Deal with it, Dept.

The LA Times is running a story (as many California papers are) that addresses the results of the test scores for 2016-17 in California. These are the tests called the CASSPP which is just the SBAC test renamed.  Scores didn’t increase quite as much as everyone hoped, so now many parties representing various educational interests are coming up with reasons of what is possibly going wrong.

This particular stance from a former “technical advisor” for the people who make SBAC is intriguing:

Cizek was a technical advisor for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which developed the California tests.  In the past, he said, when states adopted new standardized exams, students’ scores increased as they and their teachers became accustomed to the format and questions. But he described the California tests as a “different animal.”   

“They’re requiring changes in classrooms to get gains,” he said. “You’re not going to budge this needle much if fundamentally the way kids are being taught doesn’t change.”

Oh, so kids aren’t being taught the right way, or too much traditional teaching going on?This wouldn’t have to do with “the shifts” that Common Core supposedly requires, would it?  Or that students must be taught math with understanding and not rote? And that students must learn to think and “problem solve”?  It wouldn’t be that would it? (For more on the “shifts”, see this piece.)

Last year I taught in a traditional manner; in my algebra class I even used the Dolciani textbook “Modern Algebra” from 1962.  The students had to take the 8th grade test; there was no separate 8th grade algebra exam.  One of my students got a perfect score.  All were in the highest category. Similarly in my 7th grade class. To all who say my arguments prove nothing and what’s more they lack nuance, you’re right.

Same goes for most of the spin about Common Core.

Deal with it.

The Convoluted Logic of Education, Dept.

Readers of my book “Confessions of a 21st Century Math Teacher” may recall that our hero takes on a semester-long sub assignment teaching math at a middle school during a time when schools in California were gearing up for the transition to Common Core next year.   At one point he attends a math staff meeting and hears a teacher talking about how things will be the next year during the new Common Core era:

Next year there will be no more teachers at the front of the room saying ‘Open your books to such and such page and listen to me.’ ” There would be no textbooks, she went on. Teachers would facilitate students collaborating. Teachers would be given a list of websites from which lesson plans, tests, videos and other material could be obtained.


As it turned out, the first year teachers relied on downloading the material from EngageNY, the curriculum used in the State of New York and made available for free to teachers all over the U.S.  Eventually, the district adopted College Preparatory Math (CPM), a discovery-based curriculum that is being supplemented by on-line videos and–in extreme cases–using exercises and explanations contained in the old textbooks they used before Common Core kicked in.

I bring this to your attention because a similar thing has been happening in Manchester, NH. According to this recent news article :

When Manchester schools started earlier this month, it marked the third year without a common, district-wide program for teaching mathematics in elementary schools, a situation that is drawing criticism from school officials, teachers and parents. Critics, some who asked to speak anonymously for fear of reprisal from fellow teachers, say children in the city’s 14 elementary schools don’t get the same textbook or workbook — or even any book — that provides the tangible, step-by-step continuity that is helpful to mathematics instruction.  Without a district-wide curriculum, teachers cobble together lessons from various sources, meaning no conformity for lesson plans and teaching material in the district.

As with all criticism, there are defenders of the practice being criticized.  This time, an ed school college professor rises to the defense of the school system:

But a college professor said the latest approach to elementary-school instruction downplays a one-size-fits-all, packaged curriculum. Teachers are expected to pick and choose to find the best lessons that fit their particular students, said Kimberly Bohannon, an assistant professor of education at Keene State College.

“Children are all different,” she said.

For example, a language-rich math program that concentrates on word problems might be an obstacle to children with reading deficiencies, she said. Bohannon reviewed the on-line programs that Manchester offers its teachers and said they appear to be comprehensive. Much of the second-grade math lessons link to Engage New York, a program developed by New York state to meet Common Core standards.

Well now, this sounds familiar.  And ignoring the rather perplexing reasoning she uses to avoid books with word problems for students with reading deficiencies, I have to give the school district this: Their current situation is because they abandoned their previous textbook, Everyday Math.  And while abandoning Everyday Math is, in my opinion, a definite step in the right direction, I have some doubts abut relying on EngageNY for reasons I addressed in part in a previous article. 

In general, the lack of one textbook seems to have its share of defenders:

At another elementary school, a veteran teacher said teachers collaborate, but it comes down to whatever a teacher decides is best for her class. The teacher did not want her school or name published, fearing repercussions. Manchester students come from such diverse backgrounds, she said, that she’s not sure one curriculum would work for all.

Right. One curriculum for all is, in the end, as ludicrous as assuming that students all have the same learning style. Oh, wait…

Love Notes of the Past, Dept.

One of many comments received on the first article I wrote criticizing Common Core 

In general, I think there is a problem with Garelick’s body of work in that it tends to limit the conversation about math to arithmetic alone – and not only to arithmetic, but to its operations – and not only to its operations, but to its whole-number operations – and not only to its whole-number operations, but to the algorithms for those operations – and not only to the algorithms for those operations, but to the results of those algorithms. Garelick does discuss fractions in this piece, but it’s still concerned solely with results of algorithms for operations – again, as if that’s what math equals. I also think he is off base in the fraction critique itself. Many mathematicians (which Garelick isn’t) would say the relationship between multiplication and division is an important aspect of learning about rational number arithmetic.

Pretty flat criticism considering that the article in question as well as my “body of work” at the time focused on the foundational portion of math; aka arithmetic.

On “inflexible knowledge”

The concept of inflexible knowledge has made the rounds on the edu-circuit for years now.  In short, math education isn’t working, because if it were, then people would be able to apply prior knowledge to solve problems in new situations. That is, knowledge would just transfer like a hot knife through butter.

Robert Craigen, math professor at U. of Manitoba has this take on the idea of “inflexible knowledge”:

It isn’t knowledge that is inflexible — it is people. One should learn the knowledge, and then have practice and exposure applying it in flexible ways. The error of progressive ed is the notion that if one doesn’t acquire knowledge in particular ways then it isn’t flexible. 

Somebody please kill me, Dept.

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. 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.

Love Notes from my Fans, Dept

Some love notes from my fans:

“According to your bio, teaching is not your primary profession. It is something you are just doing post-retirement. This does not mean you do not have useful insights. It does mean that you need to know your limitations for formulating educational policy.”

“Ph.D. in applied math here. The traditional form stinks. By focusing on the “algorithms”, the traditional method gives no intuitive insight into the relationships or what you’re actually doing. It doesn’t build on first principles. That’s why so many kids get an A in, say, Calculus but really don’t understand it at all- they just know how to plug & chug. There’s a reason why 20% of freshmen at the top universities in the country (Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, etc.) have to be remediated even after acing their AP courses.”

Yes, my fans dearly love me. And with plaudits like these, who can resist reading more of what I have to say. You can start with “Math Education in the US: Still Crazy After All These Years”. Makes an ideal gift for people whose idea of viable educational policy is formed by what they learned in ed school and reading articles in Phi Delta Kappan.

Available at Amazon

Shameless Promotion, Dept.

This just in from Sinal Singh, author of “Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics” and a math consultant at Scolab:

“Barry Garelick is a surly sycophant for all things anachronistic.”

What more reason do you need to buy my book; available now at Amazon. Buy 10 copies and give them to your enemies!

Math Education in the U.S.: Still Crazy After All These Years “Hell hath no fury like a mathematician whose child has been scorned by an education system that refuses to know better.” 


And while you’re at it, you may as well buy the whole set.  Your enemies will love you for the gifts!

Confessions of a 21st Century Math Teacher  (For anyone concerned with what Common Core is bringing about in the name of 21st century math education, STEM education, and “21st century skills, this book is a must-read. )

And the book that started it all: Letters from John Dewey/Letters from Huck Finn  “Few refuges exist from the multicolored tomes posing as math textbooks. No one is safe from this modern day invasion of the body snatchers. And just like in the movie, those with the power to do something have already been taken over by the seed pods of education school dogma.”

Canadian Tropes, Dept.

Interesting to see that what passes as sound educational policies in Canada are based on the same nonsense that US educational policies are based on. To wit and for example in this latest Globe and Mail article about Ontario’s math ed crisis, is this quote from Annie Kidder, executive director for the advocacy group People for Education who is welcoming a reform of all aspects of the math curriculum in Ontario:

“I think that this is a very important move, that we recognize the importance of what are sometimes called … global competencies to student learning in all areas. It’s important that we recognize that there’s more to life than the three Rs,” Ms. Kidder said. She added: “It’s obviously important that kids read, write and do math. But it’s also important that they know how to collaborate … and they’re able to be successful in a knowledge economy and in jobs that don’t exist as yet.”

I don’t understand the hang-up with “collaboration”. If math were taught properly there would be less of a need for students to collaborate since they would be better able to figure things out on their own. The assumption that the working world is now based on collaboration more than ever before is one of those characterizations that comes from people who don’t work in the real world on a day to day basis. Yes, people work on projects collaboratively but usually each person brings their own particular expertise to the table. There is a difference between experts and novices. The collaboration one sees with students is usually the riding on the backs of the students who can do the work–because perhaps they learned it via parents, tutors or learning centers where they were taught what wasn’t being taught at school.

The math wars in Canada continue

Anna Stokke tells it like it is in Canada in a no holds barred piece in the Globe and Mail.

“After six years of advocating for better math education in Canada, I have noticed a frustrating cycle that ministries have done little to break. Expensive consultants are hired to provide teacher professional development on unproven fads. Resources are then purchased to support these ineffective methods in the classroom, which produces more struggling students who need extra support. After a round of testing shows that students are doing more poorly in math, the same people who created the problem decide that teachers need more support using the ineffective methods. More PD and resources are then purchased, and the cycle continues. Parents are often left with no other option but to hire tutors to cover the gaps and those who can’t afford tutors watch helplessly as their children get further behind.”

Canada’s approach to math education differs from the US in that some of the provincial Ministries of Education (MoE’s) are mandating via the standards the inquiry-based approaches and bad practices. In the US such practices are not mandated, but strongly hinted at through the “dog whistles” of reform math embedded in the Common Core standards. Previous to Common Core, the NCTM’s standards paved the way.

Canada’s MoE’s are hanging tight, but at least there is a press that represents the parents much more strongly than one sees in the US as evidenced by Anna’s piece.

Tell it, Anna!