Parents Question Common Core!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has an article today reporting on the frustrations some parents are having with Common Core mathematics. As reported:

“Across the country, parents who once conceded that their homework expertise petered out by high school trigonometry are now feeling helpless when confronted with first-grade work sheets. Stoked by viral postings online that ridicule math homework in which students are asked to critique a phantom child’s thinking or engage in numerous steps, along with mockery from comedians including Louis C. K. and Stephen Colbert, these parents are adding to an increasingly fierce political debate about whether the Common Core is another way in which Washington is taking over people’s lives.

In Louisiana, the dispute intensified this month when Gov. Bobby Jindal said he wanted to withdraw the state from the Common Core, although others questioned his authority to do so. Already, the legislatures in Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina have repealed the Common Core standards, and for many candidates running for political office, their views on the standards have become crucial election issues.

The new instructional approach in math seeks to help children understand and use it as a problem-solving tool instead of teaching them merely to repeat formulas over and over. They are also being asked to apply concepts to real-life situations and explain their reasoning.

This is partly because employers are increasingly asking for workers who can think critically and partly because traditional ways of teaching math have yielded lackluster results. In global tests, American students lag behind children in several Asian countries and some European nations, and the proportion of students achieving advanced levels is low. Common Core slims down curriculums so that students can spend more time grasping specific mathematical concepts.

The guidelines are based on research that shows that students taught conceptually retain the math they learn. And many longtime math teachers, including those in organizations like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, have championed the standards.

“I taught math very much like the Common Core for many years,” said Linda M. Gojak, president of the National Council of Teachers of Math. “When parents would question it, my response was ‘Just hang in there with me,’ and at the end of the year they would come and say this was the best year their kids had in math.”

But for parents, the transition has been hard. Moreover, textbooks and other materials have not yet caught up with the new standards, and educators unaccustomed to learning or teaching more conceptually are sometimes getting tongue-tied when explaining new methodologies.

“It is incredibly easy for these new instructional approaches to look good on paper or to work well in pilot classrooms in the hands of highly skilled experts,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, “and then to turn into mushy, lazy confusing goop as it spreads out to classrooms and textbooks.”

Even supporters of the Common Core say changes are being pushed too quickly. Rushing to institute a new math curriculum does not make sense if you are “planning to get the job done in a rational way,” said Phil Daro, one of three principal writers of the Common Core math standards.

Tensions over the Common Core have been heightened because the standards are tied to new standardized tests being introduced in many states. Teachers are fretting that their performance ratings will increasingly depend on how their students perform on these tests.

While several states have postponed the consequences of test results on teacher evaluations, many educators feel the pressure.

“Imagine, if you will, if the state government came down to Detroit and said in six weeks you have to be 100 percent metric,” said Jonathan Marceau, a fourth-grade teacher in Shelby Township, Mich., a northern suburb of Detroit, who is worried that some algebraic and geometric concepts are now being introduced too early for children to absorb.”

In sum, the Common Core has a lot to offer but the rollout has been rushed in most states due to pressure from the U.S. Department of Education.

The parents in our states and school districts who provide the vast majority of funds (along with other local taxpayers) for our public schools are right to criticize and to push back against the federal government’s overreach of its authority.


New America Foundation Criticizes American Higher Education – Please!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has an op-ed piece written by a representative of the New America Foundation, a supposed non-partisan think tank in Washington D.C. Essentially the piece claims that all of the problems in American K-12 education are present in American higher education. The author, Kevin Carey, discounts the opinions of world education leaders that the United States generally ranks first in international opinion polls for its higher education system. Instead, he bases his claim on a standardized test administered by the Organization for Economic Collaboration and Development.

Mr. Carey concludes:

“This reality should worry anyone who believes — as many economists do — that America’s long-term prosperity rests in substantial part on its store of human capital. The relatively high pay of American workers will start to erode as more jobs are exposed to harsh competition in global labor markets. It will be increasingly dangerous to believe that only our K-12 schools have serious problems.”

This is the same rhetoric that appeared in a government report, A Nation at Risk in 1983, that blamed all of the United States economic woes on the K-12 public schools.   Yet in in the 1990s and through much of this century, the United States enjoyed a period of immense economic growth and prosperity. However, A Nation at Risk, was a convenient ploy used to “reform” our K-12 schools into test-prep centers focusing solely on test scores as the criteria for success. These reforms have failed and the American people are mounting a backlash against this corporate view of education. So Mr. Carey, we say to you and the economists that you refer to, please stay out of education and higher education, and concentrate on reforming economists and corporate America. It is amazing that when America and the rest of the world had the Great Recession in 2008, not a single economist or corporate strategist had predicated its seriousness except possibly those in financial circles who had rigged the system for their own profit that caused the recession in the first place but they were not about to let the rest of the world in on their secret.



World War I: One Hundred Years!

Archduke Ferdinand

Dear Common Community,

Today is the 100th Anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, that set off World War I on June 28, 1914. The war to end all wars was devastating in terms of casualties and overall destruction. It demolished empires and destroyed kings, kaisers and sultans. It introduced chemical weapons and aerial bombing. The total number of casualties in World War I, both military and civilian, was about 37 million: 16 million deaths and 21 million wounded. The total number of deaths includes 9.7 million military personnel and about 6.8 million civilians. The New York Times has established a website that contains several excellent articles and images of The Great War. It is a grim reminder of the destruction and carnage that man can inflict on his fellow man.




Under Carmen Farina: Sanity and Balanced Literacy Returning to New York City Schools!

Dear Commons Community,

New schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, continues to return sanity to NYC public schools. Her latest policy is to encourage more principals to adopt aspects of balanced literacy, including its emphasis on allowing students to choose many of the books they read. The move, while cheered by proponents of this method, is seen by some as a departure from recent trends in the city and nationwide. As reported by the New York Times:

“The city’s Education Department turned away from balanced literacy several years ago amid concerns that it was unstructured and ineffective, particularly for low-income children. And Ms. Fariña is facing sharp resistance from some education experts, who argue that balanced literacy is incompatible with the biggest shift in education today: the Common Core academic standards.

Ms. Fariña, who relied on balanced literacy as a teacher and a principal, said in an interview last week that she did not believe it was at odds with the Common Core, a more difficult set of learning goals that has been adopted by more than 40 states.

She said she thought the strategies of balanced literacy were particularly useful for children who arrived in classrooms with little knowledge of English, including immigrants. “They’re going to feel frustrated, alienated,” she said. “You need to put them on something they can accomplish and do fluently.”

The Common Core demands that students frequently read books at and above their grade level, and some of its proponents take issue with the idea of allowing struggling students to read easier books. Susan Pimentel, an architect of the Common Core standards, said that the philosophy was “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.”

Balanced literacy, so called because it combines several approaches to reading and writing, has a relatively long history in American education. It emerged as a product of the progressive movement of education in the 1970s and ’80s, when teachers were searching for an alternative to the top-down, textbook-driven approach to literacy in many schools. It was based on the idea that children were natural readers and writers; teachers needed only to create the conditions to unleash their talents.”

During her six months as chancellor, Ms. Fariña has reduced the role of standardized tests, increased collaboration among schools and shepherded through a new contract for teachers that includes more training and more communication with parents. But her push for a revival of balanced literacy may have some of the most far-reaching implications in the classroom.

Good move, Chancellor Farina!



Teacher Attrition – Some Analysis!

Teacher Attrition

Dear Commons Community,

Matthew Di Carlo, a senior research fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute in Washington, D.C., does a fine analysis of teacher attrition in a recent blog posting. The graph above presents the percentage of public school teachers, in each year, who left the profession (“leavers”) or switched schools (“movers”), along with the total of the two rates (“total turnover”). The mover rate is relatively flat — roughly 7-8 percent in each year. There was a considerable rise in the leaver rate between 1991-92 and 2004-05 — about three percentage points.  The graph is from the Teacher Follow-Up Survey (TFS), which is administered every four years to a nationally representative sub-sample of educators from the Schools and Staffing Survey. Di Carlo’s analysis of the data and specifically as to why did the leaver rate increase during this time is:

“One plausible explanation would be increasing retirements among baby boomer teachers. This seems to have made a difference, but, judging by the TFS breakdown by reasons for leaving, it does not come close to explaining the full increase.

The other common explanation for this rise in teacher attrition/mobility, as mentioned above, is new policies, most notably test-based accountability regimes, that have proliferated since that time. This is impossible to prove using simple descriptive statistics, but it bears mentioning that the beginning of the increase in the leaver rate predates NCLB, the most significant of these policies, by about ten years…

…It is, however, very important to note that the trend itself may be changing. You’ll notice in the graph above that the leaver and mover rates begin to drop back down between the 2004-05 and 2008-09 school years. This may be due, at least in part, to the fact that the recession was just getting started toward the end of this time period, as employees in general are of course less likely to leave jobs when the labor market is unfavorable. Moreover, it is plausible, if not likely, that the next round of the TFS, which will be released rather soon, will show that the rate dropped down even further, as the recession took hold.”

The entire posting provides additional analysis on the issue and provides a number of resources for readers wanting to delve further.




Creationism Banned in Schools in the United Kingdom!

Dear Commons Community,

The United Kingdom has banned the teaching of creationism as a scientific theory in free schools and academies, which are the equivalent of a ‘public’ school in the United States. The move was done in the interests of having a “broad and balanced curriculum,” according to UPI. The remarkable decision was part of a document published on June 9th that laid out new clauses for church academies and stated that creationism is not widely accepted as a scientific theory. The clauses said that creationism:

“is rejected by most mainstream churches and religious traditions, including the major providers of state funded schools such as the [Anglican] [Catholic] Churches, as well as the scientific community. It does not accord with the scientific consensus or the very large body of established scientific evidence; nor does it accurately and consistently employ the scientific method, and as such it should not be presented to pupils at the Academy as a scientific theory.

For the purposes of this document, creationism is defined as, “any doctrine or theory which holds that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity, and complexity of life on earth and therefore rejects the scientific theory of evolution.”

Pavan Dhaliwal, head of public affairs for the British Humanist Association, a group that supports the teaching of evolution, told Politics UK, “Coupled with the fact that maintained schools must follow the national curriculum, which from September will include a module on evolution at the primary level, we believe that this means that the objectives of our pro-evolution/anti-creationism campaign are largely met.”

Thousands of schools in America that received public funding still teach creationism as an “alternative” to evolution, according to Slate. A recent Gallup poll showed that over 40% of Americans hold the creationist belief that God created humanity as it currently exists a mere 10,000 years ago.


Survey: The Use of Instructional Games in K-12 Education!

Dear Commons Community,

A survey (N=694) of grade school educators on using games in the classroom was recently released by the Games and Learning Publishing Council (funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). Here are a summary of key findings as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education:


  • 55% of the surveyed teachers who include games in their classroom use these digital games with their students weekly. This suggests rising numbers of students who will be accustomed to the idea of games as yet another familiar method of the classroom, as at that level of use it’s no longer about providing novelty. (Of course, there are plenty of other teachers who don’t use them at all.)
  • 45% of the surveyed teachers listed insufficient time as a barrier to bring games into the classroom while 44% cited cost. These are problems familiar to all of us in education, but it’s also interesting to see how other frequently cited barriers fall lower on the list, such as being unsure of how to integrate games into the classroom (only 23%) and a lack of administrative support (only 14%). In higher education, we face different challenges and opportunities, but there’s hope for wider adoption now that knowledge and availability barriers are diminishing.
  • 47% of the surveyed teachers identified low-performing students as the ones who have demonstrated the most benefit from learning through digital games. While a survey like this is far from an objective way to measure the impact on such students, it is promising that a potentially harder-to-reach group of students is at the top of the list of potential beneficiaries of gaming. (Only 1% of the teachers suggested that none of their students benefit, but of course this sample comes from those teachers who have already decided to make use of games and are thus likely to see them as valuable.)

It’s worth noting that most of the focus of the survey seemed to be on using pre-packaged games in the classroom, rather than making games or experimenting with other methods of play, and the survey is highly biased towards the digital–which is of course not inherently any more valuable for learning than physical games. However, there’s hope that this trend will continue, and bring with it more students who are used to thinking of games both as sites for play and learning. It’s particularly interesting to put this adoption of games as educational methodology alongside larger debates about the common core and other requirements at work that, at least in US public schools, are likely to in part determine the preparedness of future classes of freshmen.”

While the methodology (see below)  is a little sketchy, the survey provides some insights into the emerging world of gaming in K-12 education.




This survey was designed by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and was fielded during a three-week period in Fall 2013 by VeraQuest, who recruited respondents from the uSamp online survey panel. The panel has over 2 million members in the U.S. who have been recruited through a number of different panel enrollment campaigns, and panelists are required to double opt-in to ensure voluntary participation in the surveys they are invited to complete. Adult respondents were randomly selected from a targeted uSamp panel of k-8 classroom teachers to be generally proportional of the demographic strata of total U.S. teachers. Once selected, respondents were invited to a protected web-based survey which ensured that only the intended recipient could complete the survey, which could be completed only once. There were 694 respondents from the U.S. who reported being classroom/specialist k-8 teachers who completed the survey.


Arne Duncan: Most States Will Not Be in Compliance with Students with Disabilities Act!

Dear Commons Community,

Arne Duncan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, announced yesterday a new framework for measuring states’ compliance with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, the federal law that supports special education and services for children with disabilities. The law originally was known as the Education of Handicapped Children Act of 1975.  As reported in The Huffington Post:

“After years of holding states accountable under the law for such things as timely evaluations of students and due process hearings, the Education Department plans to look at results. For the first time, the government will define compliance with the law not just in terms of what states do for students with disabilities, but with how those students perform.

According to this new results-driven accountability framework, states will be responsible for students with disabilities’ participation in state tests, gaps in proficiency between students with disabilities and their peers, and performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, the only national standardized test. This marks the first time the NAEP, which is often described as a low-stakes test, has been used for school accountability.

The U.S. may deem states to be meeting requirements, needing assistance, needing intervention, or needing substantial intervention. Consequences range from extra help to financial penalties. If a state needs assistance two years in a row, the law mandates that the Education Department “take actions such as requiring the state to obtain technical assistance or identifying the state as a high-risk grant recipient,” according to a government press release.

The new framework will mean most states are failing to comply with the law. Last year, 41 states and territories were deemed compliant. But under the standards that will be announced Tuesday that consider results, only 18 states will be in compliance.”

I wish I could say that Duncan’s new framework will improve special education services in our public schools but it won’t. It is just more of the testing and accountability mentality that has driven our national education policy for the past decade. Public school principals, teachers, parents, and students have pretty much had it with federal mandates for testing and accountability and have little confidence in anything that comes out of Washington, D.C. There is a growing grassroots campaign for localities to take back their schools from policymakers in Washington D.C. who are driven by politics and ideologies and not what is good for the education of children.



Will Quantum Computing Be the Next Big Breakthrough?

Dear Commons Community,

Over the past few decades, digital technology has been evolving steadily in terms of capacity and speed based on reducing the size of the basic unit of all computers – the binary digit or bit. The bit is an electronic circuit that can be in the off or on state represented by the digits 0 and 1. However, a whole other level of digital circuitry based not on the bit but on the quantum bit or qubit has been explored for a number of years now. The qubit can simultaneously be both off and on representing both zero and one values. If they are placed in an “entangled” state — physically separated but acting as though they are connected — with many other qubits, they can represent a vast number of values simultaneously and thereby greatly expanding the capabilities of digital technology. The New York Times has an article today describing Microsoft’s research and investment in quantum computing. Here is an excerpt:

“…a group of physicists and computer scientists who are funded by Microsoft are trying to take the analogy of interwoven threads to what some believe will be the next great leap in computing, so-called quantum computing.

If they are right, their research could lead to the design of computers that are far more powerful than today’s supercomputers and could solve problems in fields as diverse as chemistry, material science, artificial intelligence, and code-breaking.

They met here this weekend to explore an approach to quantum computing that is based on “braiding” exotic particles known as anyons — what physicists describe as “quasiparticles” that exist in just two dimensions rather than three — in order to form the building blocks of a supercomputer that exploits the weird physical properties of subatomic particles.

The proposed Microsoft computer is mind-bending even by the standards of the mostly hypothetical world of quantum computing…And the existing limitations of computing power are thrown out the window…

…In the approach that Microsoft is pursuing, which is described as “topological quantum computing,” precisely controlling the motions of pairs of subatomic particles as they wind around one another would manipulate entangled quantum bits. Although the process of braiding particles takes place at subatomic scales, it is evocative of the motions of a weaver overlapping threads to create a pattern.

By weaving the particles around one another, topological quantum computers would generate imaginary threads whose knots and twists would create a powerful computing system. Most important, the mathematics of their motions would correct errors that have so far proved to be the most daunting challenge facing quantum computer designers.”

Several other major companies such as IBM and Lockheed-Martin have also been exploring the feasibility of quantum computing. It is quite possible in the next decade or so, we may see the fruits of this research.


Todd Feltman: Letter to the New York Times Editor on the Common Core!

Dear Commons Community,

Todd Feltman, a graduate of our PhD Program in Urban Education in 2013 had a letter  (see below) published to the editor of the New York Times in today’s edition.  His comments are right on!



To the Editor:

Common Core, in 9-Year-Old Eyes” (front page, June 15) focused on a boy’s viewpoint. Teachers must actively listen to students to find out what is happening in their minds about school learning. It is unacceptable that Chrispin Alcindor at 9 feels like a failure and that his future depends on two state tests.

His teacher, Trisha Matthew, sounds like a practical, dedicated and personable teacher who is doing her utmost to support student engagement and achievement.

If the Common Core is here to stay, the material to meet the standards must be taught in incremental steps, acknowledging the learning styles of our students. Let this article be a reminder that teachers must continue to build on academic strengths and focus on vulnerabilities in a supportive and professional manner.

Hope has arrived, since there is finally a dedicated chancellor who cares deeply about the academic and emotional well-being of the 1.1 million students in the New York City public school system.

New York, June 16, 2014

The writer is an elementary and middle school literacy achievement coach, New York City Department of Education.