. Students in the study school spend half the allotted time explaining to a partner what they just read (a quarter of the total time for each partner), and connecting it to everything they read before. In the control school, all the time is just for reading.

Math. Students in the study school spend 1/3 of the time per hour listening to the teacher explain ideas or reading in order to input definitions, formulas, and explanations; and 2/3 of the time explaining to a partner what they gathered. In the control school, teachers use their customary methods.

Social studies: Students in the study school read or listen to lectures or media presentations and take notes on them in question and answer form for 1/3 of the available time. For 2/3 of the time they ask and answer the questions with each other. In the control school, teachers use their customary methods.

If teachers experience discipline problems and object that they cannot hold their students to specified times at anything, this simply stretches the spectrum of results. Provide all teachers with a kitchen timer and ask them to track to the second the key variable, the amount of time students do spend explaining their learning to a partner. My prediction is that a correlation will hold along the entire spectrum–the less practice time, the less learning.

The district staff may want to assess many outcomes, but the primary one should be the sheer retention of learning. A valid way to do this is, at the end of the study period, with no preparation nor forewarning, to make a single request of students about each subject–reading, math, and social studies: Write down all you can remember about the subject that you have learned since the beginning of the study.

What you will get is a direct report of the conscious, usable knowledge students possess (distinct from their passive knowledge dependent on someone else asking them a question or giving them hints). It can be quantified by (e.g.) their number of lines of writing, the time it takes them to write it, and (if you want to be more particular) the number of points of knowledge their writing contains. A point of knowledge here is a question answered at the level one would put it on a test, essentially one sentence of independent knowledge. The only caveat is to apply the same measure to both the control and study schools.

After such a study, the district should be able to tell its teachers “If you adopt the 1/3-2/3 method, you’ll increase student learning by 50%“ or some such figure. I’m optimistic here, since students retain almost no proactive knowledge without the practice and typically rely on forewarning so they can cram.

If you want to nudge your district in this direction, please let me know. We need more empirical thought in education, and the ERIC database is working on its second million.

(John Jensen is a licensed clini
cal .psychologist and author of The Silver Bullet Easy Learning System: How to Change Classrooms Fast and Energize Students for Success (Xlibris, 2008), which he will email without charge as an ebook to anyone requesting it. He invites comments sent directly to him at  The opinions are strictly Dr. Jensen’s.)

The Effectiveness of IB

Each year, we see the high school “rankings,” finding that those schools with a high preponderance of Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB ) programs tend to do the best.  The greater the penetration of such programs and priorities, the higher a high school ranks.  Over the years, though, the education community has begun to ask the question about true results or the true impact of these programs. 

A decade ago, many a high school student collected AP courses like baseball cards, knowing that AP today meant college credit tomorrow.  The eduwife actually entered Stanford University as a sophomore because of all of the AP classes she took (and the fives she secured on the exams), allowing her to spend her fourth year out at the Farm gaining her master’s degree.
But times have changed.  Many colleges are now saying that even a five on an AP course is not the same as successfully completing the college course.  We’ve shifted from awarding college credit to simply allowing students to waive out of core requirements.  
The situation has always been even more murky with IB.  IB was never intended to provide college credits in a way AP does.  Designed decades ago, the program was created to ensure that students received a rigorous, comprehensive, and relevant high school learning experience.  By maximizing the time in high school through the IB curriculum, young people would become better students, better scholars, and better citizens.  
So how does all that translate when it comes to postsecondary education?  Many a college admissions officer knows that an IB graduate means a strong college candidate.  They are prepared for postsecondary work.  They are motivated.  They’ve been challenged.  They are inquisitive.  And they are able to do more than fill out bubble sheets or choose from a list of five answers.  They are scholars and learners, not merely the processors of information.
In past years, Eduflack has had the privilege of working with IB on a number of issues.  Being me, I would always ask about the research.  How do we know IB is working?  IB would say that the proof is in their alumni network.  One knows IB works when you see the complete IB graduate.  It is not just what they know, but how they apply it.  Those who complete an IB program usually move on to college.  And the IB high school instructional model has been so successful in teaching and motivating students that it has resulted in the development of both elementary and middle grades IB programs.
IB has never been about longitudinal research models.  They know the program works.  Their scholars know it works.  Their teachers, who undergo rigorous training and ongoing support, know it works.  And the schools that adopt it know it works.  They don’t need a medical-style research model to prove what they already know.  No, IB isn’t for everyone.  But those who do adopt it are better for it.  And despite the urban legends, IB isn’t just for the rich schools in the suburbs or for the uber-motivated.  IB works for all students who are motivated enough to seek a high-quality, rigorous educational program that provides the content and the skills to perform well after the IB program is completed.
But this is an era of research and of doing what is proven effective.  One’s word or one’s track record isn’t enough.  We need third party data to prove our effectiveness.  And now, IB has some of that as well.  In recent days, IB announced the Education Policy Improvement Center (EPIC) findings of its International Baccalaureate Standards Development and Alignment Project.  What did EPIC find?  
* IB is “highly aligned” with the Knowledge and Skills for University Success (KSUS) college-ready standards
* The IB Diploma’s key cognitive strategies — critical thinking skills, intellectual inquisitiveness, and interpretation — were found to be fully aligned with the expectations of university faculty
* IB math (algebra, trigonometry, and statistical standards) were completely aligned with KSUS
* IB science (chemistry, biology, and environmental science) were completely aligned with KSUS
Alignment is important.  But the data on results is even more compelling.  As part of the EPIC announcement, IB revealed that more than 80 percent of those completing the IB high school program graduate from college within six years, a rate leaps, bounds, and high jumps above the national average for high school students.  IBers are college graduates.  And there are few, if any programs, we can make that statement about with higher certainty.
IB has been one of the best-kept secrets in school improvement and innovation.  We don’t talk about it, but IB’s year-on-year growth in the United States over the last year has been the stuff on which folks write Harvard case studies.  Those teachers who have gone through the training are true believers.  Those students who secure the Diploma are real-life success stories.  And those districts who make the investment quickly realize that the cost is worth it, gaining both quantitative and qualitative return on investment almost from the get-go.
Perhaps IB’s greatest challenge is how it fits into the current environment of improvement, reform, and innovation.  IB succeeded in the NCLB years, in part, because of the misperceptions of who it was targeting.  Since many didn’t see its applicability for those students who were being left behind (despite some tremendous case studies of how IB programs have turned around schools and really helped students from historically disadvantaged groups), the program was left to operate on its own.  It connected enough with AYP and with state assessments that it was a viable alternative for those wishing to pursue it.  But it simply wasn’t seen as a solution for that bottom quartile of students, particularly with NCLB’s focus on the elementary grades.
Today, IB is at a crossroads.  As a nation, we have set hard goals for improving high school graduation rate and college attainment numbers.  The EPIC data demonstrates that IB could be one of those solutions custom-made for rising to the occasion.  The IB training and development model is one that can be used as we look to new ways to improving instruction and preparation for all teachers.  The real challenge, though, is how IB fits into the new call for common standards.  How will the IB framework align with the high school standards currently being pursued?  How do IB assessments dovetail with the assessments that will come out of common standards?  How does IB demonstrate value-add, and not add-on?
Only time will tell if IB is up to the challenge.  It has the opportunity.  It has the track record.  It can display its strengths.  Now is the time for International Baccalaureate to show it is an exemplar of best practice, and not merely a niche program.  It has the pieces.  IB just has to bring them all together for a compelling story that solves the problem so many school decisionmakers are facing.