Everyone’s Happy in Happyland, Dept.

I did a long-term sub assignment in San Luis Coastal school district in California a few years ago. I wrote about it in “Confessions of a 21st Century Math Teacher”.

I taught during the year in which California was in transition to the Common Core. We were told quite often that “next year would be different”. No more teacher in front of the class saying to open books to such and such page and do the following exercises. Teachers would facilitate learning, students would learn to “problem solve” and to “think” and “understand”. This assumed that the status quo was rote memorization and teaching without understanding or conceptual context.

The Superintendent of San Luis Coastal who was in charge then and still in charge today has a personal philosophy that aligns with the above bromides.  He wrote about his personal philosophy at length here.  An excerpt follows:

I believe students in the 21st century are different. They are digital natives and live in a world where “any knowledge” can be found immediately on Google. Therefore, why regurgitate knowledge (like an “academic rationalist”) when it is far more reasonable to expect a student to apply this knowledge and to make new meaning from this knowledge. (This is my “cognitive processor” or “social reconstructionist” coming out.) Relevance is critical among this generation of students in order to motivate them to move beyond what I see as low-level thinking.”

His constructivist viewpoints are bolstered by the school district’s hiring policies which use the Danielson Framework for evaluating potential new teachers. The webpage for this framework states right at the beginning that “The Framework for Teaching is a research-based set of components of instruction, aligned to the INTASC standards, and grounded in a constructivist view of learning and teaching.” What then follows is a description of 22 components (and 76 smaller elements) of what they consider teaching.

This framework, coupled with the Superintendent’s philosophy lays the groundwork for hiring and firing. If you are  an advocate of student-centered, inquiry-based, project/problem-based learning, c’mon in.  Traditional type teachers need not apply.

If you wish to teach skills, they better be learning, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.  Top-down, open-ended, ill-posed problems with many possible answers are preferable to the stuff that this particular cadre of educationists hate; i.e., distance/rate, work, mixture, and number problems.  No relevance to what kids really care about.

To my knowledge there has been little to no parent, teacher, or student backlash in this school district. So it appears that everyone is happy in happy-land. That said, I refuse to teach there. Not that strong a statement considering what their response would likely be.


8 thoughts on “Everyone’s Happy in Happyland, Dept.

  1. Barry, I am so concerned that we have nothing left but a new generation of teachers who no longer know how to teach any other way, except the constructivist method, which confuses kids and leaves them with a set of self-constructed ideas about science and math that bear no relevance to reality. As my 10th grade son said, we figure out what we think are the correct answers to science questions, but then when (if) we find out we had the wrong idea we not only have to learn the correct answer but have to un-learn the answer we constructed. He and his friends are not fans of the new methods.


  2. I’m concerned about the frequency with which I wrangle with putative “math expert” teachers who rail against the “traditionalist” teaching and point to the 1990s — one of the high water marks (at least on the West Coast of the US) of what some call constructivist methodology and “progressive ed” teaching resources. CCSS, if anything, has moved things in the direction of conventional instruction — at least if one considers the content stream … what educationists are injecting into it in terms of educational ideology and pedagogy that is only in CCSS by way of birdwhistles is something else altogether. Further, CCSS represents a step backwards for states that already had taken steps to shore up domain content and sequencing, such as Mass. and Calif.

    What concerns me is that in the era of CCSS the whole “math wars” debate has become unhinged from reality. The “progressive” advocates, if their position was articulated honestly, would be advocating for “the good old days” of the 1990s before regional inroads were made limiting the influence of constructivism and “student-centered instruction”.

    Of course, that would be terribly inconvenient for them, because as everyone knows, the first step to throwing out the baby with the bathwater in education is to disparage the baby as outdated and harmful. To sell your “new” system you must first demonize the “old” system. But prog ed has already had at least two cycles in which it has been dominant over large parts of North America, so this approach is just as much the “old” system as that which is often called “traditionalist”.

    If that were ever to become a centerpiece of this discussion, what would they do without their straw bogeyman? So they must continually and forever take the discussion out of the realm of the actual history of trends into a fairy tale version thereof. In particular the poor results of the 90s must never be blamed on the prog ed that caused it but on “traditional” teaching, and that described in Gradgrindian terms that were already and outlandish caricature back in Dickens’ day.


  3. I’m supposed to have a student teacher next year. Their “student teacher handbook” explicitly states that their curriculum and philosophy is constructivist. I hope I dont damage him/her too much.


  4. We get these self-guided students at the university and they are much worse; bound to start in remedial non-credit math. Real progress was made at the end of the 90s and 2000s when California’s Math Content Standards kicked in. The drift toward Constructivism was already evident even before being endorsed big time when the state dumped its excellent math standards for Common Core. Now I have few students in my upper division (very traditional) Modern Geometry who can even construct the most elementary proof in Euclidean geometry much less understand the significance of Euclid’s 5th Postulate and a couple millennia trying to prove it independent of the others that led to the invention/discovery of hyperbolic geometry. They cannot think mathematically or write down arguments mathematically because they’ve been trained in an environment of the blind leading the blind.


    • Thank you Wayne for all of your work over the years. I think it was you who recommended me for NYCHOLD way back in 2001 – back when I first found out that our school used MathLand. We’ve driven out CMP in middle school, but EM, along with full academic inclusion dominates K-6. Our high school still has some old fuzzy ideas floating around, but it now pushes at least one AP class for all. Our state requires subject certification in 7th and 8th grades, so that creates a very odd philosophical transition phase between natural “trust the spiral” learning in K-6 to the traditional real world high expectation push of high school.


  5. They will have to fire all high school teachers who directly teach and prepare students for the best colleges. They will have to dismantle all honors, AP and IB classes. They will have to reconstruct college education and all admissions requirements. These educators end up in administration, not subject experts. This is their academic turf and it’s all they have, but it does not comport with reality. Reality, driven down by the real world and college admissions, defines what actually happens. Our high school actively tries to get all students to take at least one AP class, even if it’s in art or music – which are NOT trivial classes. Search for all of the AP classes at San Luis Obispo High School. They might get away with this blather in K-6, but that’s the last bastion of the un-reality of these ideas. How can he claim all these ideas of learning when his own high schools do something completely different?

    There are some remnants of these ideas in high school, but they are not for the best students and they know it. Some try to claim that the best math students are acutally “zombies,” but they never show how those getting into the best colleges were created using their pet educational philosophies. It’s their fundamental flaw. They can’t show that any of it works even for their lowest level students. How well do they do on the Accuplacer test when they want to get into a community college or vocational shool?

    In many subjects, parents can help students make the nonlinear transition to honors classes in high school, but in math, it’s almost impossible. It’s all over by the time kids hit the math track decision at the end of 6th grade. Parents drove away CMP math in our middle school because it clearly did not match up to the high school geometry class option. Forget educational philosophy, they had no curriculum continuity. That is incompetence. CCSS may now define a K-12 curriculum continuity to no remediation in college, but they don’t explain how to make the non-linear middle school transition to honors/AP/IB classes other than to say that students can take summer classes or double up in math in high school. It’s all complete fairlyland, but it’s all they know and it’s the only turf they have. This is not true for the subject experts who teach those classes, and they keep their heads down and do what they do.

    I don’t think it’s completely Happyland in K-6. Teachers know the problems of differentiated instruction. Each year, as the spread of willingness and levels get wider, these teachers are pressured to meet the multiple level needs of all students. They might not admit it, but they know that the more willing and able students do not get what they need. They might talk a good game, but we parents have heard quite different off-the-record comments. Our K-8 school now calls it differentiated learning – the onus is on the child to do it themselves and become life-long learners. Everyday Math tells teachers to keep moving and to “trust the spiral.” Meanwhile, parents of the best students set high expectations and ensure mastery of basics at home. We don’t “trust the spiral.” They don’t ask us parents what we had to do, but the school doesn’t have any problem with using my son as a poster child for Everyday Math.

    Parents don’t complain because they know when to keep their mouths shut. I never complained about my son’s Mathland, then Everyday Math school. Some parents like the idea of full inclusion and believe the school’s explanation that they can get it for free. Then reality slowly sinks in. They might complain, but I’ll bet they are told that they are the first parents to complain or that others parents of successful students are not complaining. What are we supposed to say, that the school is completely wrong about their educational assumptions – that we parents have to pick up the pieces? In discussions with my son’s K-8 principal, she knew they had a problem with more willing and able students. One teacher even told me that the kids who are hurt the most are the ones in the middle with no help at home.

    Educational Happyland ideas do not match reality. When will the bubble burst? When will urban parent demand for higher expectation charter school options sink in? When will they ask the parents of their best students what they had to do at home? When will the meaning of their notes to parents about practing “math facts” at home sink in? When will they be unhappy about the highest PARCC (“disguinshed”) level in math be the liklihood of passing a college algebra class when this starts (!) in Kindergarten? When will they admit to the complete change that happens when K-8 turns into high school?


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