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.


3 thoughts on “Somebody please kill me, Dept.

  1. Great review of the details of “rigor” in the development of CCSS. When I saw the use of “just in time”, I knew your head would explode. Really now, two year gaps in learning fixed just in time? Why weren’t they assessed and fixed “just in time” when they happened? Do we have to wait until kids are ready? Yes, it’s never the fault of the school, teachers, assumptions, curriculum, or pedagogy. The process works by definition and if students fail, then it’s their own fault or IQ or parents or peers or poverty or whatever. Never mind that high schools separate kids academically and have traditionally taught classes. Nobody ever talks about why things have to be different in K-6.

    OK, let me add my own 4 cents.

    First, CCSS is a NO-STEM zone that defines a straight line slope from Kindergarten to the end of high school where the goal is no remediation in a college algebra class. Where is the rigor? It’s provided by parents and tutors who provide for the change in slope so that kids get to the AP calculus track in high school. If this slope change does not happen by the eighth grade Algebra I class, it’s virtually all over. PARCC’s “distinguished” top level only means that students will have a 75% likelihood of passing a college algebra course. CCSS does not even attempt to assess STEM level preparation, even in high school. STEM parents know this, they don’t argue with K-6 educational pedagogues, and they hide the tracking at home. These kids fill the top-level in-class math groups that educators think are natural.

    Why does all of this CCSS thinking go away by high school? Traditional math (in high school) does not allow students to pass on to the next grade level without a passing grade. In many schools, you have to have at least a grade of 80 to move on in an honors class. If you don’t get to that level, then it will be hard to fill in the gaps and there is no way to JIT fix them in the honors class without slowing everyone else down. In our high school, it’s very unlikely for a non-honors class student to get into AP Calculus. Separation by assessment is what defines all of education – except for K-6.

    When full inclusion and social promotion were accepted as the norm in K-6 (which they KNOW conflicts with academic rigor and goals), they had to come up with ways to claim that the process was more important than assessments and tests. If kids did not pass the tests, then they were not ready yet for the material and when they were ready, then some sort of “just in time” methods will work.

    Their fundamental flaw is to claim that having kids in the same academic classroom with a spread of two years or more is OK. They never address why this is OK in K-6, but not in high school. In the old traditional days, pressure was put on students, parents, and teachers because summer school, or worse, staying back a year, was a horrifying thought. With full inclusion and allowing two-year or more gaps in the same classroom, we hear claims that everything is supposedly more natural with more understanding, and that up to two year gaps can be fixed by JIT learning. In their dreams.

    In math, words do not define rigor or any specific level. CCSS is a complete failure at anything but the very low end level – no remediation – because it defines no track to a proper Algebra I class in 8th grade, let alone a track to AP Calculus in high school. I ALWAYS ignored my son’s state test results. They offered me no feedback. What mattered was how my son did with proper problem sets, and I never saw any of those in K-6. None. All I saw and heard were rote ed-school words and platitudes. I had to define and set my own standards to ensure that he got on the top math track in 7th grade. I saw many capable kids who didn’t get there.


  2. I agree with Steve’s comments. All this money should be spent on serious remediation for younger students, not more P.D.
    Heartbreaking to sit on the sidelines and know it could be so much better.


  3. Pingback: Deal with it, Dept. | traditional math

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