CC Math (CCM), the subject of this final post, may be the most hated educational reform since No Child Left Behind. The initiative remains a political hot potato and reminds me a little of the warnings I heard throughout most of my middle and high school years: “The metric system is coming! The metric system is coming!” Math teachers presumably enjoyed using the threat as motivation for students who couldn’t figure out which way to move those sneaky decimals. I think my former middle school teachers, Mrs. Gordon and Mr. Franklin, actually believed the hype. Unfortunately, they were 1.83 meters deep before America finally rendered a verdict and chose to stick with standard measurement. My own mother believed the metric system was a very real part of the Cold War. She also strongly discouraged me from using the algebraic expression of the numeral 7. “That looks like something the Russians would do,” she said. Thankfully, Rocky knocked out Drago and Reagan demanded that Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” Without Rocky and Reagan, we might all be measuring things in units of tens and writing those pinko commie 7s. On the bright side, running a 5K still sounds cooler than it otherwise would if the good old U. S. of A. had taken the metric plunge. Joking aside, we have survived math crises before. I suspect we will survive this one known as CCM. Navigating the rhetoric is the real challenge.

“CC is coming! CC is coming!” has been the battle cry since 2008, although it was much more of a battle whisper back then. The volume has gotten considerably louder recently. The difference between this math “crisis” and the one back in the ’80s is that the metric system remains other countries’ problem—or blessing, depending on your understanding. In contrast, CCM has actually become our problem—or blessing, depending on your position. Without even checking the Old North Church tower, I can tell you that the CC “threat” did not arrive by land; it arrived by C-note, as in the almighty dollar. When the Federal Government awarded Tennessee with half-a-billion dollars ($501 million to be exact) in Race to the Top grant money back in 2010, the understanding was very clear…CC isn’t going anywhere soon. For better or worse, CCM has now become reality in Tennessee, Sumner County, and yes, even Madison Creek.

This final installment documents my evolving thought process regarding CCM. Specific math standards are available here and are sortable by your child’s grade level. The words that follow come with the same disclaimer I offered two weeks ago: My intent is to spark original thought and consideration. To repeat what I said in Part One, I’m not here to sell you a bill of goods, and I’m not willing to sacrifice my professional credibility on the altar of political correctness, either. The Sumner County adopted math curriculum, Bridges Math, will be mentioned as well, simply because I consider it CCM in action and because the program provides families with concrete exposure to CCM. The jury, as far as I am concerned, is still out on both CCM and Bridges. Truthfully, I don’t expect the jury to return with a verdict for quite some time. Know on the front end, however, that I am cautiously optimistic about both CCM (think standards) and Bridges (think curriculum). I hope stakeholders are, too. Neither could be worse than the watered-down math standards and/or the curriculum that preceded them.

My first exposure to CCM occurred at a Tennessee Department of Education training several years ago. I was honestly appalled (seriously, I was appalled) that somebody managed to turn something as simple as 46 x 29 into an exercise in drawing and shading. When we were asked to solve the problem, I simply used the standard algorithm Mrs. Tate taught me back at Lakeview Elementary. I stacked the numbers on top of one another, started multiplying using the “times tables” I had already DOMINATED the year before, dropped a zero, multiplied some more, and arrived at the product with a little simple addition. I was, after all, the undefeated times tables champion in my class…an original mathlete. Billy Langford might disagree, but I would have won the entire grade level had the teachers allowed us to draw brackets and settle matters like men. I digress.

Imagine my surprise when the CC trainer requested that I solve 42 x 29 by drawing some boxes, doing a little shading, and arriving at the correct answer visually. I refused. Imagine her surprise when a grown man, not to mention an educator, simply told her no. I am my mother’s child, after all. Just like Mildred Duncan took her stand against the Big Red 7 back in the ‘80s, I dug in and Just Said No (Nancy reference, not Ronald) to Communist Core Math. People don’t get kicked out of education training, but I’m pretty sure I was close that day. As the trainer walked away frustrated, I mumbled something about being escorted out of better places by nicer people. Not my proudest moment. Apparently nobody had told this lady about my success as an elementary memorization all-star, but I had conveniently forgotten my plight as a high-school math reasoning failure. In hindsight, I wonder why I didn’t stop to consider the fact that I was literally incapable of solving her math problem visually because I was nothing more than a very successful math memorizer as a child. As a teenager, when math demanded reasoning, my grades suffered. Worse, my learning suffered. I lost the cognitive dissonance battle in CCM training that day, and pride persuaded me to file CCM under the “stupid column” instead of filing my math skills there. Have you ever experienced an “I-don’t-understand-this-so-it-must-be-stupid” moment?

Maybe you remember crushing math in school. Maybe you remember being crushed by math. Or maybe you remember both, like me. At the risk of oversimplifying a very complex topic, I think there are three types of math students: those who naturally excel, those who naturally struggle, and those who could go either way, depending on expectations and instruction. Let’s call these kids math studs, duds, and prospects. (Disclaimer…NO student is actually a dud in my book. The labels are offered for illustration purposes only.) Traditional math standards and curricula have failed the duds and the prospects for a long, long time. The reason I am cautiously optimistic about CCM in general, and Bridges in particular, is because it emphasizes reasoning at an early age, the very skill that creates problems for prospects and duds when they encounter advanced math theory. Think of it this way…traditional math instruction has historically failed approximately two-thirds of our math students (duds and prospects). Even worse, prospects like me were fooled into believing we were studs until memorization skills were no longer sufficient. Let me pose a couple of very serious questions:  Is it possible that CCM could turn prospects into math studs? Is it possible that even math duds can experience some level of success with the help of visualization skills promoted by CCM and taught through Bridges as early as kindergarten? I don’t know the answer to those questions…yet. What I do know is that doing the same thing we have always done will get prospects and duds the same rotten math results we have always gotten. The small percentage of students who are math studs have a seemingly innate ability to “get” numbers. You may know them as actuaries, engineers, statisticians, or even bookies. I contend these math minds will understand and excel at quantitative reasoning regardless of the standards or the curriculum. CCM, in other words, poses no risk to these real mathletes. Let’s simplify. Traditional math standards and conventional math instruction have historically enabled only math studs to succeed. CCM and Bridges now conceivably provide an opportunity for the other groups, duds and prospects, to succeed mathematically.

Is all this really that big of a problem? Are math skill deficits as pronounced as I am implying? I suppose the answer is a matter of perspective. Indulge me for a moment as I set aside my principal role for the purposes of speaking from a father’s perspective. For the Duncan family, math is currently a monumental problem with very real financial implications. My oldest, Eli, is in the process of making college decisions and applying for scholarships. He has one big problem. The gap between his ACT Math score (25) and his ACT Reading score (35) is TEN points. Consequently, the gap between his ACT Math score (25) and his ACT Composite score (31) is SIX points. This same Math subscore, because of its effect on the Composite Score, will likely cost him tens of thousands of dollars in merit scholarship money. In my world as principal, I quantify and attack achievement gaps between ethnic minorities and non-minorities, between the economically disadvantaged and the affluent, and between students with and those without learning disabilities. In my world as father, I wish I could attack the much more tangible achievement gap between my son’s ACT Math subscore and his other subscores. I can’t. Eli is not a math stud. He is a math prospect. On April 11, 2015, this kid showed up to take his ACT–a nationally-normed, standardized assessment–with Tennessee math skills. As my father would say, Eli showed up to a gun fight with a knife. My son arrived at a big league game with bush league math skills.

Still cynical? The following scores are real and represent how a math prospect named Eli was conditioned to believe his Tennessee math skills were sufficient. TCAP Math scores: 3rd Grade (514/Advanced), 4th (556/Advanced), 5th (563/Advanced), 6th (782/Proficient), 7th (808/Advanced). Even his high-school math scores were respectable, as measured by Tennessee End-of-Course (EOC) tests: Algebra I EOC (97%), Geometry EOC (96%), and Algebra II (94%). Remember his ACT Math score of 25? That score puts him in only the 79th percentile of math students in the United States. If you think states should be responsible for drafting and implementing their own educational standards, we agree. If you think home-grown Tennessee math standards were adequate, we disagree. Numbers don’t lie. Why am I optimistic about CCM and Bridges? Because it would be virtually impossible for an objective person to conclude that we should have stuck with our old standards and curriculum. Is CCM perfect? Absolutely not. Is it better than what we had? You better believe it. Would it have made a difference for Eli? We will unfortunately never know.

After more than 4,500 words and three different blog posts, allow me to close with some practical application. Parents, I’m talking directly to you. I’m also talking to myself as a father. What follows is a little advice, specifically within the context of Common Core. Like most advice, it applies in a much broader context, as well. One of the greatest disservices we can do our children is to jade them through our words and opinions. I have made the mistake more times than I care to admit. When we badmouth standards and curriculum (not to mention teachers, assignments, and schools), we provide our kids a license to disengage. Quite literally, we give them the permission they need to become apathetic at best and defeated at worst. Student statements during a math lesson are quite often reflective of parental attitudes: (1) “My mom said she was terrible at math, too.” (2) “Dad tried to help me with this math last night, but he just got frustrated.” (3) “Uncle Johnny is an accountant, and he can’t even do this Common Core stuff.” (4) “My parents think Bridges is completely ridiculous.” The list goes on and on. My own kids have heard me say things like, “The only numbers that matter have dollar signs and percentages attached.” Of course, I arrived at that wrong opinion because I am completely proficient at “banking and finance” math. Legitimizing advanced math, however, would require me to acknowledge my mathematical weaknesses. How I wish I could take those words back. Maybe I am responsible for that ACT Math subscore of 25.

Common Core is neither state-sponsored propaganda, nor is it the perfect cure for America’s educational ills. CC is, quite simply, an educational initiative designed to make American students more college and career ready. Period. Because of Tennessee’s historically diluted educational standards and miserable performance on nationally and internationally-normed tests, I am certainly willing to give this new initiative a test drive. Are you? More resources have been provided throughout this series than most parents likely have the time to consider. Nonetheless, even if you haven’t clicked on any other hyperlinks in these three posts, please consider clicking on these last two. Parents’ attitudes toward school work are contagious. So is a parent’s math anxiety. These attitudes and anxieties are most prevalently manifested through CCM. In this fascinating New York Times blogthe author explains exactly how contagious math anxiety can be, even for well-intentioned parents. It’s a quick but convicting read and well worth your time. Finally, if you need a simple and expedient look at exactly how CCM compares with traditional math standards and operations, Why Math Looks Different Now is the best video example I have found and only requires about eight minutes of your time.

I sincerely hope all of these resources have helped. Most importantly, thank you, parents, for playing an active and absolutely critical role in your children’s schooling. Educational efforts are most effective when schools and parents collaborate. MCE is blessed to call you partner, and we look forward to continuing our mutually beneficial relationship for the sake of our students and your children.

COMMON CORE MEETS COMMON SENSE–Reading/Language Arts (Part 2 of 3)

Having hopefully established the case for education reform in last week’s post, a closer look at CC Reading/Language Arts (RLA) standards is in order.  For clarification purposes, these same standards are sometimes referred to as English/Language Arts (ELA), depending on the source of the information.  We will use RLA and ELA interchangeably, as well.  Regardless of what we call them, they definitely aren’t your father’s elementary school standards.  Click here and simply scroll down to “K-8 Standards” for an in-depth look at these rigorous expectations.  By selecting your child’s grade level from the drop down menu, you can readily access everything he or she is expected to know by the end of this school year.  Specific standards are broken down into six categories (Literature, Informational Text, Foundational Skills, Writing, Speaking/Listening, and Language).  NOTE:  The actual standards are listed in tables with blue headiings.

If you’re scoring at home and assuming you read last week’s post, the word rigorous has already been used three times.  The idea of educational rigor means different things to different people.  In the interest of developing a common, working understanding, allow me the liberty to define rigorous as difficult.  Interestingly, lists brutal and burdensome as being synonymous with rigorous.  As a principal, I am comfortable defining rigorous as difficult, brutal, or burdensome.  I am even willing to accept rigorous as meticulous, another synonym.  Candidly, however, I sometimes wonder if we are labeling impossible expectations as “rigorous standards.”  In other words, if a wonderfully rigorous standard is introduced at the wrong grade level, what we really have is an impossible expectation.

To illustrate this concern as it applies to the rigorous vs. impossible debate, let’s play a quick game.  I’ll provide a random CC ELA standard below, and you guess the grade level at which a student is required to master the expectation.  Ready?

“Students will write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, including some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.”

What grade level did you guess?  Third?  Fourth?  Wrong.  The “rigorous” Writing Standard above was taken directly from Tennessee’s ELA Standards for FIRST GRADE.  I am blessed to interact with 100 first graders every day.  They are many things, including cute, funny, and willing to hug most anybody.  They chew with their mouths open, run when nobody is watching, and smell much better before recess than after.  Some can read fluently, and some are working hard to be able to do so.  Generally speaking, however, most first graders are not capable of “signaling event order with temporal words” or “providing a sense of closure to their writing.”  The RLA standard in bold above would be considered appropriately rigorous for a third or fourth grader, in my opinion.  For first graders, the same standard is bordering on impossible.  In most cases, six-year-olds’ idea of providing narrative closure is to draw a heart or a car at the end of their stories.  Advanced first graders might attempt to provide a sense of closure with “The End.”

Perhaps I am selling six-year-olds short.  They are definitely like little sponges, soaking up virtually everything put in front of them academically.  Maybe after a year of CC ELA standards at the kindergarten level, these little people will be quite capable of the ominous standard referenced.  What concerns me, though, is educators’ propensity to turn children into what Uncle Buck fought against way back in 1989.  Who could forget this hilarious movie clip?  CAUTION:  Apologies for the bad word at the 2:22 mark.  To avoid it, simply mute the clip between 2:20 and 2:24.  To paraphrase Uncle Buck, I’m not sure I want to know a six-year-old who is good at signaling event order with temporal words.

Setting aside this objection to developmentally inappropriate standards–really, the only one I have–there are many, many things I appreciate about CC RLA.  These new standards call for a 50/50 balance of complex fiction and content-rich non-fiction.  In other words, CC requires that students enjoy exposure to both quality literature and detailed informational texts.  That seems like a reasonable idea to me as a learner, as a principal, and as a father.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could choose to live and learn exclusively in the make believe world of our favorite fictional genre?  Too bad that’s completely impractical.  Non-fiction is a necessary part of adulthood, so I believe it should be a necessary part of childhood, too.  Besides, some students (stereotypically boys) hate reading until they stumble across a book about snakes, snails, or puppy dog tails.  Consider a couple of examples.

When my wife and I began dating, her 13-year-old brother was in middle school.  His teachers wanted him to read The Outsiders and Chronicles or Narnia, but he was too busy devouring JEGSMotor Trend, and National Dragster magazines.  He is now happily married with two children and getting along quite nicely building race cars for a living.  With apologies to Hinton and Lewis–not to mention Ponyboy and Mr. Tumnus–if my brother-in-law had it to do over, I suspect he would choose the same informational texts.  Classical literature undoubtedly has value, but for too long we have prioritized it well above non-fiction.  I’m relieved that CC makes room for both.  This paradigm shift is without question my favorite piece of CC.

My own son preferred the Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds over Junie B. Jones or Diary of a Wimpy Kid at a very early age.  Thanks to great teachers, he eventually found some Mike Lupica books (sports fiction), but that was well after he had practically memorized the dog book and worn the cover threadbare in the process.  Now a high school senior, this same young man has suffered through books labeled “classics” by people he has never met with different tastes than his own.  Simply put, he endures the fiction he is forced to read, but he devours the informational texts he chooses to read.  My freshman daughter, on the other hand, loves and prefers fiction.  Do I encourage her to read fiction that I would never consider for myself?  You better believe it.  When she asks if I will take her to buy a new novel on its release date, the answer is always yes.  Reading is reading in my book (pun intended).  My simple-minded reading philosophy is this:  Figure out what a kid enjoys, and give them literary access to everything you can find on the topic–magazines, books, and even supervised internet time.  Well-intentioned educators and parents make a mistake when they classify reading into two categories–“reading for fun” and “reading for information.”  For some kids, reading for information IS reading for fun.

Finally, writing and speaking skills have been expected, but not necessarily taught, in upper grades for a long, long time.  CC ELA now requires educators to formally teach students to write and speak as early as kindergarten, and those skills are continually refined in every grade as students’ cognition allows.  As a former high school teacher, I am incredibly grateful for this new focus on student expression.  The majority of the juniors and seniors I taught were terrible writers.  I remember thinking, “Why did nobody teach these students to write?”  When I asked high school English teachers and friends (who could more aptly–and lovingly–be called high school literature snobs) about this problem, they blamed middle school English teachers.  When I asked those middle school teachers (again, friends and literature snobs) what happened, they blamed inadequate elementary instruction.  I blame nobody.

How can we blame any teacher for not grooming great writers and public speakers?  For too long, traditional RLA standards have left a great deal to be desired when it comes to student expression.  In fact, for most of my 20-year career, RLA standards could have been much more accurately identified as simply R standards–reading.  Language arts, according to my English teacher friends (now maybe former friends because I called them literature snobs), was “taught” through writing.  “Research supports teaching language arts through writing,” they said.  “Well, it’s not working,” I replied.  Research also supported fen-phen, New Coke, and the Flat Earth Theory.  Turns out, those research findings were wrong, too.  Before CC, I felt like we should pause for a moment of silence to remember the hieroglyphics of diagramming sentences.  Let me step down off of my soapbox in order to conclude.

Considering the totality of CC RLA standards, I would consider myself a proponent.  For the record, I think all CC RLA standards are worthy of students’ time and teachers’ instruction.  My only objection is based on the age at which some standards are expected to be mastered.  Assuming we don’t call an impossible expectation a rigorous standard, I am happy with all six categories of CC RLA (Literature, Informational Text, Foundational Skills, Writing, Speaking/Listening, and Language).  As a pragmatic reader and “grammar nazi,” I am ultimately thankful that CC provides something for everyone, especially my former?? friends and literature snobs.  S.E. Hinton and C.S. Lewis might not be thrilled with CC ELA standards, but I believe Uncle Buck would approve.

COMMON CORE MEETS COMMON SENSE–The Need for Education Reform (Part 1 of 3)

Educators, like most adults I know, are tempted to form opinions based on political rhetoric and/or media reports, the line between which has been blurred in recent decades.  Our opinions regarding Common Core State Standards are no different.  Most of us are at least honest enough to admit that our CC beliefs have been shaped by the comments of others.  That’s a healthy approach to forming an opinion about most anything, provided we are willing to hear both sides of an argument.  Where we get into trouble is when our beliefs are determined by the comments of others.  Put more practically and directly, are your CC opinions based exclusively on what you hear on your favorite “news” channel or what you read on your favorite website?  That’s dangerous.  That’s called motivated reasoning or confirmation bias, and it enables people to ignore facts that run counter to their preconceived notions–notions that may be nothing more than opinions they adopted (or stole) from another person or institution.

Let me just come right out and ask some very difficult questions:  Do you dislike CC because of what you heard on Fox News?  Are you a CC supporter because CNN persuaded you to be one?  Are you convinced that CC is actually “Communist Core” because you stumbled across a Drudge Report article linking this new “state-sponsored curriculum” to Bill Ayers by way of Barack Obama?  Last one, I promise….  Would you consider CC the salvation of American education because MSNBC broadcast a special report which concluded the same?  Let me challenge you.  Bill O’Reilly, Anderson Cooper, Matt Drudge, and Rachel Maddow all have agendas, and they all pander to audiences of like-minded people.  And I love that.  Their ulterior motives actually help me arrive at my own conclusions regarding many topics, especially CC.  As an educator, I also have the luxury of refining my CC beliefs through the filter of experience.  Research and practical application are a wonderful combination.

I am regularly asked about my opinions regarding Common Core.  The following words are neither an endorsement for, nor a condemnation of, CC in general.  My motive is simply to share with stakeholders what I honestly believe about CC–beliefs galvanized through research and experience–and to provide some resources, when appropriate.  Readers are encouraged to draw their own conclusions.  If you are in search of evidence that supports what you have already concluded, however, you are likely to be disappointed.  Advantages and disadvantages will both be discussed.  Part one of this three-part undertaking begins simply enough by considering the need for education reform.  Next week, part two examines Reading/Language Arts (RLA) through the lens of CC.  Part three, scheduled to be posted in two weeks, is an open invitation for you to witness my personal wrestling match with CC Math standards and our Bridges Math curriculum.  Let’s first establish the need for education reform.

Do we really need Common Core?  I believe that’s the wrong question to ask.  Here are two better questions:  1) Do we really need education reform in America?  2) Do we really need education reform in Tennessee?  Who among us would say we don’t? Depending on which study you read–and there are seemingly thousands–U. S. students lag well behind other industrialized nations in math, science, and reading.  Interestingly, some of those same studies rank American students first in one category–self-esteem.  I blame participation trophies, but that’s another blog for another day.  So, how about our state?  Sadly, in an educationally underperforming nation, Tennessee is underperforming educationally as a state.  Several national studies rank Tennessee in the bottom ten states in virtually every academic category, including reading, math, and science.  Ouch.  I want better for my kids.  I want better for your kids.

Clearly, our education system is broken.  Enter Common Core State Standards.  Is CC perfect?  Nope.  Is it better than the diluted standards Tennessee rode to the bottom of the United States’ educational rankings?  Ab-so-lute-ly.  CC is ridiculously rigorous.  Given the fact that we have an education problem in America and in Tennessee, and given the fact that CC is available, I am certainly willing to approach these new, rigorous standards with an open mind.  Doing so requires me to evaluate both parts of Common Core–RLA and Math.  Stakeholders are encouraged to do the same.  To learn more about what CC looks like in Tennessee, please click here and consider bookmarking the page for future reference.  If a national perspective is preferred, additional information is available here.  For conspiracy theorists like me who are naturally inclined to suspect propaganda, grab a cup of coffee and research Common Core Problems (I’ve already typed in the search criteria, so just click on the hyperlink above).

Presenting both sides of the CC debate may not be the politically correct thing for a principal to do, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my professional credibility on the altar of political correctness.  I’m not here to sell you a bill of goods.  Take some time, and learn as much as you can…from both sides of the debate.  Set aside all preconceived notions and embrace your cognitive dissonance.  It’s healthy.  You have a week to complete your research.  Homework isn’t just for kids….