"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Case Against a Curriculum

There are various media through which information may be disseminated. Popular press and social media have the widest reach. With regard to very important issues, mass media indeed shoulder a great responsibility. With complicated matters, pundits are necessary to provide expert opinions so that the public could be best informed. Oftentimes, materials that need to be digested by the public are quite voluminous, deep or too complex that the eyes of an expert become indispensable. Reforms are being introduced on education in the US and in the Philippines. Unfortunately, in both cases, the media seem to have failed in informing the public. With a poorly informed public, political strategies are then very much in play. In the Philippines, where politics is still personality based and oligarchic, the media dropping the ball on correctly informing the public about education reforms serves the purpose of keeping everyone in the dark. In the United States, keeping a reform under a low key may initially be beneficial at the first stages, but in the end, backlash will occur if people suddenly discover something very consequential is being imposed without their knowledge. Continuously misinforming the public works very well in an oligarchic society. However, for a bitterly divided and partisan society like the United States, lack of information fuels only further bickering and propaganda from both sides. A midst this predicament, I am not even sure we know what a curriculum is.

In the Philippines, the K+12 curriculum had been introduced. The curriculum change was so extensive that it was completely mind boggling that it managed to pass both houses of legislature without any hitch. The main items in the new curriculum are (1) compulsory kindergarten, (2) two added years at the end of high school, (3) spiral curriculum in math and the sciences, with science being introduced as a formal subject only in the third grade, (4) mother tongue based - multilingual instruction, with reading and writing in English only being introduced in the second grade, and (5) emphasis on the use of inquiry-based learning methods.

This blog has laid out various criticisms of this curriculum in so many posted articles. In addition, there is likewise the question of implementation of a curriculum. This blog has also cited some learning materials and their current low quality. Lessons are indeed the tangible manifestation of a curriculum inside a classroom, but one still must not confuse what needs to be taught against how it is being taught.

Objections to the K+12 curriculum in the Philippines are basically mute. This blog has been one of the few voices and one reason I heard (This one comes from Filipinos with PhD's) is that we should simply trust DepEd since these people know better. There is widespread apathy. One reason behind the lack of engagement is that unlike my peers, I have children who are just beginning formal schooling. The children of my high school classmates, for example, are now finishing college. Unlike my peers, basic education to me is not simply a memory from the past, but an actual scenario on which the future of my own children depends.

The changes in curriculum in the US center around what is called the Common Core. In the US, it is very important to know what the Common Core is, so here it is:
What is the Common Core?

State education chiefs and governors in 48 states came together to develop the Common Core, a set of clear college- and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics. Today, 44 states have voluntarily adopted and are working to implement the standards, which are designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to take credit bearing introductory courses in two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce.
And here is an equally important frequently asked question with the correct answer:
Do the standards tell teachers what to teach? 
Teachers know best about what works in the classroom. That is why these standards establish what students need to learn, but do not dictate how teachers should teach. Instead, schools and teachers decide how best to help students reach the standards.
Here is an example. The following are the standards for Grade 3 Mathematics:
In Grade 3, instructional time should focus on four critical areas: (1) developing understanding of multiplication and division and strategies for multiplication and division within 100; (2) developing understanding of fractions, especially unit fractions (fractions with numerator 1); (3) developing understanding of the structure of rectangular arrays and of area; and (4) describing and analyzing two-dimensional shapes.
  1. Students develop an understanding of the meanings of multiplication and division of whole numbers through activities and problems involving equal-sized groups, arrays, and area models; multiplication is finding an unknown product, and division is finding an unknown factor in these situations. For equal-sized group situations, division can require finding the unknown number of groups or the unknown group size. Students use properties of operations to calculate products of whole numbers, using increasingly sophisticated strategies based on these properties to solve multiplication and division problems involving single-digit factors. By comparing a variety of solution strategies, students learn the relationship between multiplication and division.
  2. Students develop an understanding of fractions, beginning with unit fractions. Students view fractions in general as being built out of unit fractions, and they use fractions along with visual fraction models to represent parts of a whole. Students understand that the size of a fractional part is relative to the size of the whole. For example, 1/2 of the paint in a small bucket could be less paint than 1/3 of the paint in a larger bucket, but 1/3 of a ribbon is longer than 1/5 of the same ribbon because when the ribbon is divided into 3 equal parts, the parts are longer than when the ribbon is divided into 5 equal parts. Students are able to use fractions to represent numbers equal to, less than, and greater than one. They solve problems that involve comparing fractions by using visual fraction models and strategies based on noticing equal numerators or denominators.
  3. Students recognize area as an attribute of two-dimensional regions. They measure the area of a shape by finding the total number of same-size units of area required to cover the shape without gaps or overlaps, a square with sides of unit length being the standard unit for measuring area. Students understand that rectangular arrays can be decomposed into identical rows or into identical columns. By decomposing rectangles into rectangular arrays of squares, students connect area to multiplication, and justify using multiplication to determine the area of a rectangle.
  4. Students describe, analyze, and compare properties of two-dimensional shapes. They compare and classify shapes by their sides and angles, and connect these with definitions of shapes. Students also relate their fraction work to geometry by expressing the area of part of a shape as a unit fraction of the whole.

Grade 3 Overview

Operations and Algebraic Thinking

  • Represent and solve problems involving multiplication and division.
  • Understand properties of multiplication and the relationship between multiplication and division.
  • Multiply and divide within 100.
  • Solve problems involving the four operations, and identify and explain patterns in arithmetic.

Number and Operations in Base Ten

  • Use place value understanding and properties of operations to perform multi-digit arithmetic.

Number and Operations—Fractions

  • Develop understanding of fractions as numbers.

Measurement and Data

  • Solve problems involving measurement and estimation of intervals of time, liquid volumes, and masses of objects.
  • Represent and interpret data.
  • Geometric measurement: understand concepts of area and relate area to multiplication and to addition.
  • Geometric measurement: recognize perimeter as an attribute of plane figures and distinguish between linear and area measures.


  • Reason with shapes and their attributes.

Mathematical Practices

  • Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  • Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
  • Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
  • Model with mathematics.
  • Use appropriate tools strategically.
  • Attend to precision.
  • Look for and make use of structure.
  • Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.
After browsing through the above standards, it is perplexing to see the vitriolic criticisms currently hurled against the Common Core. For example, the Daily Caller has been compiling supposedly "stupid Common Core" math worksheets. (Simply because a worksheet has the two words "Common Core" in it does not mean this is the Common Core Standard). An example is shown below (I actually do not see what is "stupid" in this worksheet, the student answers correctly with the number sentence "17 + 25 = ___ ". The explanation given by the student, however, is absurd.):

Above image copied from "This second grader’s revenge against Common Core math will make your day"
The Daily Caller does have articles that may help dispel myths regarding the Common Core, like "How Common Core state standards prevent federal control of education". Unfortunately, articles that malign the Common Core get a lot more traction. McShane and Hess of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research recently published a report entitled, "Flying under the Radar? Analyzing Common Core Media Coverage". From this report, the following graphs tell a very important story. The first graph counts the number of mentions of the phrase "Common Core" in US publications:

Copied from "Flying under the Radar? Analyzing Common 
The blue line shows the number of mentions for each year since 2009 when the Common Core was introduced. The red line displays the number of students affected by the new curriculum. Thus, albeit the Common Core has a very large impact on the public, US newspapers are not that keen in covering this momentous change in the US public school system. The paper then compares above with another issue in US education, school vouchers. School vouchers allow parents to choose where their children would be schooled thereby allowing for a redirection of public funding. The corresponding graph is as follows:

Copied from "Flying under the Radar? Analyzing Common 
In the case of school vouchers, the blue line (press mentions) towers over the red line (the number of enrollment). (Take note that the y-axes for both enrollment and mentions are an order of magnitude smaller than in the previous graph). More importantly, the rate at which mentions increase over time for school vouchers definitely outpaces the rate of increase in number of students affected. For the Common Core, exactly the opposite is happening: Media coverage is grossly lagging behind. It should not be surprising then to see how so many are misinformed. In the Philippines, I happened to hear about the new curriculum months before its implementation. This is understandable since I am not in the Philippines but what is surprising is that I still managed to hear about it first before some leaders of local governments and schools in the Philippines. And this is just about being aware, we have not even asked the question of whether people actually know what is inside the new curriculum.

Democracy can not work with an uninformed or misinformed public. One gets oligarchy when most are not engaged. With engagement and information coming too late, one may get chaos. 

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