An Open Source Curriculum Initiative


The K-12 OER Collaborative In a brand new T|H|E| Journal article, I’m reading about an open educational resources initiative involving 11 states and a handful of nonprofit organizations that have been involved in the Common Core and/or in developing classroom … Continue reading

Education Is Not An Effective Poverty Program


Why Not Evidence-Based Educational Policy? I’ve just discovered another writer who has impressed me with the first essay I’ve read.  Arthur Camins is the Director of the  Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology … Continue reading

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.