A Cathartic Discussion, Putting the Bell on the Cat, and Business as Usual

Editor’s note: This is the ninth chapter 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 AtlanticEducation NextEducation News and AMS Notices.  He is also the author of three books on math education.  Says Mr. Garelick: “At its completion, this series will be published in book form by John Catt Educational, Ltd.” The previous chapters can be found here:

Chapter 1 , Chapter 2 , Chapter 3 , Chapter 4 , Chapter 5  Chapter 6  Chapter 7 and Chapter 8

Ch 9.  A Cathartic Discussion, Putting the Bell on the Cat, and Business as Usual

My meetings with Diane at my previous school were not always confrontational. Sometimes we got into my interactions with other teachers which I found fairly enjoyable. While it’s not quite gossip, it does have cathartic benefits.

Shortly after James and I met with the moderator who wanted us to meet for six two-hour sessions and collaborate on how best to teach math (see Chapter 6) Diane asked “Are you getting along with James any better?”

“Well, he was definitely friendlier towards me after that meeting.”

 “So there’s been a breakthrough.” Diane said.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I said. “He was friendly for a few days. He’s back in his non-talkative passive-aggressive mode.”

“I’ve met his wife,” Diane disclosed. “She works as a counselor at a high school near here. She’s very nice,” she said and sipped her coffee while looking at me out of the sides of her eyes. “Except when she isn’t,” she added.

“Sounds like a marriage made in heaven,” I said. She almost spit out her coffee.

“I find when I talk to teachers, that one of the biggest complaints about teaching is not always the teaching itself. It’s frequently about getting along with other teachers,” she said.

This made a lot of sense. One event in particular came to mind when she said that. During my first year at the school, the Superintendent was pushing for having seven periods rather than six. This meant that our classes would be forty-five minutes long instead of fifty-five. It would be even shorter on Wednesdays when we were dismissed early because of the weekly staff meeting.

The seven period day, in fact, was the topic of discussion at one such staff meeting, led by the Superintendent. Prior to the meeting, two of the teachers were in the room, and they agreed with me that shorter class times were not a good idea. “You’re right, Barry,” one of the teachers said. “It would really end up forcing us to cram a lot of things in.” She said she would speak out against it.

When our meeting began, the Superintendent talked up the benefits of the new schedule since it would allow students to now have two electives instead of just limiting them to one. And an elective could also be two periods long: sixth and seventh periods. With more electives, this could open up more teaching opportunities—an important consideration, given that the largest class was graduating and enrollment numbers were dwindling.

 “But I want to hear from you now,” he said. “What are your feelings about this schedule?”

The silence that followed reminded me of Aesop’s fable about which mouse was going to put the bell on the cat.

Given the discussion prior to the meeting, I felt I was on safe ground to start the discussion.

“I’m not for it,” I said. 

All eyes were suddenly on me.

“A shorter class period will make it difficult to teach. Right now Wednesdays are my worst day because class length is 45 minutes and I often don’t get done what needs to be done. With seven periods, every day will be like Wednesdays are now—and Wednesdays will be even shorter.”

“So I take it that you would be voting ‘no’ on this?”

I wasn’t aware that this was a vote, but now so informed I replied “That would be safe to say.”

Discussion continued. The Drama and PE teachers concurred with me, and then it was James’ turn.

“I think this would be a good step forward,” he had said. “I would like the opportunity to reinvent myself as a teacher…” and other words to that effect.

After he spoke, others now seemed to approve of the seven period day including the teacher who had previously agreed with me that it was a bad idea.

“I can’t blame her,” I told Diane. “She’s worried about her job and didn’t want to be against the Superintendent. Plus I think James being the union rep kind of makes him the thought leader.”

“Don’t get me started on teachers’ unions,” she said. “I’m starting to get a whole different take on this now.”

The union influence, such as it was, didn’t hold a candle to the history teacher’s final words on the subject.  He had taught at the school for 30 years and was well respected. Although he voted in favor of the seven period day he offered this reflection after the yeas were seen to outweigh the nays: “I think it’s a shame that we’ll be going into the next school year with some people not happy about this change and a cloud hanging over them. So I propose we think about this some more.”

Apparently the Superintendent did. At the next staff meeting he announced that the current six period schedule would remain, though he was disappointed in the reaction. I guess he wanted unanimity. Apparently James was disgruntled about it as well.

“I don’t know if he’s held it against me,” I told Diane.

“He might have,” she said. “It’s hard to say.”

It’s hard to say a lot of things that go on in any school. I recall another time—this one a party—James was talking with the third grade teacher who mentioned the downward trend of state test scores on math at the school.

James gave a reason for that. “It’s because we don’t have students collaborate with each other enough,” he told her. She nodded in agreement at what is accepted as educational wisdom. Perhaps James thought there wasn’t enough collaboration in my classroom. Who knows? Hard to say.

In any event, I decided to not bring up that particular conversation at this session with Diane. Despite her dislike of unions and distrust of people who represent them, she was likely to say “Well he does bring up a good point; what are your thoughts?”

Our conversation turned to the usual business of filling out her online checklist. There were plenty of avenues for her to pursue what I thought of dubious practices, so no need to give her ideas.

The General This ‘n That Shop, Negative Numbers, and Faith

Editor’s note: This is the eighth piece 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 AtlanticEducation NextEducation News and AMS Notices.  He is also the author of three books on math education.  Says Mr. Garelick: “At its completion, this series will be published in book form by John Catt Educational, Ltd.” The previous chapters can be found here:

Chapter 1 , Chapter 2 , Chapter 3 , Chapter 4 , Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 , Chapter 7

Chapter 8: The General This ‘n That Shop, Negative Numbers, and Faith

I went to school at University of Michigan in the late 60’s/early 70’s, long before the proliferation of 24 hour 7/11’s, Starbucks, and other brand name franchises. A few blocks away from me was a small mom and pop grocery store that was fairly new called “The General This n’ That Shop”. During my senior year I noticed that the items in the store were dwindling. On a particularly cold day in December, I stopped by to find that most of the shelves were bare, and on one, a single loaf of bread remained, which I bought.

 “Are you going out of business?” I asked the cashier.

Her response: “I hope not.”

This reminds me of that bread aisle, except they are in better shape.
Photo Credit: Rusty Clark (CC-By-2.0)

It is this type of optimism that I try to instill in my students. And among my seventh grade students the first such test has been negative numbers.

I do not like to prolong the topic. I once observed a teacher taking three weeks to teach it. After two weeks of adding and subtracting negative numbers and the students had it down fairly well, the teacher introduced a new explanation using colored circles. While the approach can be effective, its use at this point only caused confusion. One girl asked “Why are we doing this?”

The teacher answered “I know you know how to add and subtract with negative numbers. Now I want you to understand why it works.”

The girl’s response: “I don’t want to understand!”

This incident was not unique. I’ve found that a lot of the confusion with the addition and subtraction of negative integers is that students are given more techniques and pictorials than are really needed. They are left with the impression that it is a complex process and that there are many different ways to do it. This is ironic considering that subtraction is an extension of addition. In mathematical terms, a – b = a + (-b) where a and b can be positive or negative.

I keep it relatively straightforward with the first day spent using number lines with arrows to compute addition of negative numbers. The next day, the addition is done without pictures.

I then introduce subtraction. I tried this my first year teaching at my previous school with an accelerated seventh grade class.  I asked them to compute 6 + (-4) which they knew how to do from the previous lesson. Two was their answer. I then asked them to compute 6 – 4. They saw the connection almost immediately, leading to the general rule of “adding the opposite”.

While it worked well with my accelerated class, I thought maybe I wouldn’t have the same success the next year with the seventh grade class which had large deficits in their math knowledge. But the technique worked just fine, with Kyle shouting out: “Adding a negative number is the same thing as subtraction”. This became a quote that I posted on the quote wall.

The only rub in all this is the subtraction of a negative number.  I used to introduce this by first asking if anyone could solve 10 – (-5), and then linking the question to football for those who liked or played It.: “After a loss of 5 yards, how many yards do you need to get a first down?” As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, Jimmy had answered “Can’t you just punt it?” I have since changed my tactics. I specify that the ball has to be run and then use any number of non-football examples such as: “It was -10 degrees yesterday and 20 degrees today. By how much did it increase?”

My goal in teaching adding and subtracting of negative numbers is to achieve a level of automaticity, so that students can ultimately solve a problem like 3 – 7 without using pictures or writing it as 3 + (-7). At the same time, I try to get them to develop a number sense as to whether their answer is going to be negative or positive. I give them models to use such as: “If I gain 3 yards and lose 7 am I ahead or behind and by how much?  If I earn $3 but owe $7, am I ahead or “in the hole” and by how much?  They do get it, though they need reminders through the year.

And as far as multiplying negative numbers I provide an illustration of why things work as they do. I use an example of making a video of someone riding a bike backwards, and running the video backwards.

“What if they were skateboarding?” Jimmy asked.

“Whatever you want,” I said.

If the backwards rate is represented as -3 mph and we run the video backwards at 2 times the normal speed—represented as -2—the person appears to be riding a bike or skateboarding forward at 6 mph. A similar model can be used to show why a negative number times a positive is a negative number. (For the more curious students, and certainly in accelerated classes and in eighth grade algebra, I show the proof using the distributive rule.)

While my backwards video example generally does the job, it didn’t with Jimmy even when I used skateboarding rather than a bicycle rider.  He tended to be quite literal. “That’s in a video; does it work in real life?” he asked thus opening up the question of whether mathematics can apply to images.  He finally accepted the example used in JUMP Math where someone on a mountain is descending at a rate of 30 ft per minute or -30 ft/min.  The example asks how one would represent where the mountain climber had been relative to his present position 3 minutes earlier, or -3 min. Jimmy agreed that the person would be higher 3 minutes previous and further accepted that the situation is represented by -3 x -30, or +90.

While Jimmy understood it, a girl said she did not understand either example.

“For now, just work with the rule,” I said.  “You’ll get it the more you work with these kind of problems.”  The girl did understand the examples a few days later. “Sometimes you just have to have faith in the math,” I told her. She evinced no expression so I said nothing more. Which is a good thing because I doubt she really cared about how we’re all sometimes like the cashier at the General This n’ That Shop.

A Gnarly Problem, Critical Thinking, and Authentic Struggle

Editor’s note: This is the seventh piece 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 AtlanticEducation NextEducation News and AMS Notices.  He is also the author of three books on math education.  Says Mr. Garelick: “At its completion, this series will be published in book form by John Catt Educational, Ltd.” The previous chapters can be found here:

Chapter 1 , Chapter 2 , Chapter 3 , Chapter 4 , Chapter 5 and Chapter 6

Ch 7: A Gnarly Problem, Critical Thinking, and Authentic Struggle

My meetings with my parole office/mentor Diane occurred once a week in the early morning at a local coffee house a few blocks from my previous school. At one particular meeting she showed me her notes from an observation she had made of a lesson I gave my seventh grade class. Her notes were typical “hunting for problems” comments, such as my not noticing a particular boy who was unfocused, or another student who was talking, and so on.

“Any comments?” she asked.

I resisted the urge to say that it sounded like she was hunting for problems to enter on her online checklist. I talked instead about the lesson itself. It had been about taking a situation like “A bowling alley charges $5 for shoes and $3 per game bowled” and writing an algebraic expression for the cost of x games. (5 + 3x). Knowing that Diane wanted to see me extend JUMP’s scaffolded approach to more “gnarly” problems, I told her about a problem I gave the seventh graders on one of the Warm-Up questions the day after the lesson she observed.

They were to write an expression representing the cost for n hours, if a babysitter charges a flat fee of $10 and $15 per hour, but with the first hour free. I was met with the usual questions of “How do you do this?”

In my highly scientific approach I helped the first person who asked “How do you do this?” which happened to be Kyle.  He was a talkative boy who was quite good at problems when he put his mind to it.

“How many hours does the babysitter charge for 6 hours of work if the first hour is free?” I asked.

“Five,” he answered.

“Right: 6 -1 = 5. So for five hours of work what does he charge?”

“Five minus one,” he said.  I gave him a few more numbers and then asked “How much for n hours work?”

“Oh! n-1,” he said. He was then able to see it was 10 + 15(n-1), though he and others needed help with the parentheses. 

“Yes, that’s a good problem,” Diane said.  “But it wasn’t really critical thinking.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“You led them there.”

I said nothing, hoping for an awkward silence and got my wish.

“There’s nothing wrong with what you did,” she said. “But true critical thinking would involve them struggling to come up with a solution.”

I recognized this immediately as the “struggle is good” philosophy which holds that if students aren’t struggling they aren’t learning. There are nuances to this philosophy including “productive struggle”, “desirable difficulties” and “students should be able to use prior knowledge in new situations without scaffolding because otherwise it is inauthentic.” I’ve read variations of this thinking in books that I’ve thrown across the room.

“Let me give you a problem that I want you to solve,” I said. “Two cars head towards each other on the same highway. One car starts from the north heading south, at 80 mph. The other car starts from the south heading north at 70 mph.  They meet somewhere on the highway. How far apart are they one hour before they meet?”

She took a gulp of coffee and tried to smile.

“You do not need to know the distance they are apart to solve it”, I said.

She looked perplexed and gave me a look I see on my students’ faces when they ask “How do you do this?”

“Tell me this,” I said.  “How far does a car going 80 mph travel in one hour?”

“Eighty miles,” she said.

I drew a line on a napkin and marked a point near the middle with an X.  “Where was the 80 mph car 1 hour before he got here?”

“Well, that would be 80 miles north of that point.”  

” What about the 70 mph car?”  

“Uh, 70 miles south of the point?”

“Good. Can you put that together somehow?”

She suddenly saw it.  “Oh, I see! They’re 150 miles apart one hour before they meet.”

“Good work.  Now let me ask you something.  I gave you some hints.  Would you say that you used those hints in thinking about the problem and coming up with a solution?”

She smiled knowingly. “Ah, I see. Critical thinking.”

“So would you say that what you did qualifies as critical thinking?”  She agreed.

“Then why would you say that what I did with the baby sitting question did not qualify as critical thinking.”

“I’ll have to think about what I mean by critical thinking,” she said. “I think applying an algorithm repeatedly does not entail critical thinking.”

“Even if it leads to a conclusion? And in essence that was what I had you do when you think about it. And you put it together like my students did. Why would you not call that critical thinking? In your mind is there no difference between thinking and critical thinking?”

“I guess I might have to look up the definition of critical thinking.”

“I’ll send you a definition tonight by email,” I said.  “My concern is this. If your goal is to look for examples of critical thinking in my classes using the definition you’ve presented, you will probably never see critical thinking in my classes. I use worked examples and scaffolding and problems that ramp up. That’s how I teach. You’ll see this more in my algebra class, and I hope you observe one of those.”

She said she definitely would. I thanked her for having the discussion with me. “I felt it was important that we understand the language we’re speaking and what I’m about.”

“Yes,” she said. The conversation then shifted to lighter topics. I felt a bit bad for putting her on the spot with my math problem. But then again, her struggle with  critical thinking was productive if not authentic.

Mandated “Standardized” Tests or Mandated “Performance” Tests?

Fewer and fewer colleges require SAT scores for admission and more and more parents and others are calling for the reduction or elimination of “standardized” tests.  Interestingly, there is little call for “no mandated K-12 tests” at all.  One might expect that call given the complaints against Common Core-aligned tests and the number of misleading references to what Finland has done.

According to many education writers in this country, there are no tests in Finnish schools, at least no “mandated standardized tests.”  That phrase was carefully hammered out by Smithsonian Magazine to exclude the many no- or low-stakes “norm-referenced” tests (like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, or ITBS) that have been given for decades across this country especially in the elementary grades to help school administrators to understand where their students’ achievement fell under a “normal curve” of distributing test scores.

Yet, a prominent Finnish educator tells us that Finnish teachers regularly test their upper-grade students. As Finnish educator, Pasi Sahlberg, noted (p. 25), teachers assess student achievement in the upper secondary school at the end of each six to seven-week period, or five or six times per subject per school year. There are lots of tests in Finnish schools, it seems, but mainly teacher-made tests (not state-wide tests) of what they have taught.  There are also “matriculation” tests at the end of high school (as the Smithsonian article admits)—for students who want to go to a Finnish university.  They are in fact voluntary; only students who want to go on to university take them.  Indeed, there are lots of tests for Finnish students, just not where American students are heavily tested (in the elementary and middle grades) and not constructed by a testing company. 

Why should Americans now be even more interested in the topic of testing than ever before?  Mainly because there seems to be a groundswell developing for “performance” tests in place of “standardized” tests.  And they are called “assessments” perhaps to make parents and teachers think they are not those dreaded tests mandated by state boards of education for grades 3-8 and beyond as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Who wouldn’t want a test that “accurately measures one or more specific course standards”?  And is also “complex, authentic, process and/or product-oriented, and open-ended.”  Edutopia’s writer, Patricia Hilliard, doesn’t tell us in her 2015 blog “Performance-Based Assessment: Reviewing the Basics” whether it also brushes our hair and shines our shoes at the same time.

It’s as if our problem was simply the type of test that states have been giving, not what is tested nor the cost or amount of time teachers and students spend on them.  It doesn’t take much browsing on-line to discover that two states have already found out there were deep problems with those tests, too: Vermont and Kentucky.  

An old government publication (1993) warned readers about some of the problems with portfolios: ”Users need to pay close attention to technical and equity issues to ensure that the assessments are fair to all students.” It turns out that portfolios are not good for high stakes assessment—for a range of important reasons. In a nutshell, they are costly, time-consuming, and unreliable.   Quoting one of the researchers/evaluators in the Vermont initiative, it indicates: “The Vermont experience demonstrates the need to set realistic expectations for the short-term success of performance-assessment programs and to acknowledge the large costs of these programs.” Koretz et al state elsewhere in their own blog that the researchers “found the reliability of the scoring by teachers to be very low in both subjects… Disagreement among scorers alone accounts for much of the variance in scores and therefore invalidates any comparisons of scores.” 

Koretz and his colleagues emphasized the lack of quality data in another government publication. And as noted in a 2018 blog by Daisy Christodoulou, a former English teacher in several London high schools, validity and reliability are the two central qualities needed in a test. 

We learned even more from a book chapter by education professor George K. Cunningham on the “failed accountability system” in Kentucky. One of Cunningham’s most astute observations is the following:

Historically, the purpose of instruction in this country has been increasing student academic achievement. This is not the purpose of progressive education, which prefers to be judged by standards other than student academic performance. The Kentucky reform presents a paradox, a system structured to require increasing levels of academic performance while supporting a set of instructional methods that are hostile to the idea of increased academic performance (pp. 264-65).

That is still the dilemma today—skills-oriented standards assessed by “standardized” tests that require, for the sake of a reliable assessment, some multiple-choice questions.  

Cunningham also warned, in the conclusion to his long chapter on Kentucky, about using performance assessments for large-scale assessment (p. 288).  “The Performance Events were expensive and presented many logistical headaches.”  In addition, he noted:

The biggest problem with using performance assessments in a standards-based accountability system, other than poor reliability, is the impossibility of equating forms longitudinally from year to year or horizontally with other forms of assessment. In Kentucky, because of the amount of time required, each student participated in only one performance assessment task. As a result, items could never be reused from year to year because of the likelihood that students would remember the tasks and their responses. This made equating almost impossible.  

Further details on the problems of equating Performance Events may be found in a technical review in January 1998 by James Catterall and four others for the Commonwealth of Kentucky Legislative Research Commission.  Also informative is a 1995 analysis of Kentucky’s tests by Ronald Hambleton et al.  It is a scanned document and can be made searchable with Adobe Acrobat Professional.  

A slightly optimistic account of what could be learned from the attempt to use writing and mathematics portfolios for assessment can be found in a recent blog by education analyst Richard Innes at Kentucky’s Bluegrass Institute

For more articles on the costs and benefits of student testing, see the following:

Concluding Remarks:

Changing to highly subjective “performance-based assessments” removes any urgent need for content-based questions. That was why the agreed-upon planning documents for teacher licensure tests in Massachusetts (which were required by the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993) specified more multiple-choice questions on content than essay questions in their format (they all included both) and, for their construction, revision, and approval, required content experts as well as practicing teachers with that license, together with education school faculty who taught methods courses (pedagogy) for that license. With the help of the president of the National Evaluation Systems (NES, the state’s licensure test developer) and others in the company, the state was able to get more content experts involved in the test approval process.   What Pearson, a co-owner of these tests, has done since its purchase of NES is unknown. 

For example, it is known that for the Foundations of Reading (90), a licensure test for most prospective teacher of young children (in programs for elementary, early childhood, and special education teachers), Common Core’s beginning reading standards were added to the test description, as were examples for assessing the state’s added standards to the original NES Practice Test.   It is not known if changes were made to the licensure test itself (used by about 6 other states) or to other Common Core-aligned licensure tests or test preparation materials, e.g., for mathematics.   Even if Common Core’s standards are eliminated (as in Florida in 2019 by a governor’s Executive Order), their influence remains in some of the pre-Common Core licensure tests developed in the Bay State—tests that contributed to academically stronger teachers for the state.

It is time for the Bay State’s own legislature to do some prolonged investigations of the costs and benefits of “performance-based assessments” before agreeing to their possibility in Massachusetts and to arguments that may be made by FairTest or others who are eager to eliminate “standardized” testing.

The Prospect of a Horrible PD, a Horrible Meeting, and an Unlikely Collaboration

Editor’s note: This is the sixth piece 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 AtlanticEducation NextEducation News and AMS Notices.  He is also the author of three books on math education.  Says Mr. Garelick: “At its completion, this series will be published in book form by John Catt Educational, Ltd.” The previous chapters can be found here:

Chapter 1 , Chapter 2 , Chapter 3 Chapter 4 and Chapter 5

Ch 6  The Prospect of a Horrible PD, a Horrible Meeting, and an Unlikely Collaboration

Many schools require teachers to attend some kind of professional development and St. Stevens was no exception. Fortunately it was rather benign even though it was the whole day and was about technology in the classroom.  But other than that it was fine.

In my previous school, the principal (and Superintendent) “asked” me and James, the other math teacher to attend six all day professional development (PD) sessions over the course of the school year. The PD, held by the County Office of Education, was to be a forum for “collaboration” among math teachers in the county.

While I don’t mind collaborating with teachers, I don’t like the collaboration to be prescribed. And certainly not for six times. I was also leery of James who hardly gave me the time of day and was passive aggressively hostile. As I told Diane during one of our more productive mentor sessions, “I dislike the idea of going to the sessions with him more than I dislike the idea of the PD itself.” She advised me that most complaints from teachers were about problems with other teachers. “And passive aggressive types are the worst,” she added. It was a valuable piece of advice.

As it turned out, the PD was cancelled. James and I were the only two people in the county who had signed up. Our delight was rather short-lived, however. The moderator met with our principal and suggested having a series of two hour meetings with us at school during the early part of the day when we weren’t teaching. Neither James nor I were too thrilled at the idea of collaborating with each other.

We all met one time. The moderator, a middle aged woman who talked in the cheery tones of a facilitator began describing how she loved math while in school but was just “following the rules and getting an answer”.  Later when she taught math, she found she couldn’t explain to students the underlying concepts.  Which led her to say, that the Common Core standards were all about “understanding”, and teachers had better teach for understanding because as she explained, “California’s Common Core-aligned tests are not about ‘answer getting’ anymore!” Students had to explain their answers and the tests evaluate whether students are able to solve problems in more than one way.

She went on almost breathlessly: “Students can get full credit on problems where they have to provide explanations—even if they get the numerical answer wrong.” 

James and I said nothing.

 “Provided the reasoning and process are correct, of course,” she added. “Explaining answers is tough for students and for this reason there is a need for discourse in the classroom and ‘rich tasks’ ”.

My years in education school had taught me the skill of keeping my mouth shut appropriately but at this point I couldn’t contain myself and asked “Could you define what a ‘rich task’ is?”

Her answer was extraordinary in its eloquence at saying absolutely nothing: “It’s a problem that has multiple entry points and has various levels of cognitive demands.  Every student can be successful on at least part of it.”

I had had some experience with rich problems so I knew exactly the type of problem to which she was referring; problems like “A rectangle with a perimeter of 20 inches has what dimensions?” or something similar.

At this point James could take it no longer. He said that meeting for two hours for five sessions was superfluous if it was just the two of us. “I teach three different math classes plus doing the I.T. for the school and don’t have time to delve into alternative approaches other than to follow the script and curriculum as laid out in the book.”

The two of us must have seemed like a rich problem. “Books are just tools,” she proclaimed. “They may be strong in one area but weak in another. Traditional textbooks tend to be lacking in opportunities for conceptual understanding and are old school in their approach.”

She sensed that both of us were more than willing to let her dig her own grave here.  “Though there’s nothing wrong with old school,” she quickly added.

As tempting as it was. I saw no need to tell her that I used a 1962 textbook by Dolciani for my algebra class.

She asked if we relied on our textbook for a “script”, meaning scope and sequence “Do you read just one textbook?” she asked me.

“I read lots of textbooks,” I said.  She looked surprised.

“He’s also written books,” James said. I was surprised that he knew about them, but I had slipped “Math Education in the US” surreptitiously in the bookcase in the teacher’s lounge so maybe he had read it.

“How nice!” she said and feigned an interest by asking what they were about. I gave a “rich” answer. “Math education,” I said.

“Wonderful!” she said.

I then tried to summarize our thoughts. “Neither of us teaches in a vacuum,” I said. “I read lots of textbooks and talk to lots of teachers.” Since James had played up my authorship, I decided to return the favor.

“And James has a lot more experience than I do so he isn’t exactly ignorant about how to teach math. I really don’t think that this two-hour collaboration is going to add much more.”

I realized this opened me up to her protesting that perhaps I could benefit from his experience so I needed to head that off. “Besides, I’m getting mixed messages,” I said. “On the one hand I’m told by the administration that I’m doing great, and I hear from parents that I’m doing great. But then I’m told that I must attend this PD. Is there something about my teaching that’s lacking?  What is this about?”

She assured us that there’s nothing lacking in our teaching and that she’s sure we are both fantastic teachers. “What is it then?  Is this about test scores? They think this will raise test scores?”

She had no answer for this except something that I can’t remember. She saw the handwriting on the wall and said “No use beating a dead horse” and said she would talk to the administration about it.  And that was the end of our PD.

I decided the next time I met with Diane, I would tell her about the success of James’ and my “collaboration.”

The Rituals of School, an Unusual Communion, and the Vast Wasteland of Math 8

Editor’s note: This is the fifth piece 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 AtlanticNonpartisan Education ReviewEducation NextEducation News and AMS Notices.  He is also the author of three books on math education.  Says Mr. Garelick: “At its completion, this series will be published in book form by John Catt Educational, Ltd.” The previous chapters can be found here:  Chapter 1 , Chapter 2 , Chapter 3Chapter 4.

Ch 5. The Rituals of School, an Unusual Communion, and the Vast Wasteland of Math 8

Each day at St. Stevens starts out with the entire school of 200 students, plus teachers, gathered around the flagpole to say one or two prayers, and the Pledge of Allegiance. I enjoy the ritual, particularly seeing everyone—first graders through eighth—cross themselves in unison. Before I started at St. Stevens, a friend asked me if knew how to cross myself.  “Yes,” I said. “But at this point it’s procedural; I think the understanding will come later.”

My days are built on a set of procedures resulting in an ever-changing understanding of where I am. After “flag”, came a quick walk to my classroom, walking fast to stay ahead of the rapidly dispersing horde of students. I call my classroom The Batcave, partly because my classroom is out of the way and cavelike. I have come to love the room and wouldn’t change it for the world.

It appears to have been a storage closet in a former life and is right next door to the gym. It has a door to the gym which sometimes gets bumped by stray basketballs and other objects. Then there is the music that is played during exercises or dance which usually elicits conversation among my students about the songs being played. I squeezed eight desks in the room to accommodate the students in Math 7 and 8.

The Math 8 class was segmented from the rest of the eighth graders who were in the eighth grade algebra class. During the first week, a rather stubborn and outspoken student, Lou, stated what the rest of the class was feeling. “It’s obvious we’re not too good at math which is why they put us in this class.”

I had heard something similar at my previous school from my seventh graders. In neither case did I respond by talking about “growth mindset”.  It was the first time I had taught Math 8 and I was rapidly discovering that the course was a vast wasteland of disparate topics that did little or nothing to prepare them for algebra in the ninth grade.

After my Math 7 and 8 classes, came my algebra class—held in Katherine’s classroom since there were sixteen students. Like most of the algebra classes I’ve taught, this one was full of energetic and motivated students. They were also quite noisy and extremely competitive. Unlike the Math 8 class, they had both confidence and curiosity. The difference between the two classes was never more obvious than when I showed a magic trick to both classes.

It was on a day in which school was dismissed at noon (another cherished tradition in which one’s best plans and schedules written over the summer start to resemble a game of Battleship—a day you thought you’d have for a complicated lesson turns out to be a short one). I had performed this trick many times over the years, starting when I was a sub.

Given the following five cards, someone picks a number from 1 through 31, writes the number on the board and erases it after everyone has seen it so everyone but me knows the number.  

I then ask what cards the person sees their number on.  I immediately tell them the number. The trick is based on the binary number system. One student in the algebra class who is interested in computers knew how it was done so he kept quiet.

I embellished the presentation for the algebra class by having them help me construct a table of binary numbers from 1 through 31, and then transfer the information onto the five mini whiteboards to make the five magic cards.

“You can fill this table out by looking at the patterns,” I said, realizing that any onlooker who happened to poke their head in to my class would think “Oh, good, Mr. Garelick is teaching them that math is about patterns!”—a characterization that I dislike for reasons I won’t get into here.

I started filling out the first four rows; once I got to the fifth row, they started to see the pattern.

“Oh, it just keeps repeating itself: 01, 10, 11, and 100,” a boy said.

“What do the numbers mean?” someone else asked.

“They correspond to the numbers on the left.”

“But why?”

I tried to explain, showing that you’re adding powers of 2 just as in base 10 the number 11 is (1 x 10) + (1 x 1). Some students understood, but most didn’t.

I then said “Just keep filling out the table. It doesn’t matter right now whether you understand what the binary numbers mean.”  If the same onlooker who liked my comment about patterns was looking in again, the reaction would probably be “Oh wait; he’s having them ‘do’ math without ‘knowing’ math”. Or some equivalent bromide.

Once all 31 rows were filled, I had five students transfer the numbers to five mini whiteboards. I then proceeded to do my magic trick. The first time I got the number the entire class shouted. 

“Do it again!” I did, and got it right again. Each time I revealed their number they were now screaming. “He’s a wizard!” a boy named Sam shouted out.

I finally revealed the trick: “I look at the first number on each card you told me contained your number and then added them up.”  I showed them that for the number seven, the first numbers on those cards are 1, 2 and 4, which sum to seven.

There was a collective “Oh, that’s how!” Their excitement was in stark contrast to the Math 8 class who, although curious and amused, took it in stride as just one more thing that didn’t concern them. I had sets of magic cards that I printed up and asked if anyone wanted them. No one in my Math 8 class had wanted them, but the algebra class immediately surrounded me, some with hands cupped as if receiving communion.

During the prayer before dismissing for lunch (“Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts…”) I realized I had to do something to fill in the vast wasteland of the Math 8 course. I wondered if perhaps I could sneak in more algebra. And for an extra challenge, doing so without the ritual of “growth mindset”.

Who Knows? Who Decides? Who Decides Who Decides?

I was recently reading a section of the book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power” by Shoshana Zuboff.  This is an eye opener and an excellent book about surveillance capitalism.

Many of the things being addressed in this book are things I see related to or can relate to what I observe happening in our country today, especially in education.  Chapter Six, Hijacked: The Division of Learning in Society asks and addresses three questions:  Who Knows? Who Decides? Who Decides Who Decides?  While the chapter addresses these questions at more length, below are two quotes from the book.  The first briefly explains the questions and the second provides an extremely brief answer to each question.

“The first question is “Who knows?” This is a question about the distribution of knowledge and whether one is included or excluded from the opportunity to learn. The second question is “Who decides?” This is a question about authority: which people, institutions, or processes determine who is included in learning, what they are able to learn, and how they are able to act on their knowledge. What is the legitimate basis of that authority? The third question is “Who decides who decides?” This is a question about power. What is the source of power that undergirds the authority to share or withhold knowledge?”

“As things currently stand, it is the surveillance capitalist corporations that know. It is the market form that decides. It is the competitive struggle among surveillance capitalists that decides who decides.”

To me, this is scary to think that we are not only heading in this direction but that we are well on our way.  I would say we are already there except things related to technology are always evolving.

Think about this in terms of our education system during three periods of time:  1) prior to the recent education reform era, 2) during the recent education reform era, and 3) the surveillance capitalism present and future.  Shifts have taken place in the transition from one time period to the next.  The answers to the questions Who Knows? Who Decides? Who Decides Who Decides? with regard to our education system in this country have shifted from parents/local community to state/federal government to surveillance capitalist corporations.  These shifts, like their corresponding time periods, as simply stated here does not capture or adequately convey the complexity.  The shift to surveillance capitalist corporations driving our education system is well underway, or has already taken place and continues to evolve.

Below is a table that in a simple but incomplete way shows Who Knows? Who Decides? Who Decides Who Decides? for each of the three time periods.

QuestionPrior to Ed Reform EraRecent Education Reform EraSurveillance Capitalism Future
Who Knows?Educators and subject matter experts
parents/local community
state/federal governmentsurveillance
capitalist
corporations
Who Decides?Educators and subject matter experts
parents/local community
Bureaucrats
state/federal government
market
Who Decides Who Decides?parents/local communitystate/federal governmentcompetitive struggle among surveillance capitalists

Different people may place different entities in the various boxes in the table.  There are definitely more players involved than just those mentioned.  It is possible that others dubbed as “experts” may be included with state/federal government.  Such “experts” may be more driven by an agenda or ideology than by any real expertise based on evidence, factual data, or true knowledge.

Foundations and the influential wealthy seem to go hand in hand with the surveillance capitalist corporations in deciding who decides.

These shifts have taken place gradually over time.  Has it happened so gradually that most parents and local communities have yet to realize their rights/responsibilities have been usurped?  Are parents and local communities okay with this?  Have they willingly turned those rights/responsibilities over to the surveillance capitalist corporations?  If not, what can be done to restore those rights/responsibilities back to parents and local communities?

What is Surveillance Capitalism?

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