The Wise Standardista

There is a lot of complaining right now that the new proposed national standards are being developed out of sight, by unnamed experts, etc…and education’s alphabet soup of interest groups is starting to stir in response.  There is now a public forum planned for the 17th in D.C. and clearly the pressure is starting to increase…Unless managed carefully disaster this way lies…

8 Replies to “The Wise Standardista”

  1. National standards will be a disaster regardless of who is in the room when they’re created. Though, as you point out, things could be even worse if some people are left out while others are included. I’m assuming you’re obliquely referring to the cozy relationships between testing companies and educational publishers. The right set of standards in the right subject could instantly vault a given publisher into the stratosphere.

    But let’s get back to the bigger issue: implementation of standards at the classroom level.

    In theory, a standard helps a teacher figure out what to teach and when. But I’ve always had this question: If you don’t know what to teach and when, how the heck can you be a teacher? And how can you understand what to do with a standard if, as is so often the case, you really are relying on it to plan your teaching? Standards-makers don’t know you and they don’t know your kids. By definition, they must assume a generic posture, while teachers teach specific kids. Standards compromise differentiation and make discourage our very best teachers from teaching what they teach best. National standards are just state standards writ large with an extra dose of politics tossed in for good measuring. Now all the testing and textbook money can go to one company. This is nothing short of the Haliburtonization of American schools.

    Then I’ve had this other bizarre idea for the last decade or so: Why, in creating sets of standards, do we not road test them first in real classrooms? Better yet, why don’t we find the best classrooms in the country, see how the best teachers teach, and build standards from there? Using this “real life model” approach, we would be assured that standards actually matched good practice.

    I’ll tell you why I like this approach so much: I’ve used it myself about a thousand times to help teachers and kids understand a “standard” of my own making (and you better believe that my own standards about ten times more effective than state standards ever are). If I’m teaching writing, I hand out some papers that I think represent good work and the kids tear into them to decide what language we can all use to describe the results we’re looking for. Same thing works for helping teachers improve. I made a large complex observation tool for teachers teaching Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop the same way. One teacher watched me teach a series of lessons and described my practice in easy-to-understand language based on a model I had created to organize our work. Who says teachers won’t submit to standards for their own teaching? Did we get any union pushback? Nope.

    When you make standards this way – the real way — you know they’re useful because you’ve already used them yourself. Better yet, there’s no backroom bickering about who’s textbook company or testing group gets the nod. This process is even relatively immune to political or ideological problems if you have a large enough set of samples to work with.

    The Wise Standardista is not the policy wonk who sits in secret meetings. It’s the person in the trenches who does high quality work and can describe that work in simple language his or her colleagues can understand and benefit from.

  2. If another country wanted other countries to respect its educational system and the reforms it was trying to make, who would it choose to lead such an important professional project as the development of its national standards in mathematics and in the language of its educational system itself? In any other country in the world, one would expect a distinguished mathematician at the college level to be asked to chair the mathematics standards-writing committee–someone who commands the respect of the mathematics profession (and obviously is an expert on mathematics). For the language standards-writing committee, one would likewise expect an eminent scholar in a college-level department–someone whose command of the language and understanding of the texts that inform the development of this language could not be questioned. If the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers had thought about national pride (and national need) as well as academic/educational expertise, then all of us would respect the Common Core Initiative and look forward with eagerness to the drafts the NGA and CCSSO have promised to make public in July.

    These two organizations could have followed, for example, the exemplary procedures followed by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, on which I had the privilege to serve. The Panel was chaired by the former president of one of the major universities in the country, all Panel members were identified at the outset, their qualifications were made known to the pubic, their procedures were open to the public and taped as well, and the final product was hammered out in public, after dozens of reviewers provided critical comments.

    But instead of choosing nationally known scholars to chair and staff these committees–to assure us of the integrity and quality of the product–the NGA and the CCSSO have, for reasons best known to themselves, treated the initiative as a private game of their own. The NGA and the CCSSO haven’t even bothered to inform the public who is chairing these committees, who is on them, why they were chosen, what their credentials are, and why we should have any confidence whatsoever in what they come up with.

    One person has announced on his own to the press and to a state department of education that he is chairing the mathematics standards-writing committee. He has not been contradicted by anyone at NGA or CCSSO, so we must assume he’s for real. It turns out he is an English major with no academic degrees in mathematics whatsoever. No one has yet announced on his/her own that he/she is chairing the English standards-writing committee. One wag has already wondered whether this person might be a mathematics major with no academic degrees in English. But it’s possible the sad joke in mathematics is not being repeated in English.

    This country deserved better for a project of such national importance.

  3. “The Wise Standardista is not the policy wonk who sits in secret meetings. It’s the person in the trenches who does high quality work and can describe that work in simple language his or her colleagues can understand and benefit from.”

    Yes, indeed! The “wise standardista” learns from the leaders of tomorrow, rather than serving only to justify the “leaders” of today.

    Well said, Steve!

  4. With regard to mathematics, didn’t we just have a thorough report put out by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel? It seemed to based on the available research, spoke common sense, and as far as I am aware, has been generally ignored by those teaching (or standardizing) the subject. While not exactly a set of standards, the report made a good effort to identify areas of concentration that were often given insufficient attention for today’s students.

  5. Can you give more info about the public forum on the 17th, for the local newbies? Thanks!

  6. The biggest problem we have with regard to math in this country is that no one can decide whether our kids should learn math or do math. I sense in the curricula and textbooks I see in classrooms, that “learning” math in a passive sense is what we’ve decided on. Unfortunately, this produces poor results.

    In my own math teaching, I have always favored treating kids like mathematicians and designing units and lessons that use the math they find in their own real lives. We do “real life math” all the time. First we identify the categories of life experience where math occurs, then we develop our own problems based on those real life situations. Kids inevitably craft tougher problems for themselves than I would. And they get real life experience solving them.

    The other ridiculous discussion we’ve had over the years has to do with rote learning. Rote learning in math is perfectly acceptable for those things that don’t change. For example, basic math facts, certain measurements and conversions, etc. “Discovery” approaches or pure “Constructivist” methods are great for problem solving and unusual concepts. But they are inefficient when it comes to the simple stuff. And, surprisingly, that’s where most of our kids break down. Algebra is too hard when you can’t multiply 5 x 6 in your head.

    Finally, there’s good brain research (see Stanislas DeHaene’s “The Number Sense”) which shows that mental processing of math is very important to long term success. I do all kinds of “head” games with kids and they really seem to work well in terms of raising their capacity to process mathematical challenges. For example, how many numbers can you hold in your head at one time? Or jumping around on a mental number line.

    So, once again, I fear we’ll get a big bunch of standards but no techniques by which they might be effectively taught. Our “leaders” in the field seem to be a tad sheepish when it comes to the thorny subject of actually how to teach to a particular standard. (For the most part, I wonder if these people ever teach at all.) It’s sorta like a cook who won’t taste his own food because he knows it isn’t healthy. Or the CEO of a car manufacturer who won’t drive his own models because he knows they’re not safe. Some day, some smart policy wonk will see the value not in aligning standards with tests but in aligning curriculum with instruction that really works.

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