What Happened to Fran?

tornadoFran’s voice rang out like a gunshot amidst a large, crowded room. With the turmoil surrounding Texas math education and the plethora of data I was collecting in this focus group interview with six Algebra 2 teachers, I was suffering from information overload. At this early stage in my data collection process for my doctoral dissertation, every new statement added to the tornado of statistics, facts, and emotions swirling in my neophyte brain.

I was fighting to maintain my professional demeanor; meanwhile, I was giddy as these teachers not only wanted to participate in my study, but they had a lot of great quotes and thoughts about my research concerns. But then, like the turning point in a great thriller, Fran responded, and I sensed the chills scaling my spine as I realized, “This just got real.”

In attempting to discover the professional opinions of Algebra 2 teachers concerning the changing math landscape, my interview questions encompassed the Algebra-for-All movement, college versus workplace preparation, tracking, the 4×4 Recommended High School Plan (RHSP), graduation rates, and the impact on individual teachers’ teaching environments. Concerning the impact on teachers of the policy positions of the state of Texas, I asked about the panel’s desire to continue teaching high school mathematics. Their answers were contemplative but measured with a determination to remain in the profession despite the enormous challenges and silent agreement in spite of the policymakers. Fran dissented, however, as she spoke honestly with piercing, young eyes stopping and starting, “Yes… The things that we’ve talked about have… me wavering on whether I do want to teach… high school math anymore.”

I had already shifted my young research mind from wanting to prove my point as the impetus for getting a doctorate to wanting to truly find out what teachers believed. Now, my purpose shifted again from wanting to discover teachers’ opinions to needing to tell their story. I realized at that point that the voices of the teachers I would come into contact with along the way were significantly unknown, and their yearning to be heard was often emotionally overpowering. Ultimately, at least I heard their voices; my belief is that their professional opinions should matter to policy makers.

 Interacting with ten teachers at two separate high schools in two focus group interviews; ninety-one respondents to a lengthy online questionnaire; and three individuals during in-depth interviews, I discovered that these Algebra 2 teachers were optimistic about the potential impact of Algebra 2 on all students but were pessimistic regarding the realities of Texas’s expectations for all students. The teachers revealed a number of interesting opinions: graduation rates would probably be negatively affected by graduation and math requirements; Algebra for all was unlikely to be successful because students were generally unprepared for Algebra 1, let alone Algebra 2, and this level of mathematics is overwhelming for many students; honest assessment reveals that all students will not be going to college; high schools ought to work harder at developing alternative paths to graduation for children; requirements involving Algebra 2 need to be reevaluated; a one-size-fits-all approach is doomed to fail; the RHSP is not having the expected positive impact on students or education; tracking is valuable and should be expanded for mathematics while being purposefully monitored to emphasize and maximize success; recent changes were not improving student learning or opportunities for postsecondary endeavors: and, lastly,  more than one-third of the participants had a lessened desire to teach math.

In the end, the doctoral study process was powerful and enlightening. I found that consensus on most issues is difficult to achieve, but the Algebra 2 teachers in my study were passionate and informed members of the educational community who felt that their input was seriously undervalued by decision makers. I am hopeful that I am able to get some of their sentiments into the ears of governmental leaders, which may lead to positive social changes. I have received a lot of great feedback so far from those I have communicated my results to, with one explosively loud exception; when I e-mailed the executive summary of my dissertation to Fran early the following school year, the e-mail was returned with a delivery failure indicating she no longer worked in her previous position. I wonder if Fran will be an example or a trend.question mark

Full dissertation (Teachers’ Perceptions of State Decision-Making Processes for Mathematics Curricula by Brett Bothwell, Ed. D.) can be found in online databases or at http://gradworks.umi.com/35/44/3544187.html.

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14 thoughts on “What Happened to Fran?

  1. ctspedmathdude

    I spent a year as a GA while working in C&I (before I changed over to master’s work in special ed). One of the main take-aways I have from the experience was touched on in your post. There is some disparity between the perspective of academics and practitioners.

    While I obviously can relate to the challenges heaped upon our profession from outside and from higher ups, I am also very aware that teachers can and should spend less time lamenting change and reform and more time on making the best of it and on focusing on students.

    Best wishes to you as you complete your dis.

    Randy

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  2. brettrubicristian Post author

    ctspedmathdude:

    I appreciate your comments.

    I agree there is disparity between theoreticians and practitioners. I think there are fundamental differences, clearly defined by title, and much room for debate on the merits of each. This is also true, though, of most professional endeavors.

    I also agree that a great deal of time and energy is spent on lamentations which could be better spent on lesson planning, for example. However, having completed my Ed.D. and still teaching in the classroom, I feel that I have a foot in both worlds of being an academic and being a practitioner. I think many teachers would do well to focus more energy on the craft of teaching and the requisite skills of building relationships, creating effective assessments, and attending to disciplinary concerns in order to maximize learning. At the same time, I believe an overabundance of time and energy is wasted pedantically changing for the sake of changing. Most effective change occurs after at least three years of implementation and many reforms at the national down to local levels invest much less time than this. I have also found that very little research goes on at the local level to determine which reforms/changes should be investigated in the first place.

    I do believe there is a place for a debate about theoretical and practical change in education, with a myriad of surrounding issues to convolute the arguments on both sides.

    Again, thank you for your thoughts.

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  3. ctspedmathdude

    Research at the local level?, LOL, give me a nickel for every time I’ve heard “research shows.” Another major take away from my year as a GA was how unrelenting my adviser was about asking for justification…beyond “research shows.”

    I read an article in which the writer used a Hawking quote to assess education reform. Hawking stated that we know time travel is not possible because we haven’t seen anyone from the future. The writer went on to suggest that we know meaning education reform is not possible because we haven’t seen it yet.

    Any reform is flawed because the underlying problems in education are never addressed. Grades are a poor indicator of learning and in math most learning objectives are at low critical thinking levels.

    Are you teaching at the secondary or post-secondary level?

    Randy

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    1. brettrubicristian Post author

      Randy:

      I am currently teaching high school mathematics.

      My vision of reform requires educators to identify problems, research potential solutions, and determine viable options for progressing towards effective change. Consensus is not a requirement of this plan, but longer term investment in solutions is critically important. I believe this would lead to greater teacher buy-in and greater potential for having a positive impact on learning.

      This methodology for successful reform seems more likely to work than having groups of people who are far removed or entirely removed from education force change for the sake of change. These “reforms” often come without a plan for supporting these changes and short-sighted implementation strategies.

      To your last statement, I think focusing on the smallest learning communities (individual schools) has the greatest potential for success. Expanding that to elementary through high school pods or across elementary schools in a district would be the next best levels for potential success. Getting to the district level may be the next best and possibly last best level for potential success. The inherent problem with these is the assumption that the smallest organizations have the ability to reform successfully. I still believe it to have a greater chance for success than for some group of narrowly focused decision makers who have little or no clue about my school, for example, to portend to know what we specifically need. How often are they dead wrong?

      Brett

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  4. Wendy Tahill

    So what is your solution to all these “mandates” that are forced on people that are not realistic and hurt kids? Is it a plausible solution?

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    1. brettrubicristian Post author

      Wendy:

      Thank you for your questions. I can only imagine that these “mandates” are not intended to hurt kids. If that were the case and it was determined that kids were being hurt, could “mandates” not be undone? Politically, it would be a difficult decision to make, I suppose.

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  5. ctspedmathdude

    I go back to my previous point; there are underlying, systemic problems that are simply not being addressed. In special education we have goals and objectives with a focus on mastery. In direct contrast general education is based on passing – survive and advance.

    Any reform, whether it’s from outside or hyper local, will still have grades (and test scores) as the basis for measuring learning. This is more than a logistic or semantic issue, it’s philosophical – our lens. The value added model and other quantitative reform efforts compound this problem. If you haven’t discovered Cathy O’Neill and her mathbabe blog, check it out: http://mathbabe.org/2013/02/06/bad-model-high-stakes-gaming/

    I appreciate the fact that you can bi-educational – academic and practitioner. I’ll stay in touch.

    Randy

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    1. brettrubicristian Post author

      Are you suggesting non-graded, non-age-based public education? Would that be learning for learning’s sake? I can see that as being ideal although not very palatable for the common, competitive American.

      We are definitely in agreement that there are systemic issues with public education, testing certainly being one of them, but why compound those issues with wide, sweeping, unjustifiable reforms.

      The one that comes to mind as ridiculous to me is pre-K for all, as suggested by the president last night. I am opposed.

      I will check out Cathy O’Neill.

      Brett

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      1. ctspedmathdude

        Pre-K for all has ample research supporting it so it’s not merely an opinion. A simple logical argument is made for it as well. My son started pre-k two and a half months after he turned 3. We had the means to pay for this. He learns socialization skills, community expectations and rules as well as academic skills.When he enters kindergarten he will have some classmates who are entering their first year of school. There is no doubt that he will have an advantage over these students – up to a two year head start (he attends summer school as well). This is gap is largely a function of means. I have yet to see substantive objections to pre-K for all.

        As for non-age based system, I don’t see how you made a leap to that conclusion.

        In respect to grades, you first have to take an honest look at the current system. It is simply not a valid or a reliable measure of learning. Why is a 59.5 the threshold for passing and does it mean the same thing in different algebra 1 classes when one teacher gives extra credit and one does not?

        I contrasted grades with a mastery approach. In our current system, a student can be totally clueless about what slope is and pass algebra 1. That is a travesty. A mastery approach could entail demonstrating mastery on key learning objectives, such as slope, in order to pass a course.

        Randy

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      2. brettrubicristian Post author

        Randy –

        Thanks for your comments!

        Because of your preschool for all comment, I wrote the following:http://wp.me/p2woZN-1n. I do have some concerns about preschool for all in the large picture.

        When you talk about an improved education system, I think of a system where age does not play a role in when you can learn certain things, such as Algebra 1 in 9th grade. I was probably ready for Algebra 1 in 6th grade. I also imagine a system where grades are nonexistent, but rather mastery is the key, as you suggest. I can certainly attest to the nonsense that grades represent. In fact, your example does not translate here in Texas, as 69.5 is the minimum grade for passing. Crazy, right?

        To your slope example, the last question on my final exam for Algebra 2 asks what the definition of algebra is, with answer choices of definitions of calculus, geometry, and variable. I usually have about 50% of my students get that correct. There is no direct teaching of this definition, mind you, but you would think after two years of algebra they would be able to pick it out of group at least. It is surprising.

        Is mastery a feasible approach to measuring high school learning? If I mastered it today, will I remember it tomorrow?

        Just some thoughts,
        Brett

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  6. ctspedmathdude

    Maintenance and retention are related aspects to mastery. First you have initial mastery and verify this then you address maintenance. The current system enables students to progress without initial mastery on key concepts. That is untenable.

    Asking for a global, Gestalt like definition of a massive concept like algebra without explaining it directly does not reveal anything about the students, in my view. If you haven’t already, ask your math colleagues for a definition of algebra and see what happens. I would be the ranch the 50% is an over-representation because you allowed for guessing (multiple choice).

    I have to challenge you on the pre-school for all. There is research supporting it yet I do not see a substantive reason not to do it. I see you posted on this so I’ll take my position there as well.

    Randy

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    1. brettrubicristian Post author

      Randy –

      It seems to me that there is a greater issue with the maintenance issue. Many students seem to show mastery on a topic, but then it disappears over time, only to have to be retaught later. I always relate learning to bike riding… you do not generally “forget” how to ride a bike. True learning does not lend itself to forgetting. Forgotten things were usually merely memorized.

      Why do you think students should not be able to choose the correct definition of algebra out of a lineup of mostly not closely related definitions after two years minimum of study? I think most math teachers could define algebra to some degree, though that may not be true of non-math teachers. I do not believe choosing the definition has any meaning as to whether they should pass the course or have mastered the material, but to not be able to define that which you have studied seems odd to me. Can you differentiate between biology, chemistry, and physics? Can you differentiate between literature and grammar? Can you differentiate between geography and psychology?

      Moving over to the preschool post,
      Brett

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      1. ctspedmathdude

        Ask the math teachers and you’ll be surprised. I can differentiate between choices but I am an educator. Ask me to define chemistry and I cannot even after four years of it. Being immersed in a topic and defining it are two different thing.

        Mastery of topics like slope doesn’t occur for most students in the first place. At least if your mastery is temporary you have some sort of foundation on which to build. It’s a sequential process. You can’t have maintenance without initial mastery.

        Randy

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      2. brettrubicristian Post author

        Informal poll results: 2 math teachers asked, two math teachers correctly defined algebra (we only have three math teachers total), one retired English teacher – correctly defined (my father), one friend (not a high school math teacher) – correctly defined. My point with the definition of algebra was to piggyback on your point that kids pass classes without mastering the content within those classes. A further slap in the face – some cannot even tell you the basic premise of what the course is about. You are saying they cannot show me how to use the clutch in conjunction with the gas pedal, although they have passed their driving test. Worse yet, I am saying they do not even know what a car is!

        I agree initial mastery is primarily important, but I think many kids do learn slope to some degree. There are many, many elements to the understanding of what slope is, and I doubt that most master all that there is to know.

        Brett

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