The Way We Do Business

I’ve been thinking lately about math in high school.  This is not unusual, by any means, especially for someone in my position.  Nationally, we are struggling with math in high school; some schools, districts, and even states are getting it right, but most are struggling.

A word if caution: if you’re looking for solutions in this post, you will be disappointed.

One thing that frustrates me most about the work we (as a nation) have to do at the high school level is the lack of concern about instructional practices.  Most high school math teachers have a solid grounding in the mathematics that they teach.  This is often incorrectly equated to a solid understanding of how to teach that content.  Unfortunately, content knowledge does not imply pedagogical knowledge.  (I would pose the question: is the converse true?  My jury of one is still out on this, although I thought I knew the answer until about 30 seconds ago.)

So how do we change instruction?  I’m not even going to attempt to answer that today.  What I know for certain is that if we want the change to happen in the future, we have to start now.  That sounds pretty obvious, but here’s why:

  1. Current high school students who are thinking about becoming math teachers are learning how to teach even now.  They watch their teachers.  If all of that student’s teachers are teaching they way that they were taught, then that student is going to someday teach the same way.  The cycle continues because…
  2. Secondary teacher preparation programs at the university level do not do enough to promote a change in instructional practice.  Those that do are often ineffective in reforming students’ attitudes and beliefs about pedagogy that were learned in high school. The result is…
  3. More teachers, teaching the same way they were taught, and influencing the next generation of teachers.

You’re probably thinking that I’m the world’s biggest pessimist right now.  I really believe that we can change.  I also believe that we will not wholly change the way that high school math is taught in the future unless we start the change now.  In summary,

  • Systems matter – they need fixing sometimes.
  • Resources matter – they need to be of a high quality and aligned to appropriate benchmarks.
  • Instruction matters – it’s the critical third element that we too often overlook.

Changing the way we do business in high school means taking a close look at all three areas.  Until we do, we aren’t going to have the overall effect that our nation so desperately needs.

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The Whole Truth…

I had the opportunity to talk about assessment with a group of elementary school teachers earlier this week.  Our discussion focused on scoring, with particular emphasis on the scoring of constructed response items similar to those that appear on many state assessments.  In Colorado, there exists a set of holistic rubrics for this purpose.  They are sound, but require some understanding of what is being measured to be used effectively.  We also talked about preassessment – why and how to preassess kids.  This topic is better suited for a later post.

Knowing that this presentation was looming on the horizon, I had been on the lookout for assessment-related ideas anywhere I could find them.  So last Saturday, while enjoying a Shrekmarathon with my wife and kids, I found what was looking for.  In the first movie, Shrek overhears Fiona lamenting about her ugliness and thinks she is talking about him.  Dejected (he had just worked up his courage to express his undying love), Shrek walks off into the night.

I showed this one-minute segment to teachers.  Then I made my point: when it comes to assessing student learning, be sure

  1. you have the whole picture; and
  2. you have the right picture.

Sometimes, whether observing students working or scoring an assessment, it is easy to miss the big picture or to only get a part of the picture.  If we use assessment data to guide our instruction, but we’re working with an incorrect or incomplete picture, then our instruction will miss the mark. 

So next time you think assessment, think Shrek – and get the whole picture the first time.