I am required to attend six (6) all day professional development sessions over the course of this school year. The sessions encourage “collaboration” amongst the math teachers in the county where I teach. It will be “facilitated” (as in “moderated” and other soft words that mean *the word that shall not be mentioned*: “led”) by the person who wrote this blog entry.

The basic assumption of the blog is that students who are not at grade level can be brought to the appropriate level through “just in time” learning.

Like a magician who is adept at slight of hand, we start off with a definition that many readers swallow hook, line and sinker: I.e., that “gaps in learning” are somehow essentially different from “unfinished learning”. The author then posits that “We can ensure access to grade level mathematics even if a student has unfinished learning by intentionally planning just in time formative learning process.”

Skipping over the buzzword of “formative” which used to mean “teaching”, and just in case there were any misgivings over the assumption that the author wants us all to swallow, there’s this:

“I’ve never believed a student comes to us with holes or gaps in understanding, as in my own mind that is deficit thinking. It assumes that students can’t or aren’t able to attain grade level or mastery. How many of us have had students that just weren’t quite there yet, and given a bit more time or a different approach got it!”

Well, to tell you the truth, different approaches are nice, but if someone has difficulty multiplying or adding/subtracting, does not understand how 4 can be expressed as 3 and 4/4, continually balks at finding a common denominator to add fractions, and by grade 9, say, has no proficiency with fractions, decimals or percents, then in my experience (as with many others who I’ve met through the years) different approaches don’t make much difference. But the author contends that the “unfinished learning” can be addressed via “just in time” planning:

“If we are able to anticipate conceptual misconceptions, procedural disconnects or skill-based errors, we can prepare an activity or a few questions, for a just in time intervention, that will support learners in completing their learning.”

I’ve talked before how use of the word “learners” instead of “students” is more than a bit annoying, as if we have upgraded our approach to education so much that to refer to students as students means we are going back to “the old ways” which everyone knows didn’t work. So no need for me to go there. Let me focus therefore on the author’s method for doing this “just in time” intervention:

“How do we begin just in time planning? Understand The Shifts : Focus, Coherence, and Rigor. ”

OK, let’s stop there a moment. “The Shifts” (which reminds me of an ad campaign in the mid 80-s that was supposed to promote the State of California by calling the state “The Californias”) refers to a discussion on the Common Core website on how Common Core results in shifts in instructional strategy. Note that the discussion of “the shifts” is commentary on the website, and not part of the standards. They are the authors’ view of the consequences of Common Core standards and represent what the authors believe would and should happen upon implementation of the standards. In other words, they are not part of the standards themselves. Nevertheless, even before the ink dried on the Common Core standards, proponents of Common Core talked about “The Shifts” as if they were/are enforceable parts of the standards themselves.

One of the shifts is “rigor,” which the website translates as: “Pursue conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application with equal intensity.” The site also mentions that students should attain fluency with core functions such as multiplication (and by extension, multiplication of fractions): “Students must be able to access concepts from a number of perspectives in order to see math as more than a set of mnemonics or discrete procedures.”

I learned of the connection between these “instructional shifts” and the current practice of drilling understanding in a conversation I had with one of the key writers and designers of the EngageNY/Eureka Math program. EngageNY started in New York state to fulfill Common Core and is now being used in many school districts across the United States. I noted that on the EngageNY website, the “key shifts” in math instruction went from the three on the original Common Core website (focus, coherence, and rigor) to six. The last one of these six is called “dual intensity.” According to my contact at EngageNY, it’s an interpretation of Common Core’s definition of “rigor.” It states:

Dual Intensity: Students are practicing and understanding. There is more than a balance between these two things in the classroom – both are occurring with intensity. Teachers create opportunities for students to participate in “drills” and make use of those skills through extended application of math concepts. The amount of time and energy spent practicing and understanding learning environments is driven by the specific mathematical concept and therefore, varies throughout the given school year.

He told me the original definition of rigor at the Common Core website was a stroke of genius that made it hard for anti-intellectuals to speak of “rigorous” in loosey-goosey ways. He was able to justify EngageNY/Eureka’s emphasis on fluency. So while his intentions were good—to use the definition of “rigor” to increase the emphasis on procedural fluency—it appears he was co-opted to make sure that “understanding” took precedence.

In our discussion, I pointed to EngageNY’s insistence on students drawing diagrams to show place value in adding and subtracting numbers that required regrouping (a.k.a. “carrying” and “borrowing”—words now anathema in this new age of math understanding). I asked if students were barred from using the standard algorithm until they acquired “mastery” of the pictorial procedure.

His answer was evasive, along the lines of “Of course we want students to use numbers and not be dependent on diagrams, but it’s important that they understand how the algorithms work.” He eventually stated that Eureka “doesn’t do standard algorithms until students know the prerequisites needed to do them.”

Thus, despite Common Core’s proclamations that the standards do not prescribe pedagogical approaches, it appears their definition of “rigor” leaves room for interpretations that conclude understanding must come before procedure.

And the author of this blog seems to think that all is a matter of understanding and that a “just in time” exercise will fit in the missing pieces.

This is all part of a misguided mish-mash that passes for what Common Core is all about and what math education should be all about. There are those of us who see the results of these ideas. Many of us have had to tutor our children, or pay for tutoring. And some of us are forced to take six (6) PD sessions led by the author of the blog in question. In my case and others like me, we are told to try the things we know are not working well, despite good results among our students using methods held in disdain by those in power. Those of us in this situation seem to know better but are relegated to the sidelines of a never ending mutual admiration circus that passes as “evidence-based, research-based” education.

This despite much research and evidence to the contrary.