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Day 2 of the Union Leader series on the Common Core: how do you know 12 + 7 = 19?

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The first of the two Common Core articles in the Union Leader today features web developer Jon DiPietro’s critique of American public education, including that:

…his children come home with homework that suggests process is more important than getting the right answer.

“One homework assignment was to solve 12 + 7, and to explain how you got the answer. One student drew a brain with an arrow pointing to it,” he said. “In her first or second week at the middle school, my daughter took a math quiz. She got the right answers, but was graded wrong for using the wrong method.”

Common Core opponents frequently make the this “method doesn’t matter” point.  But what if Mr. DiPietro’s daughter got to 19 by counting on her fingers and toes?  Learning math is a accumulation of skills.  Counting on her fingers would not serve Ms. DiPietro well in Algebra I.  (On the other hand, the student pointing to his brain is on the right track if he means, “I have become fluent in addition.  I just see 19 when I see 12+7.”)

The Common Core calls for the kind of good instruction Ms. DiPietro’s teacher is providing: trying to ensure that students are fluent enough in the basics of math to solve real world problems.  Mr. DiPietro has crystalized the argument for the Common Core.

But there’s also a great quote from Mayor Gatsas about how hard it is to know what’s right at this juncture:

Mayor Ted Gatsas, who is taking on the Department of Education over testing protocols, said he had been made wary by past experience.

“In the 1980s, there was an experiment to build schools without classroom walls,” he said. “I still have a school like that in my district at Beech Street. The only thing that separates classrooms is file cabinets. Go in there and see if you can pay attention.”

Many Common Core supporters would agree with the mayor that the great American education system took a detour into the soft sand of the 70’s and ’80’s.  You could call it the Lake Wobegon era in which every child was above average.

At the same time Finland, Canada and Singapore were throbbing with commitment to public education, each with its own cultural take on how to do it. Each country reached a consensus on the standards to be required of its educators – and we see the impressive results.

The Common Core is our opportunity to get back on the path to rigorous academic expectations for our kids.  But we are debating whether to even have standards – or just replace our public education system with publicly funded charter, voucher and home schools.

Notice that, in this article, Mr. DiPietro and Ms. Banfield actually say nothing about the Common Core.  They oppose public education, top to bottom, in every detail.  Mr. DiPietro thinks the U.S. Department of Education experiments on our kids and seems to be angry at everything about the schools (here is “viral” his blog post about it, a fair representation of the tone of much of this debate).  Ms. Banfield says she wishes she had homeschooled her kids.  Fair enough.  But why would parents, school boards and legislators take education policy advice from folks who reject the whole premise of public education?

The companion piece features me as a supporter saying that the Common Core is successful in the classroom.

I’m relieved not to have to explain away any gaffs, but there is two tweaks I would make about the Smarter Balanced test if I could.  First, I would say how big a step forward the new test is, with its rich and demanding questions, compared to the multiple choice bubble test it replaces.  There will surely be things to fix in the test and it will evolve over time, but if you accept the need for assessments at all, you would have to agree that this test will give teachers much better feedback on the effectiveness of their instruction.  And the State of New Hampshire will not be using the test to hold schools or teachers accountable as states like New York do.

Secondly, if I could do it again I would not throw down the gauntlet to the Mayor as I did.  The quote is accurate: not only is Smarter Balanced looking like a very good, carefully designed test, but I think every district will take it – in the lower grades, anyway.  (In the 11th grade, it could be replaced by the SAT, a subject of discussion over the next while). State and federal law requires standardized assessments and funding depends on it.  Besides, why would Manchester want its kids to take some other test for which the results can’t be used alongside those of all the other districts to improve their teaching strategies?

Although there seem to be some misunderstandings about testing – as well as not wanting to be pushed around by “the man” – in the end, I think Smarter Balanced will be seen as a benefit to the kids in Manchester as well as to the rest of the state.  But, as I say, there was no need to frame that observation as a challenge.

The Union Leader and reporter Dave Solomon are doing the State a big service in advancing the Common Core debate in a balanced and helpful way.

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