"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dec. 14, 2010 Work Session, Part I: Common Core, Gov. Education Committee

There was so much information presented at this Work Session, that I will be breaking the blog entry up into pieces.  I want to give you the information on what occurred, but also give you my perspective on these important items.

In this blog, I will address the first two items of the work session: Common Core standards and the Governor's Education Committee.

Work Session, 4pm

Common Core

The Utah State Office of Education has opted, along with many other states, to adopt the Common Core Standards.  The Common Core standards were initiated by the National Governors' Association and their Chief State Education Officers.  In Utah, this was Gov. Huntsman and Patti Harrington.  The Common Core only addresses Language Arts and Math.  Barry Graff presented this information.  Here are my notes on the Common Core.

What is the difference between our current core and the common core?

Lang. Arts: The reading difficulty level will increase. There is also a higher expectation of writing and the use of analysis, including a set of standards relating to informational texts. (Informational texts according to one article "is a type of nonfiction that conveys information about the natural or social world.") This common core has much, much, much more emphasis on writing, especially reading and writing informational texts. I think I heard that the Common Core would encourage Kindergarten students to do research work. Published writings will include digital formats.  There will not be as much emphasis on literature; although there will still be some.

Math: There are two big differences. 1) Common Core will do away with the concept of spiraling. (Spiraling is defined as teaching a particular concept at multiple grade levels.) With Common Core, we have a given concept taught at a particular grade level and that's it.  2) Common Core will cut back on the number of concepts taught. It is the idea of more depth instead of breadth.  At the Secondary level, instead of having pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, algerbra 2, etc., the international model is being used that integrates algebra, geometry, etc. into each course.  There will also be an Honors' track that will put additional preparation in for an AP Calculus course.  Also, ASD is looking at creating a 3rd 'Accelerated' track.  Honors would be deeper information and Accelerated would be a faster track.  The hope is that this integrated approach will solve the 'algebra 2 wall' that kids hit after taking a year off of algebra to tackle geometry.  There will have to be in-the-year remediation as there is no 'slow' track. 

Mr. Graff said that it is a good core, and that they don't have any concerns with it.  ASD is going to take a slightly slower time frame for implementation.  The State was hoping to get districts to implement the Common Core this coming year, and ASD will implement in some instances in the 2012-13 school year.  Depending on where students are in their studies, they may or may not be included in Common Core.  For example, a current 7th grade student taking Algebra will continue with the current system through their high school career.  However, a current 7th grade student taking pre-Algebra will switch to Common Core when it is implemented. 

Superintendent Henshaw said that change is good as long as it makes us better.  We will be taking the 2011-12 school year to train our teachers in Common Core.  The Superintendent said that we can't hold teachers accountable if they are not sufficiently trained.

Some concerns raised by the board members were that we currently are more lenient on High School students with partial grading and making things up than are colleges.  It was stated that this is an individual teacher thing, and not a district-wide situation.  It wouldn't apply one way or the other to Common Core.  Another concern was that we would be adopting a European model where kids are tested at a certain point, placed on a track, and that's the end of it.  It is a concern that in a given track, kids may be pushed too fast and end up failing, giving them short shrift. 

Common Core is just being developed and hasn't been tested in its entirety in any area of the US yet.  The question was asked about who would be developing the tests, and the assumption is that the testing will be outsourced to some 'testing' company.  Adopting Common Core and the tests that will become associated with it will probably take the place of current testing standards to accommodate Federal Education mandates. 

My Take on Common Core
Common Core, Math:
First, I agree with the idea of greater depth instead of breadth with math.  One of the reasons I support using Singapore Math is due to their in depth treatment of each basic concept.  For example, my son, when in 5th grade, spent about 5 lessons on decimals and place value (unrelated to fractions).  During the summer, we had spent time doing Singapore, and he had a very good foundation in fractions.  It was then transitioned through 15 lessons to teach decimals.  The 15 lessons were not just boring repetition either.  They were just good, in depth, exercises and discussions so that at the end of 15 lessons, he had a solid foundation in decimals and how they related to fractions. My experience is that we tend to push kids into greater mathematical concepts before they have mastered the basics.  So, I am definitely in favor of this idea.

However, I am concerned with the lack of 'spiraling'.  As I mentioned above, pushing kids to greater math concepts without basic mastery is dooming them to failure.  Math is very much a subject that requires a "line upon line" concept.  If you can't add, you can't learn to subtract, and you can't do algebra.  Repetition and review is very important in math as you continue through the process.  Not having a remedial track or allowing kids to retake things like algebra, is a very big concern for me.  If someone is struggling with algebra, I would certainly like to see them spend whatever time is necessary to master basic, algebraic concepts before moving on.  My personal experience and my assumption is that 'the algebra 2 wall' is not so much that kids aren't using algebra but that they can comprehend geometry without algebra.  They didn't properly master algebra 1, so algebra 2 doesn't make any sense either.  The fact that they've taken a year off of 'algebra' just exacerbates the situation.

Common Core, Language Arts:
While I think informational texts are important, my kids don't sit around reading a lot of informational texts.  They enjoy fiction, literature, and classics.  Reading Narnia or A Christmas Carol is often more fun than reading about volcanoes, especially if you aren't very interested in volcanoes.  Informational texts are very helpful for kids who have an interest in the subject discussed.  Without that interest, I'm afraid we are going to turn kids off to reading.  I applaud the idea of greater writing skills.  However, doing research work, while important, shouldn't be given greater importance than creative writing.  Writing skills can be applied from one to the other.  Like math, good writing requires good understanding of grammar and spelling.  As long as we are developing the ability to write, I don't want to limit the experience to mostly informational texts.

Common Core, In General:
While I need to get more specific information on Common Core, I have a few additional concerns. 

First, where this core is untried and untested, we are turning our children into guinea pigs for the State Office of Education (and the textbook publishers who stand to benefit).  I would prefer to see the results before jumping on the bandwagon. 

Second, the idea of national testing and national comparisions will, inevitably, yield national standards.  From national standards, it is very easy, using testing and teaching to the test, to implement a national curriculum, leaving local control of curriculum out in the cold.  If Utah adopts Common Core, and Common Core, at some point, starts to teach things that Utah doesn't want to include, what are the "opt out" procedures?  How fast will we be able to switch to something we want to teach, once Common Core and the major textbook publishers have incorporated those changes we think unimportant, or, maybe, incorrect.

Governor's Education Committee

Board Member, JoDee Sundburg, has been a member of the Governor's Education Committee.  The main goal from this committee is: by 2020, 66% of Utahns ages 20 - 64 will have a post-secondary degree or certificate.  The reason for this figure is that it is assumed that by 2020, businesses will need that level of expertise to compete.  So, this is what Utah feels it needs to be economically strong at that point in the future. 

There are 5 main items:
  1. Bolster Early Childhood Education
  2. Improve instructional Quality and Curricular Alighments
  3. Strengthen Postsecondary Education
  4. Aligh Educational Attainment and vocational Training with Economic Development
  5. Utilize Technology to Effectively and Efficiently Accomplish Strategic Imperatives
The steps to pursue in 2011, based on cost effectiveness and value that do not impact current per-pupil funding are listed here, near the end of the article. 

My Take on Gov. Education Committee:
I would like to know what percentage of Utahns have a post-secondary degree or certificate currently.  What is the change that needs to take place?  Also, when we have so many people taking college courses, etc., the law of supply and demand will indicate that the value of those degrees will probably decrease. 

While I think it is fine that the Committee has made its recommendations, I do have a concern that the state should be involved at all in incentivizing personal behavior to this level.  Often, on-the-job training is more beneficial than a degree or certificate.  As someone who has hired people in the past, I see education as an indicator of someone's ability, but I would much prefer someone who either has the knowledge/experience already, or who has shown that they can be a self-starter and someone who learns on-the-job.  These things are not always the result of a higher education degree or certificate.

Up Next:
A Proposal for Grading Schools
Report on the Mission Statement from the School Community Councils
Additional Information on the Proposed Bond

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