Learning Standards Are Not Hair Ties

I sent my eldest to grab some hair ties for me at Target. She came back with about 40 of them, all black. I’d have chosen differently, but so what? I simply said thank you. I now have an abundance of plain, black hair ties. They work fine. When the stakes are low enough, unexpected or even wacky choices don’t matter. As the stakes go up, though, choices should receive consideration and scrutiny after the fact. I’d suggest that where educational policy is concerned, choices should even carry with them evaluation periods and pilot programs.

Learning standards. The words sound so simple, so innocuous — the Common Core Learning Standards. Our shift to the Common Core standards has been sucking up enormous amounts of time and money — and will continue to do so. Shifting away from those sometimes unfortunate standards will require even more time and money.  New standards require many meetings and professional developments to teach to educators, as well as new lesson plans, new lesson sequences, and often new books and software.

“Bad news for supporters of national education curriculum: States with education standards most closely aligned to Common Core fared worse on math tests than states with their own standards, according to a new study.” http://dailycaller.com/2014/03/18/common-core-gets-awful-review-in-new-study/The study, conducted by the Brookings Institution, compared standardized test scores for all 50 states over the last five years. It found that states using education standards that are most dissimilar to Common Core tended to score the highest on math.

Check out http://www.nationalreview.com/article/373840/ten-dumbest-common-core-problems-alec-torres for a little graveyard humor on the Common Core standards.

[1] I don’t know whether to hope the Common Core survives this administration or not. The Core has serious flaws in my view, especially in its non-research-based expectations for students in earlier grades and lack of planning for alternative high school programs beyond the one goal of college, college, college. But rewriting all those standards and making everyone drop everything to learn another new set of standards… Again! …Aaghh. We would probably minimize our pain by fixing the Core, rather than creating yet more standards. The whole situation reminds me of a North Shore remodeling run amuck, where a too-wealthy, too-bored trophy wife keeps changing her mind about floors, fabrics, paints and lighting until nothing works and nobody knows what to expect. We don’t need to create the perfect standards as much as we need to find a good set of robust, adaptable standards that we can and will stick with – allowing for much needed continuity of instruction. The Core has played hell with that continuity, incidentally. That’s a major part of the reason my students were drowning that last year.

I don’t know whether to hope Trump succeeds in scuttling the Core.

Changing learning standards should never be taken lightly.

Continuing — Standards Gone Astray

The Common Core has shifted the emphasis in reading toward nonfiction. I will not take issue with the Core’s new emphasis, except to say that districts must be careful not to leap too exclusive onto that expository bandwagon. Our critical thinking requires access to words and many words simply never make their way into nonfiction literature. Others pop up only rarely.

“And the ring had fit him very well. Yet, now it spun round, loose and wobbling. His appetite had been poor, of late. The wooden platter of bread still sat. Drying out, untouched. The cheese looked crusted. Almost brittle.

 Was that a mouse he had seen, scuttling away?

In nonfiction, no one scuttles. Few things wobble. And the cheese hardly every becomes untouched, crusted and almost brittle.

Eduhonesty: Too many standards may suck the poetry out of English and language arts classes. Real-life events supplant imagination. Diaphanous images are replaced with concrete instructions. What words are perishing, as standards shove our souls into chutes. forcing us to crawl in serpentine fashion toward this new, more-prosaic world?



A Brief Explanation of Why the Standards Movement Hurts Kids

Districts start with a set of standards, most lately the Common Core. District leaders then craft a curriculum based on those standards. They require teachers to teach the full curriculum — often at exactly the same pace with the same materials — because the new standards-based curriculum includes all the items expected to be on the annual state test.

Pity the kids in this scenario who are not functioning at grade level.

Simply, when a fully fleshed-out curriculum becomes obligatory, the absence of time for remedial instruction can become a crucial barrier to learning. No substitute exists for remediation time, but pre-established demands can squeeze out that remediation time. When a standard eats all the minutes available for the week’s instruction, those kids who have fallen behind will have made no progress catching up.

Before-school, lunch and after-school tutoring seldom solve the problem. A few extra hours of help per week will not catch up a student who has fallen years behind classmates. Older students often tend to avoid tutoring, too. It’s embarrassing for a middle-school student to admit he or she can’t read. Sometimes students can’t come early or stay late for family reasons. Maybe they have to babysit. Or they have to take the bus because no one can drop them off or pick them up.

Rigid curricula resulting from the standards-based movement have been a disaster for many kids, especially our most academically-challenged kids.

Eduhonesty: The above is a picture of an obligatory, standards-based test given to a student who should never have seen that particular test. 

The Numbers that Almost Never Make their Way into the Data

Government officials measure. They measure their measurements against past measurements. No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) data-based approach always had more in common with tax accounting than education, and beleaguered teachers could only watch while NCLB led to education-by-spreadsheet, spreadsheets of test scores having become defining measures of school quality. Unfortunately, while NCLB itself has technically exited the scene — leaving little or no progress behind — that measuring goes on. State departments of education hired so many people to measure, record measurements, and assess measurements that the measuring probably cannot stop without massive layoffs in government education departments throughout the nation.

In the meantime, educational administrators in “underscoring” districts do not and frequently cannot take a long-term view of the educational process. These administrators and sometimes teachers may be anxiously trying to hold on to jobs that depend on showing elevated test scores. Our understandable, but too-often frantic, efforts to push up math and English scores at all costs are natural consequences.

In the meantime, the faces behind America’s test numbers go unseen and unrecognized. Has a district doubled its English-language learner population? Have funding losses led to increased class sizes as teachers and paraprofessionals were laid off? Has a district been forced to cut back on tutoring and other interventions because of funding or staff losses? Those numbers may not get counted, yet those numbers are crucial to understanding what is happening.

One difference that passes mostly unnoticed between wealthier and financially-disadvantaged districts can be seen in the number of qualified paraprofessionals in a district. A shortage of English or math teachers will be noticed, but a shortage of paraprofessionals seldom hits the radar. In District A, one paraprofessional may be working with six disabled children, while in District B, each of six lucky children have the good fortune to receive their own aides.  That one fact has the potential to hugely skew test scores from school to school, but will not be factored into comparisons of final test scores.

The socioeconomic status, early educational experiences, rate of vocabulary acquisition, and family situations of America’s many students form a patchwork mosaic of readiness for school and learning. Our picture has only become more complex as this country continues to diversify. We ought to at least acknowledge the power of finances, family and language background.

Yet only final test scores will be counted by state and federal government educational accountants.



ll:30 A.M. in Kindergarten: Up the Creek Looking Frantically for a Paddle

I actually got this as a sub plan. This is not a sub plan. The kindergarteners and I had a fine time but … 

You had to be there. The Principal led me to the classroom, looked around for nonexistent plans for a few seconds, saw some worksheets on desks, and said, “You can do these.” Then he quickly walked away, leaving me with no idea where my still nonexistent students happened to be located. I ran down a few fellow kindergarten teachers to tell me where to find my minions and leapt into action.

I guess this column is about what to do when you are on your own:

  1. Find fellow teachers of your subject or grade. Tell them the nature of your crisis. I’ve never had anyone refuse to help.
  2. Ask younger kids for help. Have them tell you their routine.
  3. Tell the kids that you may have to do things a little differently than their teacher. Especially if “calendar” requires software you cannot access, you are going to have to think on your feet.
  4. It’s best to stick to the routine if it’s working, but bail if it’s not working. Is “read aloud” going badly? Too many minions who are not sitting criss-cross applesauce? That regular teacher has routines and reinforcement strategies. Maybe she is using clothespins and red or green lights. Maybe the kids get strikes. You can try clothespins and strikes. You should remove disruptive elements from the crowd and sit them in less problematic places. But all those strategies tend to work more seamlessly for the man or woman the kids actually know. So if you keep having to dive out of the story for behavior management, go to Plan B. Make it individual silent reading time in our seats instead. Or make it math time. Sing a math song. Teach the kids a math song.
  5. Learn a few useful songs if you sing. Singing can bridge some challenging gaps in plan and in behavior. Young kids mostly love to sing.
  6. I know a read-aloud strategy that tends to work for me. If you can adapt books on the fly, you can usually hold onto your audience. The kids probably all know the most popular books in their class. But once you add in the aliens in their tall, brown, chocolate spaceship and describe their landing in Whoville, everybody will be listening.
  7. With older kids, start with the standards on the board nearby if you have them. Start with fellow teachers. If you are lucky, you will have a few minutes before the madness begins. Don’t be afraid to ask the office to make you a bunch of copies of the worksheets the other seventh grade math teacher was planning to use. Assuming your classes are somewhat in sync, well, you have to hand out something.
  8. Move fast. You hope to find the lesson plans that accidentally got hidden under a stack of papers. If those plans somehow don’t exist, you must find that teacher on the team who is teaching what you should be teaching. Especially if you are shaky on the subject you expect to teach, you will need written work for reinforcement that will prevent wasting even a small chunk of your students’ school year.
  9. If you end up absolutely up the creek, with no help from admin and no other teachers teaching your subject, teach anyway. I usually go to economics, student loans, the latte effect and other useful money matters. That tends to hold the attention of older students, who need to know how student loans work anyway. I find it’s a lot less stressful to share useful knowledge than to let a bunch of adolescents loose without any firm plan or expectations. With younger kids, I work on literacy.

From the Blue Room: Good luck and have a great week!