So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class …

In a New York Times Magazine article that describes Bill Gates’s championing of “Big History” — a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy, and other fields that Professor David Christian has woven into a unifying narrative — Andrew Ross Sorkin feels Gates’s goal is personal: It’s a class Gates wishes he’d had in high school. Funded by the billionaire himself, not the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the project was developed with Christian and a team of engineers and designers, and has a website of interactive graphics and videos. Units begin with the Big Bang and shift to the solar system, trade and communications, globalization, and finally, the future. With feedback from teachers, it’s contracted from 20 units to 10. It’s also been pitched to individual schools instead of entire districts, to grow organically and in real time, like a start-up. Gates is tracking the venture as he would any Microsoft or foundation project, with reams of data — regular student and teachers surveys, results from classes — which allow for continuous refinement. Still, the project faces challenges: bureaucracy, teacher capacity, traditional teaching practice, and — to Gates’s chagrin — hostility towards his participation. The course’s content also has detractors, from academics preferring distinct disciplines to, who else, Diane Ravitch. Yet the project has expanded each year, and may one day rival Western Civ or World History, Sorkin says

(Source: The New York Times)

Let teacher leaders lead Common Core professional development

One of the best aspects of the Common Core State Standards is their focus on student literacy across subjects, rather than segregated in a single subject period of ELA, writes teacher Susan Carle on the Center for Teaching Quality website. Yet many non-ELA teachers have found cross-curricular literacy an uneasy transition. Some difficulty stems from educators asked to teach with unfamiliar Common Core techniques and texts — and without sufficient support. Some districts require scripted lessons, denying teachers an opportunity to adapt materials based on expertise and knowledge of students’ needs. As the Small Learning Community Lead Teacher at her school, Carle created two professional-development workshops: one for English and history teachers, another for math and science. She took colleagues’ individual and team needs into account to create workshops that were hugely successful. Teachers took away strategies for implementing the standards in class; learned to use familiar texts in innovative and engaging ways; aired concerns about the standards; and learned to better collaborate across the curriculum. By using teacher-leaders trained in Common Core techniques and curriculum writing, districts can effectively and cost-efficiently transition into Common Core implementation. Each school and classroom has specific needs, best evaluated and met by the teachers who work in them, Carle says.


The Myth Of The Superstar Superintendent?

A new report from the Brookings Institution is the first broad study to examine whether district effects on student learning are due to the superintendent in charge. Analyzing student-level data from Florida and North Carolina for 2000-01 to 2009-10, the authors found superintendency to be a short-term job. The typical superintendent stays three to four years, and student achievement does not improve with longevity of superintendent service. Hiring a new superintendent is also not associated with higher student achievement. In all, superintendents account for a small fraction (0. 3 percent) of student differences in achievement. While statistically significant, this is orders of magnitude smaller than effects associated with any other major component of the education system, including measured and unmeasured student characteristics; teachers; schools; and districts themselves. Individual superintendents who have an exceptional impact on student achievement cannot be reliably identified. Ultimately, the authors conclude that when district academic achievement improves or deteriorates, the superintendent is likely to play a part in an ensemble performance in which his or her role could be filled successfully by many others. In the end, it’s the system that promotes or hinders student achievement. Superintendents are basically indistinguishable

(Source: NPR)

Six Myths in the New York Times Math Article by Elizabeth Green

In a post on the Brookings Institution website, Tom Loveless outlines six myths he found in Elizabeth Green’s New York Times article about American math reform and its failures. The article’s glaring mistake, Loveless feels, is its suggestion that a particular approach to mathematics instruction is the answer to improving U.S. math learning. Green’s first myth is that Japan scores higher on math tests because Japanese teachers teach differently. Green relied on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 1995 Video Study for her conclusion, yet the study itself collected no data on how much kids learned during lessons. Her second myth is that non-school factors are unimportant to Japanese math success. But what of juku, or “cram school,” the private, after-school instruction most Japanese students receive? A third myth is that American kids hate math, and Japanese kids love it. PISA data on enjoyment show that American students consistently report enjoying math more than Japanese, 45.4 compared to 33.7 percent. A fourth myth is that international scores support math reform. Yet Japan’s scores are declining — worse now in absolute terms than in the 1960s, prior to reforms — and U.S. scores are rising. Myth five is that a blind devotion to procedure and memorization caused the failure of 1990s U.S. math reform. The suggestion that teachers were left on their own to change their teaching is simply inaccurate, Loveless says. Myth six is that the Common Core (CCSS) addresses teaching practice. In fact, the CCSS website states, “Teachers know best about what works in the classroom. These standards establish what students need to learn, but do not dictate how teachers should teach.” Loveless feels Green’s article is based on “bad science, bad history, and unfortunate myths that will lead us away from, rather than closer to, the improvement of math instruction in the United States.”


Are Great Teachers Born or Made? A thoughtful new book argues that teaching is a craft anyone can learn. But there’s a big difference between competence and excellence

Popular culture promotes the notion that good teachers possess magical charisma, writes Nick Romeo in The Atlantic. Elizabeth Green’s new book presents teaching as technically demanding, with complex component skills that can be studied, isolated, practiced, and improved. Teaching can be taught. Green emphasizes that no specific method can transform any teacher, but argues for the teachability of teaching with case studies, research, and cross-cultural comparisons. And yet, Romeo observes, a gulf separates teaching competence from excellence. Can we expect even the best training to transform a significant number of teachers? Some people learn more deeply and effectively, are better able to anticipate student confusion, admit and correct their own shortcomings, and adapt to the flux of a dynamic classroom. The idea that great teachers can be made is appealing: It offers hope our schools can improve, and sends the democratic message that we’re all equal. But self-improvement requires learning, and the undemocratic truth is that some are better learners than others. Green’s title is Building a Better Teacher. Making teachers better is a reasonable and laudable goal, Romeo says. But it’s important to honor the fact that teaching — like any other profession — has its geniuses. Better training could make many mediocre teachers competent. It’s less likely to make competent teachers extraordinary.

(Source: The Atlantic)

What’s behind the declining support for the Common Core

What’s behind declining support for the Common Core? asks Michael Petrilli in his blog on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute website. Its slide is apparent in recent polls: Education Next found public support dropped from 65 to 53 percent in one year, with support from teachers plummeting from 76 to 46 percent. PDK/Gallup found a majority of the public and three-fourths of Republicans oppose the Common Core. Yet after two punishing years of legislative assaults, Tea Party attacks, implementation controversies, and negative stories in conservative media, it’s a miracle the numbers aren’t worse, says Petrilli. And he sees two silver linings for those — he’s one — who still think the Common Core has great potential to improve American education. The Common Core “brand” is indeed damaged, but the concept’s still popular. When Education Next ran an experiment asking half of respondents to provide views on the “Common Core” and the other half to respond to a description of the reform without the label, support jumped from 53 percent to 68 percent; Republican support in particular bounced way up. The PDK/Gallup poll asked about the “Common Core” without any description. Misperceptions are driving down support; fix those misunderstandings, and support may return, Petrilli feels.


Baltimore’s Teacher-Pay Experiment Gains Foothold

Baltimore has implemented the final piece of its four-year effort to transform its teacher-pay schedule into one that emphasizes professional accomplishment over credentials and seniority, writes Stephen Sawchuck for Education Week. Few of the nation’s 14,000 districts have attempted this, even fewer with cooperation of their teachers’ union. A handful of Baltimore’s “lead” teachers will teach fewer classes, use additional time to coach other teachers on instruction, and earn nearly six figures. The Professional Practices and Student Learning Program all but dispenses with pay increases for longevity and credentials; its predominant element is performance. Baltimore teachers will earn incremental pay boosts each time they compile 12 “achievement units,” the quickest way to do so being via top teacher-evaluation scores. Larger pay increases occur after promotion to the “model” or “lead” pathway, a competitive process partly vetted by other teachers. The system has its detractors in research and in practice, yet proponents say the system offers an important benefit over its predecessor: more options for the ambitious teacher. “It takes away the predictability of when you’re going to get this or that [raise], but it really allows the individual to take control and lead where they want to go in their professional growth,” said Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, the district’s achievement and accountability officer.


The LA School iPad Scandal: What You Need To Know

Superintendent John Deasy has announced he’s canceling the contract and restarting bidding for a massive expansion of classroom technology in the LA Unified School District, reports Annie Gilbertson for NPR. LAUSD had planned to buy 700,000 iPads for students and teachers, with learning software by Pearson, but release by KPCC of emails between Deasy and Pearson executives brings into question whether the initial bidding process was fair. The expected price tag for equipment, software, and wi-fi upgrades to schools was $1.3 billion. KPCC discovered notes exchanged between Deasy and Pearson long before the contract was opened for competitive bidding, and that Deasy and his deputies communicated with Pearson over pricing, teacher training, and technical support in drafting specifications for a request for proposals from vendors. Pearson and Apple were awarded the contract in June 2013. KPCC’s investigation also found some LAUSD officials had qualms about cost, infrastructure readiness, and timing of the iPad/Pearson plan; that Deasy personally pitched Apple on the Pearson partnership; that Pearson’s charitable foundation subsidized a training for 50 LAUSD employees at a resort and gave participants free iPads; and that Pearson’s sales representative argued against an RFP at all. The district now owns 75,000 iPads, roughly half loaded with Pearson’s unfinished and problematic educational software.

(Source: NPR)

Why do Americans stink at math?

In The New York Times Magazine, Elizabeth Green describes how the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics published manifestos throughout the 1980s prescribing radical changes in teaching math. These were adopted to excellent results by other countries, notably Japan, but discarded in the U.S. “It wasn’t the first time Americans dreamed up a better way to teach math and then failed to implement it,” Green writes. Such efforts stretch back to the 1800s, the same scenario every time: a big, excited push, followed by mass confusion and a return to conventional practice. The trouble starts when teachers are asked to implement innovative ideas without guidance. With unprepared teachers, reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping. This frustrating descent is underway again, Green says, as states adopt the Common Core without good systems for instructing educators. Inadequate implementation leads to the inevitable conclusion: Why try something we’ve failed at a half-dozen times before, only to watch it backfire? Yet math reforms rise again and again, since our traditional way of teaching math simply doesn’t work — as proficiency data for both students and adults attest. Japan could make changes because teachers depended on jugyokenkyu, a set of practices to hone their craft. There, a teacher plans lessons, then teaches in front of an audience of students and other teachers, along with at least one university observer. Observers discuss with the teacher what’s taken place. Of all lessons Japan can offer the United States, the most important might be a belief in patience and the possibility of change. Training teachers in a new way of thinking takes time, and American parents must be patient.

(Source: The New York Times)