Creativity, the Arts, and the Common Core

Years ago as I was enrolled in a multi-session new administrators professional development workshop series, one of the presenters was Terrence Deal, who with Leo Bolman, had written one of my organizational leadership texts.  For many years, Deal has been writing with Bolman and others about educational leadership and school culture.  Among the most important insights I recall from that meeting was Deal’s commentary on school culture compared to corporate culture.  He remarked that schools were headed in the wrong direction when they attempted to become more like businesses, and he noted that he had a growing business as a consultant to corporations that were attempting to become more like schools.  Why? Because schools represented, among other things, a culture that valued creativity and collaboration, that recognized differences among individuals, and that nurtured individuals toward self-improvement.

In the February issue of Educational Leadership, the theme is creativity.  It’s a good issue with many good articles, and you can read some of them without a subscription if you click on the titles without locks.  Of course you can find a colleague with the magazine and read them all!  Some of the authors express their concerns about how the Common Core could pose a challenge to teacher and student creativity.  Nowhere in the Common Core is creativity explicitly valued, nor do we see any clear places where creativity will be tested.  And we know too often that what is tested is taught.

If one considers the increase in cognitive complexity that the Core implies, it might be easy to suggest that the increased requirement to problem solve, whether in more complex math problems or more textual analysis of reading passages, is the same as creativity.  It isn’t, and I’ve been guilty of making this generalization myself.  Cognitive complexity and creativity are not the same–demonstrating multiple pathways to the solution of a math problem might show a ‘creative’ approach, but it often actually means the math teacher has done a good job of helping students find multiple pathways to understand math concepts.

One particularly interesting article in Educational Leadership is “The Art & Craft of Science,” by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein.  You can read this article for free, by the way.  The authors have an impressive collection of research showing how the arts support science and mathematics.  They mention their own work, showing that four years of arts or music in high school would “confer a 100-point advantage over the average SAT score, whereas four years of science confer only a 69-point advantage.”  Their entire article is filled with examples from the writings of noted scientists and researchers that suggest the arts is somehow related to good results in science and math occupations.  Their work with graduates from Michigan State University, where the authors are employed, shows that “MSU Honors College STEM grads are 3 to 10 times more likely to be engaged in arts and crafts than the average American.”

I don’t read them as claiming that arts education creates better scientists, but the general evidence of creativity as an element that rounds out the education of successful STEM graduates is quite interesting.  The notion that keeping explicitly creative programs as a part of our general educational priorities runs through this Educational Leadership issue.

A major fear among critics of our testing accountability mania and of the Common Core’s emphasis on textual analysis (to the feared reduction in more creative ELA elements), coupled with national economic woes that have cut funding for public education, is the narrowing of the curriculum.  Schools for many years have been cutting teachers and programs that are not core academic topics in the arts, cutting vocational programs, cutting foreign language options, and cutting electives from science and social studies programs to focus on passing tests.  Many writers at all levels lament the decline of STEM programs–science, technology, engineering and mathematics–and suggest our international standing is suffering because of a decline among American students in STEM high school and college programs.  Schools and teachers are caught in the maelstrom of preparing kids for state accountability tests, the results of which are being touted as appropriate measures of whether schools and teachers are effective.  Too often, I think we’re throwing out the child-centered, healthy adult opportunities that a broad curriculum has traditional offered.  We need to foster creativity and individuality, not neglect them in pursuit of a narrowly aimed test score to define success.

If we look at the educational systems of several nations that outperform us on numbers, we will find many in which an end of school year test is critical.  China and Japan come to mind here, where high student suicide rates speak poorly about pressures on kids.  We should also take note of how much effort these two countries are making in attempting to put creativity into their schools–they have a clear understanding that the inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit that characterized American education and makes America, still, the best source of new inventions and new discoveries, is related to our historically creative and ‘liberal arts’ k-12 educational programs.  And an examination of test scores compared to worker productivity demonstrates that high test scores don’t relate to economic productivity.

As we move to the Common Core, which I like, we must not negate the broad and humanistic elements of our traditional educational system.  Our students’ measures of ability should be more than a number.  We won’t success by matching the Chinese model of superior test takers — they have created an economic power based on the imitation and reproduction of intellectual discoveries from elsewhere, and they regularly visit our schools trying to find the secret to our own entrepreneurial success.  Our future lies in how well we continue to have a broadly educated, well-rounded population with the ability to think out of the box and discover new solutions to the challenges around us.

Race to the Top – A “Race … in the Right Direction?”

New York schools, despite having one of the largest percentages of students in poverty, consistently rate highly in Quality Counts, from Education Week.  The state was a second round winner of $700 million in Race to the Top funds from the Feds, and aggressively rammed new legislation through the state legislature to qualify.  The unintended consequences are now being felt by those responsible for implementation.  Teacher morale is down, the costs of implementation are proving to be unfunded mandates several times greater than what was gained from ‘winning’ the Race, and a tax cap pushed through by the Governor is wiping out district capacity to raise taxes even where the public would be willing to pay more to maintain quality schools.  Moreover, many are estimating that 40% of New York districts face bankruptcy in the next few years.

Dr. Kenneth Mitchell, the Superintendent of the South Orangetown Central School District in Rockland County, NY, contributed a wonderful analysis of the unintended consequences of Race to the Top in New York, published by the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach at the State University of New York at New Paltz.  Open ‘Discussion Brief 8’ from this link to read the full article.  With the cooperation of 18 school districts in Rockland, Westchester and Putnam Counties, the three counties bordering New York City to the North, Dr. Mitchell produced an eye-opening analysis of the impact of RTTT in this relatively wealthy region.  These three counties are among the richest in New York–and the 18 districts are representative of the range of wealth found in the 60 districts in the region, though, I think, they would average somewhat above the mean in community wealth because some of the larger and lower income districts did not contribute data to the study.

Financially, Dr. Mitchell reports that the four year return to the 18 districts from RTTT funds will be $520,415, while the expense to districts is estimated to be $6,472,166, for a deficit of $5,951,751, an unfunded mandate of nearly $400 per pupil, to be funded by local taxpayers.  And because of the tax cap, which now requires a 60% super majority to pass a budget above the 2% cap, very few districts will be able to fund the mandates without substantial cuts in programs somewhere.  The cost of implementing the state’s new Annual Professional Performance Review – APPR  (teacher and principal evaluation) by itself represents a 3% increase in local costs to pay for the testing and evaluation training required for implementation without considering the costs of redesigning instruction to move to the Common Core curriculum, which requires new texts, instructional materials, shifts of content from grade to grade, and additional teacher professional development for implementation.

The effects, as gleaned from the 18 districts responses to the program, are disturbing.  Despite Race to the Top’s promotion as a school improvement program, districts will see staff cuts and larger class sizes, and non-mandated programs will be cut.  Districts are cutting maintenance despite this being a wonderful opportunity to get cost effective pricing during an otherwise slow economy.  Priorities are shifting away from instructional services that districts have developed over years of successful local control in order to fund the external mandates.  Internal professional development and staff to provide it is being cut, and training is focusing on teacher evaluation requirements, not on classroom instruction. Some districts will be required to hire additional supervisory staff to complete the evaluation mandates, which require more time than existing programs.  Curriculum is narrowing as districts prepare for extensive testing that will be used for teacher accountability.  And finally, quoting directly from the brief, “..the hidden costs may be greater than the outlay in dollars.  Teachers and administrators, stressed by the rapid change, the demand for accountability via the new testing and observation requirements, and anxieties about receiving low scores, are very likely to abandon initiatives that may be innovative and beneficial for preparing the next generation, but are out of alignment with a narrowed professional agenda for staying within the ‘Effective” range on the APPR.”

Dr. Mitchell proposes some reasonable shifts that New York politicians could make to back off and redirect this initiative.  He also identifies several sophisticated research groups that question the use of tests for teacher evaluation as Race to the Top demanded, and question the massive national shift to the Common Core curriculum.  Both these shifts are untested and lack a research base to justify the depth of the changes.  And since the changes were imposed by the legislature in New York, and by legislatures racing to get Federal funds across the nation during the economic slow-down, the changes are out of the hands of state education departments even if those leaders were inclined to back off in the first place.  Since they were generally the designers of the system, they are unlikely to be responsive–it’s full steam ahead, into the chaos that will ensure.

Download the article pdf at the link above, and see the research citations in the “Works Cited” link as well.

The Algebra Proxy

In the last few years, Americans have been told repeatedly that we’re not internationally competitive because of our public schools.  We’re told that students are not college and career ready.  We’re told that Algebra is a key to being college and career ready, and the Common Core standards have pushed algebra into elementary grades, with substantially more material at the middle school level than most state curriculum models have included in the past.  Does this make sense?

Indicators of College Success

I spend several hours reviewing Google searches about the indicators of college success.  Indeed, from an educational research perspective, algebra is usually found to be the most significant high school course that is associated with college success.  If one adds other indicators, often the next most significant indicators are additional advanced math courses–Geometry, Algebra II, Trig and Calculus–the more a student completes, the more likely the student will be successful in college.

As an English and Social Studies educator who values the increased emphasis on critical thinking in the Common Core,  (see my Critical Thinking post here) this is inherently problematic to consider.  What’s going on?  Are math teachers so much better at getting kids ready for college than other teachers?  And how many of you are using Algebra in your everyday lives?  I suspect–excuse me, I know–that most adults could no longer pass a typical high school Algebra or graduation level math exam.  This assertion is regularly validated throughout the country every few years whenever reporters jump on a story about issues with high school examinations.  They get a sample test, give it to a few hundred folks, and report on how awful adult math skills are, even for college grads.

I took a strong high school program, went to a quality college, studied physics for a year before changing to English and the Humanities, and had a much better math academic training program than most adults.  I could not pass the current New York Algebra I Regents Exam within the allocated time.   Today, despite an earned Ph.D. and years of successful teaching and administration, I would have a significant chance of being labeled not ready for college and career based on scores I would earn on New York Regents exams in math and science.  There’s something amiss here.  I’ll do fine on the English and Social Studies exams: These represent the content I have used throughout my career.  I haven’t used much math, chemistry, biology, or physics, and while I still read the science section of the New York Times and understand the content, I’m glad it’s written for a general audience and not for science majors.

I think we need to consider the concept of proxies to understand the research results about algebra.  The nation is looking for a ‘quick and dirty’ way to make judgements about kids, and algebra is that way.  By a quick and dirty proxy, I mean we want a low-cost and easy to calculate measure that represents the concept of college and career readiness.  There’s something about success in high school math classes that suggests a student is ready to take on the increased challenges of life beyond grade 12.  Students who do well with advanced math classes (and for other researchers, Advanced Placement courses in general–the harder courses in high schools) do better in college.  (See p. 10 of “Moving Beyond AYP” and a good set of references here)  What underlying skills do successful math students have that correlate to the skills needed for successful college course-taking?  It’s not the math itself that is the key to college success–most students don’t go on to study math in college, so they didn’t need the math skills themselves–they needed the underlying skills for which math is a quick and dirty proxy.

There are many possible answers.  Here are a few I’ve interpreted from my scan of the research–you can add more from your own readings.  Math requires persistence from students: they often need to struggle to ‘get it.’  Math doesn’t come easily–there are problems to solve, and for many that’s hard work.  It requires a level of academic self-discipline to master.  There are right answers to the problems even when there are multiple pathways to arrive at the solutions, so results are clearly measurable and students can see where they stand.  It’s more concrete than literary analysis or historical interpretation, but there are still creative and abstract challenges in arriving at solutions, even though many folks think that because math has right answers, it’s a linear subject.

We need to look more carefully at this proxy for success.  What, exactly, are the skills kids need, and why can’t we build these skills into other high school, middle school and elementary school courses so that we open up college and career readiness to more students, and improve teaching the complex thinking college requires in all our subjects.

As I’ve said in another way in my blog on Critical Thinking, I believe that the emphasis on deep reading and analysis across nonfiction text that we find in the Common Core is the start of a pathway toward making all of our K-12 curriculum a preparation for success in college and careers.  It’s overdue. Those who teach other subjects (not math, and not the science courses that depend so much on math concepts) should be considering our roles in deepening the intellectual expectations we have for students.

Reading Like a Historian

In the August 8, 2012 edition of Education Week I read History Lessons Blend Content Knowledge, Literacy, a report on an instructional program for social studies called Reading Like a Historian from the Stanford History Education Group.  It’s been designed by historians to use in schools, and is wrapped around the use of primary source materials to teach students the analytical and reasoning skills of a trained historian.  As a former Social Studies teacher and department chair, I am impressed with this program and with the related research that EdWeek describes as a part of the early reviews in schools where the program has been implemented.

A major element of school reform, in most states, is teaching students to think critically, to navigate the ever rising flood of information that is inundating contemporary society, and to develop sound reasoning strategies that can guide their adult lives.  I’ve frequently debated with my colleagues about what constitutes proof that American schools are failing, and for me one of the biggest failures is the lack of critical thinking demonstrated by adults across the nation.  We don’t recognize, and therefore don’t expect, quality thinking or logical reasoning from our elected leaders or from our media outlets.  We tolerate the polarization of almost every broadcast news source and we can no longer separate truth from fiction on our public airways.

We have no figures like Walter Cronkite on TV today.  We expected decent information from Cronkite, and when he editorialized (as when he expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War) it was clearly identified as an opinion–a separate commentary with reasoned argument explaining his opinion.  Today, we have lots of commentary and opinion–rarely backed by thoughtful analysis–interspersed with information, and the information is frequently slanted to suit the politics of the station’s target audience or corporate backers.  If we were all good critical thinkers, I believe we would expect more.  If we have the luxury of seeing news broadcasts from other nations, we can see the stark contrast between our infotainment and their news.

But I digress from the  “Reading Like a Historian” program.  Those of us who follow the Common Core Standards know that our ELA standards are entitled  “Learning Standards in Literacy, Social Studies, Science and the Arts,” and are heavily invested in reading informational texts of all kinds in order to expect students to learn appropriate skills in understanding, evaluating, and critiquing the information around them.

Reading Like a Historian appears to be perfectly suited to the Common Core.  Students are exposed to basic source materials from the past, and are engaged in evaluating these materials in the context of real world settings, even comparing the source material with the content of their textbooks.  From the website description of the program:
“This curriculum teaches students how to investigate historical questions employing reading strategies such as sourcing, contextualizing, corroborating, and close reading. Instead of memorizing historical facts, students evaluate the trustworthiness of multiple perspectives on issues from King Philip’s War to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and make historical claims backed by documentary evidence.” 

“…make … claims backed by documentary evidence.”  There’s the key, and the intellectual behavior change that we as educators need to support among our students everywhere.  Critical thinking is hard work, and we’ve taught our students too little of it for too long.