Arun Ramanathan

Arun Ramanathan

Remember the reading and math wars? Whole language vs. phonics. New math vs. old math. In the context of today’s education wars, it seems quaint to think about people arguing over curriculum and instruction.

What seems even quainter is that these battles were based on the premise that all children can learn to read at grade level.

As a young teacher, I didn’t fully believe this. I could mouth the words but I doubted it in my heart.

It was Karla who proved it to me. Karla wasn’t a famous university professor or high-profile superintendent. She was an immigrant from Guatemala working as a paraprofessional in our elementary school.

I assigned her to Leo, a second grader with Down’s syndrome. Leo was a sweet boy with a stubborn streak. His first aide had grown so frustrated with his behavior that she’d quit. Karla focused on his strengths and patiently worked to build his trust. Her main problem wasn’t the child. It was his teacher. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get him to include Leo in his lessons. I’d walk into the classroom and find Leo coloring in a corner as the other children learned to read.

I tried to work with the teacher but nothing changed. As his isolation grew, Leo’s behavior began to deteriorate. In response, I developed complex behavioral modification plans and asked Karla to implement them. Then, just as suddenly as they’d started, the tantrums stopped. I chalked it up to my wonderful plans and Karla’s skills and shifted my attention to other students on my caseload.

A few weeks later Karla walked into my office. We started talking about the change in Leo’s behavior and I asked her what she’d done. “I taught him to read,” she said and passed me a book with the straightforward title Teaching Reading to Children with Down’s Syndrome.

Stunned, I read the book from cover to cover. I went to Leo’s class and watched him sitting with the other students, churning through one book after another. After finishing each one, he looked up at me and beamed. I was thrilled. But I was also profoundly embarrassed. I had assumed that Leo, an English learner with Down’s syndrome, couldn’t learn to read English. Instead of treating the cause of his academic isolation, I had treated the symptoms – his behavior. Karla taught me a lesson about the gap between my expectations and a child’s potential that I would never forget.

A few years later in my doctoral program, I would study reading and brain development and write a paper summarizing the extensive research on teaching reading to students with Down’s syndrome. From the neuropsychologist Dr. David Rose and other great minds such as Dr. Katherine Snow (who chaired the National Research Council’s work on struggling readers) I learned three important lessons that have guided my perspective as an educator, researcher and advocate ever since.

First, the prospects of children who don’t learn to read at grade level are terrifyingly bleak. As the curriculum increases in complexity, struggling readers fall further behind, placing them at risk of special education identification, tracking into lower-level coursework, failing to graduate and worse. Second, both teaching and learning to read are complex processes that extend beyond the early elementary years. The mechanics of reading, the development of comprehension and the acquisition of academic language are vital to student learning in all subjects. Third, instructional approaches should be individualized to student needs and adapted based on the student response. This is the underlying premise of Response to Intervention approaches to teaching reading and math to struggling students (particularly English Learners) in danger of being inappropriately labeled as having a disability.

When I returned to California, policymakers, researchers, reformers and education leaders were still emphasizing the importance of reading and math instruction. They were compelled by the data revealing that too many students, particularly Latino and African American students, were below grade level in core academics. Millions were failing to succeed in high school and missing out on a college education. And many of those who reached higher education were forced to take remedial courses in English and math.

For a while, this focus produced real gains for students. But over the past few years, our focus has shifted to a host of other education problems, initiatives and battles.

The timing of this shift is unfortunate.

Hope of Common Core

In 2010, California adopted the Common Core English and math standards. In 2014-15, millions of students are expected to take new computer-adaptive assessments based on these standards. The new standards and tests are game-changers. The old California standards were a mile wide, an inch deep and difficult to teach. The shorter scope and greater depth of the Common Core standards allows teachers to both pace and differentiate instruction to meet the broad range of student levels in a typical classroom. Instead of teaching all students the exact same way with a one-size-fits-all curriculum, Common Core allows teaches to adapt instruction to learners at all levels. This process is particularly conducive to the use of increasingly intelligent educational technology that can support teachers by assessing student performance and providing targeted instruction. In a similar vein, the adaptive tests should provide a far better sense of student knowledge and skills.

But the promise of the Common Core will not be fulfilled without a commitment to broad implementation from the very stakeholders who once collaborated to implement the California standards and attack the reading crisis. State and local leaders must start working on the massive statewide effort necessary to expand awareness of the Common Core (including the Next Generation Science Standards), train and prepare teachers, provide high-quality instructional materials and build the technology infrastructure for online assessment. This effort will require state-level planning and significant public investments. California cannot make this effort without a profound change in the current education policy dialogue among reformers, traditional interests and foundations.

This dialogue is distracting and counterproductive. We spend far too much time arguing over the symptoms of our education system’s failure rather than working together to fix its causes.

With the new Common Core tests a year away, is this the best time for reformers to focus so much attention in Sacramento on teacher evaluation legislation incorporating student growth? Or should we be working to focus policymakers on the investments necessary to prepare all teachers to successfully teach the new standards in order to accelerate student growth? Similarly, does it make sense for traditional interests to attack standardized testing and reading and math instruction (under the guise of narrowing the curriculum) at a time when our schools and teachers are being asked to implement a new set of math and English standards and standardized tests? And is this the best time for foundations to focus on discrete initiatives and policies disconnected from and often to the exclusion of discussions of Common Core implementation?

In fact, is this the best time to exclusively focus the limited attention of state and local leaders on college and career readiness issues in the four high school grades? Or should we start to rebuild their interest in the investments necessary to improve teaching and learning in the nine grades (counting preschool) when college and career readiness is heavily determined? And is this the time to push policymakers to adopt new and better assessments of “deeper learning” or “career readiness”? Or should we be pressing on them to prepare our schools and communities for the new Common Core assessments intended to promote both?

Karla taught me an important lesson. It was about expectations and potential. But it was also about “missing the forest for the trees.” In education policy, the trees are the noise generated by our current wars and initiatives. The forest is the hard work necessary to fulfill our children’s potential by transforming teaching and learning. Right now, that work is figuring out how to bring peace to our bitter battles and shift our collective focus to implementing the Common Core.

•••

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust–West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.


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  1. Paul 3 years ago3 years ago

    So that people can decide for themselves, here are the complete Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice (note: these are separate from the list of math topics by grade level):

    http://www.corestandards.org/Math/Practice

  2. Paul 3 years ago3 years ago

    Ze'ev, it does pay to be clear on what you're talking about. The particular aspect (now please don't reply that that's the whole thing, and that the Common Core doesn't require numeric precision) of the "attend to precision" Common Core practice that I explained, and gave examples of, has not to do with numeric precision, but rather, with precise symbols and syntax. None of the old standards that you listed requires use of, let alone understanding of, … Read More

    Ze’ev, it does pay to be clear on what you’re talking about.

    The particular aspect (now please don’t reply that that’s the whole thing, and that the Common Core doesn’t require numeric precision) of the “attend to precision” Common Core practice that I explained, and gave examples of, has not to do with numeric precision, but rather, with precise symbols and syntax.

    None of the old standards that you listed requires use of, let alone understanding of, the equals sign — my example of precise and meaningful syntax. The old standards and the materials that comply with them (carefully explained in my posts) foster the sorts of syntactic errors and fundamental misconceptions explained in my posts. I know; I work in K-12 classrooms. (I also have industry experience with math applications, just so that you can’t dismiss me as a “nonsense-prone”, if “fashionable”, K-12 teacher.)

    The Common Core practices deserve to be read in their entirety, studied with other educators, and compared with the literature, which I take the time to do. Stopping at three words, “attend to precision”, doesn’t produce understanding.

    It’s funny that you didn’t challenge my claim about multiple representations instead. You would at least have found occasional references in the old standards and framework, the problem being that the idea wasn’t applied coherently, across the many grade levels and topics for which it makes sense — and that it certainly didn’t make it into mainstream textbooks.

    McDougall Littell California Algebra, for example, relegates multiple representations to optional, separate “activity” pages, instead of integrating multiple representations into nightly homework questions. Even the Distributive Property, one of the practical reasons why students should learn early-on to consider 12 as 5 + 7 and 8 + 4 and 4 + 4 + 4 and 10 + 2 and perhaps 20 – 8 simultaneously, gets one lousy visual representation, followed by 4 formulas, as if those would help algebra students to recall the concept and appreciate its value.

    With the low expectations in books keyed to the old, laundry-list-of-topics math standards, I have to accompany each night’s assignment with a paragraph of my own instructions: link the question, the intermediate steps, and the answer in a complete mathematical sentence; accompany your math work with an area model; translate the problem by creating a proportion table with both rows and both columns meaningfully titled; give another equivalent form of the expression you’ve simplified; etc., etc.)

    The Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice elevate clarity and thoroughness from option to expectation.

  3. Ze'ev Wurman 3 years ago3 years ago

    Arun's piece is a nice writeup about the dangers of underestimating what kids can do, and about the necessity of attention to individuals. But it has little to do with the Common Core and, when it tries to make some Common Core related points, it is unsupported and wrong. For example: "The new standards and tests are game-changers. The old California standards were a mile wide, an inch deep and difficult to teach. The shorter scope … Read More

    Arun’s piece is a nice writeup about the dangers of underestimating what kids can do, and about the necessity of attention to individuals. But it has little to do with the Common Core and, when it tries to make some Common Core related points, it is unsupported and wrong.

    For example: “The new standards and tests are game-changers. The old California standards were a mile wide, an inch deep and difficult to teach. The shorter scope and greater depth of the Common Core standards allows teachers to both pace and differentiate instruction to meet the broad range of student levels in a typical classroom. Instead of teaching all students the exact same way with a one-size-fits-all curriculum, Common Core allows teaches to adapt instruction to learners at all levels.”

    Rubbish from beginning to end. Game changers? Nobody has any idea yet. California standards were mile-wide and inch-deep? Another rubbish. California standards were as focused, and often more focused, than the Common Core ones. Just count them, or try to analyze them. Some people did. Common Core “allows teachers to both pace and differentiate instruction to meet the broad range of student levels in a typical classroom”? Where exactly, and where did the California standards didn’t allow for it? Spouting fashionable but unsubstantiated nonsense doesn’t make it true, Arun.

    Then we have “the adaptive tests should provide a far better sense of student knowledge and skills.” Perhaps, perhaps not. Computer adaptive tests address predominantly the so-called “floor” and “ceiling” effects of the test — students far below or far above the grade level. Yet this is not a big problem with current testing given that the peak of the distribution is solidly in the proficient range. Perhaps it was a problem a dozen years ago, but we have moved the needle since then. Another reason for computer adaptive test is to shorten the test time, yet with SBAC planning on 4 to 4.5 hours for ELA and 3 to 4 hours for math, the tests will actually be longer by about two hours than the current STAR. So much for the supposed advantage of the adaptive tests. Now, it could be that the new tests will have better items than STAR. From what we have seen up to now I wouldn’t bet on it but, in any case, it has nothing to do with adaptive or non-adaptive tests. I repeat my admonition to you, Arun, from the previous paragraph.

    Finally, I’d like to address Paul’s (not Muench’s) comments. Much of my comments to Arun apply to Paul too — it pays to learn what you intend to discuss before discussing it. For example, you sing paeans to Common Core’s “attend to precision” exhortation, claiming that the old standards are “silent on the matter.” Really? Perhaps to those who haven’t bothered to read them. Here are grades 1 through 4 of those mindless old standards:

    1MR2.2: Make precise calculations and check the validity of the results from the context of the problem.
    2MR2.2: Make precise calculations and check the validity of the results from the context of the problem.
    3MR2.5: Indicate the relative advantages of exact and approximate solutions to problems and give answers to a specified degree of accuracy.
    3MR2.6: Make precise calculations and check the validity of the results from the context of the problem.
    4MR2.1: Use estimation to verify the reasonableness of calculated results.
    4MR2.5: Indicate the relative advantages of exact and approximate solutions to problems and give answers to a specified degree of accuracy.
    4MR2.6: Make precise calculations and check the validity of the results from the context of the problem.

    It goes on like this through grade 7, precise and specific to the grade level, rather than the generic and unhelpful one-size-fits-all “attend to precision” of the Common Core.

    But, then, fashionable nonsense was never bothered with facts.

  4. Paul 3 years ago3 years ago

    Hello, Paul [Muench]. These are problems that I have observed in quite a few California classrooms, at different grade levels. They stem from negligent teaching and assessment over a period of years. "Yay, my students know that the answer is 12, or 2x + 9! Why should I torture them, or myself, by making them write math sentences with equals, let alone by making them demonstrate what equivalency means?" Teachers may have insufficient math knowledge, may … Read More

    Hello, Paul [Muench].

    These are problems that I have observed in quite a few California classrooms, at different grade levels. They stem from negligent teaching and assessment over a period of years. “Yay, my students know that the answer is 12, or 2x + 9! Why should I torture them, or myself, by making them write math sentences with equals, let alone by making them demonstrate what equivalency means?” Teachers may have insufficient math knowledge, may be left with too little time for ostensible niceties, or may face pressure from colleagues, students and parents who insist that the right answer is all that matters.

    The old standards are silent on the matter. Equals (as one example) is not a discrete topic, though you might find a few miscellaneous references to “equivalence” sprinkled throughout the grade level topic lists. Nor do the old standards contain a general requirement — akin to the Common Core’s “attend to precision” practice — that students understand and use equals. Accordingly, textbooks, workbooks, worksheets, and assessments produced for the old standards do not support prevention/correction of these errors. The available materials actually work against good teaching. We get “5 + 7” followed by a box or a blank space into which 12 is to be written. Worse, we rarely see an insightful question such as, “What are some other ways to represent 5 + 7?” which students could answer with 5 + 7 = 12 = 8 + 4 = 22 – 10 etc., or with a picture of a dozen eggs in an egg crate (two equal rows => even number) or of a 4 x 3 array of counters (factors shown visually), if they had command of syntax and symbols, understood the idea of equivalence, and were actively making connections between multiple representations.

    The Common Core confronts the issue by incorporating Standards for Mathematical Practice that cut across the grade level lists of math topics. What has so far been left up to the teacher becomes an expectation. Does this necessarily mean that publishers will comply, that teachers will implement, and that students and parents will accept? No, but it is a step in the right direction.

  5. Paul 3 years ago3 years ago

    Oops, one more error: near the end, I meant "give" instead of "given". Here's another example in support of the Common Core practices (and good work by individual teachers, heretofore): When told: "Simplify x + 2 + x + 7", an unsophisticated student will simply write: "2x + 9" If asked, after that: "What's another way to write 2x + 9?", the student will have no idea. My earlier examples are from sophisticated students (who at least recognize an … Read More

    Oops, one more error: near the end, I meant “give” instead of “given”.

    Here’s another example in support of the Common Core practices (and good work by individual teachers, heretofore):

    When told: “Simplify x + 2 + x + 7”, an unsophisticated student will simply write:

    “2x + 9”

    If asked, after that: “What’s another way to write 2x + 9?”, the student will have no idea. My earlier examples are from sophisticated students (who at least recognize an inherent connection between successive equation steps, in the first case, and understand that no number y will make the second equation true). In this third example, an unsophisticated student perfectly follows simplification rules, without understanding what he or she is really doing. The lack of fundamental understandung isn’t even masked in this case!

    When told about the inportance of =, the student will likely graduate to writing:

    “= x + 2 + x + 7
    = 2x + 9”,

    still not understanding the symbol. (“So, you mean to say that ‘nothing’ is equivalent to x + 2 + x + 9?”)

    On the other hand, a well-taught student will begin:

    “x + 2 + x + 7
    = 2x + 9”,

    and have no trouble answering that x + 2 + x + 7 and 2x + 9 represent the same quantity.

    Replies

    • Paul Muench 3 years ago3 years ago

      Just so I’m clear on what you are saying, is it the students making these errors or are the current California standards permitting these errors?

  6. Paul 3 years ago3 years ago

    Sorry, I meant “invoKe”, not “invole”!

  7. Paul 3 years ago3 years ago

    Perhaps we do need more concepts in a certain sense, Paul [Muench]. For example, one of the Common Core practices, "attend to precision", includes understanding and using math symbology. The equals sign (=) is perhaps the most important example. Now, if you feel that this should be taught as a discrete concept, that's certainly possible. But when? It's certainly not part of the old California standards, and it certainly warrants introduction before Algebra I students cheerfully … Read More

    Perhaps we do need more concepts in a certain sense, Paul [Muench]. For example, one of the Common Core practices, “attend to precision”, includes understanding and using math symbology. The equals sign (=) is perhaps the most important example.

    Now, if you feel that this should be taught as a discrete concept, that’s certainly possible. But when? It’s certainly not part of the old California standards, and it certainly warrants introduction before Algebra I students cheerfully produce nonsense such as:

    ” x – 2 = 4
    = x – 2 + 2 = 4 + 2
    = x = 6″

    (as if = were needed as a meta-connective, to link equation steps)

    or

    “y + 3 = y
    y = undefined”

    (as if “undefined” were a specific value, and by extension, as if different “undefineds” could be compared).

    These examples, I should note, already come from thinking students, not ignorant ones. This signals a masked superficial understanding.

    I’d rather have students use and understand the equals sign from the moment that they learn to add. How many teachers (let alone textbooks, workbooks, worksheet masters and assessments) require students in any grade to write complete math sentences, including the equals sign?

    Materials that comply with the Common Core practice in question will start very young students to recording their work properly. Instead of filling in “12” in the box or bubbling in “(A) 12” (with nary an equals sign in the question stem, in either case!), students will be expected to write “7 + 5 = 12”.

    Finally, here is the sense in which understanding will be deepened without additional content. In addition to producing the complete math setence above, students will be expected — if other Common Core math practices are faithfully followed — to produce other representations, such as different layouts of 12 objects (some of which might naturally suggest multiplication/show factors of 12, visually identify 12 as an even number, etc.). Students might even invole familiar, tangible ideas such as “dozen” or even “noon”.

    I think you should given more credit to the CC Standards for Mathematical Practice. In the right hands, these pratices will push students far beyond the laundry list of math topics in the old standards document.

  8. Gary Ravani 3 years ago3 years ago

    Since "grade level" isn't defined here it can be assumed it means what it traditionally means: that a student is scoring on a reading assessment at around the 50th percentile for students in that cohort at a given grade. It is implied here that all students can be at the 50th percentile or better. Just like Lake Woebegone, where all the kids are "above average." Allow me to point out Lake Woebegone is make believe. To suggest … Read More

    Since “grade level” isn’t defined here it can be assumed it means what it traditionally means: that a student is scoring on a reading assessment at around the 50th percentile for students in that cohort at a given grade.

    It is implied here that all students can be at the 50th percentile or better. Just like Lake Woebegone, where all the kids are “above average.” Allow me to point out Lake Woebegone is make believe.

    To suggest that students in a given cohort being about half above and half below the 50th percentile is due to teacher expectations seems to fly in the face of common sense, as well as statistics.

    Replies

    • navigio 3 years ago3 years ago

      Its possible to be 'near' the 50th percentile or 2, 3 or 7 grade levels away from it as far as reading ability is concerned. In that sense, being above or below the 50th percentile means something quite different than being above or below grade-level in reading. I also dont think the implication was that teachers are the cause of statistical tautologies, rather that the nature of the distribution is meaningful, especially if teachers or district … Read More

      Its possible to be ‘near’ the 50th percentile or 2, 3 or 7 grade levels away from it as far as reading ability is concerned. In that sense, being above or below the 50th percentile means something quite different than being above or below grade-level in reading.
      I also dont think the implication was that teachers are the cause of statistical tautologies, rather that the nature of the distribution is meaningful, especially if teachers or district staff impact that distribution through their actions and expectations.
      It would be interesting to understand whether there are objective measures of reading level (eg F-K?) and how percentile rank measures compare to those over the years.

  9. Paul 3 years ago3 years ago

    It's absolutey necessary to move forward with the Common Core. New Math and Common Core math are not comparable. Where New Math was long on new (to K-12) content, such as set theory and associated symbols and syntax, it was short on new teaching strategies and new student expectations. The Common Core adds no new math content, but specifies, through its Standards for Mathematical Practice, that understanding math means much more than producing correct answers. Is this … Read More

    It’s absolutey necessary to move forward with the Common Core.

    New Math and Common Core math are not comparable. Where New Math was long on new (to K-12) content, such as set theory and associated symbols and syntax, it was short on new teaching strategies and new student expectations.

    The Common Core adds no new math content, but specifies, through its Standards for Mathematical Practice, that understanding math means much more than producing correct answers. Is this new? Not to the minority of teachers, students and parents who truly value learning for its own sake. Is it going to make a difference? Not by the time that mainstream textbook publishers, overworked teachers with merely-adequate math knowledge, straight-A students who panic when a question has more than one possible answer, and parents who insist that Johnny deserves an A because he finishes all of his homework, all get their hands on it.

    But could it make a small difference for some students today, and a substantial difference over time, as more teachers learn about the Practices and faithfully implement them? Yes!

    Side Note: Richard, check out the monthly statistic on the CTC’s home page. The number of library media credentials issued/renewed each year now stands in the low hundreds. What an embarrassment for California!

    Replies

    • Paul Muench 3 years ago3 years ago

      In order to learn something more deeply don’t we have to involve more concepts than when we learn it shallowly? Is that reflected in the Common Core standards as compared to California’s existing standards?

  10. Richard Moore 3 years ago3 years ago

    and not a word about school libraries

    California has 875 school librarians for TEN THOUSAND schools

    read Krashen

    Replies

    • navigio 3 years ago3 years ago

      Why does no one care about this?

  11. Paul Muench 3 years ago3 years ago

    I thought the intent of "New Math" was to provide deeper instruction just like Common Core. Are there any lasting effects of "New Math"? Can we apply any lessons from the history of "New Math" to the implementation of Common Core in California? What are those lessons? Is trying to understand the history of "New Math" worth our time? Your story of Karla and Leo clearly happened without Common Core. But … Read More

    I thought the intent of “New Math” was to provide deeper instruction just like Common Core. Are there any lasting effects of “New Math”? Can we apply any lessons from the history of “New Math” to the implementation of Common Core in California? What are those lessons? Is trying to understand the history of “New Math” worth our time?

    Your story of Karla and Leo clearly happened without Common Core. But can the highest aspirations of Common Core happen without people like Kalra? Do we have the resources to bring the Karla’s of the world into our public school system? Or phrased another way, how much does successfully implementing Common Core really have to do with Common Core?

  12. navigio 3 years ago3 years ago

    Hi Arun. That was an inspiring, powerful, though-provoking and well-written piece. Thank you for that. That said, a few comments. First, I would challenge your use of the word 'guise'. The narrowing of the curriculum is a real concern for people who attack standardized testing as a policy. It is not a guise. One of the real problems with poverty concentrations is teachers learn to adapt their expectations to the reality they experience. I have been shocked … Read More

    Hi Arun. That was an inspiring, powerful, though-provoking and well-written piece. Thank you for that.

    That said, a few comments. First, I would challenge your use of the word ‘guise’. The narrowing of the curriculum is a real concern for people who attack standardized testing as a policy. It is not a guise.

    One of the real problems with poverty concentrations is teachers learn to adapt their expectations to the reality they experience. I have been shocked more than once by the difference in expectations of teachers coming from other, higher-poverty schools, even in the same district. This is not only a problem, it is tragic and unacceptable. And it indicates an administrative failure.

    Two quotes come to mind:

    “Expectations are a premeditated resentments” and more seriously,

    “By presuming competence, educators place the burden on themselves to come up with […] ways for individuals to learn.” – Douglas Biklen

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