Friday, January 12, 2007

National Standards Dialogue with Professor Schmidt

William H. Schmidt is a University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University and is currently co-director of the Education Policy Center, co-director of the US China Center for Research and co-director of the NSF PROM/SE project and holds faculty appointments in the Department of Educational Psychology and the Department of Statistics. Previously he served as National Research Coordinator and Executive Director of the US National Center which oversaw participation of the United States in the IEA sponsored Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). His current writing and research concerns issues of academic content in K-12 schooling, assessment theory and the effects of curriculum on academic achievement. He is also concerned with educational policy related to mathematics, science and testing in general. He was awarded the Honorary Doctorate degree at Concordia University in 1997 and received the 1998 Willard Jacobson Lectureship from The New York Academy of Sciences and was recently elected to the National Academy of Education.

I have had the pleasure of communicating with Prof. Schmidt via email a few times this past year. He has given me permission to quote him from these emails. I discussed my campaign to promote a national math curriculum and my appeal to the National Math Panel to listen to the teachers on the frontlines. He was very gracious and gave me cause for optimism for the future. I strongly urge you to read the complete text of the PBS interview he gave to Frontline in 2001. His words seem as current today as they were then. How far have we come in developing a 'coherent vision' since his characterization over a decade ago of our math curriculum as 'an inch deep and a mile wide?' In the interview he refers to Achieve, a non-profit group of business leaders and governors. I will have more to say about this over the next week or so. This organization is already having a significant impact on math and science curriculum in my state and 25 others. I advise all our readers to take their American Diploma Project report (can be downloaded from the site) very seriously. Over the next few weeks, I will be excerpting and commenting on the high school mathematics benchmarks in this document.

Here was his reply on 2-10-06 to an email I sent him. I do not have a copy of my original email but you can read between the lines...

No, I don't disagree with your comments at all. I have been very an
outspoken advocate of national standards. I believe it is rather
unbelievable that we do not have what most other countries in the world do
have. The fact we do not have national standards leads to much of the
chaos, not only in the curriculum, but in the testing, professional
development, and teacher training, as well. I think there is a greater
tendency right now to move in this direction and I've actually been asked
to prepare some comments for a national symposium that is being together on
the pros and cons of national standards.

So, do not despair. There is hope.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
William Schmidt
University Distinguished Professor
Co Director University Policy Center
Co Director US China Center
Co Director Center for the Study of Curriculum
238 Erickson Hall
College of Education
Michigan State University


RobynW said...

How can we have national standards when there is such strong disagreement over how and what to teach in math?

Why not let the states experiment? For example, California has more traditional standards, while New Jersey's standards are more reform oriented. We should compare which students are better prepared for rigorous college math (assuming other variables such as family income are equal).

I think when there is such strong disagreement over math curricula, it is wrong to shut one side out of the debate by imposing national standards.

Dave Marain said...

Dear robynw--
I am so glad that someone responded to this. I am taking an extremely strong position here but I am not an extremist! If you read all of my positions on MathShare, in my letters to the National Math Panel and in this blog you should get the feeling that I believe in a balanced view of curriculum and instruction. Many outstanding K-12 math teachers have made reasoned judgments about each new innovation in math curriculum. They have somehow managed to infuse new methods and new content while maintaining a strong foundation of skill and knowledge for their students. Their students learned how to reason and compute using a variety of methods. But in the end they could compute AND solve a variety of problems. NCTM did not invent problem-solving nor did John Saxon and California standards-makers invent skills! I have personally watched vague jargon-filled standards confuse educators, curriculum coordinators, and developers of assessments for the past 20 years.
Here's the point. A coherent math curriculum DOES NOT have to be ONE-SIDED. Look at the make-up of the American Diploma Project. It is more balanced than you might imagine. If Dr. Schmidt believes that there can be a math curriculum that reflects the best thinking about math content and instruction, I believe in him! The teachers I observe every day somehow manage to balance concept and skill, encourage communication, promote problem-solving, infuse technology effectively -- they do it all! BUT THE CONTENT IS FAR FROM STANDARDIZED FROM BUILDING TO BUILDING, DISTRICT TO DISTRICT, STATE TO STATE. This is more than folly, this is a crime perpetrated on our children. THIS IS TRUE INEQUITY! I do not fear that Ca or NJ will determine the standards. I believe that you and I will ultimately determine this because the national committees are being forced to listen to the teacher in the classroom and the parents and children. To ignore us has become political suicide. After all, YOU are the Person of the Year according to TIME magazine! Pls do not stop commenting and communicating. I'd like to believe I am open-minded. It's just that a coherent national math curriculum is an idea whose time has come. We must all get involved and shape what this will look like. I will do my best to keep the ideas flowing and the dialogue open...

RobynW said...

I'm not so optimistic that anyone will listen to parents. Parents have been complaining about programs like Everyday Math for a long time, without much to show for it.

There are kids who need explicit instruction, followed by lots of practice. They need to learn procedures before they can apply them to problem solving. I'm not saying everyone needs to learn this way, but some kids do. But supporters of Everyday Math don't recognize this.

Also, there is profound disagreement between math educators and mathematicians about the role of arithmetic in the K-12 curriculum. Many math educators, including the authors of Everyday Math, think that computers and calculators make paper-and-pencil arithmetic irrelevant in the real world. Math professors disagree.

There is also disagreement about the importance of practice. Educators call it "drill-and-kill." I think it's essential to master basic, especially for weak students.

I am a resident of New Jersey, but pay for Kumon for both my kids so they can get the practice they need.

Dave Marain said...

Dear robyn...
There is so much confusion out there! You and I are on the same page in almost everything you've said. Most youngsters cannot become proficient with any skill unless they practice over time. Kumon requires demonstration of mastery before moving on. This always made sense to me but most parents in urban areas cannot afford Kumon. That's unfair.
The Kumon approach by itself however does not develop communication, cooperation and higher-order thinking. Students will not become proficient with solutions to open-ended exercises from worksheets. This is what I mean by balance. HOWEVER, none of this has to do with content. I'm arguing for balanced content as well. Traditional arithmetic skills (without the calculator) must be maintained, but there needs to be commonsense regarding topics like long division. Some understanding of the algorithm is valuable, some proficiency with 1- and 2-digit divisors, and that's it!
Robyn, national standards do not shut one side or the other out, no more than the AP curriculum I teach in calculus prevents me from teaching a blend of reform calculus and traditional -- never has, never will! A Regents curriculum never prevented the creative competent teacher from teaching above and beyond.
As far as profound disagreement between mathematicians and educators, it so happens that I had the opportunity to speak directly to both Max Bell, the developer of Everyday Math and Zalman Usiskin, the director of UCSMP. Max Bell always expected automaticity of basic facts, but not via traditional worksheets. He believed that the facts could be learned through the daily games built into the program. I never quite bought into that because facts need reinforcement in a variety of ways including saying them, writing them and using them. Further, I suggested that not all teachers would have the time or take the time to play the games, and might fall into the trap of thinking the games are not essential. Oh, well...
The members of the national Math Panel are weighted toward traditionalists but NCTM and other reformers are represented. The makeup of the math committee for the American Diploma Project is similarly weighted but I do see more balance. They will somehow reach consensus and neither side will be ignored. Call me naive, but I believe this. I'm involved in the process, I am a parent and I give a ****. I need your support and a few hundred thousand others!!

Jonathan said...

But what to do if you don't trust the states, and if you don't trust the feds?

And if you think bad things about the hyper-constructivists and the back to basics folks?

I just do things privately. Traditional framework, with some modern pedagogy grafted on top. It works, but only for my one school.

Robyn, my friend in Jersey (middle school, good district) is sick over the CMP they are bringing in, and I agree with him.

And compare them? When trends pass and fads fade, there is nothing in place long enough to compare.

Maybe we should find a comparable country with reasonable math, and lift their curriculum wholesale?

Dave Marain said...

I do understand your skepticism and distrust of any political process. There is a long history to base that on! However, you also recognize that other students who are not in your class may not be covering the same content even in courses as structured as Geometry or Precalculus. Listen, the fads and innovations have failed. NCTM's recommendations have not been consistently implemented nor have they led to students developing proficiency with core concepts and skills. States' rights? Well, the NATIONAL WELFARE OF OUR CHILDREN transcends states' rights. Jonathan, I'm probably a lot older than you but I'm willing to shout long and loud here and contact every national committee until they have to listen. This is what I told the National Math Panel. If you don't listen to me, education journalists will. Bloggers will. The tens of thousands who read these every day (and you have a large following! will. I knew what kind of reaction I would get to advocating a standardized curriculum. I know it is fraught with danger and can become a political football. But I still believe in the process because I'm part of it. Robyn says THEY don't listen tp parents and you would say THEY don't listen to educators. I say THEY will listen when WE become THEY! This is why I started this blog. This is my real PUZZLE OF THE DAY and THERE IS A SOLUTION! Someone has to believe we can make a difference. You and thousands of dedicated talented teachers close their doors every day and do their own thing because they don't see the point of fighting the machine. I used to feel that way. But I feel the tide turning and Bob Dylan didn't write these words! Are you with me? I need you and Robyn to support this...

RobynW said...

I agree that Kumon is narrowly focused on arithmetic and does not teach concepts. It is not a full replacement curriculum. That is why I also supplement with Saxon Math at home.

By the way, Saxon is an excellent program for kids who have learning difficulties in math.

You say that "there needs to be commonsense regarding topics like long division. Some understanding of the algorithm is valuable, some proficiency with 1- and 2 digit divisors, that's it."

Professors James Milgram and David Klein claim that long division is an essential skill and wrote an article explaining why.

I am concerned when you say there should be "some" understanding and "some" proficiency. That sounds like the philosophy of my kids' math program; expose the kids to a topic but don't require mastery. According, to Milgram and Klein, kids need to understand and be proficient in long division. They need to master it.

Dave Marain said...

I did not make myself clear. I absolutely believe that if something is going to be taught, students should be expected to master it. "Some degree" was not intended to imply just exposure. Students should be expected to understand the division algorithm and perform the procedure proficiently with ONE and TWO-digit divisors. No more, no less in my opinion. I've read the complete statment by James Milgram and I accept some of what he is saying. I recognize the importance of the algorithm as a basis for polynomial division in algebra. However, IMO, he places far too much emphasis on this topic and portrays it as a cornerstone topic for mathematics. As I've repeated several times, I woud advocate for a blend of reform and tradition. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. I also see some of the benefits of the Saxon program for youngsters who need a high degree of structure. However, development of reasoning and problem-solving skill should not be equated with 'fuzzy' math as it is sometimes characterized.
Robyn, I am arguing for a strong foundation of essential mathematics K-8. High school teachers can often see within a day or two what foundation skills are lacking: ratios, percents, fractions in general, basic facts, etc. But strengthening these areas does not preclude development of better dialogue in the classroom, helping students express their thinking both verbally and in writing, hands-on learning and effective uses of technology where appropriate. There is a way to do both! Some teachers have always managed to do it...
Robyn, if you are fundamentally opposed to all aspects of NCTM's standards, Curriculum Focal Points and pedagogy, then we may not have common ground. I have been talking about a national curriculum that preserves the best of what we know students need and incorporates other content and instructional strategies that students will need for this century. Arriving at this curriculum is not obvious and differences will not be easy to reconcile. BUT listen to the teachers -- they usually know what is best!
I fully understand distrust of political processes but if the committees are fairly representative (and that will be questioned!) then there is hope for a positive outcome. I will continue to advocate for balanced representation on these panels. If I see significant bias, I will say so. I will email the panels and committees and complain loudly. I will blog loudly!! Most will ignore me, so I'll scream even more loudly. Do you think I'm the type to give up easily!

Anonymous said...

Here, in my experience, is what happens when there are not cohesive standards, even within a state, much less a nation: students move from one district to another (happens a lot in southwest Missouri where I teach)and even the names of the classes being taught in the same grade are NOT the same, much less the content. Missouri has "grade level expectations" which guide our testing, oops TEACHING, but since the beginning of my teaching career I have relied on the NCTM standards and frameworks for guidance!

AND TO ADDRESSS ONE EARLIER COMMENT: standards don't guide HOW to teach, they guide WHAT to teach