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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 08/ 2/2010

Willingham: What’s missing from Common Core standards plan (Part 2)

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” He wrote the first part of this two-parter on July 26 .

By Daniel Willingham
Last week I suggested that the adoption of the Common Core standards was unlikely to improve student outcomes. Many interacting factors determine student performance, and even if state standards improve, it’s all too likely that problems elsewhere in the system will mask the improvement.

When that happens, there is a tendency to get discouraged, and tinker with some other part of the system.

It brings to mind my misguided attempts at debugging my computer program when in college. I remember whining to a more experienced student: “How can it still not run? I changed everything!”

If the educational system has so many interacting parts, how can we ever know whether a change we make to part of the system is useful? I see two ways.

First, we might encourage the development of more detailed models of the system as a whole. Suppose that I, as a researcher, really put my money where my mouth is and propose a model of all the factors that contribute to educational outcomes, and how they interact.

My model would be detailed enough that I could make not just qualitative predictions but quantitative predictions.

Qualitative predictions include statements like “this type of standard is better than that type of standard, and if a state adopts the better one, scores will go up some unspecified amount.”

Quantitative predictions include statements lsuch as, “This standard rates 7.3 in my model, whereas that standard rates 8.2, so I predict that if New York adopts the latter, students scores on this particular test will improve by 4.4%.”

Note that these models have metrics by which standards (and other features of the system) are evaluated, and these metrics are not based on student test scores. So the model goes out on a limb as to what are “good standards.”

Those metrics usually come from nothing more reliable than the modeler’s forested mind, but the model is kept honest because it makes very precise predictions about student outcomes, and thus is easy to prove wrong.

The likelihood that I or any other researcher would happen on the right model is remote.

Rather, we expect that the enterprise as a whole will move forward as a broad variety of models is proposed. Some will be better than others, and patterns will emerge, for example, that models with a particular feature never fare well.

The second way we might address this problem is to make greater use of epidemiological methods.

Epidemiology is the study of disease in populations, especially in identifying risk factors and protective factors.

Education researchers have made good use of these methods in identifying characteristics of individuals, families, and neighborhoods as risk factors for dropping out of school, for example, or for going to college.

These methods have less often been applied to classroom practices, administrative practices, and other features of the educational landscape that might be under our control.

This is true, no doubt, because they are much harder to measure than personal characteristics such as whether or not a child’s parents are divorced. To measure them, we would have to accept untested theoretical assumptions, gambling that, in time, which assumptions are sound and which are hollow would become clear.

Both roads I have suggested here have enough foreseeable problems to be discouraging, and in my opinion if you undertake a complex project assuming twice as many unforeseen problems as foreseen ones, you’re an optimist.

But given the lack of progress in our understanding of the educational system as a whole, and given its importance, I argue that we have to at least try.

Next week I’ll describe what I take to be the most important political requirement in this enterprise.

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By Valerie Strauss  | August 2, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, National Standards  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, common core standards, national standards  
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Comments

It brings to mind my misguided attempts at debugging my computer program when in college. I remember whining to a more experienced student: “How can it still not run? I changed everything!”
...................................
I love this being a software developer.

Changing everything is a guarantee that the problem is worse since in this process you probably will create a new problem.

Software development is really no different from dealing with any problem. You find the problem and you fix it.

Having the states adopt a common standard had nothing to do with education. There was a push for a common standard because of the problem of the differences in standardized testing of different states. Supposedly state standardized test were going to be used to evaluate improvement in education of the various states. Without supposedly common standards the results of the standardized state tests would be ineffective in comparing states.

This is simply an example of the old rule:
Bad ideas follow bad ideas.

It is apparent now that standardized state tests are meaningless with the news that any spectacular results of these tests have been obtained by lowering the standards of the test. If one can simply lower the standards of the test it is immaterial what educational standards are in place. States can claim that the question 1/2 + 2/4 is just as valid as the question 2/7 + 9/16.

Of course this idea of common standard also ignored the considerable cost of implementing new standards, and the flaw of forcing states with higher standards to adopt inferior standards.

Bad ideas follow bad ideas.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 2, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

It brings to mind my misguided attempts at debugging my computer program when in college. I remember whining to a more experienced student: “How can it still not run? I changed everything!”
...................................
I love this being a software developer.
...................................

I, too, love the software analogy, but for a different reason. Clear, coherent, challenging academic standards are necessary, but not sufficient, to bring about improvement. Without these, it would be like being tasked with developing some new software, but never being told what the software was supposed to do or being given information about the equipment it was supposed to be used on. In and of itself, it does nothing to help you write good software. But, without it, success is purely accidental.

Posted by: mattmel | August 2, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

It brings to mind my misguided attempts at debugging my computer program when in college. I remember whining to a more experienced student: “How can it still not run? I changed everything!”
...................................
I love this being a software developer.
...................................

I, too, love the software analogy, but for a different reason. Clear, coherent, challenging academic standards are necessary, but not sufficient, to bring about improvement. Without these, it would be like being tasked with developing some new software, but never being told what the software was supposed to do or being given information about the equipment it was supposed to be used on. In and of itself, it does nothing to help you write good software. But, without it, success is purely accidental.
....................
An attempt to associate "but never being told what the software was supposed to do or being given information about the equipment it was supposed to be used on" with the minute details of education standards.

1.
Before minute details of standards existed in education, individuals could teach. Some individuals did this well while other did not. But the fact that teachers could teach and students could learn without minute detailed standards proves that these standards are not an essential requirement for teaching or learning.

This refutes your inferred argument that standards are required for teaching.

Yes you have to know what the software has to do so the person creating the software knows what he/she has to do.

For a teacher this would be the equivalent of a teacher knowing that he/she has to teach say reading.
But from the above 1.0 we have shown that teachers can teach without minute details of standards.

So having a software developer knowing what the software has to know is really simply equivalent of having a teacher know what the subject is supposed to teach and from 1.0 above this does not depend upon minute details of standards.

In the case of "given information about the equipment" this could be considered equivalent to a teacher knowing which group of students he/she is expected to teach. No teacher requires minute details of standards to know the students they are expected to teach.

Beside I have written software that would work on different machines with different operating systems and this is idea has been around for quite sometime and your software should not be dependent on the machine. The teacher may have to know which classroom to go to teach, but the software developer does not need to know ultimate machines and the aim is machine independent software.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 2, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

I, too, love the software analogy, but for a different reason. Clear, coherent, challenging academic standards are necessary,
Posted by: mattmel
.....................................
You perhaps better review these standards.

These are not academic standards since they are standards for primary and secondary schools.

Academic standards are for colleges and universities.

We are not talking about a university that wants to maintain academic standards.

We are speaking about a set of standards that could be considered the equivalent of national standards of plumbing pipe.

In reality the standards of plumbing pipe have more validity than the Common Core standards since these have been tested by trial in the real world.

In fact many of the existing standards that the Federal government wants states to abandon are more valid and superior to the Common Core standards since they have been developed and tested in the real world.

In reality it would probably more appropriate to call the new standards the Lowest Common Denominator standards instead of the Common Core standards.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 2, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Strauss, you are such an earnest and able defender of the public schools, but I wonder if in times of quiet reflection you realize that those driving this blitzkrieg against universal public education in the US don't care what you write.

You can and have constructed a series of reports that are reasoned and rational and backed up by whatever honest research has actually been done in the field. And it's water off the backs of these ducks with all the money. You see the people with the money have decided it's time for the public schools to go! (Check the Venture Philanthropy Partners $5.5 million gift to KIPP so the charter chain can better serve its true mission: to discredit public schools).

On the monied attackers side the truth is of no concern, rationality holds no sway, and they laugh at your stinking research. You've got a charlatan like Gates but the rankest absurdity that comes out of his mouth is treated like a gem from an oracle because he's the world's richest man. It's repeated by all the politicians he owns, up to and including a certain President of the United States and in the case of the District a certain Mayor, until total nonsense is accepted as gospel. And then the complete sociopaths, like Michelle Rhee, are sent in to slay the heretics, read any sane person who dares to stand up for public schools.

You have my undying respect and admiration Ms. Strauss. You're one of the good people. But understand that if you were ever to write something that actually threatened to derail the rich folks, the venture capitalists, the hedge funds campaign to shutdown the public schools, your column would disappear from the pages of the Washington Post the next day. And I pray that's the worst thing that would happen to you.

Posted by: natturner | August 3, 2010 3:03 AM | Report abuse

@natturner: sad, but wise post. Um, and have you noticed that Bill Turque was "on vacation" and supposed to return on August 2nd but hasn't yet? I hope nothing dire has happened to him!

Posted by: dccitizen1 | August 3, 2010 4:28 AM | Report abuse

We are speaking about a set of standards that could be considered the equivalent of national standards of plumbing pipe.

--------------------
That's the problem--students can't be fitted into various sizes or categories like pipe. Several years ago a magazine reported on a program that fitted phys. ed. students with devices measuring heartbeat, etc. The teacher said he was astonished to learn that the kids who came in last in a race had put out as much effort as those who came in first. Like most of today's educators, he assumes that equal effort will produce equal results, if you need children to read better, you just measure them more exactly until their scores improve, or if the country needs more engineers, you just require more students to take science and math.

Children are people. And educators are talking about them as though they can be mass-produced.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | August 3, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

I'm late in noting that the MET project is a good example of the epidemiological approach
http://www.metproject.org/

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | August 4, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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