Must Reads

Here’s a great teacher blog that has become something of a rallying point for the productive malcontents in the D.C. public schools.   And here’s great a job leading some of the productive malcontents in the sector (pdf).   New York Times on the project here.  And, here’s a great Rick Hess take on Milwaukee and what’s been learned.

Update:  Wow.  Just imagine if this post had been about math…

66 Replies to “Must Reads”

  1. Ms. Cullen,
    I applaud you for being so cool headed in the face of such inflexible misunderstanding. I agree that EDM is great tool for math instruction. I also agree that there is no magic pill and no one curriculum will work without good mathematical instruction and differentiation for students. Those of us who understand that good teaching, regardless of the curriculum name, is what allows students to succeed, can move on from this seemingly endless and unbearable screaming match.

  2. Julie, are you applauding Ms. Cullen for her ability to see that EM doesn’t work on its own, or that she seems to think EM is valuable. Personally I think EM is useless, and teaching kids using “good mathematical instruction and differentiation”, as you so eloquently put it, is what we teachers ought to be doing, regardless of the district’s adoption de jour.

  3. tfteacher,
    A point of agreement. Regardless of curriculum name/company, the same teaching practices and principles should be in place in the classroom. My questions to you would be these: 1) What specifically do you consider so useless in EDM? and 2) what level are you teaching?

  4. 2nd grade. I use many of the manipulatives, but they are duplicates of what we already had; 100s, 10s and 1s, shape tiles, thermometers, that kind of stuff.

    As for the teacher materials and student workbooks, they are so cumbersome as to make them useless. A solid understanding of elementary math and knowledge of the standards should allow any self-respecting teacher to teach the kids in their care.

    If we need overstuffed crap like EM, we are in deeper trouble than a simple adoption can fix.

  5. tfteacher,
    There is a lot to EDM, and it is a bit “overstuffed” as you put it. When I teach EDM to my 3rd graders, I don’t do everything there. I do what is important for the standards. I don’t think that any pre-printed curriculum should be used as the end all be all.

    So, is your biggest issue that your district spent so much money on the series? Or that teachers were not involved/consulted on the choice? Or both?

  6. Both, and, why are we (you) using it if we are only going to not use it? It makes no sense that a curriculum should have to be supplemented and used in a way it was not intended in order to teach the material it is supposed to teach. Like I said, it is useless, unless you want to consider it a teacher resource instead of a curriculum.

    Tell me again its use?

  7. “It makes no sense that a curriculum should have to be supplemented and used in a way it was not intended in order to teach the material it is supposed to teach.”

    In Fairfax County, VA, EM is one of the texts schools can adopt, though it is not required for all schools. The County School Board’s policy on textbooks states that the “Program of Study (POS)
    not the textbook, determines what is taught. Since none of the adopted texts are 100 percent aligned to the FCPS POS, some supplementing is required, regardless of the text purchased.”

    The POS are specific milestones and topics that must be mastered in each grade–they serve as an adjunct to the Standards of Learning (SOL). Thus, Fairfax County is saying to supplement whatever textbook is used to make sure the POS requirements are covered. In talking with my elected representative on the school board regarding EM, in voicing my concerns, she tried to soothe me by saying that all schools are told to supplement the texts.

    The difficulty with supplementing EM, as TFT makes clear, is that in doing so you end up supplanting rather than supplementing. When working with my daughter using Singapore Math, I discovered that the secret is to hit the math topic of concern with Singapore first. Then when presented with the EM version, it’s supplement at that point. EM works as a side dish, but not as the main course.

  8. “inflexible misunderstanding”

    This is completely unsupported.

    “Those of us who understand that good teaching, regardless of the curriculum name, is what allows students to succeed, can move on from this seemingly endless and unbearable screaming match.”

    “Those of us”? It’s nice to be an expert in your own opinion, but that’s not dealing with the specific issues raised here. You can’t now claim that curriculum doesn’t matter, just good teaching. This is the erroneous “just one thing” idea that will fix education. There are lots of problems, and many of them are very important.

    What I see are educators who view education in quite different ways than many parents. Schools talk about “best practices”, “deep thinking”, and “research shows”, but it mostly comes down to opinion and assumptions. It’s also a turf thing. There is a professor of education who claims that the world of K-12 education has the right to define K-12 math content, not mathematicians or engineers. When parents (professionals) complain about content and mastery, they get dismissed as only wanting what they had when they were growing up. At least the externally-defined AP classes keep high schools honest. What keeps K-8 grades honest?

    I also see teachers who view the problems of education as what walks into their classroom; kids with attitudes and kids working below grade level. The problem is not teacher-centric. It’s not about how a teacher can do the best that he/she can, given the circumstances. The problem is to fix the systemic problems. The problem is also about what constitutes a proper education.

    Curricula do matter. There is no way in hell that schools can guarantee “good teaching” from every teacher. I don’t even know what that means when it isn’t viewed in terms of a curriculum. I don’t want a good Everyday Math teacher. I want a good curriclum that won’t fall apart if there is one weak link. I want a math curriculum that gets most kids to algebra in 8th grade. I want a school system that cares more about academics than self-esteem and socialization.

    Schools can’t implement full inclusion and then magically declare that differentiated instruction will make it all work. Enrichment is not a substitute for acceleration. They make teaching and learning more difficult with full inclusion, but somehow, academics will be better. The only way this can be done is by redefining what education is all about. Facts become “mere” and assessments become “authentic”. In reality, low, fuzzier expectations replace high expectations. Process trumps content and skills. Still, many kids operate below grade level.

    Everyday Math is a reflection of much deeper problems.

  9. SH:
    Valid point. The consistency between teachers k-12 needs to be better. Many teachers don’t belong in the classroom, and many are excellent and even experts at what they do. If there were a national set of standards to base teacher training on, and a set of clear national educational standards for students, the liberties that states and district take in the direction that students need to go would be more limited, and I think there would be less deviation in teacher quality and student performance. Right now requirements for teaching licensing differ greatly from state to state, teacher training programs differ from one university to another, and standards of “good teaching” in each district are different.

    A large problem in student ability to compete following high school is that many districts and states look from K through 12 for the math students will need, rather than looking at it in reverse. To be sure that students will have the mathematical knowledge needed to enter and successfully complete engineering, accounting, computer technology, or medical training in post secondary ed, it needs to be traced back in a reverse order so that the rigor of instruction is encompassed from K-12. For that to happen there has to be cooperation between experts in high math content fields, and those in education. What is happening now, is that students going into those field are playing catch up to meet the mathematical needs of those areas.

    High expectations of student performance and achievement are essential. I, too, see teachers who lower standards for students who are struggling, and don’t EXPECT them to rise to standards. I absolutely agree that this is wrong. As is social promotion.

    There has to be cooperation between parents, teachers (who are professionals as well), higher education specialists, and business sector members who hire graduates -and are looking for specific math knowledge, if there is to be a better fit for our education system to the world we live in.

    The district I teach in DOES expect students at 8th grade to be learning algebra, and the way they keep k-8 honest is a tracking system for language arts and math classes. Students excelling in those areas are tracked into classes at 3 different levels. Those levels, from 6th grade through 8th grade are separated into standard level (learning algebra at 8th grade), honors (learning algebra in 7th grade), and accelerated (beginning algebra in 6th grade). That, I believe, is primarily because my district has done what I mentioned before, looking backward from a BA/BS degree and tracking it back to kindergarten to ensure the content taught and mastered is what students need to achieve that degree.

    Teachers DO have to deal with the problems that walk into their classroom, and students DO NOT come in at the same levels. K-5, there is no way to get around that. We deal with learning disabilities, behavior disorders, and former teachers who haven’t measured up. We also deal with parents who not only do not require their students to complete homework, but often times do not even make sure that the students get to school on time (or at all). Curricula DOES matter, but it is NOT the only factor. Facts are NOT mere, but they are not the only piece to the puzzle. If a student can’t problem solve and understand how those facts are useful, then the A that student has achieved is meaningless.

    If inclusion of lower achieving student in the mainstream classroom is not the answer, what do you think is?

  10. “If inclusion of lower achieving student in the mainstream classroom is not the answer, what do you think is?”

    The answer to what? Differentiating instruction because a class is full of disparate kids is not ideal; indeed it is a disaster. Tracking sounds good!

  11. “I absolutely agree that this is wrong. As is social promotion.”

    “If inclusion of lower achieving student in the mainstream classroom is not the answer, what do you think is?”

    ??? You can’t have it both ways.

    Full inclusion, by definition, means social promotion. Schools alter educational goals to justify this. Education is defined in terms of enrichment because acceleration is not allowed. Expectations are lowered. This is tracking by age. NCLB enforces at least a minimal level of accountability, but the cutoffs are extremely low. I don’t like NCLB because it institutionalizes slow progress towards a minimal goal. Our schools like to proclaim that they provide an excellent education, but all they are good at is getting a lot of kids over the minimal cutoff in a high SES town.

    Separating kids by ability happens. It usually happens in 6th or 7th grade for (at least) math. Our school kept full inclusion through 8th grade for years until parents (and some high school teachers) yelled enough about how kids were not prepared for any of the honors courses. Now, they separate kids in 7th and 8th grade for language and math. This causes the big jump or filter to happen between 6th and 7th grades. Low expectations give way to a sink-or-swim philosophy that puts the onus completely on the kids. For many kids, it’s all over in math.

    All classes will have a mix of abilities, but the range has increased dramatically for K-6 in the last 10-20 years. Kids are held back only for extreme cases. Some of these kids are loud and physical. This may be a nice social goal, but there is a price to be paid in terms of lower expectations. Our schools have attempted all sorts of differentiated instruction ideas, but there is no substitute for acceleration. Everyday Math is built around the idea of very mixed ability classes, but it doesn’t get the job done. Mastery doesn’t happen.

    When the ability range is so large, schools need to track kids by ability, not age. Schools can’t pretend that this isn’t a big problem. One charter school in our area is trying a full inclusion environment. All of the kids are mixed together for the “specials”, but are tracked by ability (or willingness to do the work) for the core courses starting in the earliest grades. The environment is mixed, but many classes are not.

    Once the ability range in each class is smaller, you don’t need to use a spiral or delayed approach to mastery. You can cover complete topics and expect all students to stay on the same page. You can then use a higher expectation, direct approach to teaching math, as in Singapore Math. Everyday Math is not something better by any measure of comparison.

    “For that to happen there has to be cooperation between experts in high math content fields, and those in education.”

    The resistance is not coming from the parents or the content experts. As someone with two masters degrees in engineering, years of experience teaching college math and computer science, over 30 years of applied math programming, and a son who has suffered through 5 years of Everyday Math, I know this from first hand experience. The National Mathematics Advisory Panel knows this too. It does not look kindly on Everyday Math. Working backwards brings you to Singapore Math, not Everyday Math.

  12. So here is a question to ponder: If ability tracking is happening from the 6th grade level on, and Elementary teachers are building foundations without tracking. How do we change it so that students can be ability grouped at the Elementary level, without lowering expectations or “writing off” the students who are performing below grade level? We know the change it would make for the students at and above grade level standards. Do we organize elementary schools like middle and high schools, with specialists in each content area?

    You’ve made an interesting point for me and I’m curious about the viewpoint of how it should be attended to.

    Also understand that I am in no way intoning that parents and experts in high math content area are NOT willing to cooperate with educators. I know that districts do not consult often consult their own teachers and parents when making decisions on classroom set up, classroom size, or curricula, let alone outside outside experts that we hope our students to become.

    What makes Singapore Math, in your opinion as a professional who uses high mathematics daily, so much better to prepare students for the level of math they need?

  13. If you group kids by ability, why does that necessarily imply the lowest performing students are being written off?

    I don’t see it that way (even though you are talking to SteveH). If we group kids by ability, we are making sure the lowest get the help we need. It seems it would be the opposite of writing them off. It would be focusing on them, as well as the other groups.

    Differentiation is not an educational strategy. It is a tactic used to alleviate any hard feelings tracking could cause. Mind you, every student in every class knows where every other student is in terms of academic ability. We aren’t fooling anyone.

  14. “Mind you, every student in every class knows where every other student is in terms of academic ability. We aren’t fooling anyone.”

    That’s even what my son says. The kids know. The teachers actually track right in front of everyone even with full inclusion. At certain times they have to group by ability, and they do it in the same room! It’s all quite obvious. But the more able kids are not allow to accelerate to new material. Overall, the pace has to be slower – by definition.

    But I’ve heard it all when it comes to justifications; The smarter kids help model learning for the slower kids, all of the kids learn to work together and understand each other, enrichment is better than acceleration, all kids tend to even out by fourth grade, and oh yes, the schools like to have some of the more able kids teach the slower learners. As if my son, who absorbs knowledge like a sponge, has any clue how to teach anyone anything. I would think that the more able teachers (not facilitators) would be really pissed off at this, except for the fact that the school requires them to try and deal with five or more levels of ability at the same time.

    This is a fantasy world and I’m just waiting for schools to deal with reality. I see slow changes, but the lower grades (K-6) are very resistant to change. Many schools don’t set very high expectations for academics. One administrator told a group of parents that the school just tries to expose kids to all sorts of things and doesn’t expect to “get anything back” until fourth grade. This might make them feel good about full inclusion, but it’s very wrong, especially for math. Math requires mastery of skills and continuity. Screw up any step along the way and the gaps can cause major problems later on.

    Ability tracking happens. In the days before full inclusion, it was easier to keep all of the kids on the same page until 7th grade. With full inclusion, the need for tracking gets shifted into the lower grades, but schools continue to insist that less is somehow more; that some sort of differentiated instruction or spiraling can make it work. It seems that many teachers now think that having many kids working below grade level is unavoidable or natural. I can’t tell you how this makes me feel.

    “Do we organize elementary schools like middle and high schools, with specialists in each content area?”

    Well, the full inclusion cat is out of the bag and it won’t go back in. I won’t say this is wrong. I see lots of good things about keeping most all kids in town. Families move to our town specifically for this fact. However, 20 – 25% of the kids in our town get sent to private schools for better academics. It used to be that K-8 private schools were a rarity. Now, they are popping up all over the place. They know what parents want. Academics.

    So yes, if schools insist on full inclusion, then they have to track in the lower grades and bring in content specialists. There can be problems with tracking at any age level, but they can, they have to be, dealt with. It’s not a solution to pretend that some form of ability tracking is not necessary. A focus on disguishing between full inclusion classes and full inclusion schools is a good place to start.

  15. “What makes Singapore Math, in your opinion as a professional who uses high mathematics daily, so much better to prepare students for the level of math they need?”

    It’s more rigorous. The problems are more difficult and the expectations are higher for both skills and understanding.

    It focuses on the important skills and knowledge needed for algebra. It is not a mile wide and an inch deep.

    Topics are covered completely and mastery is not delayed. There is no ITRE (Introduce – Teach – Reteach – Expect) process (like EM) that can cover years.

    It includes lots of practice. Mastery is not just rote. Mastery is not just speed. Mastery is like experience. Someone who has done a job for a long time is not just faster.

    Here is a problem that a 5th grader (first part of the year) has to solve. From the Primary Mathematics 5A Workbook, page 69.

    “Sam packed 42 kg of rice into one big bag and 6 small ones which are of the same size. The big bag contained 3/7 of the rice. How many kilograms of rice did each small bag contain?”

    There is nothing trivial or rote about this problem, and there is no one way to solve it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.