Friday, February 26, 2010

Back to Basics: The Weight of the Matter

A recent column I wrote for the Washington Post received such positive comment that I decided to expand one of the brief anecdotes to give a broader picture of how children learn. Honoring how children learn is a messy endeavor, something no longer allowed in our current atmosphere of schools dominated by a corporate imperative for workers who do more now than they did a generation ago, an imperative that demands schools train kids in a conveyor belt delivery system of skills.

People are attracted to and co-opted by the rhetoric of systemic reform of education because it promises both to level the playing field and to offer a more challenging curriculum. But the promises are empty. For starters, task completers and problem solvers are two different kettle of fish. To complete a task, one needs to rely on habitual activity, rarely needing the kinds of thinking involved in problem solving. Here are the seven components of task completion: 1) begin work immediately, 2) work quietly, 3) remain seated, 4) ask good questions, 5) complete work, 6) work carefully, and 7) follow instructions. Something should be added to that list: Once one completes a task, one moves on to another task. Such strictures may keep a classroom orderly; they do not produce problem solving.

Take Daryll, a boy repeating first grade whose official records label him as have “[a] short attention span, difficulty sticking to a task.” One day Daryll worked for three hours straight on his proof that sixteen bottle caps on side of a balance weighed the same as sixteen bottle caps on the other side. He set up this proof and then tested it and tested it and tested it. Along the way he weighed other things. Lots of other things.

After taking a two-day break from bottle caps, Daryll weighed them again—just to make sure. Then he wondered what would happen with one hundred bottle caps. This is messy stuff, just verifying that one has one hundred of something, and not the sort of thing people who talk of benchmarks, rubrics, and efficiency can tolerate. There’s no room for such problem solving in a schedule filled with state edicts of skill alignment and piles of accompanying worksheets.

Once he’d verified the number of his one hundred bottle caps, Daryll wondered what would equal their weight—a book, his shoe, the teacher’s lunch. The classroom was filled with interesting things to weigh.

Three days later, Daryll got the idea of putting one hundred bottle caps on the other side of the balance. This was a very profound moment. Daryll discovered that, just as 16 bottle caps = 16 bottle caps, 100 bottle caps = 100 bottle caps.

He recounted ever bottle cap to verify this discovery. He stared at the balance. He counted again. He stood contemplating the balance.

We'd had a couple of brief conversations during the three days. There would be more conversation later, after Daryll had time to think about his accomplishment, but this was Daryll's moment. On his own, he had discovered something very profound.

This is what it means to be a teacher—knowing when to move in, when to keep hands off. When to keep your mouth shut.

A decade ago, the Business Roundtable declared, "The only way we can assure that the skills and abilities of our young people will keep pace with the rapidly advancing, technology-based world marketplace is by setting standards for our schools, putting in place the processes to meet those standards and then testing to ensure that those standards are in fact being met." Daryll and his teacher knew differently. For the Business Roundtable and the U. S. Department of Education with its Race to the Top and for the U. S. Congress with its LEARN (sic) Act, the education of young children is an issue of control. For Daryll and his teacher, it is an issue of independence.

Adapted from Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?

Politics and Parsnips

The Free Press reported (“Dinner at 1600", Feb. 23) that as President Barack Obama was offering a toast before a four-course dinner at the White House, he acknowledged a tuxedo-clad Governor Douglas as “an extraordinary partner with this White House.” He was referring to
the work of the National Governors Association on the Common Core Standards in math and

The New York Times called this national standards effort “a bipartisan project at variance with the highly polarized political mood in Washington." I call it a unilateral policy leaving out
teachers, students, and parents.

For starters, I'd like to ask Governor Douglas if has read As I Lay Dying, with its 15 narrators, offered, along with Pride and Prejudice as Exemplar Text for 11th graders

And how about Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), presented as an Exemplar Text, for 9th graders? When I grappled with Wordsworth's great principle of emotion recollected in tranquility as a grad student, I figured I had only myself to blame. After all, I’d chosen to study English literature. But who’s there to protect the 14-year-old from this pretense at academic rigor?

Does Governor Douglas think 14-year-olds will embrace Wordsworth's declarations about the source of the sexual appetite, and all the passions connected with it? And if not, perhaps our Chief State School Officer might offer some ideas for differentiated teaching strategies. After all, he Council of Chief State School Officers were co-conspirators in the production of the Common Core document.

Things are just as dicey for younger students. Here are two selections the National Governors Association and the Chief State School Officers offer as Exemplar Narratives for 6-8 graders:
"Allegory of the Cave" from The Republic by Plato (380 BCE) and "Address to Students at Moscow State University" by Ronald Reagan (1988).

According to the Free Press account, both Obama and Douglas offered toasts with glasses of water. One can only wonder what the people devising the Common Core were drinking.

In order to qualify for the pots of money President Obama is eager to hand out, states must accept 100 percent of the Standards document. They cannot pick and choose. Exercising any judgment based on what teachers know about kids is forbidden. To get the Obama bribe, state politicos must promise that schoolchildren will be forced to swallow ALL the Kool-Aid.

The governors, the chief state school officers, and President Obama insist these are
"high-quality education standards," drawing on “the most important international models as well as research and input from numerous sources, including scholars, assessment developers, professional organizations, and educators from kindergarten through college. In their design and content, the Standards represent a synthesis of the best elements of standards-related work
to date and an important advance over that previous work.”

I say they're parsnips and I say to hell with them