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Guiding Principles For Educational Reform
We read a lot about education reform these days. It might almost seem like a new trend in education. Indeed, this is not the case. I have been an educator for over thirty years. My area of expertise is reading. After teaching in a regular elementary classroom for a few years, I completed a master’s degree in reading and learning disabilities. Except for a five-year hiatus to attend seminary and serve as a full-time minister, I was an elementary reading teacher. In 1995, I completed a doctorate in the psychology of reading and education. At that time, I started teaching reading methods in a college setting.
During my thirty years of involvement in education, I have seen many, many reforms. Some come from the right, others from the left. In the field of reading, when I started my teaching, the basic reading programs were in place and we attempted to teach all the skills known to mankind. Then the whole language gained a number of followers. Then, an old, but popular, reappeared: phonetics. Now we’re emphasizing a balanced approach – I think that’s probably a step in the right direction.
We can easily extend this discussion beyond the bounds of reading. When I started attending elementary school in 1960, math was a drill and kill activity. The expectation was to learn basic math facts and procedures, whether you understood them or not. It is quite easy to see if you have learned under this method. Just try to explain “conceptually” why 1/2 divided by 4 is 1/8, and why to get to that you have to “reverse and multiply”. I’m surprised how many people can’t explain multiplication and division of fractions on a conceptual level.
When I was about halfway through elementary school, the so-called “new mathematics” entered the world of education. I well remember spending most of my fourth year (when she started in Kansas City) scoring that 5+2 > 1+3. I liked that math. I wasn’t too good at the old stuff, and found it a breeze.
People are getting very opinionated about education reform. I have seen many battles over the issue of whole language versus phonetics. It seems like everyone is getting involved. Class teachers have strong opinions. Politicians form strong opinions and include reform in their political platform. They know education is a hot topic for voters. One group that I watch with great diligence is the religious right. It seems they have turned aspects of education reform such as phonetic-based reading instruction and support for the No Child Left Behind law into something akin to religious dogma. It seems illogical to turn reading methods into a religious or quasi-religious crusade, but that is what leaders of the religious right seem determined to support (James Dobson, for example).
I repeat: education reform is not new. With that notion out of the way, I would like to suggest three principles of any lasting and useful educational reform. These are characteristics of a reform supported over the long term by numerous studies and dictated by common sense. I arrived at these by observing the reform cycles I have seen throughout my years of work as an educator.
First, education reform cannot be driven by tests. Currently, the watchword is accountability. From this point of view, teachers are suspicious and lazy actors who need to have their feet on the fire to make them play. I have shadowed thousands of teachers over the years, worked with thousands of teacher trainees, and supervised over a hundred student teachers. I must admit that one rarely comes across a lazy and careless teacher, but this is unusual. Attempting to monitor teacher and student performance through standardized tests is a misguided approach.
A recent study by the Educational Testing Service, creator of the SAT and nationally used teacher certification exams, found that there is a lot of student performance that cannot be controlled by schools. In fact, ETS discovered four variables: absenteeism, the percentage of children living in single-parent families, the amount of television children watch, and the number of daily readings of preschool children by caregivers (especially parents) were very accurate predictors of the results of the reading tests used. for No Child Left Behind reporting in eighth grade. It appears that learning involves many variables (the four factors explain more than two-thirds of the differences in aggregate state test scores). Family factors are things that schools and teachers cannot control.
Instead of testing and testing more, a better use of funding would be improving conditions for parents and families. Head Start funding results in a measurable increase in the IQ scores of disadvantaged children. Why not continue to fund enriched environments for Head Start children when they leave the program and help maintain the ground already gained? Why not fund more “parents as first teachers” programs to go into homes and teach parents how to prepare their preschoolers for school? Why not spend more money on eradicating poverty, especially since that seems to be the real problem?
Second, an effective reform program would emphasize scope and sequence. By scope, I refer to the content being taught, by sequence, I refer to when the content needs to be mastered. This was one of the downfalls of the whole language movement. He taught reading with no real coordination of materials, curriculum, or fluency expectations in terms of meeting expected benchmarks. Greater co-ordination of teaching needs to be put in place and curriculum guides and agreed content are essential.
At the same time, I don’t mean that the methodology should be completely standardized. There must be general guidelines on how to do things. Yet teaching is as much an art as it is a science. Addressing methodology too much turns teaching into a mechanical act, and we know that the relationship, or blending, of teacher and learner are all important concepts. What we need are standards and benchmarks without denying teachers the power to make hundreds and thousands of critical decisions every day. What we need are flexible standards and flexible benchmarks.
Finally, we need a new way of doing things. After all the years of reform, after all the years of research into what works, an amazing trend is noticeable. Educational critic and researcher John Goodlad notes that the most common activity seen in elementary schools today is sitting work (i.e. worksheets, work muffler from manuals, etc.). The most common activity graded in secondary schools is the lecture. Both of these approaches are notoriously inefficient. Just consider lectures, for example, how often do you “zone” during sermons? And, if you attend, what keeps you “connected”?
We have lost the wisdom shared with us by John Dewey so many years ago and sustained study after study. Children learn best by doing. Children need to create democracy in the classroom, not just study government in their civics textbook. They need to find ways to recycle and start a neighborhood recycling program, not just read about pollution. Education must become real. The real is better than the artificial. As psychologist Jerome Bruner has pointed out, doing is better than seeing, and seeing is better than just reading or hearing about something. The best approach probably combines all three methods.
Reforms come and go. However, on these three principles, we can arrive at reform that will stand the test of time. We all want our schools to improve. Isn’t it time to skip the political rhetoric of the right (including the religious right) and the left and do what’s best for the kids? Isn’t it time?
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