Various Narratives, Growth Mindsets and an Intro to One of my Parole Officers

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series called “Out on Good Behavior: Teaching Math While Looking Over Your Shoulder” by Barry Garelick, a second-career math teacher in California.  He has written articles on math education that have appeared in The Atlantic, Education Next, Education News and AMS Notices.  He is also the author of three books on math education.  Says Mr. Garelick: “If this series goes right, it will be the fourth book.”

Various Narratives, Growth Mindsets, and an Introduction to One of my Parole Officers

If you are reading this, you either have never heard of me and are curious, or you have heard of me and have pretty much bought into my “narrative” of math education. I tire of the word “narrative” (almost as much as I tire of the word “nuance”) which I see in just about everything I read nowadays. I thought I’d charge it rent, so to speak, since it seemed appropriate for the teaching experiences I’m about to describe. I’m currently teaching seventh and eighth grade math at a K-8 Catholic school in a small town in California. Prior to that, I taught seventh and eighth grade math for two years at a K-8 public school in another small town in California, which is where I will start this particular narrative.

It is a one-school district so superintendent and principal were always close by. After receiving praise from the superintendent both formally and informally, I received a lay-off notice. Such notices are common in teaching, with the newest teachers receiving such notices and usually getting hired back in the fall.  Nevertheless mine was final.

It is tempting to make my termination fit various narratives pertaining to the kind of teachers the teaching would like to see less of. Specifically teachers like me who choose to teach using explicit instruction; who use Mary Dolciani’s 1962 algebra textbook in lieu of the official one; who believe that understanding does not always have to be achieved before learning a procedure; who post the names of students achieving the top three test scores; who answer students’ questions rather playing “read my mind” type of games in the attempt to get them to discover the answer themselves, and attain “deep understanding”.  However logical, compelling and righteously indignant such narrative might be, my termination will have to remain a mystery. 

I realize that the praise I received might represent people seeing what they want to see. For example, I once told my latest eighth grade algebra class that my classroom is one place where they won’t hear the words “growth mindset”—to which the class reacted with loud applause. The current educationist narrative interprets “growth mindset” (wrongly, in my opinion) as building confidence in oneself which then leads to engagement which breeds motivation and ultimately success. I believe it’s the other way around: success via instruction and practice breeds motivation.

So I describe my teaching as, “providing my students with the necessary instruction to achieve success, which leads to motivation, and engagement, and ….” It doesn’t matter what follows after “motivation and engagement”. Those are the magic words that provide the “look and feel” of growth mindset thinking.  In fact there are many things you can do to make it look as if you’re on board with progressivist teaching. Since even traditional teaching includes group work occasionally, activities (again occasionally), collaboration, and so on, one can play that up—if asked.

And I was asked—by my mentors. In California, new teachers must undergo a two-year “induction” program with a mentor with whom teachers meet once a week. (Yes, I’m new; I’m on a second career, having retired a few years ago and went to Ed school to obtain my certification to teach math.)The end result of the two year inquisition is that one’s teaching credential is changed from preliminary to permanent. Failure to do this within a certain amount of time means you don’t have a license at all. So it is a rather important process.

I have had two different mentors for each year I’ve been at the school. I’ve come to think of them as “parole officers”, who ensure that the newly released prisoners from Ed school adhere to the bad and ineffective practices taught there..

I had met with my first mentor a few months before my first year at the school began. I wanted to know just what I was going to be dealing with. She was a woman in her 60’s who had taught high school biology for thirty years. At our first meeting, she talked about what is involved with math education and the topic of math anxiety. 

“I want to give you one piece of advice about math,” she began. 

I somehow knew this wasn’t going to be pleasant.

“Students should do math not only in the classroom, but outside; give examples of real world problems. Many students dislike math because they find it irrelevant.” As a final proof to this statement she added that it is common for adults to say:”What on earth did I learn algebra for?” 

I let a few minutes pass as she talked further about relevance and I then said that in my experience with word problems or any kind of problems, the relevance to real-life never mattered to me. “The usefulness of algebra always seemed evident,” I said.

“That’s probably because you liked math and had an interest in it, and therefore had an inclination to learn it.  But there are some kids who, for whatever reasons, hate it, and have a hard time with it.”  It was clear she had given this “you’re the exception” argument before.  

The particular narrative that she was weaving very likely would fit the seventh grade class that I taught during my second year at the school.  They were a highly discouraged group of students with significant deficits in their math education.  I mention them now because a few days after school let out for the summer, I ran into someone who knew the students who were in my class.  He had heard about my being let go, expressed his regrets, and then said:

“You must know this. Your students love you. They tell me that they really learned a lot about math and that you were the best math teacher they ever had.”

I tell you this anecdote to provide “deep understanding” of any narratives you wish to supply.

New Hampshire Bill Threatens Children’s Personal Privacy Rights

The passage of New Hampshire’s SB 267 will threaten your chid’s personal privacy rights.

New Hampshire students have a unique pupil identifier assigned to them to protect their personal indentity.  Their UPI is used when they take the State Standardized Assessment.  This prevents testing companies from using or sharing their personal information.  The protections that have been put in place to protect children are now at risk of being removed for convenience purposes. 

New Hampshire students will be taking the State Standardized Assessments this spring.  Many parents have refused the standardized tests for their children, but now there may be even a better reason to refuse these tests.  

SB 267 would give testing vendors the student’s name, date of birth, student ID, and the ability to “analyze” the data. If that isn’t bad enough, SB 267 gives exemptions for data sharing and, removes the requirement for the testing vendor to destroy data when it’s no longer needed. SB 267 also leaves out parental consent or recourse. Not only does this violate a child’s 4th Amendment rights, but their civil rights of privacy and personal freedom. Nothing in SB 267 includes language protecting the diagnostic portions of assessment and the data thereof.

As of right now, all states, as well as all the laws connected to and including Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), function on the GUTTED version of Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act FEPA is also a massive data collection system coming out of the federal level. SB 267 takes NONE of this into consideration from the language, as written. 

There has been bi-partisan support in New Hampshire for privacy protections. This was illustrated recently by the decisive passage of the privacy amendment to the New Hampshire Constitution. Even before that constitutional amendment was passed, our state had established such a reputation that the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy ranked New Hampshire as one of the best states in the country in terms of protecting the privacy of students. Unfortunately, SB 267 would take us in the wrong direction.

When Massachusetts administered the MCAS several years ago, all test questions were made public after the assessment was completed.  This gave everyone the opportunity to make sure the questions asked were of the quality they expected.  Professors at area colleges could look through the questions and make sure they were free from bias and errors.  This information is not available to the public using the current standardized assessments in New Hampshire.  A lack of transparency on test questions alone should have legislators thinking twice about providing the testing company with our students’ personal information. 

11th grade students are required to take the SAT as the standardized assessment. But as you can see from this article from, they claim that the College Board, “did not deny that they sell students’ personal data – or in their words, “license” the data for a fee to institutions, for-profit corporations and the military.”  In addition to selling the data, “….you can see that this script for proctors is written in the most ambiguous way possible, with voluntary questions mixed in with required ones, and no clear indication which is which or that much of this personal data will be shared with third parties for a fee.”  That data includes their social security number, which is considered highly sensitive. 

They go on to say, “How the College Board gets away with this, year after year, is really a scandal — especially since all the new state laws have been passed banning the selling of student data.  Perhaps they are relying on the distinction without a difference of “licensing” the data vs selling it.

Dr. Peg Luksik has referenced to standardized assessments used in the past, the Educational Quality Assessment (EQA), and how the internal documents said, “we are testing and scoring for the child’s threshold for behavior change without protest.”  When past standardized assessments have included questions that do not test academic knowledge, but instead attempt to change the students’ values, attitudes and beliefs, some parents will be concerned about any attempts to provide the testing company with their personal information. 

Since these new assessments are adaptive, meaning students will be answering different questions based upon the answers they provide, Dr. Luksik warns about the ability to manipulate the outcome.  
By allowing testing companies to access our children’s personal information SB267 will cement into law their ability to gain access to their personal information without parental knowledge or consent. 

Dr. Luksik explains in this short video why that is dangerous to our children:

There is still time to contact New Hampshire Senators and Representatives and ask them to vote NO on SB267.  

Upcoming Book: Roots of Low Achievement

Dr. Sandra Stotsky, a leading critic of the Common Core State Standards, wrote a new book to be released in August of 2019.

The chief purpose of Roots of Low Achievement: Where to Begin Altering Them, according to the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, is to help policymakers at all levels of government understand that:

  1. Widespread adolescent underachievement is not susceptible to solution by educational interventions no matter how much money policymakers allocate to public education.
  2. There are unidentified educational and civic costs to focusing on low achievement and expecting public institutions of education (for K–12 and college) to solve this growing social problem.

Stotsky notes that many policymakers seem to think that teachers/schools are the primary cause of low achievement, but that is not the case. She writes in the book that for the last 50 years, educational institutions have not solved a problem caused outside the education realm despite all the public and private money that has been allocated.

Stotsky concludes with suggested policies for addressing the damage to public education from “gap-closing” standards and attempted reforms to change the current course of failure for many low-achieving students.

Stotsky is a professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas and was Senior Associate Commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education from 1999-2003. She has authored several books and many reports and articles on the school curriculum, K-12 standards, teacher training, and teacher licensing tests.

The last book she wrote, entitled Changing the Course of Failure: How Schools and Parents Can Help Low-Achieving Students, was released in 2018

Learn more by reading the flyer below:

New Study Finds Multiple Problems with Push for Social-Emotional Learning in K-12 Education

Press Release

Little research evidence for, or objective, reliable way to measure SEL’s efficacy; raises significant concerns about student health and privacy

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BOSTON – Social-emotional learning (SEL) has been billed as a transformational tool that will propel students to greater academic achievement and personal fulfillment.  Unfortunately, as a new Pioneer Institute study makes clear, the research evidence to back up these claims is thin and unpersuasive. Moreover, the risks SEL poses to student privacy and health are significant.

Proponents of SEL call for focusing less on academic content and knowledge in schools, and more on student attributes, mindsets, values, and behaviors.  Not only are the goals of SEL ill-defined, but they also raise significant, unanswered questions about what attitudes should be promoted.

“It’s one thing to direct your own moral, ethical, and emotional development or that of your children,” said Jane Robbins, co-author of “Social-Emotional Learning: K-12 Education as New-Age Nanny State.”  “But having a government vendor or unqualified public school officials implement an SEL curriculum based on coffee-table psychology is quite another.”

Video: Authors of New Pioneer Report Discuss Social-Emotional Learning

Educational software developers purport to have created products that can determine a number of sensitive personality traits through students’ interaction with digital platforms.  Much of this monitoring occurs without the consent of children or their parents. Some software — especially for video gaming — goes beyond assessing traits, and aims to encourage the production of students who are well suited for a workforce development-centered education.

“This technology, when coupled with SEL, will further spread the recent wave of amateur, unqualified psychoanalysis in schools,” said Dr. Karen Effrem, M.D., who co-authored the study with Robbins. “Given the uncertainty around diagnosis and treatment of mental or emotional problems, even by highly trained physicians, the SEL movement runs the risk of further increasing the trend toward dangerous over-diagnosis and over-medication of American schoolchildren.”

Social-emotional learning is being interwoven into the Common Core State Standards and school efforts to implement competency-based education (CBE). CBE digitally documents the attainment of various skills with the goal of demonstrating that a student is ready to move on in his or her “personalized learning path.”  SEL and CBE are heavily weighted toward a conception of education as focused on workforce development rather than preparing active, informed citizens.

Nationally, in 2018, federal, state, and local governments invested more than $30 billion annually to implement SEL in K-12 public schools. The level of expenditure is surprising considering tight public school budgets and the lack of any reliable, objective, researched-based method to measure or assess a student’s personality, values, and mindsets as SEL proponents admit.

Researcher and standards analyst Robbins and Dr. Effrem, a pediatric medical doctor, call for ending taxpayer-funded implementation and expansion of SEL assessments, standards, and other programs in public schools.

The paper also features a foreword by Dr. Kevin Ryan, founder and director emeritus of the Center for Character and Social Responsibility, formerly known as the Center for Advancement of Ethics and Character, at the Boston University School of Education.

In place of SEL, the co-authors urge educators to refocus on a key lever that led to Massachusetts’ rise to the highest-performing K-12 state in the nation — genuine academic achievement through state and locally developed standards, assessments, and curricula — rather than classroom content of dubious academic value based on pop psychology.

About the Authors

Karen Effrem, M.D. is president of Education Liberty Watch and executive director of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition. She also serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and on the board of the Alliance for Human Research Protection. Dr. Effrem’s undergraduate degree is in pharmacy from Purdue University, her medical degree is from Johns Hopkins University, and her pediatric training is from the University of Minnesota. She has provided testimony and analysis on children’s education and health issues for Congress, numerous state legislatures, and for a federal lawsuit regarding unconsented mental screening. She has been interviewed by many local and national media outlets. Her writing on these topics has appeared in The Federalist,, The American Spectator, and Truth in American Education, among others.

Jane Robbins, J.D. is an attorney and independent researcher. She has written extensively about the deficiencies of progressive education and the Common Core, and about threats to student and family privacy posed by government policies such as training students with technology. She has testified about these issues before the legislatures of 12 states and the U.S. Congress. Jane earned an undergraduate degree from Clemson University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.

Kevin Ryan, Ph.D. is an emeritus professor of education at Boston University. He is the founder and director emeritus of the Center for Character and Social Responsibility. He is a former high-school English teacher and taught on the faculties of Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Harvard University, Ohio State University, and the University of Lisbon. Dr. Ryan was appointed to the Pontifical Academy for the Social Sciences by Pope John Paul II in 2003. He has authored and edited 22 books, primarily on moral education and the education of teachers, and written over 100 articles.

About Pioneer

Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.

Unsolved Problems with Common Core-Aligned Tests

There are many teeth in the Common Core Standards project.  These teeth do not lie in visits by monitors from a department of education (in place of a school’s principal) to each elementary classroom in a school. Soft regulatory teeth lie in the Common Core-aligned textbooks, professional development, and instructional materials, software, and other products teachers are encouraged or required to use.  

The teeth are most prominent in the tests based on Common Core’s standards to determine whether students have learned what the tests claim to assess or can do satisfactorily what the test items expect them to do. According to proponents of accountability, student scores are the major means by which policy makers and school administrators will judge whether teachers have taught to these standards. Common Core’s tests are high-stakes for teachers, less so for students. Only the tests for “college readiness” in grades 10, 11, or 12 will be very high-stakes for students as well as for teachers. Yet, as the Common Core drama unfolds, we don’t know much about the tests aligned to them.

Common Core-aligned tests MUST by law be based on a state’s official standards.  That is why the tests given in the Bay State (aka MCAS 2.0) are aligned to Common Core.  Despite their name, they are based on the Common Core standards for English language arts and mathematics adopted by the state board of education in 2010 and slightly revised by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) in 2016 for the four-year state education plan required by Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). (Since the tests are given in the Bay State, they are legitimately Massachusetts tests, except for the fact that they are totally unlike the original MCAS tests. For example, no Open Response or OR test items, which were very useful for assessing content-based writing. On the original MCAS tests, there were four OR test questions on every test given at every grade level.)   The state’s four-year plan was submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in 2017 for review and approval, in exchange for Title I money. Approval by the state legislature and local school committees was not required or obtained for four-year plans that no one in the state debated or voted for. 

Since all states today use Common Core-aligned tests, that means almost all schools (including public charter schools) teach to Common Core’s standards. It is not possible to understand the growing opposition to Common Core’s standards without understanding several key issues now being raised about the tests aligned to them.   

A. Criteria Used for Selection of Passages for Reading Tests

The first questions a responsible parent would ask about Common Core-aligned reading tests are: (1) What is the basis for selecting reading passages?  (2) Who actually selects them? We don’t know the answers to these questions for any Common Core-aligned tests, whether given in the Bay State or elsewhere, regardless of name.    

It would have been reasonable for the original USED-subsidized testing consortia (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career or PARCC, and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium or SBAC) to use the criteria that developers of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests are supposed to use for NAEP reading tests. Why? Primarily because the chart showing the “percentage distributions” of basic types of reading passages on NAEP reading tests (informational or literary) is already in Common Core’s English language arts (ELA) document, and the chart is recommended as a guideline for the school reading curriculum even though these percentages were never intended by NAEP to guide the K-12 curriculum. NAEP documents tell us only that these percentages are for the different kinds of reading passages to be used on NAEP tests.  In fact, NAEP Steering Committee members were told that NAEP test developers deliberately do not assess dramatic literature (plays) on the grounds that test passages would have to be very long and would exceed word limits for test passages.  

Mary Crovo, recently retired as Deputy Executive Director of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) in December 2016 and, prior to 2005, Assistant Director of Test Development at the time I was on the Steering Committee for the development of the 2009 reading assessment standards, is one of the few people who can speak to this issue because of her many years of work with NAEP.  NAEP’s decision to exclude assessment of dramatic literature makes it clear that the percentages of literary and informational passages recommended at different educational levels for a Common Core-based K-12 curriculum were NOT intended by NAEP to shape a K-12 reading and literature curriculum. (Dramatic literature—think Shakespeare—was considered by many as the central genre to be studied in high school English.)

Nor is there any research suggesting that a heavy dose of informational reading in secondary English classes develops reading skills as well as, or better than, the literary essays, biographies, and well-known speeches English teachers have always taught in their courses.  David Coleman, lead writer for Common Core’s ELA standards and now CEO of the College Board, probably didn’t understand this or know that members of NAGB in 2004 had helped to develop criteria for the kind of reading passages to be chosen by NAEP test developers. 

Passage Source: Among other criteria, the NAEP document on item specifications for the 2009 NAEP reading assessments says that reading passages are toreflect our literary heritage by including significant works from varied historical periods.”  USED could easily have insisted on this criterion for the Common Core-aligned reading tests it funded since several of Common Core’s high school standards require the study of this country’s seminal political documents, as well as significant texts or authors in American literary history. But so far, no sample test items for college and career readiness tests can be found addressing this country’s seminal political documents. Released PARCC test items can be located via this website. SBAC provides sample test items here. Apparently, few test developers and educators care what is assessed by Common Core-aligned reading tests.  

Overuse of Informational Snippets: Many sample passages in grade 10 or 11 test items aligned to Common Core’s reading standards cannot assess college readiness because they are snippets from what could be a long curriculum unit in science or history with a heavy discipline-based vocabulary load. Surely, if college readiness is to mean anything at all it should mean the ability to follow the gist of long stretches of prose or poetry. It’s hard to see how college readiness can be determined by test items consisting chiefly of short informational articles drenched in subject-related vocabulary.

The sample test item passages for grade 10 released by PARCC about 2013 (but no longer available, alas) demonstrated the use of whole selections at a high school reading level. A sample literary test item required students to compare “Daedalus and Icarus” by Ovid with a poem by Anne Sexton that was related in content. The sample informational selections for grade 11 included a letter by Abigail Adams to her husband and a letter on July 3, 1776 from John Adams to his wife. While these short, related selections constituted a promising set of selections, we do not know how typical these kinds of selections were or are in PARCC test items.  It is certainly not clear if any Common Core-aligned informational test items will be of an adequate length for judging readiness for, say, reading a chapter in a frequently assigned college science or history textbook.  

Other Test Issues: As of 2019, we still do not know what specific people have vetted test items in either reading or mathematics and how demanding the items are for high school college and career readiness tests (or for the revised SAT or ACT tests now judged by USED as legally usable as high school exit tests). We do not know if college teaching faculty in mathematics, science, engineering, and the humanities have been involved in determining cut-off or pass scores for college readiness. Nor do we know exact costs to the schools of what are called college readiness tests (say, compared to pre-Common Core MCAS in the Bay State) and, of far greater importance, what their scores mean to academic experts in the subjects tested.     

B. Low Expectations for College- and Career-Readiness

We must above all consider what Common Core means by “college readiness.”  Common Core itself claims that by addressing its standards, students will graduate from high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs. College readiness thus means that students will not have to take a remedial course in mathematics or English if they seek to attend a non-selective college or a community college. 

In Mathematics: Yet, with respect to the coursework implied by the math standards themselves, college readiness reflects a relatively weak algebra II course, as mathematician James Milgram pointed out.  Both logarithms and the standard algebraic analysis of conic sections are missing, according to his examination of the math standards. With only a few advanced (+) standards in trigonometry filling the void between the algebra II standards and introductory college mathematics, Common Core’s standards apparently cannot help to prepare students for STEM careers, which require extensive high school coursework in trigonometry and/or precalculus.   

In English: We know much less about what college readiness in English language arts means.  Common Core’s ELA standards suggest few specific texts to read, and the range of titles in Appendix B in its ELA document illustrating the quality and “complexity” of what students should read from grade to grade is so broad by the high school years that no particular level of reading difficulty above grade 5 or 6 can be discerned.  A variety of research studies suggest that the reading level of the average American high school graduate is about grade 6.   Moreover, we don’t yet know where the pass score has been set in ELA or reading (or, if it has been set, who set it and what it means to English professors or anyone else).

C. What College Readiness Test Scores Tell Us 

What, then, can college readiness test scores in mathematics and reading tell us?  Since tests based on Common Core’s standards cannot address the mathematics requirements of selective public or private colleges/universities (because major topics in trigonometry and precalculus are not in Common Core’s standards, and state-mandated tests by law cannot address topics that are not in the state’s official standards), scores on Common Core-aligned tests can tell us only how many students may be ready for a non-selective or community college. It is unclear whether most colleges now have any reading requirements; they may rely simply on a score on a presumably college-related test such as a literature or language Advanced Placement (AP) test. Although, now that AP tests are aligned to Common Core’s standards, it is not clear what AP test scores themselves mean.

What will we as a society have gained and lost by the use of Common Core’s “college readiness” tests?  We will likely gain a much larger number of college graduates, assuming that more students will complete a college degree program because they haven’t had to take remedial coursework in their freshman year. But they are unlikely to know any more than they would have known if they had had to take remedial coursework because their for-credit college coursework will likely be adjusted downward to accommodate their lower level of high school achievement. 

Recall that the level of college readiness in Common Core mathematics is, to begin with, lower than what is currently required for admission to most two- and four-year colleges in this country. What this means in effect is that our colleges will become expensive high schools.  

College readiness tests based on Common Core’s standards will play two significant roles.  First, they will guarantee the presence of credit-bearing courses with low academic expectations in mathematics, reading (English), and possibly other freshman subjects. Second, they will change more than the college courses they are enrolled in.  How, we do not yet know. But it seems logical to expect large numbers of relatively low-performing high school students who have been declared college-ready based on a test with low expectations to have an impact on the other students in the college courses they are entitled to enroll in for credit.