Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Common Core: Getting past the bullshit and the myths

(Please forgive me. I don't use profanity very much. But this time it was truly needed.)

I'm getting fed up with all the attacks on the Common Core State Standards Initiative (abbreviated herein as "Common Core," or "CC"). It seems like the anti-CC folks, and the anti-CC arguments, come from people who have no idea what they're talking about.

Some people misunderstand one piece of CC, draw an erroneous conclusion, and trumpet their conclusion as proof that CC is bad. An example of this is the myth that "CC will let a student say that 3x4=11 and get away with it, if his reasoning is good enough." I dare any of you to find the text in official CC documents that supports that statement. There isn't any. It's a myth - or, to put it more baldly, IT'S A LIE. It gains credibility through retelling, but it's still false.

Some people hear an anecdote about a bad experience somebody had with CC, and they repeat the anecdote. They tweet it; they put it on Facebook; they put it on their blogs and again, through repetition, the anecdote acquires enough credibility to be a powerful (but bogus) argument against CC. These bad experiences are usually based on a misunderstanding. One example of this is the recent story of Jeff Severt, the "Frustrated Parent" who couldn't understand his child's CC math worksheet and got his 15 minutes of fame by crafting a snotty response to the question on the worksheet. As I have shown in a previous post, the guy proved that, even with an engineering degree, he couldn't grasp an elementary mathematical concept and couldn't read or follow directions.

MOREOVER (and I added this on April 7 and put it in italics), a lot of people's complaints are not about the CC standards, but about curricula (that's a fancy word for "lesson plans") developed by textbook companies and sold to school districts, curricula which claim to be compliant with CC. If you don't like the curriculum, then complain about the curriculum, not the standards. Despite what you may think, THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING.

Some of you may take the lazy way out and say, "But the curriculum is written to comply with the standards; therefore the standards must dictate the way the curriculum is laid out." That's some kind of logical fallacy. I don't know how to label it, but only intellectually lazy people would believe something like that.

My question to my readers is this: with all the resources available from the CC initiative itself, why are you relying on distorted opinions and anecdotes about stupid people, to form and to reinforce your negative opinions about Common Core? Why don't you bypass all the bullshit and go directly to the source?

And Now, A History Lesson:

The Common Core State Standards Initiative was started in 2009. It was a collaborative effort between state governors, school administrators, teachers and yes, those nasty old teachers' unions. The federal government was not a part of it back then - and the federal government is still not a part of it. Okay, I can hear you sputtering with exasperation back there. Hold onto your horses, okay? We'll talk about the feds in a minute.

Before CC came about, departments in individual schools tried to come up with a common set of goals or standards, to ensure that all the students in their school learned the same stuff. It was a collaborative effort, driven by teachers.

Then teachers at many different schools in the district realized they were all working on the same thing, so they collaborated to create district-wide standards. Their efforts were usually coordinated by a curriculum chair at the district level. This was not a bad thing. Don't get your shorts in a bunch.

With the advent of No Child Left Behind, state boards of education were responsible for coming up with a set of common statewide standards, against which all students could be evaluated. Whether you like NCLB or not (I don't), it doesn't matter. NCLB led to the creation of state standards, and the districts hustled to conform, because statewide standardized testing was next. The state BOEs (well, the smart ones) relied on the work that had already been done by the teachers in the school districts in their states.

In the field of mathematics, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) recognized the major effort that these teachers were making, and so NCTM surveyed the teachers and developed a uniform nationwide set of standards for mathematics in all grades. I imagine that similar movements were happening in other subjects.

So in 2009, a bunch of governors and school district administrators had the bright idea to codify these efforts, and define a core of knowledge, the bare minimum standards that American students should learn. This core would be the same in all participating states or districts; hence it would be known as the Common Core, and the standards as the Common Core State Standards.

NOW, ALL YOU ANTI-COMMON-CORE LOUDMOUTHS: Notice that the CC standards were driven by the teachers - the ones doing the teaching - and fostered by the governors of some of the states in the Union. Not all of them.

Like all good things, the federal government got wind of CC, and they messed with it. They screwed it up. They didn't change the content of CC, but they took what should have been a teaching tool, to be handled delicately by skilled practitioners, and turned it into a club, to be wielded by clumsy politicians and inept bureaucrats. They made threats like, "If you don't adopt CC in your school, or district, or state, we will withhold federal education funding." You can blame it on the Obama administration if you want to. You won't be very far off. I wouldn't say it was Obama's doing, but the few times I've heard him speak about Common Core, it was obvious that he didn't understand CC any better than the anti-CC forces did.

A Special Message for You Mormons

The Mormon church has had to endure a lot of bad press in its 180-plus years of existence. It seems like the same lies, half-truths, and innuendo keep getting repeated over and over, in spite of the church's (and its adherents') attempts at rebuttal. In addition, it seems like everybody knows a friend of a friend who has a scare story about a Mormon, illustrating just how evil, terrible and bad the Mormons are.

Now, all of you Mormons know that the lies are just lies. You know that the anecdotal Mormons are either extreme fabrications or aberrations. Don't you wish that people would find out the truth about the Mormons by talking to a Mormon? or by reading the official Mormon website or something? Doesn't it really frost your cookies when people try to find out about the Mormons from somebody other than a Mormon, and they end up getting it all wrong?

So why the hell are you doing the same thing with Common Core? If you want to know the truth about Common Core, then go to the Common Core website. Read everything the creators have to say. Don't rely on CC's opponents to tell you the truth. Read the actual standards themselves, not somebody's interpretation of them. Use your own brain; don't borrow somebody else's.

Finally, a Message for Everybody

The Common Core standards were developed by teachers, for teachers. It was, and remains, a grassroots effort, with the students' best interests in mind. Although CCSSI itself was launched only four years ago, the groundwork for it was laid years before - by teachers.

This isn't something that was thought up by politicians, bureaucrats, administrators or union bosses. It came from the teachers themselves, because they cared about their students.

Don't believe the negative stuff in the press. If it's not outright lies, then it's distortions and innuendo. Even the anecdotes are suspect, as I've shown in the case of Jeff Severt. If you look behind the stories, you will see that they're based on misunderstanding, and sometimes on stupidity.

Finally, and I can't stress this enough: read the standards yourself. Go to the Common Core website and read them. Understand them. Make up your own mind. Use your own brain; don't borrow somebody else's.

Final final note: My wife says I'm ranting. Yes, I certainly am.

Update, April 7: I found a great explanation of the difference between Common Core standards and Common Core curriculum. I quoted it in my latest posting. Click here to read it. 

Dear "Frustrated Father": Stop acting like an idiot.

The Internet is all atwitter this week about a "Frustrated Parent" (Jeff Severt, by name) who couldn't figure out "his son's Common Core math assignment" (I put that in quotation marks, because that's what a journalist wrote, and journalists are not always accurate in their reporting. (Imagine that!)).

The father's version of the homework first appeared on a conservative Facebook page called The Patriot Post. It was picked up by TheBlaze, who published a breathless article about it. That article caught Glen Beck's eye, and he did an interview with the father. From there, it went viral. For example, Yahoo has been hooting about it for days.

So what was the homework assignment? Here's the photo that was posted on Facebook. (FB lawyers: I claim "fair use." Get away from me.)

There are a number of things that are just plain wrong with Mr. Severt's response. I don't know where to start. Let's start at the beginning.

1. He didn't read the instructions. The problem says, "Write a letter to Jack, telling him what he did right, and how to fix his mistake." Mr. Severt responds that 427 minus 316 is obviously 111, and that he could figure it out in under five seconds. Well, that's great, Jeffy, but that's not what the teacher was asking for. The fictional kid got 121 for his answer. What did he do right, and more importantly, what did he do wrong and how should he fix it? An engineer should be able to figure that out. (I'll tell you below.)

2. Mr. Severt, who is so proud of his Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering, who can do differential equations, and who (I assume) can read both an electrical schematic and an oscilloscope waveform, is unable to figure out a simple number line. I glanced at the diagram and figured out the problem almost instantly - in less than a second, anyway. (Wanna know the answer? Keep reading.)

For your information, Mr. Severt, we lose a lot of kids in K-12 when we try to teach them to do subtraction via the vertical method. Many students, like you and me, did just fine learning math that way. But a significant number of students are visual learners, some are kinesthetic learners, and some have dyslexia. For these students, it really, really, REALLY helps for them to use a number line to figure out the mechanics of subtraction. We teach them how to add and subtract on a number line, and then we show them how the number-line method corresponds to the vertical method. Eventually they have an "a-hah!" moment where it all makes sense, and then they can leave the number line behind.

It's like training wheels on a bicycle.

Or do you want an example from your Electrical Engineering curriculum? Let's talk about calculus. Do you remember L'Hôpital's Rule? Limits? Do you use those in your EE job? Well, you do calculus, right? When's the last time you actually had to use L'Hôpital's Rule? You spent a whole unit on it in Calc 1. It was on the midterm and on the final. Learning and understanding L'Hôpital's Rule was fundamental to understanding differentiation, and integration after that. That is analogous to teaching subtraction on the number line.

Five years before Common Core came about, I was teaching my seventh grade math students how to add and subtract positive and negative numbers, using a number line. It works.

3. "In the real world, simplification is valued over complication." Mr. Severt, I dare you to try to teach a second-grader about three-digit vertical subtraction, your way. Your explanation will be much more complicated, and less understandable by the majority of your students, than the number line.

4. About the number line, Mr. Severt says "The process is ridiculous and would result in termination if used." This is both arrogant and disingenuous. You know what? It's also a stupid thing to say. As I have shown above, the number line is a K-12 teaching tool, not a professional-level algorithm.

5. I will assert, with no data to back me up, that most of the anti-Common Core crowd are just repeating claims they've heard (like the silly "It's okay to say 3 x 4 = 11" claim) and anecdotes like this "Frustrated Father" one, and that none of these parrots have actually read the Common Core standards. If you think I'm talking about you, then, Dear Reader, you're probably right. GO READ THEM FROM THE SOURCE. What you are arguing against is not Common Core.

I think that this point, the point about learning about CC from the source, deserves another blog entry. Read it here.

6. For those of you still reading this, here's the answer. It takes longer to explain it than it does to comprehend it. To solve 427-316 on a number line, you start at 427. Take three 100-sized jumps to the left, one 10-sized jump to the left, and six single jumps to the left. You will end up at 111. The fictional Jack forgot the 10-sized jump and that's how he ended up at 121.

You're welcome.

(UPDATE! The Huffington Post published about this, two days after I did. Read their article here, and my observations about it here.)

(ANOTHER UPDATE! Seven months later, the Independent Journal Review has picked up on this, and published an article about it as if it were brand new. Seven months! Clearly, they're a little slow on the uptake. They also have problems reading for comprehension. Read their article here, and my further thoughts on the matter here. Too many people have forgotten the "slow" kids in their grade-school math classes.)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Why people don't want to stop using Windows XP

Windows XP, arguably the best Windows OS that Microsoft ever created, is scheduled to die on April 8, 2014. Oh, the OS will continue to work just fine, but that's the date when Microsoft will stop supporting it or issuing security updates and patches for it. After April 8, if you want to use Windows XP, you're on your own.

Yet people won't stop using XP. (Remarkably, most ATMs in the world run on Windows XP, even with three weeks remaining before the end-of-support date.) Why not? Because it works.

Not only does it work, but it has proven over the years, from its inception in 2001 until now, that it is a healthy, robust, easy-to-use version of Windows. It is such a good operating system that Windows Vista was unable to unseat it in 2007. Windows 7, released in 2012, was more an apology for the bloated, sluggish, dead-out-of-the-box Vista than it was a replacement for Windows XP, and it did not surpass XP in market share until August 2012 (according to Wikipedia). The only reason Win7 got any market share from XP was that Microsoft stopped shipping XP. After June 30, 2008. if you wanted to get an XP license, you had to buy one on eBay or Amazon. The latest version of Windows, known as Windows 8, has been received almost as poorly as Vista was.

XP has proven so robust and so popular that Microsoft has had to provide "downgrade paths" and "compatibility modes" for Win7 and Win8 users who wanted to revert to XP.

Some critics, Microsoft included, will say that Win7 and Win8 have a greatly improved feature set over XP. Well, so did Vista, and nobody wanted Vista.

They will also tell you that XP is riddled with security holes - not to mention regular old bugs. Well, so is every version of Windows that has come after XP.

The Linux heads will tout the superiority of Linux over any version of Windows. That's a religious debate that I don't want to get into here. But the pervasiveness of the Windows OS, in any flavor, is undeniable. And XP is the best OS that Microsoft has come up with yet.

Note: This post was written on a Windows 7 computer.