Sunday, March 16, 2014

Common Core Criticisms - A Read NOT Just For Teachers

A reflection on Common Core Algebra 1
(Posted: Mar 10, 2014 9:28 PM)
Criticisms of Common Core Algebra 1 in New York State v2.docx (202.3 K)

Dear Colleagues,
I've written the following piece about Common Core Algebra 1 implementation. I am looking for feedback and candid criticism. I also attached the file.
I'll put my cards out on the table. I am disappointed in myself as a teacher of Common Core Algebra 1 this year. The task has been infinitely harder than I anticipated. I teach a group of students who have traditionally had difficulty with math. The skills that most teachers take for granted I must instill into students. In math, skill building is about practice, repetition, remediation, and reinforcement of conceptual and procedural understanding, as it is in any other realm. The Common Core Algebra 1 curriculum challenges students to do something important with those skills, namely authentic mathematical modeling, which the previous Integrated Algebra curriculum simply did not. I applaud and support that marked shift in emphasis. However, it is going to take time and reflection for teachers and students to navigate the new and raised expectations. Adjustments to the standards and the interpretation of those standards are sorely needed to find the "sweet spot" for students and teachers, where the balance between challenge and frustration is appropriate. Currently, this balance is off-kilter, and it's going to take true adjustment on the parts of all stakeholders to make Common Core math at the high school work. Otherwise, I fear the good the Common Core offers will be overshadowed by these failures, and this grand experiment will fail miserably, leaving us further behind in the world economy.

Firstly, it is going to take time for teachers to learn how to teach students the exact proficiencies they need to model mathematically. These skills not only include aptitudes and fluency in algebra tasks, but they also include the ability to read and understand directions, make connections to real-life scenarios, and to feel an inner sense of accomplishment after they've solved a problem, which requires picking and creating the right problems to solve. Without these aptitudes in place, the students won't be motivated to learn the content. Students who have traditionally struggled in algebra have never been expected to model with piecewise-defined functions, give the domain and range of a random function, solve complex word problems, and understand the subtleties of discrete and continuous variables. It will take time for educators to reconcile the previous expectations with the new ones, and create lessons that hit the mark, as teachers need to make mistakes, reflect, learn, and revise.

Secondly, we need time to truly vet ourselves in the process of curricular alignment and lesson planning, which requires concentration, focus, and clarity. The Common Core State Standards were adopted by New York State in July 2010. Commissioner King likes to cite this date because by the time students who must pass Common Core aligned Regents Exams will graduate high school in 2017, the CCSS will have been around for seven years. What the Commissioner fails to state is that high schools were teaching to the 2005 Standards at the high school level up until this year. Thus, teachers were still focused on improving lesson plans and curricula based on the 2005 Standards, rightfully so since our students were still responsible for them. How can teachers instruct one curriculum, plan for another, and do both effectively? Even if teachers could do this, we did not have three years as the Commissioner claims. The high school mathematics standards came to teachers in 2010 as a bundle of standards that were not organized into courses. PARCC, the testing consortium that New York joined, organized the standards into courses and attempted to interpret and clarify standards in each course. In this massive undertaking, PARCC was still distributing clarification documents for the Algebra 1 course well into 2013, a course New York teachers were being asked to teach in September 2013. Furthermore, Common Core Inc., a company based in Washington, D.C., won a contract from New York State to create curriculum based on the Common Core Standards. Educators saw the first module of the Algebra 1 course on July 10, 2013 and did not see the last one until October 4, 2013. BOCES consultants, our conduit to SED's inner circle, told school districts to wait to align their own curricula until these modules were released, as they promised to help tremendously. Additionally, a total of about 30 sample assessment questions were released, one set in the Spring of 2013 and another set in December 2013, almost halfway through the school year. When Commissioner King says that Common Core has been around since 2010, he is being disingenuous. While the standards themselves may have been around, there is a lot more to implementation than providing a list of nebulous standards up for interpretation. To contrast, SED provided a transition period when the 2005 Standards arrived and released hundreds of standards-aligned tasks years ahead of full implementation, giving districts and teachers the time and information needed to interpret the standards. I don't necessarily blame SED for the long series of delays, as this curriculum shift is a daunting task. However, the expectation that teachers would be able to snap their fingers and implement this curriculum with no notice, no time to review, and no process of true curricular planning and alignment is totally unreasonable. SED couldn't hold itself accountable to the onerous deadlines, so why should teachers and students be accountable to the same deadlines?

Thirdly, we need to take a step back and examine the standards, agree on what they mean, and decide if the interpretation is appropriate for eighth and ninth graders taking the course. Many of the Common Core math standards can be interpreted in different ways by different educators, even those within the same school. Take this Algebra 1 standard, for instance:

"Create equations and inequalities in one variable and use them to solve problems. Include equations arising from linear and quadratic functions, and simple rational and exponential functions."

While this standard is clear in the sense that students will be working on creating equations and inequalities in one variable to solve word problems, the difficulty level of problems students will be expected to tackle is completely unclear. The modules were supposed to serve as a tool to clarify imprecise standards like this. However, the modules actually muddied the waters. Lesson 25 of Module 1 was entitled "Solving Problems in Two Ways-Rates and Algebra". Each lesson, according to the writers of the modules, should take 45 minutes. This particular lesson explores three challenging word problems, one for which 30 minutes is allocated during the lesson. The practice questions found after this lesson (and presumably questions that students and teachers are accountable for) do not resemble the classwork. Assuming the lesson was expertly executed, even the brightest students would encounter confusion with these practice questions. Lessons such as these are common throughout the modules, and force teachers to make choices about what to teach. While I protect the right of teachers to choose what materials to use in their instruction, the curriculum is forcing teachers to reinterpret the standards and make choices that could be detrimental to students on an outside assessment. There is no way that any teacher could cover the depth and breadth of the kinds of problems expected in Lesson 25 in three days, let alone one.

Combined with unclear standards is the fact that gaps exist in student learning due to the ragged transition to Common Core that are difficult, if not impossible, to fix. For example, the word problems lesson undoubtedly assumes that students have already mastered solving word problems in one linear variable, as this is now a standard in Common Core grade 7. However, students currently in Common Core Algebra 1 never had Common Core instruction in grade 7. No wonder I had to spend 5 or 6 instructional days on a unit the modules say deserves one lesson. Perhaps in a few years, as students are educated in this Common Core culture, I will be able to spend only a day on this topic. However, I am skeptical of my own hope, as my colleagues who teach seventh grade report that many students struggle developmentally with algebraic word problems at that age and don't truly master the concepts. This agrees with my experience of working with ninth graders, which screams that I will still be spending at least 5 days and teach it as a mini-unit of study, not one lesson. The time I spend on filling gaps and allocating the appropriate time to this topic is time I will not spend on something else. What will be expensed? Should it be students' study of the graphs of cube root functions, a topic once found in Algebra 2? Or should I skip over properly developing the important idea of a residual plot, a deep topic traditionally found in AP Statistics? Perhaps I should gloss over increasing and decreasing functions, a former pre-calculus topic. Maybe getting kids to understand why a horizontal shift of a graph of a function works the way it does will have to go. All Algebra 1 teachers in New York State will be forced to make choices as a function of the "mile wide, mile deep" nature of the Algebra 1 standards, and unfortunately we will all make choices that hurt students? ability to deeply understand the mathematics that is being taught. Some teachers will choose to skip topics altogether, hoping they don't appear on a Regents Exam. Other teachers will choose to teach very superficial and basic lessons relying on memorization skills, in the hopes of "covering" everything. Still other teachers will tow a middle road, not spending enough time for students to master something but spending too much time to expose students to all of the major ideas. None of these approaches embraces the promise and philosophy of the Common Core.

There was a point this year when I felt like perhaps I'm not the teacher I once was, or that I am just no good at this job anymore. However, in the process of writing this reflection, I've realized that while I am not happy with the product I've put out in the classroom, the problems stem much deeper than my lessons. While I have tremendous revisions to undertake both for the rest of this school year and over the summer, I now realize that Algebra 1 students and teachers in New York State have been put in an untenable situation and have been given an impossible task. The Common Core's promise was to have the time to devote to getting kids to understand deeply the algebraic concepts that mattered most. However, the devil is in the details. We have unfortunately been sold a bill of goods, as the current implementation and interpretation of the Common Core State Standards does not actually allow for the shifts of dual intensity of mastery and understanding, and focus on a narrower and deeper curriculum, to occur. What we now have is a monstrous course and the Herculean task of teaching it in a way that will be meaningful to 13- and 14-year olds. Give us the time to figure it out. Fix the "mile wide, mile deep" nature of the course. Make the interpretations of the standards clearer. Allow us to patch the gaps. Involve teachers in the revision and clarification process. And, most of all, don't penalize my students for the choices I had to make on their behalf.

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL  62901-4610
Phone:  (618) 453-4241  [O]
            (618) 457-8903  [H]
Fax:      (618) 453-4244

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