Thursday, May 26, 2016

For Parents of K-12 Students (U.S.)

Dear Parents,
Every weekday morning I drop off my son at school.  Every weekday afternoon I pick him up. I have a vested interest in the success of schools both personally and professionally. When I talk to parents about their children’s education, I have noticed, however, that most parents have major gaps in their understanding of how our education system works, Common Core, active learning, and the point of education. In this post, I hope to nudge you to learn more about the issue for the sake of our children.

Basics about Education
Before we can talk about the main issues, we need to be clear on the basics. Some parents I talk to do not understand the “ingredients" of education. Just like cooking, you need to get the right ingredients, and on an even more basic level be able to recognize what those ingredients are. 

Basic ingredients of Education (in the US):
  • The state standards
  •  Curriculum (books and textbooks)
  • Teaching (Instruction) and learning environment
  • Student Learning
  • Assessment
  • Other (e.g. counseling, sports, clubs, facilities, etc.)

Looking at a list of ingredients doesn’t convey what the final product is. If you get recipe and only look at the list of ingredients, it doesn't tell you what the final dish will be when served.  Education (as a system) is much more complex than cooking a meal.  Hence, we need a way to organize the information to help us make sense of what we perceive at our schools.

Models let us see better how the pieces fit together, by organizing them in a structure.  The simple model below shows more or less how the basic ingredients fit together. It's not meant to be a definitive model covering all aspects of education. We're going to use the model to illustrate key points.
Your state (not the federal government) sets the standards. School standards then eventually result in textbooks that cover the standards. From there, teachers must take these pieces (and other resources) and incorporate them into their teaching system, and design classroom activities. Teachers must also customize the learning experiences to the actual students they have in the classroom. Student experiences and mindsets vary significantly, and day-to-day instruction adapts according to student learning needs.

An Example of How Some Parents Can Blame the Wrong Thing
I hear a ton of Common Core bashing, and what I hear is a lack of understanding of what education is, what standards are, and what standards are not. I noticed a particular example of this recently. Let's first set this up.

In grades K-6, research on homework strongly suggests that there's no learning gains for homework. It does perhaps cause students to dislike subjects or learning in some cases, so in sum it's a bad idea. High performing nations like Finland essentially do away with homework.

So homework in K-6 doesn't do anything for some students, and for others it's a net negative. The policy that should be adopted is to eliminate homework or reduce it significantly in elementary grades. Despite this research, parent often ask for homework, because that is what they grew up with.

Where things go wrong is when a teacher (in the US) is implementing math, such as in Common Core, where in addition to learning skills, students are also asked to think, explain, experiment, problem solve. This type of curriculum needs a carefully designed class experience and parents who understand that doing math well means doing math like mathematicians. That is, making mistakes, experimenting, and taking time to think deeply about the concepts. This is math that is far beyond what most parents experienced. In contrast, in order to placate parents who want the usual homework assignments, teachers send students home with math homework that often has good problems, but these are problems that take longer and require thought. Getting stuck is likely.  So here we have (a) teaching methodology that isn't going to work, based on research evidence, and (b) homework that is challenging that parents, who may have math anxiety will get into a homework-frustration struggle with their kids (at the end of the day, with dinner to cook...) This is a classic "conflating implementation struggles in the early years" with "the standards are a bad idea."

An added layer is that most people think doing math faster means smarter, and doing math slower means dumber. Misconceptions about Math and the nature of learning feed anxieties further, and then the blame game starts. Something has to be wrong, if Johnny can't add!

The final act of this tragedy is that people then assign blame to the wrong thing. They blame the standards, not the environment of parental pressure and the asking for homework in elementary grades. The standards aren't the problem here. It's instruction and how our society doesn't fully let teachers do their job and apply evidence-based practices. If anything, we (parents) make it harder for teachers to switch to better teaching methods.
If the goal is to improve education, then it's important to focus attention and effort on the correct thing. Helping and supporting teachers implement their curriculum as they were intended is what should be the focus. Instead, people want to tear down the standards (which will not improve education), and likely see us return to methods and curricula that have been shown to be significantly flawed and problematic.

Conflating Assessment and Standards
Here's another example. One of the other large pressures putting teachers and staff in a tough place is assessment. In the U.S. we assess too much, and those assessments use huge resources, and are then tied to job security. This creates unintended, "perverse" incentives that make schools teach toward narrow tests, at the expense of a fuller, holistic education. The arts, music, dance, etc. get nixed, only making it harder for children to find their element. Their passions.

Assessment should be done in scientifically sound ways to see how our schools are doing. The reality is that testing is far too large a force, and actually dominates education choices. Parents sometimes see this. They see too much assessment as a problem, where test results are used to punish or threaten teachers or administrators.  Instead of pushing back at the testing regime (and the massive testing industry behind it), some parents blame the state standards.
The issue here is quite clear again. The wrong ingredient has been identified as the problem. When you go in for knee surgery, you want to make sure the surgeon works on the correct one. Well, this is the same sort of thing. The torn ACL is on the left, but we've done surgery on the right. Most people would agree that it taking a step back, and not solving the real problem.

Understand the Problem First
What can parents do? One of the ideas we try to teach students at all levels it to understand what the problem is saying first, before making conclusions. We want students to ask pertinent questions, and understand the components of the question and the context surrounding it.  I think this lesson applies broadly. Parents in particular can learn more about education and what the actual issues are, BEFORE forming an opinion. Otherwise, you're committing a basic intellectual mistake or sin, called intellectual indulgence. (Intellectual indulgence is when you believe something to be true, because you like how it sounds, and not because you have any good evidence to support it.)

Ignorance is not a virtue, especially when it comes to decisions and policies about education. In fact, ignorance is damaging. Our society's collective, group ignorance prevents us from achieving far more than what we have. People have strong opinions about education and can prescribe or criticize, even when they do not have even a very basic understanding of what education is, how it's constructed, and what it's for. I hope you can see the deep and tragic irony with ignorance about education.

Parents can start with the books and videos listed below to learn more about growth mindset, what math education is like currently, how it could improve in the US, and how international comparisons shed light on what we can do better. Parents obviously matter a great deal, and an informed group of parents with a positive, constructive attitude can be a powerful force in supporting and shaping our education system.

I have seen it time and again. When teachers are supported by their community and get it right, I see students transform from passive, disengaged people to eager, vibrant learners. Parents come up to me and say things like, "My daughter likes math this year!" There is good reason to be optimistic today, as we have learned much about how to effectively teach. The problem and challenge of improving education is a tractable problem. Parents can choose today to be a positive contributor to this process. You can say to your kids, "Hey, I'm going to show you how I learn about something by doing my own research..." And what a wonderful thing that would be to teach your children!

References for Parents
  1. Mindset, by Carol Dweck
  2. What's Math Got to Do With It, Boaler
  3. Mathematical Mindsets, Boaler
  4. The Teaching Gap, Hiebert and Stigler

1. Carol Dweck on Mindset

2. Jo Boaler on Common Core

3. Khan Academy interview Dweck

4. Dan Meyer on Teaching Mathematics

5. Ken Robinson on Education