Look to China for Math?

The New York Times reported that the United Kingdom was investing heavily in textbooks used in schools in Shanghai, China.

Amy Qin writes:

Educators around the world were stunned when students in Shanghai came first in their international standardized testing debut, in 2010, besting their counterparts in dozens of countries in what some called a Sputnik-like moment.

Now, some British schools will try to replicate that success by using translated textbooks that are otherwise all but identical to those in public elementary schools around Shanghai.

Starting in January, teachers in England will have the option of using “Real Shanghai Mathematics,” a series of 36 textbooks translated directly from Chinese into English. The only difference? The renminbi symbols will be replaced by British pound signs.

She notes that the Shanghai style is very similar to the method used in Singapore and then writes:

The teaching method, known as the “mastery” approach, is based on the idea that all students can succeed in learning mathematics when given proper instruction. Whereas teachers in the West might describe a concept and then assign problems for students to solve individually, the mastery method is more interactive. Teachers frequently pose questions to students who are then expected to precisely explain both solutions and underlying principles in front of their classmates.

Students learn fewer concepts under this approach, which allows them to go into those concepts in greater depth. For fractions, for example, teachers might ask students to apply the underlying principle “part of a whole” in different contexts, making use of pictorial representations and other visual techniques to explore the abstract idea. Ideally, only when the entire class has demonstrated understanding or “mastery” of one concept does the teacher move to the next.

While Common Core advocates claim that Singapore’s math curriculum is similar to Common Core, such as an Achieve report that The Huffington Post reported on in 2013:

The standards don’t lead to a complete Algebra I course until high school, unlike in other high-achieving countries. An analysis by Achieve, a nonprofit organization that has supported the Common Core, found that Singapore’s math curriculum was similar to Common Core, but that in Singapore, students more quickly reach a higher level of math proficiency.

Like Shanghai (and Singapore) they also claim that Common Core uses fewer concepts:

When the Common Core standards were developed, policymakers looked to the success of other high-performing countries, including countries that scored well on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Remember: Singapore is consistently at the top.

It’s no surprise Common Core standards mirror several Singaporean approaches, including a narrower focus with greater depth. But to better align to the standards in each state, Brillon said Singapore Math Inc. introduced new textbooks last year.

The fact remains that Common Core Math focuses on skills, not concepts, unlike what is seen in Shanghai and Singapore.

In fact, there isn’t much alignment at all as a study from the American Educational Research Association found:

In mathematics, there are data for Finland, Japan, and Singapore on eighth-grade standards; alignments to the U.S. Common Core are .21, .17, and .13, respectively. All three of these countries have higher eighth-grade mathematics achievement levels than does the United States. The content differences that lead to these low levels of alignment for cognitive demand are, for all three countries, a much greater emphasis on “perform procedures” than found in the U.S. Common Core standards. For each country, approximately 75% of the content involves “perform procedures,” whereas in the Common Core standards, the percentage for procedures is 38%. Differences for the other five levels of cognitive demand are not as uniform across countries. However, none of the three countries puts as much as 1% of its content emphasis on “solve nonroutine problems,” whereas Common Core puts 4.5% of its content emphasis there. Clearly, these three benchmarking countries with high student achievement do not have standards that emphasize higher levels of cognitive demand than does the Common Core. Marginal distributions for coarse-grain topics are quite similar between each of the three benchmarking countries and the U.S. Common Core.

While there is a lot about the Chinese educational system that I would not want the United States to adopt, we would, perhaps, benefit from taking a closer look at how the Chinese teach math. While we may not want to completely adopt Shanghai math like the UK we should have a conversation about whether Common Core is taking the United States in the right direction.

I would submit that it is not.

Common Core Does Not Help Kids Write

Dana Goldstein in The New York Times on Wednesday wrote an article entitled “Why Kids Can’t Write.”

Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874. But the Common Core State Standards, now in use in more than two-thirds of the states, were supposed to change all this. By requiring students to learn three types of essay writing — argumentative, informational and narrative — the Core staked a claim for writing as central to the American curriculum. It represented a sea change after the era of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that largely overlooked writing in favor of reading comprehension assessed by standardized multiple-choice tests.

So far, however, six years after its rollout, the Core hasn’t led to much measurable improvement on the page. Students continue to arrive on college campuses needing remediation in basic writing skills.

This revelation comes as no surprise to many of us for a couple of reasons.

First, the writing benchmarks within the Common Core’s ELA standards are poorly written.

Sandra Stotsky, who served on Common Core’s ELA validation committee, pointed out that while the Common Core stresses writing the standards are developmentally inappropriate.

Adults have a much better idea of what “claims,” “relevant evidence,” and academic “arguments” are. Most elementary children have a limited understanding of these concepts and find it difficult to compose an argument with claims and evidence. It would be difficult for children to do so even if Common Core’s writing standards were linked to appropriate reading standards and prose models. But they are not. Nor does the document clarify the difference between an academic argument (explanatory writing) and opinion-based writing or persuasive writing, confusing teachers and students alike. Worse yet, Common Core’s writing standards stress emotion-laden, opinion-based writing in the elementary grades. This kind of writing does not help to develop critical or analytical thinking, and it establishes a very bad habit in very young children. There is no research evidence to support this kind of pedagogy.

Second, the Common Core’s emphasis on informational text has an effect that undermines what they hoped to achieve through the writing standards.

You learn to write well by reading good writing. Stotsky also notes that the standards placed more emphasis on writing over reading which is a mistake.

There are more writing than reading standards at almost every grade level in Common Core, a serious imbalance. This is the opposite of what an academically sound reading/English curriculum should contain, as suggested by a large and old body of research on the development of reading and writing skills. The foundation for good writing is good reading. Students should spend far more time in and outside of school on reading than on writing to improve reading (and writing) in every subject of the curriculum.

Stotsky also addresses how Common Core’s focus on informational text impacts critical thinking which is necessary to be a good writer.

A diminished emphasis on literature in the secondary grades makes it unlikely that American students will study a meaningful range of culturally and historically significant literary works before graduation. It also prevents students from acquiring a rich understanding and use of the English language. Perhaps of greatest concern, it may lead to a decreased capacity for analytical thinking.

Indeed, it is more than likely that college readiness will decrease when secondary English teachers begin to reduce the study of complex literary texts and literary traditions in order to prioritize informational or nonfiction texts. This is because, as ACT (a college entrance exam) found, complexity is laden with literary features: It involves characters, literary devices, tone, ambiguity, elaboration, structure, intricate language, and unclear intentions. By reducing literary study, Common Core decreases students’ opportunity to develop the analytical thinking once developed in just an elite group by the vocabulary, structure, style, ambiguity, point of view, figurative language, and irony in classic literary texts.

It will be hard to find informational texts with similar textual challenges (whether or not literary nonfiction).

Goldstein believes the root of the problem is a lack of quality teacher training.

The root of the problem, educators agree, is that teachers have little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves. According to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a scan of course syllabuses from 2,400 teacher preparation programs turned up little evidence that the teaching of writing was being covered in a widespread or systematic way.

A separate 2016 study of nearly 500 teachers in grades three through eight across the country, conducted by Gary Troia of Michigan State University and Steve Graham of Arizona State University, found that fewer than half had taken a college class that devoted significant time to the teaching of writing, while fewer than a third had taken a class solely devoted to how children learn to write. Unsurprisingly, given their lack of preparation, only 55 percent of respondents said they enjoyed teaching the subject.

“Most teachers are great readers,” Dr. Troia said. “They’ve been successful in college, maybe even graduate school. But when you ask most teachers about their comfort with writing and their writing experiences, they don’t do very much or feel comfortable with it.”

I don’t doubt there is truth to this. Even if you have quality training if ELA standards prevent you from teaching what is necessary to cultivate excellent writing it won’t matter. It will help, but it isn’t the silver bullet to solve this problem. There are none.

I submit that if we want to see student writing improve then, states and schools will have to transition back to a curriculum that will help them achieve that result. It isn’t Common Core or other reforms and trends brought into teaching English language arts.

One Argument Not to Make About School Choice

I generally like to shy away from the school choice debate over here mainly because there are diverging opinions about it among our community. Even though I personally favor some school choice programs (and the idea that parents should have control) there are valid concerns about strings being attached to school choice programs.

A prime example was how Indiana’s voucher program pushed Common Core into private schools in the Hoosier State. So there are legitimate arguments against certain programs, and I think almost all of us can oppose any school choice efforts coming from the federal level.

The argument that Katherine Stewart at The New York Times makes isn’t one of those arguments, however. She said that school choice, aka “attacks” on public schools, harkens back to racism

She writes:

But the attacks on “government schools” have a much older, darker heritage. They have their roots in American slavery, Jim Crow-era segregation, anti-Catholic sentiment and a particular form of Christian fundamentalism — and those roots are still visible today.

I find it ironic that she addresses “anti-Catholic sentiment” when the biggest road blocks for school choice is Blaine Amendment language adopted by many states that actually comes from “anti-Catholic sentiment.”

David French at the National Review responds to Stewart’s piece.

Why do libertarians and Christians intentionally increasingly use the term “government schools” to describe public education? First, because it’s true. Public schools are government schools. Second, because it’s clarifying. Too many Americans are stuck in a time warp, believing that the local school is somehow “their” school. They don’t understand that public education is increasingly centralized — teaching a uniform curriculum, teaching a particular, secular set of values, and following priorities set in Washington, not by their local school board. The phrase is helpful for breaking through idealism and getting parents to analyze and understand the gritty reality of modern public education. The phrase works.

And so it must be squashed. And there’s no better way to discredit any modern idea than by tying it to a Confederate past. It’s certainly easier than addressing the core of the fundamental idea — that it’s better for America if more parents enjoy the educational choices that wealthy progressives take for granted.

I don’t agree with everything French says in his piece, but it stands to reason that we do not prop up straw man arguments to respond to a policy we do not like. Ultimately parents who want school choice like it because they want options and control over how their children are educated and it has nothing to do with race.

Betsy DeVos’ Hard Line on Every Student Succeeds Act

Education Secretary Betsy DeVoss and President Donald Trump at St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, FL

We can file this under “we told you so.”

The New York Times notes that states are surprised by the hard line that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education now has in their enforcement of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who made a career of promoting local control of education, has signaled a surprisingly hard-line approach to carrying out an expansive new federal education law, issuing critical feedback that has rattled state school chiefs and conservative education experts alike.

President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 as the less intrusive successor to the No Child Left Behind law, which was maligned by many in both political parties as punitive and prescriptive. But in the Education Department’s feedback to states about their plans to put the new law into effect, it applied strict interpretations of statutes, required extensive detail and even deemed some state education goals lackluster.

In one case, the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, Jason Botel, wrote to the State of Delaware that its long-term goals for student achievement were not “ambitious.”

Apparently only the Federal government is capable of deciding what is ambitious. Is this the local control that U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and supporters of ESSA touted when pushing the bill?

The Department had problems with some state’s use of science assessments in their plan. Education Week reports:

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos got pushback last month when her team told four of the 17 states that have submitted ESSA plans so far—Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, and Tennessee—that their vision for incorporating science into their accountability plans didn’t pass muster.

*Yay, flexibility*

It appears that DeVos has fully embraced the power ESSA gave her to approve state accountability plans and has no trouble with exerting federal control.

Perhaps if Congress were actually serious about returning control back to states and local school districts, they would pass a bill that truly does that.

Silicon Valley’s Influence on Public Education

The New York Times published an interesting article about how Silicon Valley companies have pushed coding into public schools.

Natasha Singer writes:

At a White House gathering of tech titans last week, Timothy D. Cook, the chief executive of Apple, delivered a blunt message to President Trump on how public schools could better serve the nation’s needs. To help solve a “huge deficit in the skills that we need today,” Mr. Cook said, the government should do its part to make sure students learn computer programming.

“Coding,” Mr. Cook told the president, “should be a requirement in every public school.”

The Apple chief’s education mandate was just the latest tech company push for coding courses in schools. But even without Mr. Trump’s support, Silicon Valley is already advancing that agenda — thanks largely to the marketing prowess of Code.org, an industry-backed nonprofit group.

This push coincides with corporations’ interest in public education and a shift to a focus on workforce development to be ready for “21st-century jobs.”

Would these jobs certainly include computer programming right?

The article questions the motives behind this.

Computer science is also essential to American tech companies, which have become heavily reliant on foreign engineers. Mr. Trump’s efforts to limit immigration make Code.org’s teach-Americans-to-code agenda even more attractive to the industry.

In a few short years, Code.org has raised more than $60 million from Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Salesforce, along with individual tech executives and foundations. It has helped to persuade two dozen states to change their education policies and laws, Mr. Partovi said, while creating free introductory coding lessons, called Hour of Code, which more than 100 million students worldwide have tried….

…. But Code.org’s multilevel influence machine also raises the question of whether Silicon Valley is swaying public schools to serve its own interests — in this case, its need for software engineers — with little scrutiny. “If I were a state legislator, I would certainly be wondering about motives,” said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University. “You want to see public investment in a skill set that is the skill set you need for your business?”

Public dollars to help prepare future employees for these companies. There was a time workforce development, and job training was done by the companies themselves. Now they want us to pay for it.

Trump’s Secretary of Education Short List


Who will run the U.S. Department of Education in Trump’s administration?

During the Presidential transition the President-Elect starts to put together his administration, and many wonder who President-Elect Donald Trump will appoint to become the Secretary of Education. Who he appoints will send a signal of whether it will be business as usual or if he means business when it comes to shrinking the federal role in education.

Outside of hoping he appoints no one (I’m not sure that’s a great idea while the U.S. Department of Education still exists). Here are some names that are floating out there.

The New York Times reports (Politico echoes this):

WFYI in Indianapolis said that at a Education Writers Forum held in DC on Monday these names were being thrown around by Vic Klatt, a principal of Penn Hill Group and former GOP staff director for the U.S. House Committee on Education.

  • Tony Bennett – ousted Indiana Superintendent of Public Education who later resigned as Florida Commissioner of Education after being investigated for fraud.
  • Congressman Luke Messer (R-Indiana) – serves on the House Education & Workforce Committee

Alyson Klein at Education Week speculated:

  • the list above and then adds Gerard Robinson who served as a Florida Education Commissioner and former Virginia Secretary of Education. Robinson currently serves on Trump’s transition team. He has also been a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Brett Baier of Fox News floated these two names other than Carson:

  • Eva Moskowitz – the CEO and Founder of Success Academy Charter Schools
  • Michelle Rhee – Founder of Students First, former Chancellor of Washington, DC Public Schools

I wouldn’t know what to expect from a Secretary Carson. While he is a nice man, I think he would be out of his depth at the U.S. Department of Education. A Tony Bennett appointment would send all of the wrong signals that status quo will be maintained. I couldn’t take Trump seriously when he says he is against Common Core if he appoints a pro-Common Core advocate who lost his election in Indiana largely because of that support.

I don’t know much about Congressman Messer other than he is part of the committee that helped usher in the Every Student Succeeds Act and was a vocal advocate for it. No thank you.

Gerard Robinson’s time in Florida was marred with controversy when FCAT scores collapsed. He is also part of Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change. He isn’t the person I would be looking for.

Eva Moskovitz’s involvement with charter schools and the fact she’s liberal would sink her potential nomination as she would take flak from both sides of the aisle. Michelle Rhee pushes corporate school reform and is against parental assessment opt-outs, not to mention, is pro-Common Core. Yeah… no thanks.

I think the best candidate for the job would be Williamson Evers, who has been a staunch critic of the Common Core State Standards and its aligned assessments. I hope that he gets the appointment, and he has prior experience with the U.S. Department of Education which would be an asset I would think.

Perhaps under a Trump administration Evers will be the Secretary of Education who padlocks the front doors of a closed U.S. Department of Education, but I’m not going to hold my breath on that.

Update: Additional names added to the rumor mill. I want to emphasize these are just rumored to be on the list.

  • Tony Zeiss, a former president of Central Piedmont Community College
  • Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, now the president of the Purdue University System.
  • Governor Scott Walker (R-WI)
  • Hanna Skandera, the New Mexico Secretary of Education
  • Education activist Betsy DeVos
  • Education activist Kevin Chavous
  • Larry Arn, President of Hillsdale College

Out of these names, Dr. Arn is the only one I could get excited about. I don’t know anything about Zeiss, Daniels supported Common Core so no thanks.

Walker is a mixed bag. On one hand he was weak when it came to repealing Common Core on the other hand he could work to scale the department back. Too many question marks. Ms. Skandera is a supporter of Common Core.

I don’t know anything about Kevin Chavous, but I don’t think appointing an activist is the right way to go. Betsy DeVos… hell no.

The New Jersey Board of Education Doubles Down on Stupid


The New Jersey Board of Education has voted to tie PARCC to high school graduation. This idea has been wildly unpopular, as has the assessment itself. The teachers’ union president came out in opposition. At least one local school board passed a resolution opposing it. I believe there have been more. They started the move toward using PARCC as a graduation requirement in April which will put a damper on the opt-out movement in the state.

The New York Times reports:

The New Jersey Board of Education voted on Wednesday to require high school students to pass tests aligned with contentious standards, even as other states have moved away from these assessments.

Beginning in 2021, in order to graduate, students will have to pass the Algebra 1 exam and the 10th-grade English exam given as part of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or Parcc, tests. This year, just 44 percent of students statewide passed that English exam and 41 percent passed Algebra 1.

Under the new rules, those who do not pass can still graduate if a portfolio review of other work is approved.

The Parcc test was one of two main assessments designed to align with the Common Core standards, a group of learning goals for students devised to ensure they were being adequately prepared for college. The standards were adopted across the country starting in 2010, encouraged by money from the Obama administration, but they have faced a strong backlash. Many states have stepped away from the tests, or from the standards altogether.

New Jersey is moving in the opposite direction.

It was stupid to adopt the assessment in the first place from a validation and fiduciary perspective, but leave it to New Jersey to double down on stupidity.

Medical Doctor Explains Why Handwriting Is Still Essential


One of numerous complaints about the Common Core State Standards is how it eliminated learning cursive in the ELA standards. To be fair, this push has been well underway as we are in a “keyboard age.”

Perri Klaus, MD, objects to that however, and in an op/ed in The New York Times explains why handwriting is still essential even in a “keyboard age.”  Dr. Klaus writes:

And beyond the emotional connection adults may feel to the way we learned to write, there is a growing body of research on what the normally developing brain learns by forming letters on the page, in printed or manuscript format as well as in cursive.

In an article this year in The Journal of Learning Disabilities, researchers looked at how oral and written language related to attention and what are called “executive function” skills (like planning) in children in grades four through nine, both with and without learning disabilities.

Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington and the lead author on the study, told me that evidence from this and other studies suggests that “handwriting — forming letters — engages the mind, and that can help children pay attention to written language.”


“This myth that handwriting is just a motor skill is just plain wrong,” Dr. Berninger said. “We use motor parts of our brain, motor planning, motor control, but what’s very critical is a region of our brain where the visual and language come together, the fusiform gyrus, where visual stimuli actually become letters and written words.” You have to see letters in “the mind’s eye” in order to produce them on the page, she said. Brain imaging shows that the activation of this region is different in children who are having trouble with handwriting.

Read the whole piece, it’s a fascinating read.

Teaching Experience? Who Needs Teaching Experience?

Students in Computer Lab --- Image by © Royalty-Free/CorbisAS IF we needed more news to make us even more uneasy with the Common Core Assessment Consortia, consider this article from the New York Times about Pearson who is the sole vendor for the PARCC states.

On Friday, in an unobtrusive office park northeast of downtown here, about 100 temporary employees of the testing giant Pearson worked in diligent silence scoring thousands of short essays written by third- and fifth-grade students from across the country.

There was a onetime wedding planner, a retired medical technologist and a former Pearson saleswoman with a master’s degree in marital counseling. To get the job, like other scorers nationwide, they needed a four-year college degree with relevant coursework, but no teaching experience. They earned $12 to $14 an hour, with the possibility of small bonuses if they hit daily quality and volume targets.

No teaching experience necessary… that doesn’t bother me as much provided they grasp the content being assessed.  It’s what they receive bonuses for… hitting daily quality and volume targets.  What?  I agree with A.P. Dillon, this seems very much like a salesperson.

No chance of a mistake happening there I’m sure.  Granted they do have scorers with teaching experience, but Pearson doesn’t have any data on how many currently teach.

Educators, especially those whose review may depend on student assessments, are leery about this process.

…educators like Lindsey Siemens, a special-education teacher at Edgebrook Elementary School in Chicago, see a problem if the tests are not primarily scored by teachers.

“Even as teachers, we’re still learning what the Common Core state standards are asking,” Ms. Siemens said. “So to take somebody who is not in the field and ask them to assess student progress or success seems a little iffy.”

But hey I’m sure they train these temporary employees quite well.

Teaching Literature as Teaching Particular Concepts and Skills

Will Common Core kill students' love of reading?Photo credit: Kate Ter Haar (CC-By-2.0)

Will Common Core kill students’ love of reading?
Photo credit: Kate Ter Haar (CC-By-2.0)

Valarie Strauss highlighted a disturbing quote from this New York Times article entitled, “English Class in the Common Core Era: ‘Tom Sawyer’ and Court Opinions.”

“Unfortunately there has been some elimination of some literature,” said Kimberly Skillen, the district administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. But she added: “We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.”

Teaching particular concepts and skills is not teaching literature as Strauss points out:

Concepts are general notions, abstract ideas; a skill is a particular ability. Isn’t there more? How about teaching literature so students can learn to examine (not conform to) societal values, expand world views, understand their own and different cultures, appreciate the beauty of strong, eloquent language, develop emotional intelligence?

Literature is a mirror that reflects a society’s values, behaviors, history and culture. Teachers with any hope of capturing students’ attention and getting them engaged in reading Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Faulkner have to think beyond skills and concepts.

Yes you do.  This approach to literature isn’t much better than kids just reading Cliff Notes or Spark Notes on a book and calling it a day.