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Common Core sets uncommon challenges for students and educators alike

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It’s one of the biggest changes in American education in ages.

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia are beginning to run their schools under the Common Core Standards, a sweeping initiative produced by the nation’s governors.

The name is misleading; this isn’t just some effort to make sure everybody is working toward the same goals or adhering to similar lesson plans.

This is a marked upgrade in what students will be expected to do — from kindergarten through high school graduation.

It won’t be enough, for example, that students read well and write a sensible book report. In English, history and science, they’re going to be expected to evaluate evidence, form coherent arguments, state logical positions, read between the lines and discern what an author truly means to say.

In math, they’ll be expected to know the “whys” of math as well as the practical skills of doing computations. They’ll struggle with difficult problems, show they can reason abstractly and apply the math they know to the problems of everyday life.

The over-aching goal is to make American students better prepared for college and careers.

It’s going to require huge shifts in teaching. And fast. New systems of assessments are expected to be introduced by the 2014-15 school year.

The general public hasn’t been paying attention. If you aren’t an educator, it’s possible you’ve barely heard a thing about it.

But teachers are hearing the stirrings of an avalanche.

“It’s upon us,” says Tamara Jochinke, a teacher coach in New York City. “We’re living it. We’re getting dirty with it.”

In the educational world — if almost nowhere else — signs of the change are everywhere. Across the Internet, many teachers and instructional experts are posting packages of lessons, or ideas for structuring lessons, available for free, to help teachers make the change.

Yet only half the teachers recently surveyed by the publishers of Education Week said they were “prepared” or “very prepared” to teach the new standards. Their doubts grow larger when it comes to children with special needs or who lack English.

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Janet Price

“We’re in a horrible transitional period,” says Janet Price, director of instruction at New Visions for Public Schools, a New York non-profit that’s training teachers for the Common Core deluge. “If teachers don’t change now, they won’t be ready for ’14-’15.”

Some teachers are already making the change — but school systems aren’t adapting at an equal pace. New York State, for example, hasn’t yet switched its yearly mandated tests to the Common Core, a problem for students who are starting to be taught to the new standards.

New Visions is a leader in the transition. Its staff members fan out to 77 New York City public schools to work closely with principals and teachers to create new types of lessons geared to the higher standards. The nonprofit also runs four charter public high schools, with two more planned for next year, all seeking to discover the best ways for teachers to raise their game, given the heightened expectations.

Tom Vander Ark, who writes extensively about changes in education, calls New Visions “the most productive intermediary in the country,” adding, “Thousands of students each year graduate from high school and go to college because New Visions created high schools.”

New Visions is interested in innovations in teaching that can be spread across the public school system.

“We try to build community across schools — teachers and school leaders sharing with each other — to help with spread,” Price said.

Over a week in February, I sat in on high-school and middle-school classes and teacher conferences and coaching sessions around New York to get a look at how New Visions is preparing teachers and students for the big changes. Here’s a sampling of what I found:

Constance Fenner in 7th Grade English class

Constance Fenner teaching 7th Grade English

At the The Young Women’s Leadership School, in East Harlem, Constance Fenner is leading about 30 seventh-grade girls in a lesson concerning the disastrous yellow fever plague that decimated Philadelphia in 1793.

This is a Language Arts class, not history. But the Common Core agenda calls for English classes to deal heavily in non-fiction. And so, besides a historical novel for young audiences, Fever 1793, the girls spend part of the hour reading a separate article about the role of black people in the epidemic.

Fenner asks the students to concentrate on the vocabulary in the article. In each girl’s copy of the text, she has circled such troublesome words as destitute, approximately, parishioners, huddled, fatigued, controversy, flatulency, foetid, appalling, pestilence. Now she breaks up the class into small groups, assigning bits of the list to each group, and gives them 10 minutes to figure out their meanings from the context of the sentences.

When they get back to their seats and Fenner pries out their answers, it turns out they did very well.

For homework, they’ll have to write an answer a question that’s on the board: “How did the Free African Society develop, and how was it helpful during the yellow fever epidemic?”

At the start of the class, Fenner asked a few girls in random, surprise fashion, what did they read yesterday? They’d better have an answer. One told the teacher she’d read “about Dorner,” the ex-cop who was then on a murderous rampage in Los Angeles. Another said she read something in the Dora The Explorer series.

These were all Common Core-related tasks, instructional specialist Kristina Kasper explained later.

DSC_0025“It’s a lot more than just reading for content,” Kasper said. A lot more, in other words, than following the plot. When the girls read the book Walk Two Moons, about a girl separated from her mother, they had to answer the question, What’s more important, the needs of moms or kids? As they read, they had to list the needs of both. In answering the question, they had to give the evidence for their conclusions.

Fenner said the girls enter her classroom with huge deficits. “They don’t read on their own, so their vocabulary is extremely limited,” she said. “There’s a disconnect between knowing the definition of a word and really using it.” Hence, the exercise in figuring out vocabulary from the context. The girls I saw did surprisingly well at it.

This is a lot more work for teachers, but Fenner said the push is worth it. Society is expecting the schools to produce citizens who can understand information and make well-reasoned decisions. “I think it’s a step forward,” Fenner said.

Later, I sat in on a meeting of teachers who were figuring out how to assign essays that will fit the new standards — an assignment such as this one: Read an article on the recent ban of large beverage sizes in New York City. After reading it, write whether you agree or disagree. Then write three reasons to support your position, using information from the article.

One of the Common Core goals is for students to be able to write a thesis statement for just such an argumentative essay.

To do that, leaders of the session told the teachers, they would have to break the assignment into smaller pieces. They’d have to explain to students that a thesis statement is the sentence or paragraph that begins the essay; that the statement should contain both sides of the argument; that it should make clear the writer’s own stance on the subject; and the statement should read fluently.

In grading the kids’ answers, teachers would be looking for other specifics: What did the task within the assignment require students to do? What did the kid’s paper show about what he understood — and did not understand — about the key concepts? What specific instruction should the teacher design for the student next?

Writing a coherent essay can be done. Teaching the writing of a coherent essay can be done, too. But it looks a lot harder.

Tamara Jochinke and O'Neil Spencer

Tamara Jochinke and O’Neil Spencer

At the Bronx School for Law and Finance, part of the old JFK High School, some 20 science teachers are gathered to discuss how they’re going to boost reading and critical thinking skills in their science classes.

Along with the principal and with two New Visions staffers, they are trying to come up with lessons they can structure as tasks for the students. As the students work step by step to solve the task, they’ll have to learn scientific facts and then apply them to answer some overall question.

“Since we’re teaching critical thinking, we’re going to have think like a student — how to think a problem through,” one teacher tells the others. “So you work backwards from the task to figure out what the students need to know to get there.”

So that’s what they do, working up a hypothetical lesson, before the discussion descends into a jumble of neo-educational jargon, all “modules,” “rubrics,” “skills clusters,” and “instructional ladders.”

Later, Tamara Jochinke, a former Earth Sciences teacher turned New Visions instructional specialist, meets with teacher O’Neil Spencer in his empty science classroom.

They talk over his idea for lesson plan idea: can can the students deduce about evolution from the Grand Canyon? The kids better have evidence.

The two of them are finding that it’s a lot easier to come up with a lesson idea than to create a working lesson. Spencer tells Jochinke he has looked for articles about evolution or about the Grand Canyon that contain arguments that the students can grapple with, but most he’s found at the 9th and 10th-grade level are defenses of creationism.

Making notes on her iPad, she gives him some suggestions on other places to look.

“OK, this is a great idea,” she says of his evolution concept. “But what, exactly, are you going to do on Day 1?”

Spencer nods. “My idea is to have them write, ‘What do you know about evolution?’ And then have them write, ‘If you wanted to prove, using evidence from the Grand Canyon, that evolution took place, what would you do’?”

They talk back and forth. To address the question, the kids will have to know something about geological eras. They’ll have to know about fossils.

“Say, you know, every article they read doesn’t have to be about the Grand Canyon,” she says. “They can read about fossil dating, for instance.”

Piece by piece, the two break down the task into bits, into activities.

She meets with him every Wednesday to address his work as a teacher at this minute level.

I ask Spencer whether this enormous shift, and all the added effort it entails, is a change for the better — or is it just the latest educational flavor-of-the-week, the latest heavy set of demands from on already burdened teachers?

Spencer rejects the cynical view. He’s on board with the new standards.

Because his class in Earth Science isn’t just about rocks.

“It’s teaching them how to think,” Spencer said, “how to find information to support a thought process. It’s making sense of your environment. I think it’s essential.

“I think it should have been the focus before.”

9th Grade Math, Christopher Columbus H.S., the Bronx

9th Grade Math, Christopher Columbus H.S., the Bronx

At the Collegiate Institute for Math and Science, part of the old Christopher Columbus High School, in the Bronx, I watch two 9th-grade classes tackle the same lesson on quadratic functions — the graphing of parabolas. (Remembering precious little of my own high school math, I’m stumped at the very first question: “Without using a graphing calculator, identify the roots of the function y= -(x-4). Is the graph opening upward or downward? How do you know?”)

One session is for regular students. The other is for “special learners,” and the only way I can tell is that it had so few students — nine — and an extra teacher on hand, for a total of three, to walk around and look over kids’ work and help them when they were stumped. The class material in both classes is just the same.

None of kids had ever encountered math material as challenging as this year’s Algebra I.

The teachers ask the kids questions. They answer by holding up colored cards: green if they have the answer, red if they don’t, yellow if they aren’t sure. It’s OK, in other words, to be unsure or to offer a wrong answer. Either way, the teachers ask the kids to get up and explain their thinking to the others. Some of the thinking is right and some is wrong. All the kids tru — even if haltingly. The teachers mediate the discussion and gauge how well the lesson is sinking in. Wrong answers are part of the learning process.

Xiomara Gonzalez (arm raised) and math teachers huddle

Xiomara Gonzalez (arm raised) and math teachers huddle

Afterwards, all the 9th-grade math teachers gt together over snacks of crackers, tortilla chips and grapes and talk over what they’re doing and grade papers together. They try to teach the same thing at the same time so they can swap notes on what students are understanding and what they aren’t.

“I get jealous that I’m not now a teacher and getting this kind of support,” says Xiomara Gonzalez, of the Bronx and Brandeis University, who taught for seven years before becoming an instructional specialist. Why do teachers listen to her as a coach?

“Because I’m a supporter and a co-teacher, and they know that any conversations we have are extremely confidential” — important if you’re worried that your shortcomings will be used by your supervisor against you. And because she travels to different school buildings and New Visions’ own West Village headquarters, “they know I have access to resources and can connect people.”

At one meeting of math teachers, Russell West Jr. says an ongoing mystery is for teachers to “assess what’s in a learner’s brain to find out what’s going on.”

“There should be only two reasons for asking students a question,” says West, who projects a bubbling idealism about teaching. “One, to make them think. Two, to find out what’s going on in their heads.” But, he says, 70 percent of questions are for something else: “to ask something we already know,” or “to control behavior.”

Later, I sit in on a meeting of teachers from 14 Bronx schools, who puzzle over a problem that might or not make it into the curriculum. It concerned the arc of a bus making a turn and crossing into a bike lane.

cutting cornersStudents were supposed to realize that the problem could be solved with the Pythagorian theorem and an equation like r²=(r-x)² + w². But field tests of the problem, created by educators at the University of California Berkeley and the University of Nottingham, showed that many students misunderstood what the question was seeking, or couldn’t set up a sensible equation, or flubbed the computations.

As the teachers bend over their worksheets, puzzling out the problem for themselves, West cautions them to “keep kids focused on why you’d want to solve the problem in the real world — because the bus shouldn’t be in the bike lane, or else some kid is going to get hit. Otherwise, kids will get lost in the weeds of the math and tune out on the problem.”

Well-meant words, but soon teachers’ heads as shaking. This problem is just too hard for 9th grade math.

The Common Core standards are forcing teachers to stretch their students further. But this is one length it’s unlikely we’ll see them go.

Story and photos by Howard Goodman
Top photo: 7th Grade Language Arts class, The Young Women’s Leadership School, East Harlem
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Making students think about injustices, along with equations

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Kendra Din darkened the room, flicked on the projector and gave the 30 girls in her 9th-grade algebra class a surprise immersion in a world far grittier than anything they’ve known in their own East Harlem.

    • A 15-year-old girl worked in a clothing factory in Sri Lanka this week for 40 cents an hour. A 16-year-old boy performed sexual favors for male tourists in Thailand this week for 50 cents an hour. Together, they earned $47 for the entire week. How many hours did each teenager work for this small amount of money?
    • A six-year-old girl’s family in India couldn’t afford for her to attend school, so she was forced to beg for money in the streets every day for a full year. A 17-year-old mother of a newborn also begged for a year with a baby in her arms at the Mexican-American border in Mexicali, Baja California. The two girls’ daily earnings totaled an average of $7.97 per day. The young mother averaged $2.33 more per day than the six-year-old, because she begged from wealthy Americans. How much did they each make per day, on average?

The problems were to be solved with equations (x=number of hours girl worked; y=number of hours boy worked).

But getting the right answer wasn’t entirely the point.

Din wanted her students to see — forcefully, even hyperbolically — that mathematics is tied to the real world.

And she wanted them to learn something about themselves: compared with millions of other young people around the globe, they had many more opportunities before them — and they shouldn’t blow them.

“Stop thinking about unimportant stuff, and pay more attention to your teachers,” she told them as the class ended for the day, one girl loudly complaining about discovering a hole in her sweater. “We all have Masters degrees, and we care about you, and we want to keep you going to school because we want you to have better lives.”

Did they listen? Possibly. As one of the students later answered a homework assignment: “It broke my heart how both the boy and girl had to work in their terrible jobs for a week just to earn a meager amount of money that I would easily blow on pointless objects like another pair of sneakers that I really didn’t need. It made me realize how hard I need to work in high school, so I can go to college and get a good job.” DSC_0031

The scene was the Young Women’s Leadership School, a well-regarded public high school of 440 students,  meeting in a converted office building on East 106th Street. The student body is more than half Hispanic, one-third black, and all girl. Most would be the first from their families to attend college — and the school boasts excellent college-acceptance rates (100 percent in 2010).

Din, 37, had created the word problems from scenes she had experienced in her own travels around the world and from growing up in Southern California near the Mexican border. She’d devised them during precious off-hours, so pressed for time that she realized only later that the first problem wasn’t solvable; she hadn’t provided enough information for students to come up with an answer.

She had been inspired by an article in Rethinking Schools magazine. The authors, Eric (Rico) Gutstein and Bob Peterson, teachers in Chicago and Milwaukee, proposed “to teach math in a way that helps students more clearly understand their lives in relation to their surroundings, and to see math as a tool to help make the world more equal and just” — a hot potato of an argument that has some critics seeing math class turning alarmingly into a forum for left-wing propaganda.

Kendra Din

Kendra Din

But Din wasn’t trying to start a political argument. She just wanted her students to be less bored than they are by the usual word problem.

“‘Sandy bought a chocolate bar for 43 cents, and Carlos bought one for 50 cents. But if Sandy bought 10 more than Carlos’ — who cares about candy bars?” Din said in an interview. “It’s so unimportant in the real world. Why not put some actual economic issues in the problems so that students can learn something about the real world while they’re learning the math?”

Highlighting the point, Din had prefaced the lesson earlier that day by asking her class: “How many of you think that math has nothing do with real life?” Almost every hand went up.

Din wants to dispel the notion that math is useless. That goal’s in line with the new Common Core Standards, the ambitious curriculum changes that are coming soon to more than 45 states.

“The high school standards call on students to practice applying mathematical ways of thinking to real world issues and challenges,” says the Common Core website.

Earlier this year, wanting “to show that statistics is important, especially in light of Nate Silver predicting the outcome of elections very well,” Din organized her higher-level students in a fantasy baseball league.

The girls resisted at first “because there was a lot of math involved” and because few were keen on baseball. But the girls warmed to the project, stretching it to two months, as it turned into a game and their statistical analyses made increasing sense to them. A screening of the movie “Moneyball” opened eyes.

“You could see it was changing the way they thought,” Din said with a grin. “One girl said she might become a statistician.”

Din’s experiment with real-life word problems was a work in progress. Kristina Kasper, a teacher coach who was sitting in, said that while the goals were commendable, the teaching method fell short. “There was too much talking from the teacher and not enough doing from the students,” said Kasper, an instructional specialist with New Visions for Public Schools. “I was surprised to see the kids being so passive.”

Din gave her students two additional word problems that day. One involved a pair of children who worked for  hours, selling postcards to tourists in Istanbul (“If they worked a total of 23.5 hours in an entire day and sold 686 postcards total, how many hours did they each work?”).

The last problem concerned two graduates of the girls’ own Young Women’s Leadership School. Both got into the same Upstate New York college where tuition was $53,000 per year. Girl 1 studied six times as hard as Girl 2, and her tuition was $53,000 less. “How much is Girl 1’s tuition? How much is Girl 2’s tuition? Which one got the scholarship, and why do you think she got it?”

This wasn’t really a math problem. The answer was given away. But it was a true story, and Din emphasized the point by showing a video. Here on screen was the real-life Girl 1, opening her college acceptance letter and erupting in joy.

Din’s students watched raptly, some dabbing their eyes.

The girls’ homework was to write answers about the lesson’s meanings. Why had they been presented with questions like these? Which problem had affected them most?

2013-02-26 17.51.22Not one student objected to the content as being too raw or too salacious.

“Ms. Din was trying to say that our lives aren’t as bad as we portray them to be,” one girl wrote. “We complain about the smallest things, such as the homework or the temperature of the room. It’s better to get a lot of homework than to skip school to beg for money…

“This lesson had a profound effect on me. I feel privileged that I can go to a small school with great teachers and great education.”

Another girl wrote about the scholarship winner: “It was such a touching story that made me wanna cry [sic]. This will definitely affect my choices in high school. This will happen because the look on her face made me want to feel that happiness.”

All in all, Din considered the lesson a success. A few girls who’d dragged their feet on homework began to show some enthusiasm for the class, she said in an email. Others were “still as silly as they used to be with their childish complaints, but now I can remind them that their lives could be a lot worse, and they know exactly what I’m referring to.”

“I think I need to come up with other interesting plans of that sort to keep their attention,” she added.

“It’s a lot of work.”

Story and photos by Howard Goodman.  Image of student work courtesy of Kendra Din.

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