Rankings, Standards, and Inquiry, Oh my!


As concern for K-12 standards in public education has come to a head,  the quality of teaching and learning in our public universities has also come under public scrutiny.  Recently, President Obama announced that he wanted to rework the models used to rank universities and tie public funding to those rankings.  Blogger Cathy O’Neil at mathbabe has some great responses to this idea and points out that there would be many ways to game the system.  As we balk at being judged in bulk by a few isolated measurements, we find ourselves having something in common with K-12 teachers and schools whose positions and funding often hinge on test results.  Tying money to educational results is always a tricky business.  So it might be prudent for us to examine this history of reform in K-12 education.


Media coverage of the Common Core Standards can make it seem like they emerged from a vacuum.  I was excited to see graduate student Raymond Johnson’s six part series giving a brief history of how the National Council of Mathematics Teachers (NCTM) became involved in policy-making, created the NCTM Standards document, and paved the way for a set of national standards to be adopted.  While the NCTM standards emerged at the end of the Cold War era and followed the report “A Nation At Risk”, the NCTM did not use any public funds to write their standards (although Johnson points out that this may have been simply a consequence of there not being any funding available).  Also, the NCTM’s Standards are not grade specific and were used more as a set of guidelines for the states to write their own curricula.  Johnson is a prolific blogger who spent over 6 years as a high school teacher before returning to school. It is worth noting that Johnson is a University of Northern Iowa alum as he highlights the contributions of professors from UNI several times.


Reading over the Common Core Standards, the most exciting part to a mathematician might be the eight Standards of Mathematical Practice.  These standards highlight some of the characteristics of a mathematician’s mindset as a problem-solver.  For instance, we don’t give up!!  We critique each our work and value rigor.  We seek patterns and are precise in our use of language. So how does one teach students to adopt these mindsets?  Recently there have been many blog posts by Inquiry-Based Learning practitioners aimed at answering these questions.  At Math For Love, Dan Finkel gives his take on teaching perseverance.  At Math Ed Matters, Dana Ernst and Angie discuss creating a supportive classroom environment in which failure is not a roadblock and where criticism can be constructively given and received.  One of Ernst’s June posts was aptly titled with his favorite student comment “Try, Fail, Understand, Win”.  Lastly, at The Math Switch, a blog dedicated to chronicling his transition into using IBL techniques in his classroom, Matt Jones addresses the “start-up” problem of trying to engange students in problem-solving.

Oh my! 

To me, there is an exciting opportunity for K-12 educators and mathematicians to have open discussions about their teaching practices and learn from and support one another.  What’s your opinion?


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