Comments on Student Projects

Instructor’s comments on:

Recommendation regarding possible adoption of "Connected Mathematics Project"

Nice report. It provides a comprehensive overview and a real attention to important details. In particular, your sensitivity to the language used as well as the specific topics covered and un-covered really help to ground your analysis. Your summation and critique of the evaluations was particularly useful, and you demonstrate a good grasp of the local/contextual issues. Overall, without trashing the program, you make a good case for not adopting it.

In the end, though, your analysis makes the reader wonder why anyone would go to all this trouble. Why have all these places adopted it? Simply because it agrees with the NCTM standards? Why would they select this program over others? I think I would have benefited from a better understanding of their argument and justification for the program and a sense of how they would respond to what you’ve said. Maybe their "theory" is simply that by connecting a curriculum to the NCTM standards, students will perform better on standards-based tests, but, obviously the evidence doesn’t really support that. And in the absence of any other theory, it’s hard to know how one would improve the program. How would you suggest they improve it? Do you believe that there is a way that they can cover all the important topics you identified? Would you drop out others (on what grounds)? Spend more time in the school day? Or do something else? In that context, while looking at other programs goes beyond what’s possible in a paper like this, it would have been helpful to know a little bit more about how this program compares to others you may be familiar with. If you wouldn’t adopt this approach, what approach would you adopt? And would it be difficult to get parents "on board" for that approach too? (And is it really just "bad public relations" or is there something deeper at work here?)

At any rate, those are mostly rhetorical questions raised by a fine report, but I do think you could have made more of the meaning of "connections" in your paper. You talked more about it in your presentation, but to me, one of the most problematic aspects is that they have developed a program based on the idea of "connections," yet your main criticism suggests that they have sacrificed helping students to understand the conceptual connections between important mathematical ideas in order to make the connections with the NCTM standards. You imply that those standards are based more on politics and consensus than disciplinary understandings, and, correspondingly that makes me think this is not as much about teaching for understanding as you suggest initially. Anyway, I think you could have organized your whole argument around this idea, although, perhaps, that would be more appropriate for a different audience.

I’ve made some additional comments in the text related to these points, but, in general, the project shows a thorough understanding of the program and many of the issues addressed in the course. In addition, your reflections and comments in class have been succinct and incisive. Your presentations as well were always well prepared and well-supported with appropriate material. I think everyone benefited from your contributions in class (but I’m sorry we missed you for two classes!). I do wonder, however, what you really learned in this course, and whether, perhaps, law school is an even better preparation for carrying out this kind of analysis.... but maybe you don’t learn that in law school either. Anyway, I’d be interested in pursuing some of these issues further with you.



Edison Schools

Overall, the paper raises some important questions about the Edison approach and addresses many of the key issues in the course. I think you could have made a stronger argument, however, about what’s really behind this approach and the strengths and weaknesses of it. You keep your analysis balanced by not focusing too much on the economic issues, but if you concentrated on how they hope to sustain this (which will take not only money but at least some form of educational success) I think you could bring out some fundamental problems with their theory without just repeating the usual concerns about "for profit" schooling.

In particular, I think your analysis would have been strengthened if you went into some more detail about some of the ambiguities and potential conflicts behind their principles and approved practices. These would have helped to illustrate your argument that this is not organized according to a coherent theory or philosophy about learning or schooling and made it even clearer that this about monitoring and ensuring organizational efficiency and delivery. In particular, I’m not sure if they ever did justify why their 10 principles are so important. If they didn’t, then I think you can make an even stronger case that they are trying to give parents and teachers what they think they want in order to satisfy their customers and provide incentives to their employees to work harder irrespective of what that means for the future lives or success of their students. For example, aren’t there incentives here to provide as little as possible in terms of resources and services to get just enough success to grow the company? In other words, if all they have to do is do better than the miserable performance of most of the schools they work in, there may not be many incentives to produce dramatically improved performance... Or am I being unfair? I’m not sure I have enough to go on in your report to sort these issues out.

The real theory behind all this might be revealed in how Edison responds to difficulties. If a school is not performing well, will they simply jettison some of the projects, discussions, and "delight" in favor of whatever produces improvements on the required tests? Will they really let schools and teachers make their own decisions as a "decentralized" approach suggests or will they require schools and teachers to make the changes they believe their customers want? Similarly, how decentralized can it be if the teachers have to implement prescriptive curricula like SFA and Chicago Math? Anyway, I think these are the kinds of questions that you could have raised and pursued further in order to strengthen your analysis.

Developing a new approach at an Oakland Middle School

Nice, well-argued paper. You’ve shown a good understanding of what really goes on in classrooms, and you’ve done a great job of drawing on your classroom experience to ground your analysis. You’ve succinctly presented an inventive approach in response that addresses many of the problems you’ve identified for Soar to Success and the current classroom activities. You might want to look at some of the further work of Ann Brown who was one of the developers of reciprocal teaching and Joe Campione. They’ve developed a "community of learners" approach that has been very successful that uses groups where students research different issues, work with telementors etc. It uses reciprocal teaching in an "authentic" setting and has one of the most well-worked out theories of learning I’ve seen. I’ve enclosed a copy of one article in case your interested...

I’ve made comments in the margins, and, below, identified a few places where you could have amplified your analysis:

p. 2 the issue of what’s "recommended" and "essential" is a central one. Why isn’t a site coordinator essential? Because schools can’t afford it? (In which case programs better figure out a cheaper way to do it that provides adequate support instead of saying it’s only "recommended") Because schools are half as likely to be successful if they don’t have one? Because it makes everyone’s lives easier, but can be equally successful either way. Etc...

I did note that you did not spend much time on the problem with the level of the difficulty of the books that you talked about in class (but maybe I missed it). This would have helped to foreshadow the use of diverse material in the ILB approach.

p. 8 You’ve pointed out a key "schism" in the teacher’s practice. But I’m not sure I understand why he did this... is his theory that sutdnets have to be motivated to learn to read (and they learn by reading real literature) but they have to do these exercises to be prepared for the tests? Does he recognize how unsatisfactory these exercises are for developing comprehension?

bottom p. 8. I think there’s a lot more behind your theory of learning, and I also think this is what you will really have to lay out in order and explore in order to figure out why the approach works or doesn’t when you actually try it out. Which things will really make a difference? The group approach, dealing with status, the debate format? Only then will you be able to figure out what’s "essential" in your approach, and what teachers can change and adapt on their own. For example, the Brown and Campione work suggests that it is the group work and organization and the RT strategies that are key, but whether students prepare to write research papers engage in a debate or do something else may not matter. Similarly, to what extent is the competition key or does that interfere with intrinsic motivation?

P. 9 Relatedly, I wonder if debating will get stale after a while, even becoming just as wrote as filling out worksheets. But I can imagine this same kind of approach being used to investigate issues in novels (e.g. to evaluate the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird or to assess the actions or nonactions of particular characters, or issues related to the revolutionary war, biology etc) You could easily identify some "generative" topics, often taught in schools, and link the approach and materials to them (The Rainforest!!).

P. 12. You could elaborate on why this would fit in better than soar to success...

All in all, I think this is a promising and intriguing approach, but don’t underestimate how much work and expertise will have to go into making it work for large numbers of students in classrooms. The Brown and Campione approach requires substantial professional development, masses of well-crafted materials, and the creation of a classroom/school culture over a long period of time. Even though the surface practices of RT are consistent with skill-building approaches the theories underlying many aspects of your approach are not necessarily recognized or shared by many teachers who may feel that the best way to prepare for tests is to prepare for tests, not spend all this time in debates and everything else....


Essential questions and deeper thoughts: A look at interdisciplinary curriculum

It’s great that you have been able to use the project and report to further you exploration of interdisciplinary curriculum and the theories and values behind it. You have raised many critical questions in the process, and it seems like that has given you a better sense of the strengths and weaknesses of an i-d approach, as well as the approaches of CES and your high school.

In the end, part of the reason that you may still feel unclear about i-d work is that it is used for many different purposes and justified with many different rationales (this may be why you say you feel inarticulate about it too...). The question is, what’s the real value of i-d work? And different people will say different things — or even several different things. Thus, it can be justified by Sizer and CES because it helps to break down the bureaucracy, the "tyranny" of departments, the isolation between teachers, and it forces a rethinking of the traditional "coverage" curriculum. It can also be justified because it can provide a good foundation for engaging, authentic, and "student-centered" projects (but you can have student-centered curricula without any interdisciplinary emphasis); and it can be justified by the argument that it provides a way for students to develop a deeper understanding of concepts (and one that can be applied in a larger number of situations). But Gardner would argue, for the latter to happen, you can’t just learn about the historical context in which a novel takes place, you have to learn to use historical methods of evaluation, use of evidence, etc. as well as techniques and strategies of literary criticism in order to understand historical events and how they were perceived by people at the time (for example). Of course, that raises one of the points you made — that kind of truly interdisciplinary investigation may not be as engaging and may require a lot more coaching and direction from the teacher than a more student-centered approach to an issue of particular relevance to the student. The fact is, many disciplinary ideas and concepts may not seem to be that useful immediately to students....

I tried to summarize these comments here, but I wrote related comments in the margins of you paper in a few places. In the end, for you, the question may be what’s most important to you — getting students engaged or making curricula student-centered — or helping them master and use the concepts and methods of different disciplines. Or, maybe you can develop some units that really exemplify both (if so, please send them to me, because, as I think you’ve seen, there aren’t that many of them out there despite all the interest in "interdisciplinary" curricula...)

Overall, its too bad that you didn’t have a chance to visit a CES school (although it would have been hard to get sufficient information about them to really analyze their approach...) and I think because of that the paper lacked a specific critical focus -- it’s more a series of questions than a fine-grained analysis. Perhaps, it would be have been better to really focus in on a single unit (perhaps one of your own), the theories/rationale behind it and look specifically at how you could have addressed the challenges of implementing it at a place like your high school.

Somewhere between: A look at a Coalition school through a Core Knowledge Lens

You’ve done a nice job looking at and raising questions about the CES approach by looking through the lens of student work. Quickly and succinctly, you provide a sketch of the school with a few key details and just a little description. Using the CK approach to ground your analysis of CES is also particularly interesting, but, in the end, I’m not sure that you’ve convinced me that CK would be better. I think you’re right that it would be easier if we knew that the CES students had "core knowledge," but I think you need to find other ways to convince those who believe in the theories and ideas behind CES that they have something to learn from CK.

To that end, it would have been useful if you had gone into more detail about the conflict in theories and philosophies behind the two approaches and then made some arguments to show how they could be reconciled. For example, you could have described Anzar and then a CK school (as in the video) to accentuate the similarities (e.g. that both used project-based curricula etc.) and that they had complementary strengths and weaknesses. You could also point out how drawing on some CK ideas could help the CES schools to deal with or avoid potential problems with parents and community members, incoming Cisco employees etc.

I made a few specific comments in the margins, and I’ve elaborated on some below:

p 2. There’s lots of evidence that even when starting a new school you have to deal with the expectations and previous experiences of administrators, teachers, students, and parents...

P. 4, 7, you allude several times to research supporting the school. I’m not sure what you mean, but if they really do refer to the literature to back up their claims that would be unusual...

P. 9. If it’s really about self-esteem, then anything that helps students improve performance on tests should work, whether they learn CK or not... If that’s true, then CES students don’t really need core knowledge, they need the self-esteem that comes with doing well on tests...

P. 9 France is a very problematic example. Most would not use it as a good example of how to deal with immigrant populations, and it plays into the hands of the critics of CK (your evidence of the many cultures represented in CK is a more convincing response to some of the concerns about the cultural biases of the approach....)

P. 10 you could clarify why a Multi-cultural curriculum is so fragmented when a CK curriculum that includes world religions is not... again, this suggests that what matters is the school organization, communication across grades and focus — all things a CES school could develop without adopting the CK curriculum...

P. 11 I still can’t imagine that people who adopt CES principles that are rooted in the idea that teachers should control what goes on in their classrooms and should not be controlled by a hierarchical bureaucracy would also agree to implement a prescribed CK sequence. But they might agree to develop their own sequence.... And if the CES schools don’t do a lot of re-structuring, they will be abandoning many of the basic theories that may have attracted them to the approach in the first place...

Second to last page. While CK may be useful, you’ve still got to deal with the challenge that there is no evidence that CK students really understand anything better than a CES student... So one can make the argument that while CK students know more things about the sperm whale, you could also say at least the CES student understands skateboarding...

At any rate, you clearly put a lot of work into this and went far beyond the requirements to draw on different sources, look at student work, visit the school etc. It also shows a real effort to grapple with different points of view.

A Foundation proposal review: Different Ways of Knowing and Malcolm X Academy

Your report shows a good grasp of DWOK, and a thorough effort to find relevant literature and look beyond the materials of the program. Your analysis covered the key aspects of the program, and I particularly appreciated that you weighed different options and seriously considered how the program compared to others.

Especially given the nature of the material you were working with, I think you’ve provided a useful overall analysis. The limits of the material, however, make me wonder if this program is really more about philosophy and values than theory. The allusions to research and learning are used more as justifications for a set of beliefs — about the role of the arts, the importance of engagement etc. — than they are a coherent theory that motivates the development of particular practices. You could have made more of this by critiquing the lack of justification for their approach and by describing your own perspective on their claims: To what extent do you believe their claims (about the value of the arts, engagement etc.)? If you believe them, on what basis?

Also, if the philosophy and values are key, then making sure that MX really wants the program and shares the philosophy and values is also key. Therefore, I would have focused more attention on giving money only after finding out if it really fit with MX, particularly given the problems with improving achievement. Even though you couldn’t get into the schools, I think you could predict some possible conflicts between it and schools like MX. Such an analysis might also suggest that the school might prefer a program like SFA or Reading Recovery.

I’ve made some notes in the margins and elaborated on a few below:

p. 4 to me, it looks like either these are just empty statements or there’s a conflict here. How does producing a better curriculum strengthen the teaching profession?

p. 7 won’t the release time have to be in addition to the 35k a year? How will a school like MX pay for this?

Overall, you’ve done a lot with relatively limited information, and I think you’ve made your case to your intended audience despite the questions I’ve raised above.

Overview of a Course on Current Approaches to Teaching, Learning, and School Improvement. c. 2000, Thomas Hatch, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  All the material contained on this site has been produced by Thomas Hatch or other authors as noted. These materials can be downloaded, printed, and used with proper acknowledgement, including the name and affiliation of the author and the web-site address.