The fourteenth Gathering, now known as Conference, has come and gone, and as always produced a marvelously rich blend of discussions, conversations, information exchange, challenges to tackle and just plain fun. One notable up-side was that the weatherman's prediction of two soggy, grey days was completely off the mark. Snow on Friday night produced a picture post card morning on Saturday and we then had brilliant blue skies and sparkling white snowdrifts for the whole week-end. The most notable down-side was that the budget crunch prevented all but one of our community college members from coming -- Meg Bartrand from Columbia Basin CC bore the whole weight of representing community colleges. Even that down-side was off-set by one major gain: since we had already paid for spaces for a bunch more folks than were able to register, we went ahead and filled the slots with more K-12 teachers than we otherwise might have, and their voices were all extremely valuable. As regards the hole in our non-existent budget ... well, we'll see.
Friday night was our usual round of introducing each other. A short round for a smallish group, which I think benefitted the Grotto Bar considerably.
Saturday morning we launched with one of my favorite activities -- a coin-stacking game with only one rule but a great capacity to generate conjectures. As always it was a little hard to turn away from, and some conjectures and proofs were still turning up at lunch time, but it definitely did wake our brains up. We then tuned those awakened brains to an enormously helpful session on the Common Core Standards, presented by Greta Borneman, our member from OSPI. Part of the time she spent on an essential review of where we are in terms of adopting them. It may already be out of date, but the situation as of Saturday was that the state had provisionally adopted them, with the wording that unless the previous legislation was specifically overridden the adoption would become non-provisional this year. There is a bill in the House to reverse the adoption, strongly supported by Where's the Math, but unless it passed as of yesterday afternoon it would die. On the hypothesis that Washington will adopt, we are the fiscal managers of a huge, multi-state project to develop assessments, both formative and summative, to support the Common Core Standards -- one of many reasons why non-adoption would be a decidedly Bad Thing.
With that understanding of the state of the world, we settled down to study the Standards themselves. For a start we looked at a defining element that I find downright inspiring: the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice. You can find them, along with links to the rest of the Standards, at http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards/mathematics/introduction/standards-for-mathematical-practice/ , so I won't reproduce them here. I'll just say that they were inspired by the NCTM Standards and the NRC's "Adding It Up", and I think they characterize beautifully the mathematics beyond and under and around the laundry list of specific topics that tends to dominate people's views. They are the lead-in to the Standards and they appear in highly compacted form on each of the grade-level Standards throughout the document.
The Standards for Mathematical Practice also, predictably, provide the toughest challenge when it comes to assessment. Thinking about that brought us back one more time to the state scene and the consortium that is hard at work attempting to produce assessments that reflect the Standards. Greta left us with one last difficulty to chew on: assessment is a massive undertaking, and there are people who have made a profession of it for many years. It would be stupid and wasteful to ignore their expertise. On the other hand, all of their work, and all of their built up knowledge is about assessment as a means of evaluation -- something that produces a grade. What is acutely needed is formative assessment -- the kind that enables a teacher to know both the strengths and weaknesses in a student's current knowledge and act immediately upon that knowledge. The term "formative assessment" has now been firmly inserted into the conversation. Unfortunately, operating with the mindset that all those years have given them, most of the professionals tend to see it simply as small and frequent assessments designed to assign grades early and often -- a kind of repeated dipstick. So all we need to do is change their total mindset. Ow.
The afternoon, after the traditional break for snow shoeing and the like, brought us to the central topic for the conference -- Elementary Mathematics Specialists. For background: early last summer Greta asked whether anyone from WaToToM would be available to accompany her to an AMTE (Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators) conference on that subject that she felt was an important one. Judith Arms agreed to go, and came back very much fired up to get WaToToM involved and knowledgeable. This produced a WaToToM first: an item that landed firmly on the agenda a full seven months before the gathering. In support of it, we put out a call for teachers with relevant experience and found four who were not only experienced but very articulate. We launched the afternoon with some information about where the state stands on the issue -- OSPI is solidly behind it and determined that there shall be such specialists, and the legislature is right this minute considering a bill to permit them to be created, which seems pretty likely to survive. If it does, then the issue lands in the lap of the PESB (Professional Educators Standards Board), and that's where we have the option of being more than spectators -- they need all possible encouragement to move forward.
Having established the need to take the issue seriously, we then began to dig into what it entailed. We had the AMTE report, complete with data on the successes in other states where Elementary Mathematics Specialists have been in action (see http://amte.net/sites/all/themes/amte/resources/EMSStandards_Final_Mar2010.pdf), but it needed bringing home. This our teachers did for us by describing what they do as coaches and what can come of it. By the end of the description we were unambiguously convinced that we were willing, in fact eager, to take whatever action would supply the system with more teachers as much like them as possible. So we settled down and took the list of things they did, shook, pummeled and shaped it and produced the content for a letter to the PESB. In the process, we realized that the letter needed an extra element: whereas there is an immediate and dire need for people with skills at communicating and strategizing and convincing people about what needs doing as well as a deep knowledge of elementary mathematics, there is an abiding and long term need for people who simply have that last characteristic. So our letter includes a request for an Elementary Mathematics Endorsement. Since coming home I have discovered that that last request was part of the content of WaToToM's very first position paper, back in 2002. Well, persistence is clearly a virtue!
I will de-chronologize by saying that a draft of the letter was produced on Saturday night and thoroughly re-worked in the course of Sunday morning. Today I made the alterations suggested and came up with a position paper that I propose to send out later this week to the PESB. I have attached the current version (though there are a couple of comma suggestions and the like that I have yet to act on.)
Sunday had one more topic of some import: Washington STEM (which I was calling the STEM Center as I introduced it.) In their own words, Washington STEM is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing innovation, equity, and excellence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Our organization mobilizes education, business, and civic leaders to fulfill our shared responsibility to accelerate improvements in STEM instruction throughout the state and dramatically improve learning outcomes for all students. (For more, look at http://washingtonstem.org/) Their big roll-out was Monday, so that they couldn't send a representative to talk with us, but instead they sent a batch of their snazzy new brochures that we got to see before anybody else did (by a few hours!) They are supported by Boeing, Microsoft, McKinstry and a raft of other heavy hitters, and will definitely have an impact. I am reasonably convinced that it will be a good impact -- they have certainly put a lot of thought into how they are set up, and I very much like what I have heard them say to WSECC (Washington State Education Coordinating Council, where I occupy the WaToToM seat.) And I think we have a lot to offer them in terms of established network of people with a longstanding record of working for exactly what they have set as their goal -- the mathematical part of it, that is. I have had some conversations with them, and been kindly received (the fact that one of them dropped the brochures off in person so that we could have them at Sleeping Lady says a lot to me.) What I want to do now is put together something other than me talking about it that lets them know what we are and have to offer. This I brought up at the Sunday morning session and people immediately began reeling of a list of things that we have accomplished and invitations that we have received and good things that have happened as a consequence of our existence -- phenomenal morale boost for us all! I will shortly be putting out the first draft of a list of things that came up, including the start of a list of non-WaToToM things being done by WaToToMites as an indication of whobody we are as individuals and why said individuals are people they want to be in contact with. I'll be collecting all manner of information from all of you, then attempting to compact it into a presentable document. This should be fun!
I think, in a slightly disorganized way, that I have covered the events and issues of the week-end. Nothing ever really covers the joy of being at the gathering and seeing everybody there, so I'll leave that implicit!