"There is no one way"

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Common Core and "Assessment"

I attended a the Critical Issues in Math Education (CIME) meeting in Berkeley (my home town) a few weeks ago.  It was a decent mix of math ed researchers, mathematicians, teachers, and people who work for various nonprofits connected to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I was pleased to see they did involve some math teachers (from Math for America-NYC) as presenters. When the CIME meetings started some years ago, the presenters were all university professors, so we have a little bit of forward motion.

The theme of the meeting was assessment, and representatives of the institutions that are formally in charge of designing CCSS assessments were among the speakers. Much of the time was spent creating assessment "tasks", which to me looked rather like interesting classroom activities. The latest fashion is "formative assessment" tasks, which are administered some time between half-way and two-thirds of the way through a unit, and are not graded. They are used to get a sense of where the students are at that point, and presumably help improve the teaching in the final part of the unit. A fine idea.

I don't know all that much about the CCSS, to be honest, so I appreciated the opportunity to learn something about them. Here are some key ideas about how the Common Core was described by the speakers at that conference:
  • The guiding principle of the content standards is focus and coherence. This is in sharp contrast, say, with the old California standards which lacked both. Focus: teach fewer things in a given year, in more depth. Coherence: the standards are not a random list of unconnected topics.
  • The practice standards are seen as integral to the whole. They focus on student disposition and habits of mind, and are intended to be the way the content standards are approached, and in fact should be inseparable from them. One can quibble about the list of practice standards, but the idea that content and practices are two sides of a coin is a good thing.
  • "Rigor", which in the math wars was the club wielded against any attempt at teaching for understanding, is being redefined to have three elements: conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, and practical application. Much better than the rigor mortis promoted by the traditionalists!
All and all, it sounds good. It is of course possible to find many things to object to in the details of the CCSS, but overall it strikes me as a movement in a positive direction. One thing it has going for it is that it has led to a sort of truce between some former participants in the math wars, who each think the Common Core includes enough of what they care about to justify a ceasefire. (Not everyone, of course.) Another good thing is that having common goals for all students is one way to move away from the tracked mindset of traditional math education: interesting challenges for the rich, mindless lockstep regurgitation for the poor.

That said, there's plenty of reason to be cynical.

One problem is that getting a zillion math teachers, including K-5 teachers, to implement the CCSS is a really tall order. Many of the presenters at CIME had a fair amount of history with the NCTM Standards and assorted attempts at overhauling math education. It is not clear that the current attempt has a better chance than those, especially in a fiscally conservative era.

Moreover, even good standards can be used to reinforce the disastrous trends that are destroying public education, especially the reliance on high-stake tests to attack students, teachers, and schools -- and the privatization strategy that underlies current "education reform". See for example Michael Paul Goldenberg's article on this subject. I don't agree with everything he says there, and I have laid out some of my disagreements in this post. But in the end, he is probably right about how all this is going to turn out. Not because of the CCSS, in my view, but because the movement to resist high stakes testing and privatization is still in its infancy. (Still, there are hopeful signs: Chicago, Seattle.)

As for me, I think my energy is best spent using the CCSS as one vehicle to improve teaching in the narrow circles I can influence.


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