Friday, July 25, 2014

What are (and aren't) the CCSS?

There is some real confusion about the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics [CCSSM]. For example, check out the #CCSStime Twitter feed from last night. Maybe this will help.

This is NOT an example of a CCSSM:
from Liberty Unyielding
It is a curricular resource selected by a district, school, or teacher to support the development of some objective. That objective might be aligned with the CCSSM, but there is no evidence on the sheet that this is the case.

Here is a curricular resource that claims to be aligned with the CCSSM:
from Create * Teach * Share
The 3.NBT.3 notation in the upper-righthand corner indicates the standard this worksheet is meant to address. It is up to the district, school, or teacher to determine if this resource does indeed meet the standard. Still, this is NOT an example of a CCSSM.

This IS a CCSSM:

You can be sure of its authenticity because it comes from this document, Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. Anything not found in this document (like the curricular resources provided above) are not a part of the CCSSM.

When it comes to development and selection of curricular resources, the CCSSM is quite explicit; it leaves these decisions to the teachers. It does not endorse any set of resources or even a sequence of topics. From the Introduction:
These Standards do not dictate curriculum or teaching methods. For example, just because topic A appears before topic B in the standards for a given grade, it does not necessarily mean that topic A must be taught before topic B. A teacher might prefer to teach topic B before topic A, or might choose to highlight connections by teaching topic A and topic B at the same time. Or, a teacher might prefer to teach a topic of his or her own choosing that leads, as a byproduct, to students reaching the standards for topics A and B.
I am not defending the CCSSM. We can, and should, have a debate about something as important as a national set of mathematics standards. But let us have an informed debate, which starts with actually reading the document.

Monday, July 21, 2014

How compelling was that single study?

Dear Editor,

Ever since Chancellor Fariña began advocating for using aspects of balanced literacy in New York City Public Schools (New York Times, 6/26/14), she has come under fire.  While her only action thus far has been to ask Lucy Calkins, a proponent of a balanced literacy approach, to do a seminar in August, the critics have cried foul. They argue that Chancellor Fariña is ignoring the results from a 2012 study of a pilot program called Core Knowledge Language Arts [CKLA] (New York Times, 3/11/12). Given the information provided about the study, however, these critics are seemingly misrepresenting the results.

Here are some of their arguments.

Daniel Willingham (on the Board of Trustees of the Core Knowledge Foundation) on 6/30/14
Three years later in 2012, the results were in: the kids in the Core Knowledge schools were reading better. The advantage was indisputable. 

Fariña was reminded of these results last week: how could she justify calling for a return to balanced literacy when another program had shown superior? 

Robert Pondiscio (worked for Core Knowledge) on 7/3/14
Yet the Education Department’s own three-year study comparing Core Knowledge with balanced literacy in demographically matched New York City schools showed the former “had significantly stronger gains than comparison school students on nearly all measures.”

E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation), on 7/3/14
The New York City Department of Education recently did a three-year study comparing 20 schools. Ten used the Core Knowledge approach. Ten used balanced literacy. After analysis, the Core Knowledge results were deemed to be far better, to a high level of statistical significance. 

Alexander Nazaryan on 7/6/14
Ms. Calkins’s approach was tried by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, but abandoned when studies showed that students learned better with more instruction.

New York Daily News on 7/6/14
A 2012 a study found that a small group of balanced literacy schools lagged behind schools that used what’s known as Core Knowledge, ...

Michelle Gininger on 7/9/14 (at 9:51 into the podcast)
[The Bloomberg Administration] tested things out and saw, at least in that limited study, that Core Knowledge was working better for low-income kids ...

Whenever someone states, "the study shows," related to something as important as educating our children, please be wary. Our immediate response ought to be, "Where is the research? I would like to examine it for myself." In this case, many of the critics provide only a link to a New York Times article on the study from 3/11/12. It describes the study thusly:
For three years, a pilot program tracked the reading ability of approximately 1,000 students at 20 New York City schools, following them from kindergarten through second grade. Half of the schools adopted a curriculum designed by the education theorist E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s Core Knowledge Foundation. The other 10 used a variety of methods, but most fell under the definition of “balanced literacy,” an approach that was spread citywide by former Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, beginning in 2003.

Based on this description, it seems unlikely that the study did a direct comparison between balanced literacy and CKLA. After an unproductive search for the actual study, I only found a PowerPoint on Core Knowledge Foundation's own website sharing the results from the CKLA Pilot. This is how the Core Knowledge Foundation described the study:

There is nothing about balanced literacy in this description. In fact, there is nothing about balanced literacy or Lucy Calkins in the entire PowerPoint.

If there is more to the study that supports the critics’ claim that a direct comparison was done between balanced literacy and CKLA, then it is up to them to provide that information. It is not enough to simply say, “a study shows.” Without the actual study to anchor the discussion, arguments can drift far from the actual results.

For example, given the history of balanced literacy in New York City Public Schools, perhaps the critics jumped to the conclusion that the comparison schools were using balanced literacy. Therefore, in their minds, CKLA was compared directly to balanced literacy. While this history might be enough to support their opinion in casual conversation, research conclusions require confirmation. And no evidence was provided that confirms that the comparison schools were using the instructional approach described by several of the authors under the banner of balanced literacy.

Every study, and anyone who wants to appropriately cite that study, is limited by the study’s design. The design of the CKLA Pilot Study limits how we can use the results. If the critics are serious that they want Chancellor Fariña to use data to inform education policy, then a new study ought to be conducted. That is what the International Reading Association suggests:
With greater care in the design, analysis, and reporting, these shortcomings could have been resolved. If we could have confidence that the gains that students in the Core Knowledge schools showed on assessments of reading comprehension, as well as assessments of science and social studies knowledge, could be attributed to the resources that were introduced, then there is cause for celebration. The Core Knowledge program could, in fact, be an important element in a truly “balanced” literacy curriculum. 

To his credit, even E. D. Hirsch, Jr. supports this idea. At the end of his opinion piece, he writes:
But I agree with the schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña. The study was too small. We need a bigger one – and one that gauges long-term as well as short-term effects.

In order to conduct the study the critics want, a direct comparison of balanced literacy and CKLA, some New York City Public Schools are going to have to adopt Lucy Calkins’s instructional approach. Simply adopting some aspects, as Chancellor Fariña suggests, will not be enough. Dr. Calkins will probably even have to conduct professional development workshops for New York City educators. Ah, the irony.

Let me end on a serious note. If we are committed to doing what is best for students and using education research to inform these decisions, then we need to start having serious discussions around the data we collect. Using a single education study to push an agenda or bash a potential competitor is irresponsible, as it often ignores other important results. Intentionally misrepresenting the study in an effort to suggest that our children are at risk is nothing short of propaganda and has no place in the discussion. Let’s make “the study shows” the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it.

David Coffey
Professor of Mathematics Education
Grand Valley State University
Allendale, Michigan

Sunday, July 6, 2014

How can I help?

There was a lot of discussion about racism this weekend on my Twitter feed. It made me uncomfortable, so I tried to avoid it. After all, I wasn't the one being racist. But then I remembered something I learned through the Institute for Healing Racism: anyone who has reaped the benefits of white privilege cannot help but hold onto some racism. And like addiction, healing from that racism is a lifelong effort; it cannot be  cured after a couple of workshops.

I also learned that it is not enough to simply act non-racist. Ongoing healing requires a commitment to being anti-racists - to calling out and fighting racism whenever and wherever it is encountered. The movie 42, a dramatic telling of the story of Jackie Robinson, provides a good example. [Warning - spoilers!] Several of Jackie's teammates go from acting like racists (signing a petition stating they will not play with a black man) to non-racists (at least keeping their racism to themselves while others verbally attack Jackie) to anti-racists (who call out the racism and literally stand with Jackie to show solidarity).
Being anti-racists can be tricky, though. Branch Rickey, the owner of the Dodgers, is attacking racism head-on by signing Jackie. However, because Rickey is acting from a position of power and privilege, he appears to be using Jackie, not working with him (remembering this is a movie's portrayal of actual events). Is this still an example of racism, however unintentional it might be?

I watched 42 last night, and along with everything else, it caused me to do some soul-searching. What can I do to address the racism that is going on right now, especially in education? One of the reasons the whole racism discussion makes me uncomfortable is that I do not have the answer to this question. And the fact that I expect to know how to make someone else's life better suggests I might also be thinking that I know best - from a place of power and privilege.

I do not want to think that I have to have the solution to be a part of the solution. Consequently, I am asking my friends and colleagues who did not grow up with white privilege to help me by telling me what I can do to help and support them through the racism they are experiencing. I have heard people of color describe the process of teaching people like me about the racism they face as exhausting and I do not want to contribute to that. But if there is something to do, something to read, something to think about, I want to go back to being anti-racist and helping myself and my community to heal from this evil.

Friday, July 4, 2014

What does the research really say? (Language Arts Edition)

Yes it is. And understanding decisions about teaching and the related research can be harder still. This was especially evident in the last post where I examined how reporters struggled to make sense of educational research on first-grade math instruction. Robert Pondiscio, a Senior Fellow at the Fordham Institute, makes a similar point here:

It’s simply asking too much for even the most seasoned education reporters to develop a discerning eye for curriculum; it’s not their job, and it makes their job covering the instructional shifts taking place under Common Core uphill work.

Untangling educational issues is tough work, especially for those without the prerequisite knowledge and experience. That is why we rely on Education Experts like Mr. Pondiscio.

But what if Education Experts struggle with a study on teaching? Does this mean it is too hard for even them, or is there something else at play? These are not hypothetical questions. Recently, two separate Education Experts misinterpreted/misrepresented (you decide) a study on teaching reading in New York City elementary schools.

First, an opinion piece in the New York Daily News attacked an approach to reading instruction called “balanced literacy.” According to the author this is a failed approach and he has the study to prove it. He writes:
So according to this author, the study showed that Core Knowledge was superior to balanced literacy in almost every way. Let me use an analogy to make it clearer to those reading that might not be Education Experts.

Apple Pie Recipe
In honor of Independence Day, let’s pretend we are conducting an apple pie study. We have two different recipes (approaches) that we want to compare: Recipe B (Balanced Literacy) and Recipe C (Core Knowledge). Let’s say we have 20 bakers. Half of the bakers get Recipe B and the other ten get Recipe C. All other variables (the apples, the ovens, a baker’s ability, any common ingredients, …) are assumed to be the same so we can focus on the recipes. When the bakers are finished, the pies are compared using some objective measures. Then we can know which recipe is best.

But how are we defining best? Taste? Flakiness of crust? Presence of some ingredient only found in Recipe C? As I said last time, the measures matter when determining what a study really says.  So I went about trying to find out more information about the Core Knowledge study.

What I found was another Education Expert referencing the same study to make essentially the same point. However, this author added a bit more context in his column.
A link to a New York Times article about the study was also included but it did not seem to support the idea that the study was a direct comparison of Core Knowledge and balanced literacy.

Perhaps we ought to return to and modify our apple pie analogy. We still have 20 bakers split into two equal groups. One group still gets Recipe C, but the other bakers are not given any particular instructions about what recipe to use. There is some indication that they have used Recipe B in the past, however, it is unclear to what extent they continue to follow that recipe exactly, if at all. In fact, maybe some in the second group of bakers took a peek at Recipe C and are trying to use elements from it. We just don’t know for sure without actually watching them bake. Therefore, when the apple pies baked explicitly using Recipe C are judged as superior, the best we can do is say that, in general, using Recipe C is better than the variety of recipes "typically" used by the other bakers. We cannot say that Recipe C is better than Recipe B because it was not an explicit part of our study.

Neither can we say that Core Knowledge is better than balanced literacy using the information provided. That is why the New York Times continually refers to the second set of schools as “comparison” schools and not “balanced literacy” schools. In this case, the education report got it right and the Education Experts got it wrong. How could this happen?

Perhaps there is more to the study than was reported by the Times that supports the seemingly faulty claim made by the Education Experts. Anyone with more information can share it in the comments and I will make any necessary edits or apologies. In the meantime, I would encourage you to be skeptical about any opinions/commentaries that use studies to support their point without providing all the details (or misrepresenting the details provided, as in this case), even if Education Experts, who ought to know better, wrote the piece.

Updated (7/7/14): Another Op-Ed has appeared that misuses the Core Knowledge Study; this time in the New York Times. The central message of both opinion pieces seems to be that the authors struggled to implement balanced literacy so no one ought to use it.  Education policy is not based on a pair of negative experiences, however, and the authors know it. Therefore, in order to bolster their position, they overstate the findings of the study. I hope that the people making the decisions around this issue see through this ruse.

Updated (7/12/14): Somehow I missed the opinion piece by E. D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of Core Knowledge, that also states that the study directly compared his program to a balanced literacy approach. He writes:
The New York City Department of Education recently did a three-year study comparing 20 schools. Ten used the Core Knowledge approach. Ten used balanced literacy.
However, he links to the same New York Times article that says:
Half of the schools adopted a curriculum designed by the education theorist E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s Core Knowledge Foundation. The other 10 used a variety of methods, but most fell under the definition of “balanced literacy,” ...
Without having the methodology of the original study to back up his assertion, his direct connection to Core Knowledge raises the possibility of bias in how he is interpreting the results.

It turns out that the author of the first Op-Ed also has ties to Core Knowledge (starting at 11:18 on this podcast - which, by the way, also misrepresents the study). That means three of the four authors overstating the Core Knowledge Study have a connection to the Core Knowledge Foundation. It is understandable that they would believe in their program, and the study seems to suggest they ought to be proud to share the results - how their program compared to a control group.  It is unfortunate that they believe they have to embellish these results in order to attack what they must see as the competition.

For me this begs the question: Are these critics really interested in students' success, or is it their own program's success that has them worried?