Thursday, January 19, 2012

Minding the Common Core Gap In My Perfectly Skewed World

January 11th, 2012, the Ed Week headline read: New Details Surface About Common Assessments!

I was ready to read it! Bring it on! In the somewhat skewed world of mathematics education and leadership that I live in, I anxiously await the assessment consortia (PARCC and SMARTER Balanced) frameworks and assessment guidelines. We need them.

I have written previously on this blog about how I believe the CCSS implementation, which demands a much needed less (fewer standards each year) is more (those fewer standards taught for deep demonstrations of student understanding) will fail unless there is a significant paradigm shift in how we approach the day in and day out lesson planning and design for the instruction and assessment of students in our local schools.

The collaborative professional development energy and lesson planning focus of teachers and teacher leaders need the PARCC or SMARTER Balanced guidelines to prepare them for the impending rigor and expectations of the Common Core K-12 mathematics curriculum. Everyone in my field is anxiously awaiting the Common Core Standards implementation and the subsequent 2015 state testing, right?

And then I had an interesting "perspective check" of sorts earlier this week.

Since last April, I have been working with 13 of my colleagues in mathematics education to get our arms around the looming "on the horizon" reality of the Common Core State Standards and the subsequent assessments that will be arriving in the 2014-2015 school year. We have been writing a 5 book professional development series designed to help teachers and teacher leaders close the gap and transition to the expected demands of the CCSS implementation. One could argue that we have had "Common Core on the brain". We are living and breathing the CCSS demands in our work and our writing every day. And with all of it three years away before testing begins - it seems like plenty of time to respond and react, doesn't it?

Maybe not so much.

The gap, between what will be expected for student demonstration of knowledge and the currently reality of what is expected as an assessment of that student knowledge - in the majority of our K-12 schools -  is wider than the Grand Canyon. To better understand the gap, first we need to understand exactly how far we need to go. Consider this portion of the aforementioned article from Ed Week, by Catherine Gewertz:

PARRC's math test will include three types of questions: "Innovative, machine-scorable, computer based items; items that call for written arguments or justifications; critiques of mathematical reasoning, or proof that students "attend to precision" in math; and items involving real world scenarios. The performance based assessment in math will count for 40% to 50% of a student's points in that subject, and the end of course  exam will yield 50% to 60% of the points. 

To better understand where we currently stand, consider this informal poll from my recent speaking experience with about 300 K-12 mathematics educators. This group was already a skewed audience because they were attending the conference, as part of their own interest in all things CCSS. And yet, when I asked this group how many of them have looked at the Common Core States Standards for their grade level or their high school, less than 25% raised their hands. When I asked how many of them were working on current plans to change their instruction to align with the CCSS Mathematical Practices there were no more than 30-35 hands. Scaffolding the question, I asked how many of them at least knew about the CCSS Mathematical Practices aspect of the Common Core Standards (which explains part of the assessment goals of the performance aspects of the PARCC assessments listed above), there were a few more hands and when I asked them to name and describe 2 of those 8 practices, it was difficult.

Here is the point.

We are still in a very very early awareness stage of understanding the expectations of the Common Core Mathematics curriculum and the impending assessments in three years. As reported by the Editorial Project in Education (EPE) research center only 7 out of 47 states at the state department level have fully developed plans for this transition. If this is the level of planning at the state level, no wonder it has not yet bled into an urgency mode at the local school and district level - much less the classroom. As one high school teacher reminded me last week: "I have heard there is such a thing, but they are telling me it is pretty far off, and it probably won't happen anyway". I walked away wondering who "they" was, and if he really understood the benefit to teaching the mathematics curriculum for deeper student understanding.

So, what can you do? Mind the GAP.

Don't wait for your state to tell you what to do. Start your own search of the PARCC and SMARTER Balanced Websites. Don't wait to start the discussions in your elementary school, middle school or high school. Spend intentional time this summer working on collaborative lesson designs that model the Mathematical Practices for mathematics teaching and learning. In a future blog, I will share some potential lesson design templates.

Build your own bridge to close the gap, and make sure you and your students are prepared for what is sure to become a very fast three years from now. Of course I have lots of ideas about how to do this. and I will spend much of 2012 writing about it. I hope you will join me in your own personal journey of leading the way toward the Common Core and its benefits for our students.

Monday, January 2, 2012

People, Places and Family in 2012!

Like many of the readers of this blog, my family (which at this stage of life has various definitions and extended members) spent parts of this holiday season together. Annual family gatherings are often filled with both joy and sadness, tragedy and triumph, reflection and action, fear and hope as one year ends and another begins.

In some sense, our family gatherings represent the same feelings and emotions that we experience in our professional families as well. If you are a teacher, your students are part of your school "family" and your colleagues are part of that family too. If you are a coach your team is part of your school "family" and your fellow coaches will spend more time with you during the season than your "at home" family. If your are a school administrator or district leader, your "family" widens as you steward the members of the school community as well. It becomes a pretty big family to be part of and to understand.

So, as we were ending our family vacation time on January 1st, we sat around the TV, and began a 45 minute slideshow "walk" through the pictures of our time together, taken by various "keepers" of the camera. As we sat in the living room, and watched the pictures flow by, it was interesting to observe family member reactions. The first 10 minutes of our slideshow was mostly pictures that looked like this:

You know, the very nice scenic views that when you get home you say, "I took 122 pictures of that?" Maybe two would have been sufficient. The reaction around the room was polite, but a bit bored. Then a picture of our two daughters playing xbox 360 skiing (part of a family competition) with legs flailing in the air and arms spread out using imaginary poles, heads knocking together and both of them laughing hysterically - caused a major eruption of laughter, pointing and energy from our gathering. (Note: I cannot supply the picture here as I have yet to secure permission from our two daughters!)

I found myself wondering, what is it about our pictures that as soon as people (especially the members of our extended families) show up in them, a level of new energy and emotion is released? It occurred to me, that our life, our work, our family, is rarely if ever about the place as much as it is about the people - and our experiences with those people, both good and bad. It is the people that make the place have purpose and meaning, passion and emotion, joy and heartache. Without the people - the place becomes empty space.

I first remember experiencing this feeling during my early days as a high school basketball coach at West Chicago Community High School. We had just lost a close home game with a conference rival, and I was a bit distraught over the loss. Once the team members (one of my many families) had gone home, and the coaches too, I decided to walk back into the gym, and just stand in the middle of the gym floor. I wasn't sure it would make me feel any better, but I wanted to capture a picture in my mind of the emotion displayed by 1000+ people just an hour ago: The heartache and the joy of participating in something.

I was struck by the emptiness of the space. The building in the dark, was just that - a nice facility, a nice place - but no emotion no energy. The building, that gym, needed people for it to matter. It needed people that cared about their team, that cared about risk and success. That understood how wins and losses matter only briefly as a measure of success, but real success would reveal itself in whom all of those young men and women would become.

In 12 years of coaching I had taken a picture of every team that was part of my school family. In every case, the years and the records (even the good years) just sort of blend together. But I can always tell you about the year my players asked me to design a "Fibonacci" defense for them (I was a math teacher and we also had the Euclid zone press). Or the year that I dubbed one of our players the X-factor. Or the year that several of my players had significant tragedy in their lives - including the house burning to the ground for one player during the season. And it was our family reaction and response to these events that made the season a success. It is and will always be about the people in our "families" and the relationships built  around them.

When I became director of mathematics and science at Stevenson, every fall (at open house) I would insist that we all "dress up" and get together in the commons area for a "team picture". As we grew the picture had quite a few teachers in it (up to 85 at one point) but I loved placing the team picture on my office door every year. As the years unfolded, of course our "family" members changed in the picture. New additions and departures for many different reasons, would impact the picture. No matter, the "Commons" isn't what made the picture work for me, it was the energy of the great people in the picture that mattered. People that just like me, were trying very hard every day to help their student family - to become positive community members.

So, as we enter in 2012, as you celebrate the ending of one semester, and the beginning of another, please keep in mind it is the community members that matter. Celebrate their triumphs, embrace their tragedies, help them grow. Take pictures of them, post those pictures everywhere you can. And then watch the years flow by. Because in a blink, it will be 2013, and you will have to ask, "How did I do in 2012? How did I serve and lead the members of my home and professional families?"

And only you can measure your success as a family member in 2012.