Willful Ignorance Is Not A Desired Trait For Elected Officials

Last week, by majority vote, PWC School Board chose to send a letter to Governor McAuliffe asking him to allow Virginia to remain independent from the Common Core State Standards initiative.  The vote was close, with 4 in favor of sending the letter (Trenum, Johns, Satterwhite, and Otaigbe) 3 against sending the letter (Bell, Jessie, and Williams), and one abstaining from voting (Covington).  Several school board members stated that they didn’t know enough about the Common Core to vote either way.  (Bell, Williams, and Covington).

I have to admit that I was more than a little surprised that individuals elected to the school board for our county wouldn’t know much about the Common Core. The Common Core first burst onto the US stage in 2009 and have been one of the biggest issues in public education since then, so I found their lack of knowledge more than a little concerning.

I believe elected officials have a responsibility to research issues before them, rather than rely solely on reports from staff.  School board members aren’t elected to blindly nod their heads at everything staff says or suggests.  Staff will present whatever information supports their viewpoint.  I expect elected officials to view staff’s assertions with a degree of professional skepticism and to do their own research, particularly if the issue before them is controversial.  If they’re unwilling or unable to do that, then I question why they’re serving.

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Staff’s Presentation on the Common Core

At the Feb 5, 2014 school board meeting, staff presented what was supposed to be an overview of the Common Core State Standards, which you can find here.  The presentation was, in my opinion, incomplete.

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To Common Core or Not To Common Core

Several nights ago I participated in a panel hosted by the Prince William County Committee of 100 about the future of standards in Virginia’s public schools.  Of interest to the Committee was whether the panelists believed Virginia should stick with the SOLs, adopt the Common Core State Standards, or do something else.  I chose doing something different, specifically adopting a Common Core Plus strategy that could be followed either by the state or the county if the state chooses differently.

That may seem like a strange recommendation to followers of this blog as I haven’t hidden my displeasure with the Common Core, so I thought I’d explain.

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Dumbing Down the AP to Match the CCSS

Since their inception Advanced Placement, or AP, courses have been in high demand in high schools across the country.  The content and sequence of instruction in AP courses is designed by The College Board.  AP courses are supposed to be as rigorous and challenging as a college level course.  Students take AP exams on fixed dates across the nation and their scores determine whether they can get college credit for the courses they’ve taken.  In theory the AP should save parents of college bound children money as their children, assuming they score high enough on their AP exams, will enter college with courses already completed.

Unfortunately, the course requirements and sequence of instruction under the Common Core State Standards don’t align with the requirements for the College Board’s AP exams, so the AP exams and courses are being redesigned to reflect the Common Core. According to The College Board, “The College Board is removing extraneous details from the AP course requirements and making AP classes less about simple memorization and more about critical thinking and synthesizing information. The AP is about taking a college course and giving a recipe for students.”

Thus far The College Board has revamped the AP Biology, Latin and Spanish Literature exams.  They are currently revamping the AP Chemistry and Spanish Language exams.

Math, as has become all too predictable, is proving to be difficult to align, particularly AP Calculus.  “AP Calculus is in conflict with the Common Core. It lies outside the sequence of the Common Core because of the fear that it may unnecessarily rush students into advanced math classes for which they are not prepared”, according to Trevor Packer, senior vice president of the College Board’s Advanced Placement Program.

The College Board has a suggestion here for school divisions – stop teaching Calculus.  Offer AP Statistics or Computer Science instead.  The College Board has plans to replace AP Calculus with AP Algebra, but those plans are tentative.

Virginia, thus far, has chosen not to fully participate in the CCSS, though we have aligned our content standards with the CCSS and have contract Pearson Education to develop, administer, and evaluate our state exams, the SOL exams.  This move by The College Board to align the AP with the CCSS means Virginia students will have no choice but to follow the CCSS.  It also means that students hoping to be Engineers, who must take Calculus in high school, will have no options for taking Calculus other than to attend a local community college on their own during their junior or senior year.

The Evil that Schools Do

Anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to education reforms in the past 20 – 30 years knows that rote memorization, or drill and kill, are the single worst things a developing child can be exposed to.   Not only does rote memorization take the joy out of learning, it undermines children’s ability to understand numbers and arithmetic operations.  Teachers forcing children to memorize math facts to automatic recall are committing what can only be characterized as educational malpractice.  In this modern era the focus in education is on deeper understanding, critical thinking, and developing 21st Century skills, not on creating a generation of robots who mindlessly repeat steps they don’t understand.

Too bad those promises aren’t based on actual science.  You know data, from actual studies, conducted by actual scientists and peer reviewed, that show that rote memorization undermines learning.  Because the studies, the actual science and data, show the opposite.

The Journal of Neuroscience recently published a study conducted by two professors of neuroscience from the University of Ontario. The scientists observed something rather amazing during their study:

Students who performed well on the math section of the PSAT showed more activity in brain areas linked to memory of math facts. Those with lower math PSAT scores had less brain activity in those areas and more in areas associated with processing number quantities.

The findings suggest that the high-achieving students knew the answers by memory, while lower-performing students were calculating even low-level problems.

Amazing, isn’t it?  Children who knew their math facts to automatic recall, or rote, did better in math than those who didn’t.  College professors and high school math teachers have observed this for years, but have been scoffed at, belittled, and worse by the folks peddling programs they claim foster deeper understanding and critical thinking.  Turns out the college professors and high school math teachers were right.

I don’t think anything will change as our country has sold it’s soul to the promise peddlers and has spent literally hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars developing techniques employed by these folks to undermine parent opposition to their programs.  Virginia has fully embraced these programs and openly advocates giving calculators to children, starting in kindergarten.

There’s just too much money and too much influence at the highest levels of government for anything to change.

Virginia Virtucon recently noted that students in Prince William County lag far behind students in Fairfax and Loudoun in their performance on the PSAT and in the number of students who qualify as National Merit Scholars.  Virtucon wanted to know why.

Prince William County is run by folks who honestly believe mastery of math facts and the standard algorithms are dangerous as they undermine student learning and critical thinking skills, and they teach that to our teachers.  The science says mastery of math facts and the standard algorithms actually improve student learning.  Virtucon, I think perhaps we’ve found part of the answer to your question.

I don’t expect anything to change.  Education in the United States and Virginia is run by folks who are making money by the boatload selling programs that they claim help students develop deeper understanding, critical thinking, and 21st Century skills.  Unfortunately, what they claim their programs offer will actually leave our children even further behind.  The evil that our schools do will live after them.

Va Dept of Ed Blows Off 60% of Virginia Students

This summer, after receiving a wavier from NCLB’s 100% passing requirements, the VA Dept of Ed established new goals for the percentage of students passing the SOL in all school divisions and public schools in the state.   The new targeted percentage passing was set for the state overall and for groups of students;  groups that are based on race.

The Va Dept of Ed took lots of flack from the public because the pass rate targets for 2013 – 2017 for Black and Hispanic students are lower than the pass rate targets for White and Asian students.   The Dept of Ed was accused of having lower expectations for Black and Hispanic students than they do for White and Asian students.

The VA Dept of Ed responded that the goals don’t reflect lower expectations for Black or Hispanic students as the final goal, 73% passing by 2017, is uniform across all groups. Instead of setting a uniform starting point that didn’t reflect actual pass rates, the Dept of Ed set the 2012 actual pass rates as the point from which annual increases are expected.  The goals for annual increases for Black and Hispanic students, according the the Dept of Ed, will be challenging but are achievable.

Unfortunately the Dept of Ed blew off White and Asian students as they aren’t expected to improve at all.

In 2012, 73% or more White and Asian students passed the state SOLs in every elementary grade level or high school subject tested.  For White and Asian students, who comprise 60% of Virginia students, no increase in the percentage of students passing the state SOLs is expected through 2017.  Here are the actual 2012 pass rates and the 2012 – 2017 targeted pass rates from the VA Dept of Ed for each racial group  Pass Rate Targets & 2012 Actual Pass Rates

According to the Va Dept of Ed, the percentage of Black and Hispanic students passing the SOL exams is expected in increase nearly 20% over the next 5 years, but no increase is expected for White and Asian students.   In these times of scarce resources, with pressure on school divisions to meet state pass rate targets, where do you think the resources will be allocated – to the schools that are struggling to meet the state pass rate targets or the schools that have already met them? If every child deserves an education that helps them achieve the most they can, is that fair?  Wouldn’t it be more fair for the state to expect the percentage of students passing the SOLs to increase in each and every group, not just in select groups?

If you have any concerns with the goals the Dept of Ed has established, you may want to contact your state representatives.

Mythbusting the Common Core

The pressure on Virginia to adopt the Common Core State Standards is intense, with the CCSS’s supporters actively spreading false information, grossly exaggerating it’s success, and misrepresenting who is behind the CCSS. Virginia isn’t likely to last long under such intense pressure, so us plain folk need to arm ourselves with knowledge and share our opinions with our state delegation.

Here’s the first of a series from Truth in American Education debunking the CCSS myths – the myth that the CCSS are “state led”.

Most of our elected delegates in Richmond, I’m sorry to say, are not well informed about the Common Core.  We need to educate them.

Here is a handy dandy one clink link to send an email to all of them.  Below the link is a list of their names and individual email addresses.

DelDBell@house.virginia.gov;DelSLandes@house.virginia.gov;DelCStolle@house.virginia.gov;delrrobinson@house.virginia.gov;DelJYost@house.virginia.gov;DelJMorrissey@house.virginia.gov;DelMKeam@house.virginia.gov;DelDHester@house.virginia.gov

Senators

Richard Black – district13@senate.virginia.gov
Charles Colgan –  district29@senate.virginia.gov
Toddy Puller – district36@senate.virginia.gov
Richard Stuart – district28@senate.virginia.gov
George Barker – district39@senate.virginia.gov

Delegates

Scott Lingamfelter – DelSLingamfelter@house.virginia.gov
Richard Anderson – DelRAnderson@house.virginia.gov
Luke Torian – DelLTorian@house.virginia.gov
Bob Marshall – DelBMarshall@house.virginia.gov
Jackson Miller – DelJMiller@house.virginia.gov
Dave Ramadan – DelDRamadan@house.virginia.gov
Tim Hugo – DelTHugo@house.virginia.gov
Mark Dudenhefer – DelMDudenhefer@House.virginia.gov

Trust Nothing You Hear from the Education Establishment

When it comes to education we parents have to trust that the teachers and education administrators in our public school systems won’t do anything that will harm our children.  While I think most of our classroom teachers have our children’s best interests at heart, I doubt everything I hear from the education administrators & bureaucrats.

I’m sorry to say that, but I have seen far too much evidence that the education administrators at the local, state, and federal level are corrupt and will willingly and knowingly lie or distort facts, to trust a word they say anymore.  Unfortunately, debunking their lies usually requires a degree of professional skepticism coupled with a willingness to dig into and understand details, something our elected officials are unwilling or unable to do.

The net effect is that the corrupt liars are setting education policy in this county, state, and country and our children are suffering because of it.

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Please Write to Your Delgates and School Board Members

Tell them that students should be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide without calculators BEFORE they’re forced into Algebra or higher level courses.  Heck, tell them to order the  VA DOE to stop pushing calculators in our elementary school children.  Tell your Delegates that you support HB 469.    Tell your school board members not to oppose it.

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Accentuating the Positive or Misleading the Public?

Most of us who have ever worked for a private business have experience in trying to highlight the things we do well.  A restaurant with an extensive wine list will emphasize the variety of wines they offer in adverts, and maybe not mention that they don’t serve dessert.   A business that’s received awards for processing the greatest volume of home mortgages won’t mention how many of their mortgages ended up in foreclosure. A weight loss company will advertise that they have the greatest numbers of customers reach their goal weight of all the national weight loss programs.  They just won’t mention that it’s only 5% of their customers.

Business people know that highlighting what you do well attracts new customers and brings old customers back.

But what about government entities, like the police, fire and rescue, or public schools?   Government entities exist to serve the public; the money they receive to perform their duties comes from the taxpayers.  Unlike private companies, who are subject to the whims of free choice and will lose customers and go out of business if they don’t do a good job, government entities will still get taxpayer money no matter how well or poorly they do their jobs.

Because government entities are going to get their taxpayer money no matter how well or poorly they perform their duties, the public requires that government entities report various measures of their performance.  Police departments are expected to report crime statistics, and police chiefs are held accountable when crime rates increase.  Fire and rescue departments are expected to report response times, and held accountable when slow response times jeopardize public safety.   Public schools are expected to report test scores, and, in theory, held accountable when scores don’t meet community expectations.

What would you think if a school division selectively reported test scores to highlight success and failed to report when test scores were below expectations?

Several weeks ago PWCS reported on the ACT scores for several of our schools.  The press release was titled, “Prince William ACT Scores Exceed National Scores” and stated the following:

August 22, 2012

Students in Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS) scored above the national composite average for the fifth straight year on the college benchmark ACT. Students in four Prince William County High Schools exceeded the state average while overall Division scores remained the same as last year. Battlefield, Brentsville District, Forest Park, and Osbourn Park students achieved composite scores of 23.5, 24.0, 22.4 and 23.4 respectively, exceeding the state composite score of 22.4 and joining other PWCS schools in besting the national outcome of 21.1.

 
PWCS students exceeded the national average score in all four content areas–English, mathematics, reading, and science–on the ACT administered last year. More students ever took the test. The number of PWCS graduating seniors taking the ACT has increased each year since 2007-08, with a 28 percent increase overall from that year to 2011-12.
 
ACT scores assess high school students’ general educational development and ability to complete college-level work. Unlike an aptitude or reasoning test, the ACT is designed to be an achievement test, measuring what a student has learned in school. The ACT consists of multiple-choice questions. ACT results are reported on a scale of 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest possible score. Visit the ACT Web site for more information.>

Sounds great, right?

Except for what’s missing – like how PWCS fared when compared with Virginia as a whole on the ACT and how the other seven Prince William County public high schools fared on the ACT.  One look at those scores and you understand why.

PWCS scored below Virginia averages in every content area tested on the ACT.  Let me say that again, and in bold, because it’s really important. PWCS scored below Virginia averages in every content area tested on the ACT. The other 7 PWC high schools that weren’t listed in the press release scored below county and US averages in every content area tested on the ACT, with the exception of Woodbridge HS, which scored above US averages but below state and county averages.

Unlike the SOL, the ACT is a voluntary test, so these scores represent our top tier students, the students we’d expect to go to college.  And in that top tier group, ACT scores only exceed state averages in 4 of our 11 high schools; that’s 36%.   The other 7, 64%, are below state averages.

Still feel like cheering?

We saw the same approach with SOL scores.  PWCS reported how well our students performed relative to state averages.  A school board member reported on his facebook page that PWCS had exceeded state averages in 21 of 28 areas tested, and proclaimed success!

What we weren’t told, again, was the most telling.

Yes, pass rates were above state averages in 21 of 28 areas tested, but we were below state averages in 7 of the 9 areas tested in High School.  That kind of explains why our SAT and ACT scores continue to lag behind state averages.

Yes, quoting the school division’s press release, “PWCS students achieved higher pass rates than the state on all elementary math tests”.   Unfortunately, pass rates were below state averages in 4 of the 9 areas tested for Math, and below state averages in all of the High School level math subjects tested on the SOL.

Yes, Reading scores went up after several consecutive years of declining, but they were up by the same margin statewide, so that increase may be due to a testing irregularity as opposed to the results of improved instruction.

When compared with other school divisions in our area, our test scores only exceeded Manassas and Manassas Park.  Our pass rates were below Fauquier, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Stafford on just about every subject tested on the SOL. We’ve been below Fairfax and Loudoun for years, but Fauquier and Stafford have only recently begun to kick our butts. At one point a few years ago our SOL scores in Math were close to Loudoun’s. Not so much anymore.

Which bring me to another, final point.  Why do we compare ourselves with Virginia averages and then declare success when we do about average for Virginia?  We’re one of the most affluent counties in the state.  Like our neighbors in Fairfax, Loudoun, and Stafford, our citizens tend to be highly educated.   We should be doing better than average for the state.  We should be one of the top performing school divisions in the state. But we’re not.

I can understand accentuating the positive.  I totally get that.

But our schools are struggling, especially at the high school level and especially with high school Math.  Our SAT and ACT scores show that.  They have for years.

So do our SOL scores.  They have for years.

But you have to be willing to look at the scores to see that, and I’m not sure PWCS is willing to do that. They’re too busy accentuating the positive to step back and admit that there might be some negative. From what I’ve read, our school division appears to believe that things in our schools are just peachy keen and that average for the state is an acceptable goal.

I think it’s unacceptable.

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