Friday, September 11, 2015

Reflecting on the Mine

At our Board Presidents' Round Table in Syracuse last night, we heard from TC3 professor Jeanne Cameron, who has written a book about high school dropouts' perceptions of school. She interviewed a dozen Cortland dropouts and determined that the problem was not the kids but rather education reform, especially reforms that impose specific requirements on high school students. For example, Olivia had science and math requirements that I never had in my NYS high school career. She did fine with them, but it's a safe bet that she won't be using precalculus or chemistry if she ends up in a social science or humanities career path, as seems likely. For Cameron's dropouts, the lack of relevance of certain coursework to their own interests and life plans was the final blow. These were, for the most part, students who easily could have graduated, some with high grades—but they were turned off by the regimented character of high school today. Cameron compared it to her own school days in the late '70s, when she failed several science and math Regents but was saved by her many humanities electives, which taught her to read critically and to write elegantly. The more you pack the curriculum with requirements, the less hope there is for choices that match students' passions.

It is interesting to contemplate this on the heels of the governor's recent flip-flop on Common Core. It's not working (suddenly) and must be fixed, and he (very suddenly) sympathizes with the Opt Out parents. He wants his retired education commission, which I wrote about when it was first convened, to review the standards and make some recommendations in time for his State of the State.

Now, it's important to recognize that the Common Core State Standards set no requirements for numbers of courses, although they suggest "pathways," and the math standards, although they get into trig and proofs and functions, don't extend into the world of precalculus and calculus. They allow for accelerated pathways, in which advanced middle school students work their way into high school math. But when it comes to advanced coursework in math, the Standards leave it up to districts, saying, "STEM-intending students should be strongly encouraged to take Precalculus and Calculus (and perhaps a computer science course). A student interested in psychology may benefit greatly from a course in discrete mathematics, followed by AP Statistics. A student interested in starting a business after high school could use knowledge and skills gleaned from a course on mathematical decision-making. Mathematically-inclined students can, at this level, double up on courses—a student taking college calculus and college statistics would be well-prepared for almost any postsecondary career."

So requiring higher math of students who are not "STEM-intending" or "mathematically-inclined" is a state decision, unrelated to Common Core. Cameron is right about its connection to a desire to make America more competitive on the world business-and-economics scene, and she's also right that it's not a path for everyone.

Parenthetically, it would be nice if all discussion of Common Core went as science standards discussion did recently in Alabama, where "at public hearings where citizens could voice their concerns, the state required comments to be about specific standards. Critics couldn't simply oppose the whole effort on principle." Imagine that. The result was that Alabama, for the first time ever, is teaching undiluted evolution and even a smidgen of climate change. Back here in NYS, I hear "the standards are not developmentally appropriate," and I ask, "which ones?" and I wait.... Kudos to Alabama.

If Cuomo's commission wants to do something useful, it will pause all discussion of linking standardized test scores to teacher evaluation and will look seriously at limiting numbers of tests. Paul suggests that (since the point of testing for the students is to get kids who need it into AIS) if students get a 3 or 4 in third grade, they don't have to take any test in fourth grade. Then they're retested in fifth grade to make sure they're on track, and don't have to take a test in sixth grade if they are. That's one way. Another is to go to the European model, which used to be our model, of testing three times—say, fourth, eighth, and graduation.

But I like Cameron's idea about offering more choice at the high school, and it doesn't interfere with Common Core in the least. In NYS, we're talking about instituting multiple pathways to graduation, and if we ever figure out how to make that work from school to school, it will help to solve the relevance problem. In the meantime, the state would do well to look at graduation requirements and consider tweaking them once more.

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