Meaningful Conversations

I am still digesting an incredible evening of ideas thoughtful discourse on public education from a diverse panel of advocates for public school and change at Seattle University (Part of their Conversations in Education series). Each made one articulate point after the other. While their views all differed slightly, they were all passionate, and there were clear common themes that came through. The panel included the following people: Chester Finn, Kati Haycock, Tyrone Howard, Reverend Al Sharpton, Denise Pope, and Nicholas Hanauer.

The discussion was moderated by Joseph W. Scott (professor of Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Washington – and husband of one of my favorite profs at Seattle U.) He first asked each member to answer this question: Name the top two things on your list that you think is preventing achievement in public education.

Kati Haycock began and mentioned that we do not demand enough of our students. She also said we need to act on what we know. We know early childhood education makes a difference. Chester Finn mentioned that the state standards are too low, at least the Common Core curriculum seems to be better, he suggested, but warned that it only exists in math and reading and then reminded us again that the curricula is week. Tyrone Howard and Al Sharpton talked about the “New Racisim” which is saying to a child of color or poverty, “I understand your situation, so you don’t need to care as much, nor do I.” We need to become more comfortable talking about race and how education is not serving a significant part of the population. Denise Pope also agreed that our standards were too low, but particularly on authentic real-life skills. She mentioned that now we have doctors, who have aced every standardized test imaginable who cannot diagnose something because it doesn’t look “exactly like it does in the textbook!” She said there’s serious disengagement in school and kids are not healthy (both mentally and physically) – basically, she said (and I’m paraphrasing because I didn’t record it), “The curriculum is extremely broad, but about an inch deep and kids cannot think for themselves, collaborate in healthy ways.” Nick Hanauer (whose children I have taught), talked about bureaucracy, politics, and the need to distribute money equitably.

They were then asked to name one remedy they thought would work. It basically came down to proper distribution of funds, and shave away layers of bureaucracy.

Kati said, you cannot teach from a textbook – you need people who know HOW to teach, and you need to talk honestly and act.

Chester said we need to look at governance and strip away layers and have more leadership at all levels – not something that is hierarchical.

Tyrone said, use data and get effective teachers on board, incentivize them to go out to needy areas, include parents in the discussion, identify teachers that aren’t doing their jobs, try to remediate, if that fails – they should choose another profession.

Denise really spoke to the need for a strong Social / Emotional curriculum, and that the work kids need to do should be authentic, like the work we do. How many timed tests have you done lately? It’s like if my boss gathered all of us and gave us a timed test and those who didn’t score above a certain amount were fired. Many kids face high stakes testing daily, and we’re sending the wrong message to them. She said, kids need to know the value of being wrong, receiving redemption and leraning from it.

Nick spoke about allocating funds strategically and equitably and supporting legislators that support education. He gave concrete examples, like supporting arts programs in schools, and subject specialists. He also talked about the need to support early childhood education and all day kindergarten programs in public education.

Rev Al said, to change the culture, we have to create the culture, and to do that we have to have active engagement.

Active community engagement was on everybody’s list.

That was just the first part of the evening. There were three, but I couldn’t possibly try to summarize it all in one post, so I’m going to leave it there for tonight. I went with four colleagues, and I know one more who went separately. I just wish we could have had more people there , parents, board members, other leaders. It was an incredible and inspiring evening full of people modeling what they believe, taking action, and engaging in meaningful conversation.

What is Rigor?

According to the OED “…Harsh inflexibility (in dealing with a person or group of people); severity, sternness; cruelty….” Its obsolete meaning is “the sensation of numbness”

So, it’s no wonder that when charged with trying to define or explore rigor in math, the two researchers, Blintz and Delano Moore who wrote an article in this months Teaching Children Mathematics (December 10/January 11) titled “What Children Taught Us About Rigor” came away with a very interesting take on it all.

They looked at 2nd grade and 4th grade classes and depending on the perspective, teachers generally had very different definitions of rigor, than their students.

The authors stated that “rigor was the extent to which learners efficiently and effectively act on meaningful problems. Sometimes teachers characterize actions as problem solving that really are not…such actions are practice. Not that there is anything wrong with practice…but problem solving and practicing problem solving are not the same thing.

“Teachers primarily were seeing rigor from the realm of curriculum, where as students were seeing it from the realm of teaching and learning. The challenge is to integrate these two constellations.”

Here are the qualities of rigor identified:

  1. Active engagement: create learning experiences that get students actively involved in their own learning and the learning of others.
  2. Curiosity and inquiry: Develop open-ended lessons and provide a context that gives students encouragement and support to pursue extensions of those lessons.
  3. Confidence: Create a classroom environment in which students are comfortable taking intellectual risks.
  4. Meaningfulness: Design leaning experiences that are personally and culturally relevant.
  5. Critical thinking: Emphasize the how and why, not just the what.
  6. Problem solving: Offer opportunities for students to gain increasing ability to solve rich mathematical tasks as well as be thoughtful problem solvers.

While a teacher may be required to teach the steps in an algorithm, creating a lesson beyond that – that incorporates the 6 steps above requires rigor on the part of the teacher. When looking at teaching materials for children, those above criteria should be looked at carefully.

If you look at all the other definitions in the OED of rigor: strictness, hardships, privations, cruelty, etc., there is only one that states, “The requirements, demands, or challenges of a task, activity, etc.” That is what I think the authors meant.