31 March 2014

Common Core Mathematics

Plenty of people are still complaining about Common Core standards.  See this Yahoo! post for a recent example.

The complaints have nothing to do with the Common Core Standards.

The Common Core are simply a set of objectives.

Let's just look at one of the math standards for third graders.

Apply properties of operations as strategies to multiply and divide.

What would this look like in a student's work?  The answer to this question can vary from school to school and teacher to teacher.  Essentially the goal requires students to demonstrate they understand place value and basic number theory.

Here's an example to make it clear:

e.g. 12 x 9 =

If you were taught like me, you learned to solve this problem using an arbitrary algorithm that was very difficult to understand.  First, multiply the 2 and 9.  That equals 18.  Write down the 8 and carry the 1.  Now multiply 9 times 1 and then add the 1 to that.  Write down the answer next to the 8.  108 is the answer. 

Unfortunately most of us who were taught this method of multiplication could find the answer but had no idea why.  Calvin sums this approach up very nicely:

In bizarre routine of indoctrination all of us sat in classrooms and at kitchen tables scribbling away carrying ones and threes and adding and subtracting hoping we were getting close but not really ever knowing if we had the answer correct until we were given the answers.

There are plenty of alternative strategies to the old formulaic algorithm that students can use that also demonstrate their understanding. 

Let's take a look at the equation using a different approach.

12 x 9 =

12 is equal to 10 + 2.  10 x 9 (10 sets of 9 or 9+9+9+9+9+9+9+9+9+9) = 90.  2 x 9 (2 sets of 9 or 9 + 9) = 18.  90+18=90+10+8=108.


While for those of us trained in the traditional algorithm might look at this with incredulity, just think about how many problems we sat solving without ever really understanding what was happening.

We learned via rote practice.   Students today have the opportunity to learn via understanding.

The Common Core Standards have nothing to do with worksheets or homework or testing.  They are a set of objectives plain and simple that encourage deeper educational exploration by both teachers and students.

23 February 2014

Why Wisconsin's Common Core State Standards Benefit Students and Teachers

Wisconsin Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were created a number of years ago to provide guidance and structure in teaching of common objectives that could be applied consistently across the state.  After years of study and pilot programs across the state, the Common Curriculum was finally adopted in 2010.

Yet today, only two years after beginning their implementation, the Common Core Standards are under scrutiny and may be dismantled by the presiding legislature.  A number of criticisms have been leveled at the CCSS including that they exert centralized state control in favor of localized leadership, that they demand more than the students can attain, that they are overly focused on test results, and that they leave little flexibility for adaptation.
Back in the 2004-2005 school year in the Milwaukee Public Schools system (MPS), I was selected by my principal to be a member of the early piloting program gearing up for the adoption of the Common Core Standards in mathematics.  The Milwaukee Mathematics Partnership (MMP) represented an ambitious effort combining the expertise of leaders from The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), MPS, and the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).  In order to implement a new set of objectives, the MMP assembled representatives from UWM and MATC to train Math Teacher Leaders (MTL) who in effect would act as liasons in their schools.  The Common Core Leadership in Mathematics (CCLM) project, as it would become know, develops school and district teacher leaders to support the transition to the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics.

As one of many MTLs, I was part of the early efforts in breaking apart the broad objectives that make up the Common Core in mathematics, and bringing back ideas to our schools for implementation.  Each month, the teacher leaders participated in a session that focused on one of the Practice Standards, exemplified through a specific mathematics content task related to a Common Core Content Standard.  The sessions were led by the devoted, skilled, and indefatigable teachers, researchers, and professors DeAnn Huinker, Henry Kepner, Janis Freckman, Melissa Hedges, and Kevin McLeod.  Along with the goal of implementing teaching related to the Common Core, the aim of the project was to encourage cooperation between educators, families, community members, and business leaders.  The hope was that mathematics teaching would improve across the district.

The CCSS have been from the onset academic standards and objectives meant to guide teaching and learning.  One of the very clear focal points aimed at the development of stronger ongoing formative assessments.  The academic standards were and are "a set of expectations for what students should know and be able to do in kindergarten through 12th grade."(1)  They are goals for the year that require repetitive revisiting in order to achieve.   It's dangerous and alluring to think that one summative assessment can reveal whether an objective has been met.  Unfortunately, that's not the way learning works.  Learning is a cycle.  The CCSS represent the goals in the cycle but they do not attempt to dictate how the goals should be met.

The CCSS were never designed to be prescriptive.  
While academic standards establish what students need to learn, standards do not dictate how teachers should teach, and are not a curriculum. The CCSS inform the work of teachers in the classroom and help support parents’ understanding of what their children should know and be able to do at each grade level in order to be college and career ready. Local teachers, principals,superintendents and others decide how the CCSS are to be met. Throughout Wisconsin classrooms, local educators continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to meet the individual needs of the students in their classrooms, and local school boards continue to adopt a curriculum that best meets the needs of their local community.
Instead the CCSS were meant to function as "a blueprint" drawn up in order to "improve the transition of our students from high school to postsecondary education, work, and citizenship."(2)

The CCSS present a set of objectives that can be applied consistently throughout the state in each district, in each school.  The objectives can be addressed, taught, using the methodologies as prescribed by the local school district, individual school, or specific teacher.  The goals themselves represent the the scope of the trajectory of a learner's journey.  Absent in the CCSS are recommendations for standardized testing.  Instead educators are encouraged to explore utilizing a variety of assessments that help form a learner's experience.

All of this may sound like pedagogical gobbledygook.  Herein lies the problem.  I'm not sure if there has been a consolidated attempt at explaining the nature of the CCSS.  The essential aspects of the CCSS can be made entirely clear.  While the CCSS are a set of objectives, they are not bulky contrivances for a massive bombardment of external examinations.  The CCSS stand as goals for teachers, students, parents, guardians, and community members to initiate guided learning.  The CCSS set the targets.  The journey is devised in the lesson plans and the methods of assessment schools employ to ensure the standards are met.

I understand that part of human nature is defined by quickly identifying a problem and quickly assigning blame.  In most situations, it's far more complicated than that.  In the case of the CCSS, objections have been lobbed at them from various fronts with the unified intention of repealing them.  There are alternatives to dismantling what has taken years of study, trials, time, and resources to implement.

We can keep the CCSS in place.  Most countries around the world provide centralized leadership in the form of a ministry of education or department of education.  The central office is typically in charge of defining learning objectives.  Every student across the country is required to meet those objectives in order to reach specific benchmarks.  Schools can lose their recognition or the ability to issue state-recognized diplomas if they do not aim for the state authorized objectives.  Most other countries assess the progress of students using state level examinations designed to assess whether the student has met the objectives.

The importance of this point is clear when we look at achievement levels on world-wide tests like PISA.  These tests indicate that while other countries have attained higher levels of understanding and learning and consistently demonstrate this on the exams, the US has remained fairly stagnant.  The US has fallen off the pace set by countries like South Korea, Singapore, and Finland.

One approach is to ensure that there are consistent objectives that all students should be able to meet, reminiscent of the centralized standards designed in ministries of education around the world.
We can look at countless examples from the CCSS but I'd like to just pick one to analyze in order to illustrate how teachers, students, and the public might work together.  Because an attainable, acceptable approach must work with any objective, it matters little which of the standards is chosen to deconstruct.

Here's one from Grade K:
Counting and Cardinality (3)
•  Know number names and the count sequence.
     2.   Count forward beginning from a given number within the known sequence (instead of having to begin at 1)

It's very clear that this is an open-ended and broad goal.  How many number names?  Which number sequence?  How long of a sequence?  Who defines the set of numbers, the series?

As I think is clearly evident, the objective doesn't dictate teaching methodology or assessment.  It mentions no curriculum that teachers should use.  The objective represents a long-term goal for each kindergartner.  By the end of kindergarten, each student should be able to identify numbers by name, and count in sequence.  Part of understanding the objective and teaching the objective is understanding the numbers recur in patterns.  It's a complex and subtle distinction for kindergartners but well within their abilities to grasp.

How are teachers supposed to assess whether the objective has been met?  The CCSS do not prescribe the approach only the target.  If parents and teachers are describing increased assessment because of the CCSS, it's because the approach to assessment has been misinterpreted.  The CCSS do not necessarily lead to additional written tests.  Teachers, students, and the community are instead asked to assess the objectives in a variety of ongoing (formative) assessments.  Students are encouraged to put on plays, draw pictures, construct models, and create imaginative manifestations representative of the goals.  Clearly not every assessment requires standardized style paper and pencil testing.

I'll write more about evaluation later.  What is essential in this post is that the CCSS are not meant to be restrictive or prescriptive.  They are meant to instill focus on teaching and learning.

Interestingly as the debate over CCSS heats up, the proposed changes are indicative of the way our society handles many challenges in the education sector.  A problem or challenge crops up and our leaders react.  The reaction sets off another series of challenges and again we react.  Our reactive tendencies fail because the solutions address problems that have already occurred.  We've codified reactive decisions.

I don't have enough fingers and toes to count the numerous times when I was teaching in which changes were made but given little time and even fewer tools for the implementation to take place.  Two years is simply not enough time to implement the massive changes that the CCSS represent.  The state needs more time.  Teachers need more professional development.  The community needs more time to adapt.  In this way we may act proactively.  Proactive measures would include better professional development opportunities, more teachers with better initial training, more cooperation across the spectrum including teachers, learners, parents and guardians, and the community.  Absent of fidelity in the system, the system is bound to collapse regardless of the system in place.    

While the CCSS are behemoth in their scope and size, they are not the controlling feature of a Madison-based, test-driven tyranny they have been described to be.  They are simply a set of learning objectives, a core curriculum for every learner.  They very well may be necessary to keep our educational system on pace in an increasingly competitive global educational system.

1) Transforming Teaching and Learning - report submitted to the Wisconsin State Assembly and Senate
2) Blueprint developed to improve Wisconsin's Model Academic Standards
- News release from State Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster
3) Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Mathematics
4) Academic Expectations for MPS Students
5) Milwaukee Mathematics Partnership
6) Stop Common Core in Wisconsin

05 February 2014

The Dislikers, the Shirkers, the Nags, and the Shitters

From time to time you meet people who just aren't nice to you and it sucks.  I know it happens to me all the time.  At first you think, 'Is it something I did?' and that quickly becomes 'What did I do?'

The truth may be that you did something.  It may be you did nothing.  It may have nothing to do with you at all.  Unless that person's willing to stake out some time to talk about it you may never know.

And that's the key.  There's plenty we just don't know. It's not something to be ashamed about.  You just don't know.

It hurts to think about someone not liking you.  There's the joke about the doctor who's told the patient's finger hurts when the patient points and the doctor tells him not to point.  But that's nonsense.  It's impossible not to think about those cats who don't like you.  Man, it's like asking a baby not to pee his diaper.  It's hard to forget about the people who disrespect you or ignore you or treat you like the bubonic plague.

I don't have a good solution.  It's one of those things that doesn't just go away especially if you're at all empathetic.  All you can do is try to remind yourself that for whatever reason this person or group of persons hasn't treated you the way you wanted to be treated.

But, and that's a Khoisan but, you don't know why. There's the rub.  Wandering into the unknown trying to figure out why someone doesn't like you is frippery and slippery and probably not worth the energy.  As Scott the Engineer is prone to say, "It is what it is." In this case I agree.

That's kind of what life is all about.  There's a bunch of shit all around you and you have to try to figure out which shit is worth your time and attention.  None of us has unlimited time unless you're a mythological hero like the Doctor.  For most of us, we have to choose what shit we're going to pay attention to.  The reality is that you're not going to be liked by everyone.  That's inevitable and in the end not necessary for being a decent dude or dudess.  There are probably tons of people you'd feel good to know didn't like you because they're dicks.  But keep in mind that if you feel that way about someone it's almost certain someone feels that way about you. 

Am I saying we're all dicks?  In a way I am saying that.  In some atavistic repository of our minds there's this residue of the hunter-gatherer who sometimes had to be a selfish, inconsiderate shithead in order to survive.  Now I don't know if that's what's going on when someone doesn't like you but maybe it is.  Who knows?  I don't.  You don't.  And maybe that person doesn't know. 

Just don't get hung up on it.  It's there and unless someone tells you what's got them all up in arms, there's nothing to be done.  Try to be true to yourself while also keeping other people's feelings in mind.

When you see that person or people, smile, say hello.  If they don't respond, so be it, that's their deal not yours. 


The other day one of our sons was going mad.  He was running around like a banshee, making a mess, screaming, acting as if he had no self restraint.  His mother commented that he had to defecate and said, "He always acts like this when he has to poop.  He's intoxicated with poop."

To which our son replied, "You mean I'm inpoopsicated!"

Yeah, maybe we all get inpoopsicated from time to time.

23 January 2014

Sen. Ron Johnson on expanding Iranian Sanctions inspite of the

We've got hard headed politicians in office who easily could be accused of megalomania.  But part of the problem is our own conditioned response that if someone changes his/her position on an issue he/she has waffled and is not firm in his/her beliefs.  Unfortunately that's absolutely ludicrous.  

As many of us know, sometimes being wrong is the most rewarding realization.  We cannot always be right and when new evidence is provided we ought to be willing to alter our perceptions.  Iran and America could be on the verge of re-establishing diplomatic ties.  The November 24th agreement is a step in the right direction toward peace.  The alternative is to strike the deal and impose more sanctions.

Sen. Johnson is one who seems unwilling to change his position.  Maybe he's scared about being labeled a 'waffler', maybe he truly believes Iran is the archenemy - the frontier of the new cold war - or maybe he doesn't have a clue and doesn't want to have a clue.  Maybe he just wants to walk the party line.  Whatever his motivation, his animosity toward the Iranian government pours out in this response to my recent letter and it overrides any possibility for peace.

Dear William,
Thank you for contacting me regarding Iran, their nuclear program, and the question of the United States implementing stricter sanctions on their government.
I fully support holding the Iranian government accountable for their ongoing efforts that destabilize the Middle East, and for their words and actions that continue to threaten America and the rest of the world.
Last congress, I was proud to support S.2101, The Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Human Rights Act, which passed the Senate on a bipartisan voice vote.  The bill enhances America's resolve to impose sanctions on Iran for their continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and for its ongoing human rights abuses.  By approving S.2101, Congress spoke with one loud and clear voice to impose strong economic sanctions against Tehran and penalties for those who knowingly choose to do business with the Iranian government.
I also joined 82 of my colleagues in co-sponsoring Senate Joint Resolution 41.  This resolution expressed the sense of Congress regarding the Iranian government's nuclear program. Unfortunately, Iran has defied the international community by continuing to pursue nuclear weapons.  If the Iranian regime continues down this path, America and her allies will be left with few options to prevent a nuclear Iran. 
Defending our nation is a top priority of the federal government. We live in a dangerous world and face a number of threats both at home and abroad.  The despotic Iranian government represents one of the greatest threats to world peace as they continue their efforts of acquiring nuclear weapons.    Maintaining the strongest possible sanctions and leaving all options on the table - including military - is the best way to persuade the Iranians to abandon their nuclear ambitions. 
Thank you again for taking the time to share your thoughts.  It is important for me to hear the views and concerns of the people I serve  Please feel free to contact me in the future if I can further assist you or your family.  It is an honor representing you and the good people of Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate.


Ron Johnson
United States Senator

Letter to Rep. Dale Kooyenga

The Republican led state legislature in Wisconsin has written a bill, AB 549, expanding charter schools in much the same way the legislature last year expanded voucher schools.  Creating new schools may provide more choices for parents but it provides no new options.  The startup cost and productivity of new schools is much like planting a new service berry bush: little yield in the first few years of growing.  New schools struggle to find a footing in neighborhoods and many fail altogether. Studies indicate that our attention could be better spent improving leadership and providing more training opportunities for teachers.   

Representative Kooyenga,

While I appreciate your ambition to remodel our current educational landscape in the hope of raising educational outcomes, I cannot help but think that AB 549 might be a bit off track. 

While creating more schools could result in smaller class sizes and additional alternatives for parents, the bill seems to neglect some key data.  Each new school that opens starts from scratch meaning they are overwhelmed.  It takes a few years for a school to find its footing.

Study after study indicate that high quality schools are effective places of learning, first, because of the leadership.  A good principal stimulates enthusiasm in the staff and prompts deeper commitment.  Second, study after study indicate the next key contributor is the teacher.  Just one year with a good teacher leads to enduring effects that can alter the trajectory of a student's life.

It has become common practice across the US to attack teachers as the focal point for the flat line our educational system seems to have reached.  Yet our country as a whole does little to address why this might be the case.  Instead the solution offered is to expand the possible options of private/public schools for parents to enroll their students with very little attention on teacher training, continuing education, or retention.

Comparing the US to other countries, like Singapore, Japan, S. Korea, Finland, etc. one common denominator in each of these high achieving countries is the treatment of teachers.

Colleges of education in these countries recruit the finest and brightest of graduating high schoolers.  They focus training on developing a thoroughly strong knowledge of the subjects future teachers will teach, ensure that field work and teaching practice is extensive, and upon placement compensate them well (but compensation is less important than some would have us believe).

All of the highest achieving countries utilize centralized authorities as curriculum designers.  That is to say, there is a core curriculum that each student is responsible for meeting.  Teachers are provided ample time to plan and coordinate lesson planning with other teachers based on common learning objectives that need to be met in every school across the country.  Because of an accepted core curriculum, other countries have far less difficulty handling transient students.

In China, there's a common curriculum for the first two years of senior high school and more flexibility in the third year.  This means that no matter which school a student attends or if that student moves to another school, that student picks up right where he/she left off because every school will be at about the same place in the curriculum given a specific time of year.  This would be especially helpful in bigger districts like Milwaukee and Madison where student mobility is a troubling issue.

Good teachers across the globe are motivated and enthusiastic.  Keep in mind, most teachers are not entering the field because of money.  They do it because of the calling.  But even the initial excitement of the calling can wear thin.  In Japan, for the first three years of a new teacher's career, he/she is assigned a mentor teacher who helps guide the teacher through the struggles of those first years.  They've recognized that on average teachers burn out within the first five years.  To combat burn out, not just in Japan but in a plethora of countries, districts provide myriad supports including mentors, aides, parent volunteers, and continuing education options.  Teacher education doesn't end after graduation from university.

Another commonality is that evaluation of teachers is not treated as a summative assessment that could lead to dismissal or cuts in pay, but as a formative assessment that leads to open communication between the teachers and administration.  The methodology of evaluation is based on improving the teaching rather than pointing out what the teacher did poorly.  And the assessment is based on not only student achievement but student attitude as well as the teacher's hard work, commitment, and motivation.

These are changes we could implement across Wisconsin without the initial pains of startup schools, without the loss of funding for existing schools, and with a greater emphasis on creating better schools for all our kids with highly qualified and effective teachers.

I appreciate your service, Representative Kooyenga, and hope you'll take some of my suggestions seriously because what we do today will determine what happens tomorrow.

Thank you for your time.


No response as of 22 January 2014