There have been years when I have arrived at Sleeping Lady with a relatively lightweight agenda, relying (completely safely) on whatever collection of folks turned up that year to use my topics plus the ones they brought to produce a lively, thoughtful discussion that would send us all out enriched and with far more to think about than we arrived with. This was not such a year. We had a tripartite agenda, and each part was a hefty one. The parts were, respectively:
A) The Common Core State Standards (aka CCSS), now officially adopted -- What's the point? What's so exciting about them? How can what's exciting survive the inevitable wear and tear of implementation? What are the implications about assessment?
B) Washington STEM -- What is it? What is it doing? What's so exciting about it? Why is it relevant to us? Why are we relevant to it?
C) WaToToM -- What is our role? What's so exciting about us? And -- the chilling question -- how can we survive?
Element A was covered masterfully by Greta Bornemann. She's pretty excited about the potential of the CCSS. One of the reasons is that the writers have genuinely addressed an issue that we have all been caterwauling about for a couple of decades: the "mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum". It has been clearly demonstrated over the decades that random sandbags along the edges have very little impact. So instead the writers re-thought the whole construction process and decided to work with progressions. They chose a small number of absolutely essential mathematical outcomes, worked backward through the requirements for those outcomes down to the earliest mathematical needs and paid close heed to the order and importance of the elements. This process produced a small but vital collection of mathematical progressions. Then they considered how different progressions related to and strengthened each other. And only after all of that did they look at the progressions in layers with an eye to grade levels.
With these progressions, teachers can work with real focus, knowing what is mathematically important, and why it is so. They can also stop the breathless scramble to "cover" a zillion tidbits, and allow their students time to think. And that brings us to the second exciting element: the mathematical practices. Already last year I was burbling about the fact that the CCSS put huge emphasis on the Standards for Mathematical Practice. I will list them (though omitting the explanatory paragraphs is unfair to them):
1 Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
2 Reason abstractly and quantitatively
3 Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
4 Model with mathematics.
5 Use appropriate tools strategically.
6 Attend to precision.
7 Look for and make use of structure.
8 Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.
The question then is -- how do we keep these admirable aims at the center of all mathematics teaching rather than having them looked at on alternate Fridays? That will never be easy, but with more focus and less clutter it is a lot more feasible than it was. On the other hand, making all of this accessible to teachers throughout the state is an incredible challenge. Turning the low-budget lemon into a nice bit of lemonade, Greta pointed out that at least OSPI can't be tempted into what she calls the Tacoma Dome solution: gather everybody under one roof for a long week-end and dump information on them, then turn them loose and dust your hands. This tactic has been proven to be remarkably ineffective, but it can nonetheless be tempting, because the razzle-dazzle gives an impression of vigorous action. Can't be done on a minuscule budget, though, which is what they've got. So they have set to work to use what is available -- existing leadership within ESDs and districts and schools -- and they have some heartening beginnings under way. Only snag: Greta mentioned in passing that the state budget currently under discussion zeroes out the ESD math coordinators. More about that later. Another lovely tidbit was that outreach to parents is very much in the plans -- currently thinking in terms of using school librarians as a major channel for that. Other channels being sought as well.
Another factor that should encourage a non-superficial adoption of the CCSS is the assessments that are in the process of being created. That was the topic that enabled Greta to finish on a high, keen note. Currently, Washington is one of the leaders in a multi-state consortium funded through Race to the Top to develop assessments that are aligned with the CCSS. It is entitled the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, and it seems to be doing Very Good Things. Most notably, it is downplaying as much as possible the summative assessments that have become a weapon of mass destruction -- OK, that's me going overboard, but the uses of summative assessment have certainly not been pretty. Some, of course, is needed, but much more important are interim assessments with swift feedback. These they are working on intensively. And their assessments, both interim and summative, include performance tasks that take a couple of days to carry out and are not computer-graded. All in all, many hope-giving signs. Now mind you, the design process is still very much of a work in progress, and the fact that Washington is a leader doesn't guarantee that we will adopt them, etc. But it's still a nice thing to think about. Also to help with -- and they are eager for involvement of Higher Ed. You can read a lot about them at http://www.smarterbalanced.org/
I haven't come close to doing justice to three and a half hours of high-intensity Greta -- not to mention the powerhouse of information on the thumb drive she gave each of us. But it is time to move on.
After lunch and our canonical snow break, we learned a little more about CCSS plans: Bill Moore,who has regularly kept us abreast of the Transition Math Project that he led, and its resulting College Readiness Standards, is just at the launching phase of a Core to College Project designed to explore the college readiness aspects of the CCSS and how Higher Ed relates to them. Very early days, so no details yet. But interesting, and to be helped with if possible.
Then Mark Lewis took over and we directed our attention to Washington STEM. Their big launch was just last March, so it has been an extremely lively year. Part of the time Mark gave us an overview of how Washington STEM operates, including its three levels of investment: Entrepreneur Awards, a short term investment designed to give folks with a bright idea a chance to check it out; Portfolio Awards, designed to take what is known to be successful and expand its reach and/or scale; and Learning Networks, designed to foster cooperative efforts within a defined geographical region within the state. We had a look at some of the specific projects -- what they are aiming at and why they are funded (and what some mighty cute kids are doing within them!) I'd say his underlying message was a deeper one, though. Given who we are and what we do, it is inevitable that we tend to think in terms of STEM -- or worse, just M. This is not evil, but it is also not optimal. Science, Technology and Engineering are all interwoven with Mathematics, and the more we can each acknowledge and involve the others, the stronger we will all be. Mark presented, promoted and illustrated this view in a variety of very cogent ways. My notes for the afternoon end with a definition, or perhaps description, though I'm not sure whether Mark invented it or found it (or even whether he said it or put it on the screen -- it was a long day!):
"STEM: applied curiosity and an insatiable desire to create"
Lest my comment on the long day make things sound too heavy, let me add that we got to play not once but three times: first thing in the morning we found the perimeter of a triangle that wasn't all there, then later Greta had us counting the blocks in an ever-growing pyramid. Mark outdid those, though -- both of the morning activities were on paper, but he had real stuff to hand us. Marshmallows! Spaghetti! Dental floss! Masking tape! And a chance to use the latter three to construct a tower capable of holding up the marshmallow. The third graders in Mark's subsequent slides may have constructed better towers than we did, but there's no way they can have had more fun! [Action video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwraY-6l_0Y&feature=email]
Sunday morning, as always, we headed into the land of "What now?" The first thing that came up was a reminder that Greta had made a comment that ESD math coordinators were on the state's budgetary chopping block. Folks arrived swiftly at an agreement that a letter from WaToToM should go to key legislators and that all WaToToMites should be encouraged to write individually as well. Since this newsletter goes out to a listserv maintained by a state institution and hence cannot advocate lobbying, I can only report here on the existence of the agreement that letters should be written. If you would like details, please write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next up was a larger issue of the shape and future of WaToToM, starting specifically with the need to bolster our between-meetings existence. Several members were much interested in the possibility of some sort of on-going study groups maintained on one of the current flock of internet web sites that are designed to act as meeting places. Kris Kissel and Kayana Hoagland were exploring the virtues and vices of the available options -- you will hear more!
Then we got to the annual issue of sharing responsibilities. I most emphatically do not want to be one of those who put something together and then wind up strangling it by hanging on too tightly. A couple of years ago we put together an Executive Committee, and that has been very helpful in terms of shared decision-making. And I enjoy almost all of the things I do -- but for sustainability of WaToToM it is not well for me to continue to do all of them.
Sustainability has a far more serious issue to deal with, however -- and it is one where I would cheerfully delegate up a storm: we cannot continue our current fiscal format. We have operated at a loss for two years, with the UW mathematics department picking up the slack. Not only can I not ask them to continue to do so, but the reason for the low income is that many institutions around the state -- most notably most community colleges-- can no longer fund people to come to our gatherings. That produces a serious and unacceptable loss of important voices. So I hurled onto the meeting floor the proposition that what I really wanted to delegate was the raising of funding -- any volunteers? Immediate result was a whole herd of deer in the headlights, but once the shock wore off people got together in two groups and did a veritable hurricane's worth of brainstorming. One group tackled the question of the meetings themselves, and came up with a huge batch of possibilities for changing the venue, style and format of them. In terms of the first two of those, there was a unanimous view that if we could afford to do so, staying at Sleeping Lady would be strongly preferable to cost-cutting by shifting to a more do-it-youself scale of things. That big "if" then brought us to the work of the other table, where an abundance of good ideas had meanwhile been sprouting.
The basic numerical fact (produced by me and scheduled for some much-needed verification by a more fiscally oriented person) is that with $6,000, or maybe $7,000 a year we could do just fine. We would then be able to stay at the Sleeping Lady, continue inviting our vital K-12 members as guests and some students at various levels as well, and somehow scale back fees in such a way that folks whose institutional support has run dry could afford to register on their own without breaking the family piggybank. And whereas that many thousands of dollars look multitudinous from a personal standpoint, in many contexts they would be regarded as trivial. Mark, in particular, pointed out that our state has many citizens with huge amounts of money and a lot of good will towards issues educational. It is also the case that we are precisely the type of enterprise that higher education needs to be supporting -- and most colleges and universities have Foundations geared to doing just that. So we settled on a two-pronged approach:
1) Each of us as individuals (or a team of individuals from the same place) will undertake to find the Development Office or Foundation or whoever it is at our own particular institution, state our case, and request $2000. For this we are preparing Talking Points -- so hold off a short while before launching the effort. But then we all need to do it!
2) We will also make an effort to locate private funding. I am willing to lead this effort, though for many reasons I shouldn't try it solo. Mark volunteered to introduce us to a person at Washington STEM who is extremely knowledgeable not only about possible donors but about how to present one's case to them. I plan to go and sit at her feet with my ears flapping and every note-taking device I own activated -- and I will be putting out a request for company on that visit!
With our confidence thus restored, we then headed out, fueled by the energy that being together always gives us.