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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 08/ 9/2010

Willingham: What’s missing from Common Core standards (Part 3)

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?”

By Daniel Willingham
The discussions regarding whether or not adopting the Common Core standards will improve education is, to me, emblematic of a larger issue.

When we adopt education policies at the state or federal level, the belief that they will improve things is not based on anything much more solid than faith or hope.

Two weeks ago I argued that it will be difficult to evaluate whether adopting the Common Core standards is, overall, a good move, because so many factors go into student outcomes (and interact with one another) that a positive change in one factor might yield no difference in student performance.

In other words, if we don’t have a good understanding of the system, what reason is there to think that we can accurately predict what will happen when we make changes to the system?

Last week I described two broad research strategies that might help us analyze our complex education system so that we could predict how education policy changes ought to affect student outcomes, and thereby select optimal policy changes.

One strategy would be to work towards quantitative, system-wide models (likely at the state level). The other would be to conduct much larger scale epidemiological studies of classroom, school, and district practices. (Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about.)

If I’m right, the political implications are twofold.

First, we don’t really know what we’re doing in education policy, beyond a very rough cut.

We can feel confident only in making bland statements like “good standards are better than bad standards.”

Presumably, we would assign priorities to different policies based on their costs and benefits. We have some idea of likely financial costs, but because we can’t accurately predict how policies will affect the system, we can make only very poor estimates of opportunity costs or of benefits.

Therefore, prioritizing education policies based on costs and benefits is a crap shoot.

Second, acquiring better information of the likely benefits of education policies will take a long time. With a big push in this direction (adopting either or both of the strategies I described last week) I can’t imagine that we’d know much any sooner than a decade after we start.

Why?

First, it’s difficult research to conduct.

Second, it probably takes several years for the system to accommodate to significant changes and settle into a relatively stable state. (Of course, it’s a dynamic system, so how often it’s really stable is an open question.)

Third, the effects of some changes would likely take years. For example, I’ve argued elsewhere that some changes to the early elementary curriculum would have no impact on reading in those years, but would give a big boost to reading comprehension scores in junior high and beyond.

In short, I’m arguing that we don’t know much about the system we’re tinkering with, and better knowledge will be a long time coming.

The only way we’re going to gain that information is if granting agencies--the ones with deep pockets--make it a priority.

For any governmental granting agency to make it a priority, an elected official or appointee is going to have to admit to the problem. This seems unlikely.

But we may be at a crossroads. We can take the problem seriously and invest in the educational equivalent of the moon shot, which, like the problem I’ve described, had some basic scientific problems to be solved but was also a massive engineering challenge.

Or we can continue doing what we’ve done for the last 50 years: quibble about theories of systems that we don’t understand, without taking seriously the challenge of understanding them. That’s the path that has cost countless kids a good education along the way, and has led us to the place we are today--a place that very few argue we should stay.

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By Valerie Strauss  | August 9, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, National Standards  | Tags:  common core standards, daniel willingham  
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Comments

Any new education policy is subject to the whim of the people asked to implement it - primarily, teachers.

Many teachers have acquired a wait and see attitude. They wait for the administrator who brought the new policy in with him/her to see how long they're going to remain in the system before they see if they have to "go along" with the policy or simply ignore it.

I'm not defending or criticizing this strategy, simply stating it's quite prevalent and continually diminishes any possibility of success of the policy in question.

Posted by: phoss1 | August 9, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

In short, I’m arguing that we don’t know much about the system we’re tinkering with, and better knowledge will be a long time coming.
..............................
Daniel Willingham has missed the gorilla in the room in the forcing of every state to accept the Common Core standards in applying for funds from Race To The Top.

Many of the states forced to accept the the Common Core standards have already in place high standards that are superior to the Common Core standards.

If high standards are so important than it should be evident that these states with existing high standards have already proven the worth of their high standards by consistently outperforming other states in the national testing of school systems.

Instead of adopting a new and untested Common Core standards the answer should have been to simply adopt the high standards of Massachusetts or one of the other states with high standards and consistent high scores on national tests.

The Common Core standards damage the high standards that currently exist in states that have proven with consistent high scores on national tests that they provide in the nation the best in public education.

The Common Core standards and Race To The Top are simply the attempt of President Obama to win reelection with claims of fixing the problem as No Child Left Behind aided in the reelection of President Bush.

The Common Core standards will simply damage public education in states that have already high standards.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 9, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Any new education policy is subject to the whim of the people asked to implement it - primarily, teachers.

I'm not defending or criticizing this strategy, simply stating it's quite prevalent and continually diminishes any possibility of success of the policy in question.

Posted by: phoss1
................................
This is not the case with adopting a new set of standards. There is a long and expensive process before it reaches the teachers.

The current curriculum for each grade have to be reviewed with changes made for the new standards. All lesson plans for each grade have to be modified to reflect these new standards. All teachers have to be notified about these changes.

Consideration and accommodations have to be made in cases where there are inconsistencies between the old curriculum and the new curriculum. These inconsistencies could be that students in grade 5 were not taught something that they are now expected to be aware of when they are in grade 6.

Of course all of the existing standardized testing has to be modified to reflect the new standards and all existing and future textbooks, worksheets, etc. have to be modified to reflect the new standards.

This is a nightmare and given that the problems of public education are localized at the Title 1 poverty public schools a case of unnecessary chaos in many states that already have high standards.

Of course none of this will be done and the states and the Federal government will simply pretend at the starting of implementing these new standards. There will be the continuous pretense that the standards are being implemented over time.

This is simply one more sick joke in the pretense of the Federal government that the problems of the Title 1 poverty public schools are being dealt with.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 9, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

The cost to buy new textbooks and other curriculum related items to meet the common core standards will be enormous. I'm sure that RTTT money will no way be sufficient to enable states to buy the new material.

Posted by: educationlover54 | August 9, 2010 7:12 PM | Report abuse

The cost to buy new textbooks and other curriculum related items to meet the common core standards will be enormous. I'm sure that RTTT money will no way be sufficient to enable states to buy the new material.

Posted by: educationlover54
.....................................
It is all shadow puppetry.

In states that have high standards there are extensive meeting in regard to debate about changing one standard or one part of a curriculum.

States that have lost are looking at the bright side since they will not have to go through the charade of the pretense of accepting a new set of standards.

This idea could have only come out of a think tank where there was no concept of existing schools or existing standards.

Yes a set of educational standards would be great in a nation just starting public education. Perhaps this set of great standards could be modified for Afghanistan.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 9, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse

"We can take the problem seriously and invest in the educational equivalent of the moon shot..."

Great image and metaphor and right on!!!!

Maybe we should all think more in those terms; personally, I'd like to start with totally redesigning our primarily ugly and inhospitable school buildings. Frank Lloyd Wright believed that "form followed function", and if that's true, we are not likely to obtain great functioning from either staff or students in most of the current physical environments of education.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | August 9, 2010 11:35 PM | Report abuse

But we may be at a crossroads. We can take the problem seriously and invest in the educational equivalent of the moon shot, which, like the problem I’ve described, had some basic scientific problems to be solved but was also a massive engineering challenge.
-----------
As a teacher, with prior business process analysis background, I noticed a design mismatch between classroom operations and the consumer (student), when I started teaching three years ago. Students have widely differing levels of mastery with respect to grade level abilities and the standards that apply at that grade level. In addition to standards and assessments, to make each student academically successful, each and every day, in any class, any where, what is needed is the capability of delivering content (curriculum) that is closest to the learner. Given the media that existed in the moon shot era, customizing content to each learner could not be done effectively. This is really a time filled with opportunities to invest time and resources in the academic prospects of each student and not just in the minimum standards for all. I say this as a practitioner. You can catch a glimpse of my class at work in a TV news video at http://sites.google.com/site/teamdrillhead/

Posted by: ananthpai | August 10, 2010 6:32 AM | Report abuse

"redesigning our primarily ugly and inhospitable school buildings."

Recently, I backtracked to take a second look at a building I saw across a field because I couldn't believe a prison had been built there without a lot of publicity. A prison hadn't. It was the new school for that district: a large brick box, no windows, and a high fence around it. (At the very least, could we not build a school like the one my mother taught in, with a drinking fountain placed so anyone opening the nearby classroom door booted the drinker in the rear and another, recessed into the wall, directly under the bell--responsible for a lot of bumped heads by startled students?)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | August 10, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the great series. You've convinced me that what we really need in education policy is a more scientific approach: education researchers need to develop falsifiable models, and policy-makers need to understand the seriousness of confounding variables as well as the step-wise nature of scientific research in general.

It's kind of interesting to try to figure out how we ended up where we are. Why are education schools separate from the rest of the university rather than being housed under the social sciences? Why is education research so frequently un-scientific? I have an acquaintance who just entered a PhD program in special ed. Her only science requirements will be one research methods course and one stats course, both taught within the school of education, not by social scientists. She's an avowed hater of science who only took the "science for poets" class as an undergrad, but she doesn't see that as conflicting with her desire to get a PhD in education, and the program didn't see it as a problem either.

Posted by: crazycatlady | August 10, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

re crazycatlady:

It's kind of interesting to try to figure out how we ended up where we are. Why are education schools separate from the rest of the university rather than being housed under the social sciences? Why is education research so frequently un-scientific?
______________________________

When I recorded my first educational observations over a period two months, my
professor required that I keep a journal, and split each page in half vertically. On one side of the page I was to record objective data (26 students in room, instructions given by teacher, etc.), and on the other half, record the observations that were subjective in nature (3 students appear bored; think they are not interested, teacher seemed frazzled today).

The above journal activity was one of the most valuable experiences I had during my undergraduate work in education; it helped me be aware of my own biases, and also served to point out how incredibly complex the issues and variables are in the education field.

My answer to the question of why is education research so frequently 'unscientific', would be that even at the PhD level, education is still a science AND an art; I would hope that we never stop considering our own gut responses/biases when engaged in the lives and behaviors of human beings, especially those of children.

......
PS - over the years I have found many areas where science & art overlap, but that is another story.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | August 10, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

re crazycatlady:

It's kind of interesting to try to figure out how we ended up where we are. Why are education schools separate from the rest of the university rather than being housed under the social sciences? Why is education research so frequently un-scientific?
______________________________

When I recorded my first educational observations over a period two months, my
professor required that I keep a journal, and split each page in half vertically. On one side of the page I was to record objective data (26 students in room, instructions given by teacher, etc.), and on the other half, record the observations that were subjective in nature (3 students appear bored; think they are not interested, teacher seemed frazzled today).

The above journal activity was one of the most valuable experiences I had during my undergraduate work in education; it helped me be aware of my own biases, and also served to point out how incredibly complex the issues and variables are in the education field.

My answer to the question of why is education research so frequently 'unscientific', would be that even at the PhD level, education is still a science AND an art; I would hope that we never stop considering our own gut responses/biases when engaged in the lives and behaviors of human beings, especially those of children.

......
PS - over the years I have found many areas where science & art overlap, but that is another story.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | August 10, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

But we may be at a crossroads. We can take the problem seriously and invest in the educational equivalent of the moon shot, which, like the problem I’ve described, had some basic scientific problems to be solved but was also a massive engineering challenge.
...................................
Educators are insane.

Standards are of very little importance.

We need to think beyond the ideas of education of the little red school house.

In 1995 there were commercial software products that would aid children in learning on inexpensive computer systems.

Where are these in the public schools with the billions that were spent of worthless drill programs or expensive computer networks that access the internet?

Only educators could dream up the ideas of expensive drill programs on computers.

Where are the computer labs in primary schools where children can access hundreds of children books on their own and each child can press a mouse to hear the sound of a word.

The technology of this was available in 1995. Thousands of children books can easily be converted to this technology.

We need to start to revolutionize education in the primary schools instead of senseless standards on phonics.

Of course teachers would still be necessary but their role would be to prepare and guide children in each child learning on their own.

Imagine the improvement in education when children see school as a place of self learning.

The reality of education is that when a child has learned to read that child has been enabled for life to learn anything.

The technology that was available in 1995 has to be brought into the primary schools with the goal of every child being able to read in primary school. Imagine primary schools where schools are not measured on on a 4th grade reading level but rather the number of children reading on a college level.

Oh and by the way this same technology can be used with Hispanic children that have difficulty with English.

The expense of this does not require the expense of a moon shoot and would probably far less than the money that has been wasted on worthless computers system in schools.

But this does require imagination and perhaps the educators are not up to that.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 10, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Before going to sleep you are just thinking of your debts. And when you go to sleep then too they dont leave you. Your debts are revolving around you all the time whether its day or night. The outcome of which is tension,
============================
Debt Advice

Posted by: prashant789shivhare | August 14, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

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