The School Standards Debate: Time for Tech To Weigh In

by Steve Wildstrom   |   April 10th, 2013

School kids (Photo c Monkey Business-Fotolia

 

Tech people are very fond of whining about the U.S. educational system, complaining that it is not producing the sort of workers they need. With a few notable exceptions–Bill and Melinda Gates and Dean Kamen come quickly to mind–the are much less good when it comes to doing anything about the problems of schools.

OK, here’s your chance. It won’t even cost you anything–calls for better education seem to die quickly in places like Silicon Valley when the talk turns to taxes–except some leadership.

The Common Core State Standards are the most important school reform to come along in many years. The standards fo mathematics and language arts lay out what we expect students to learn, year by year, from kindergarten through high school. They are not a curriculum, but a set of mileposts for what curriculum should cover, and they inject a badly needed dose of rigor into education. If you have any interest in K-12 education, you should take the time to read them here.

dear_industryDespite a studied effort by their authors and sponsors at the National Governors’ Association and Council of Chief State School Officers to avoid political pitfalls, the standards have come under increasing attack from both the left and right. CCSS was initially adopted by 48 states and the District of Columbia, but three states have withdrawn their support and their is pressure in many others to do the same.

On the left, opposition to CCSS is closely tied to opposition to standardized testing, based on the assumptions, not necessarily warranted, that the standards will lead to increased testing. The anti-testing advocacy group FiarTest argues:

More grades will be tested, with more testing per grade. [No Child Left Behind] triggered an unprecedented testing explosion (Guisbond, et al., 2012). The Common Core will compound the problem….

Lured by federal funds, states agreed to buy “pigs in a poke.” The new tests do not yet exist except for a few carefully selected sample items, so it is not possible to judge their quality. Nevertheless, states are committing large sums of taxpayer money for the equivalent of “vaporware”—much hype, little substance. New drugs must be carefully tested before release lest they do more harm than good. Yet, these new measures are being pushed through with at most one year of trials. There’s no guarantee that they will function as advertised and many reasons to believe they will not.

The argument that more study is needed is especially pernicious. CCSS has been in development for more than a decade and, unlike the radical math and science curriculum reforms of the early 1960s (remember New Math?), the new standards are mostly a compilation of best practices already in use. Then there’s the obvious paradox of demanding more evaluation while opposing the testing the could provide the data. (The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which oppose the use of standardized tests to assess teacher performance, both are on the record in support of CCSS.)

But the truly fevered opposition to CCSS is coming from the right, and this is what is threatening implementation in the states, largely through interference by state legislatures. The main objection, despite evidence to the contrary, is that CCSS represents a federal takeover of local education. Then there’s the complaint that CCSS is both untested and that the government is trying too hard to test it. Tiffany Gabbay, writing on the conservative site The Blaze, syas:

According to the conservative think tank American Principles Project, Common Core’s technological project is “merely one part of a much broader plan by the federal government to track individuals from birth through their participation in the workforce.” As columnist and author Michelle Malkin has pointed out, the 2009 stimulus package included a “State Fiscal Stabilization Fund” to provide states incentives to construct “longitudinal data systems (LDS) to collect data on public-school students.”

With attacks, often ill-informed (or completely uninformed; many of the people attacking CCSS show no sign of any knowledge of what they contain) coming from all sides, CCSS could use some friends, and I think its time for the tech industry to step up. I am much more familiar with the math standards than language arts, both because it is my area of interest and because by the nature of the beast, the language arts standards or vaguer and harder to interpret. The math standards, if properly implemented, would represent a huge step forward. They aim both at increased computational skills, largely deprecated in the standards in use for the past 25 years, and deeper understanding of the connectedness of critical topics in mathematics. Curriculum based on these standards should produce students better able both to do math and to think more deeply and critically.

This is exactly what tech companies is looking for in its future labor force. So instead of complaining about the deficiencies of American students, get out there and work for some constructive change.

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • jfutral

    Education process is such a crazy topic. It’s one of those things everyone has an opinion on and believe they have a better perspective than professionals. What makes it crazier is sometimes they are right.

    This is my main issue:
    “companies is looking for in its future labor force”

    I agree with Seth Godin and Sir Ken Robinson that the current education systems are built on old premises. One of which is that the notion that a public educational system is more about creating a labour force than education.

    I know I’ve sat in on a number of education meetings where Macs were derided as not appropriate computers to learn on since no one would use them in the actual workplace. Never mind this was false, I think the notion of “creating our future labour force” is an inappropriate focus and goal, except in as much as well educated people in itself creates an appropriate “labour force”.

    Joe

    • steve_wildstrom

      In the U.S., there has been an argument for at least 100 years about whether the purpose of pubic education is to produce educated citizens or well-trained workers. Of course, the answer is both, but in trying to find a path through the middle, we often veer toward one extreme or the other. I went to school probably at the peak of the John Dewey-influenced liberal education approach, but today careerism is dominant. This too shall pass.

      I framed my piece as a workforce appeal, frankly because I think it’s the only way to get the industry’s attention. Personally, I am very much with Joe on this point.

      BTW, I remember those “you can’t use Macs” arguments. They only thing they told me was that the people making them had no idea of what they were talking about. These were people who saw “computer literacy” as the new typing class.

  • Jim Zellmer

    Thank you for raising this important issue. There are significant differences in teacher content knowledge requirements across the US and around the world:

    The U.S.’s Low Standards for Teacher Traininghttp://www.schoolinfosystem.org/archives/2013/03/the_uss_low_sta.php

    When A Stands for Average: Students at the UW-Madison School of Education Receive Sky-High Grades. How Smart is That?
    http://www.schoolinfosystem.org/archives/2010/03/when_a_stands_f.php

    Many teacher preparation notes and links here:
    http://tinyurl.com/sis-tp

    Common Core notes and links:
    http://tinyurl.com/sis-ccusa

  • mhikl

    This is an excellent piece of work, Steve. Very important, thought provoking and heart felt.

    I am a teacher, high school trained but have spent most of my career in elementary teaching children in Grades Three to Seven. I have also taught under three systems, two provincial and in Sarawak where testing was done in the second or third years of a child’s school life. The problems I saw in all systems was a problem with testing emphasis. The true measure of a student’s skills is in expression in three languages, both English or mother tongue, mathematics and the arts. From these languages our knowledge as sentient beings is based. What tended to happen with standardised testing was the emphasis on facts, though very important to learning is but one element of knowing and understanding. And here seemed, in my experience, the divide and confusion that arises when standardised testing is discussed.

    In mathematics a big problem arises with fundamental, intrinsic concepts. The child is at a disadvantage if previous years’ concepts are not understood and rarely, in my experience, do teachers have the time, or the materials, to make up these deficiencies. Concepts are not facts but are the building blocks of understanding in all skills. They must be internalised and used without strain as they are the subtle flames that light our very thoughts; they cannot just be memorised for memorisation is not always understanding. The same principles support reading, writing and articulated speech and artistic expression.

    By Grade four I have found the broken steps (concepts) to the ladders of understanding begin making learning a chore for the student. Unless rectified the gap continues to grow year by year until the learner is overwhelmed and the meaning of school and the joy of learning are lost.

    Grade Three is a pivotal year, the year in which expression makes a great leap towards adult thinking, realisation where the seesaw of ego and id begins to tip towards the ego of self-realisation. For example, we all start out creative in spirit, and willingly draw and dance and sing in our early formative years (the time of id) but sometime in Grade Four most children question their freedom of artistic expression as they begin to compare their skills to the skills of others. If they have not the conceptual understandings each child needs, paths turn into difficult travails. For this reason, art, dance, music and PE are crucial experiences of expression that are often viewed as lesser and costly parts of a student’s day at school—and that is when children begins to fail to freely take chances and the journey of joy which must be the foundation of our educational systems lets our children down. For all these same reasons the child loses his/er confidence in the arts of language and mathematics where artistic expression is sacrificed for easily measurable teaching and testing of basic facts and understanding.

    Learning make its jumps through the little but grand “ah!” moments, the little gems of understanding that take the breath away. Such moments should be the goal of all life lessons but too often the time and support are cut short for experiences to become understanding and then leaning becomes a dismal road to follow.

    • Rich

      EXCELLENT! This is the best analysis of the failures of K-12 education I’ve ever seen.

      • mhikl

        Appreciate your comment, Rick. I had to think about my postulations.
        There are choices that come out of a sense of desperation, such as a runaway horse heading towards a cliff and you’ve lost the hackamore. You have three choices: 1) gallop on ignoring reality, 2) jump ship, 3) think outside the box and hope you choose the right strategy. Desperation can be a grand teacher or a fickle deceiver. We seem to be in desperate times, choosing the same path over and over, and the only change is things get worse. Education seems to be in the same conundrum as science. Those involved often fear change will end in ruin, forgetting the higher calling. Politics, education, economics and health all seem mired in the bog of fear. Then we don’t always make the best choices and return to what seemed to work in the past. That would be choice number one from above.

        • Rich

          I think that in the US the extreme overemphasis on test scores is driven by a sense of panic. The powers that be, saw that our kids’ test scores were below those of Asian children and decided they were going to do whatever was necessary to raise our country’s test scores. The shockingly misconceived technique they chose to accomplish that, is to force-feed kids with facts in an intense several-week program whose goal is to make them look good on a test, which both students and teachers quite justifiably hate, but that doesn’t matter. The Federal government says the program *will* be carried out, and the schools have no choice but to follow orders. The sheer stupidity of viewing education as a process of making kids look good on a test is astonishing to me. I can hardly imagine a more effective way to turn kids off school and destroy learning.

          • steve_wildstrom

            Testing is important because you must evaluate your results to know if you are doing something right. A good test, even a multiple-choice exam, can assess deep understanding of concepts. But states don’t want to spend very much money on testing, so they get lousy tests.

            One advantage of the Common Core, at least in mathematics, is that the standards are very explicit about what students should know at each grade level. This creates a good template for test constructors. If you know explicitly what you want students to learn and good tests are synced to the goals, then “teaching to the test” is not a problem because it simply means that the desired curriculum is being taught. The goal is not to make children look good on tests but to make sure they have learned what they are supposed to learn.

            I don’t want to understate the difficulty of making this all work. If you are going to couple the Common Core to something as dumb as the current testing in my home state, the Maryland High School Assessments, very little will be accomplished.

          • jfutral

            The dark side of this kind of system is being experienced here in Atlanta as we speak.

            Joe

          • steve_wildstrom

            I deliberately avoided the question of whether tests should be used for any purpose other than assessing the effectiveness of the curriculum.

            The Atlanta scandal is the result not of testing but of a complete failure of institutional controls. Any time you assess performance, you create incentives to cheat. This is human nature. What you need are institutional controls to prevent it and to detect it if it does occur.

            We know what these are. Good test security protocols can minimize cheating (the College Board, for all of its many flaws, understands test security and provides models for others to follow). And audits can detect cheating if it does occur.

            This isn’t that hard. But like everything else, security and audits cost money.

          • jfutral

            Intellectually I know you are right. But the cynic in me is proven right too many times. Any time something is measured and importance of almost any kind is given to what is measured (the reward does not need to just be monetary, status incentivizes, too) there is a high risk of any system being gamed. I know I sound like a broken record, but I see it too often and as often on some of the most mundane of things.

            But cynicism never solves anything, so don’t pay any attention to me. :-)

            Test security is definitely a different, but related, topic and can be addressed elsewhere. Didn’t mean to sidetrack.

            Joe

    • steve_wildstrom

      Thank you.

      One of the important things about the Common Core is a restored emphasis on what math educators call automaticity, a horrible term but a vital concept. Basically, it means mastery of basic concepts such as addition and multiplication facts. In recent years, this has be denigrated as rote memorization, but it turns out that having these facts solidly learned and readily available is crucial to success in everything that is built on elementary arithmetic.

      The study of math is cumulative in a way that other subjects, except perhaps the study of foreign languages is not. If your arithmetic skills aren’t solid, you won’t do well in algebra. If your algebra isn’t solid, you will sink in calculus.

      • mhikl

        Steve, I haven’t found time to read all the suggested sites but shall do this evening when time permits.

        I spent my first years teaching arithmetic skills by the rote method. The time it took up in class was a misery, often to the point that little math could actually be accomplished and that may be part of the reason children have missing concepts, year after year. The teachers before me swore they children knew their arithmetic facts in June, just as I would tell the next teacher. Finally, when I came to understand the importance of concepts, I tossed the arithmetic drill sheets and painfully boring exercises (& homework) and began discovery. For example, that the addition of 2 or any even number to another number does not change its even or odd-ness young minds ‘discover’ on their own pretty quickly-with guidance.* I have met juniors, possibly some seniors who did not understand this simple concept. With the study into patterns in arithmetic the time taken to learn the tables was halved.

        What I learned was that concepts and patterns are best learned by encouraged self-discovery, not by the teacher repeating the ideas. Then a small triangle fact sheet was glued on each child’s desk. As each student came to know a fact (2+7=9) s/he would colour it out when learned, first in yellow and then with a darker ‘confident’ colour with 2 to 9 running the top and one side. What would take up a whole year to memorise, and often much forgotten by new September, became an exercise in joy as the students saw their task shrink by the week.

        The next simple step when the facts were mastered was to learn to add (eventually to subtract and then multiply) simple column and then multiple column & row sets of numbers from left to right rather than the monotonous, think-less, repetitive right-to-left carry method. Holding partial answers in the head as one moved to the next right column kept the student focused. Parents were so amazed at the strange way and focussed speed their children did their sums they were now more often taking part in the exercises at home while before they had been as bored and frustrated as their children and the teacher.

        It is when the child is in control that s/he is more likely to learn and that, in all disciplines I truly feel, is the job of teachers and parents to nurture discovery methods, giving up their role as master-know-it-all.

        As Einstein is famously quoted, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. Rote learning, in my experience, is too simple and fails far too many of our children. I suspect that my own struggles with maths left me open to giving up what I knew hadn’t work so easily for me and trying different paths. The left to right arithmetic is a long time memory tricks used to wow an audience. The home and school should be ‘big tops’ for showmanship by young minds.

        * (Upper elementary students can discover pi on their own with the right guidance. The wizardry of the spread sheet is invaluable in this exercise. This leads to what was called ‘over learning’ when such understanding is rarely lost.)

        • lucascott

          I remember being in AP Calculus as a high school junior (yeah I was one of those) and although I made a B in the class I never felt I really knew it. Then my fresher year of college I decided to take Calculus again. My prof was more like you sound, focusing on the concept and making sure we understood it before hitting the mechanics of the math. I got an A in the class without too much stress.

          • mhikl

            Excellent, lucascott. I wouldn’t be surprised if other paths in your life were changed from such a valuable lesson. Real learning leads to connecting with possibilities you might otherwise have not made.

        • steve_wildstrom

          If you can find a teacher who can coherently and correctly explain why the product of two negative numbers is positive, you’ve found a good one. This is actually a deep and subtle concept in arithmetic.

          By the way, if you are interested in this sort of thing, check out some of the videos done by the most creative math teacher I know, Jim Tanton, at Thinking Mathematics.

    • jfutral

      “The same principles support reading, writing and articulated speech and artistic expression.”

      As someone who works in the arts industry, this warms my heart. In Augusta,GA, there is both an arts magnet school and a math and health sciences magnet school. The arts magnet school has consistently out scored the math and h.s. magnet school on SATs as far back as there are records, as well as consistently out scoring the entire area. That includes the math section.

      Mae Jemison on TED Talks, https://www.ted.com/talks/mae_jemison_on_teaching_arts_and_sciences_together.html, demonstrates how major advancements in technology and science throughout history were always coupled with major movements in art.

      Joe

  • lucascott

    I’m not sure I understand the premise of this piece. It reads like its a debate on the efficacy of the whole Common Core and standardized testing practices but then in the last couple of lines it actually comes back to the tech companies mentioned in the headline basically saying ‘this is the lack of real education your future staff are getting, are you going to let that happen?’. I’m not sure how the two go together in this argument, it seems to lack cohesion.

    An article on how tech companies can help teachers in their efforts to teach students both the rote facts required by Common Core and how to think and process data would have made more sense with the headline. Focus on things like Apple’s iPads in schools, iBooks Author etc. or Amplify with its quick polls etc. they even highlight a teacher who used their software to toss out the textbook and created a whole lesson plan around the idea of zombies attacking and what would be needed to survive, rebuild etc