Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Common Core Debate, Thanksgiving Edition

Happy Thanksgiving! Last year, I didn't post on Turkey Day itself, because that was when I purchased my new computer. But this year, I decided that the first of my two special holiday posts will indeed be today. As I often do during vacation periods, I'll go back to the Common Core Debate and discuss issues related to its implementation.

But first, as you already know, calendars fascinate me. And so on this Thanksgiving Day, we may ask, why is today Thanksgiving? And I don't simply mean, "because today's the fourth Thursday in November" -- instead I mean, why is Thanksgiving observed on the fourth Thursday in November?

(This post has been tagged "calendar" due to my long discussion of the Thanksgiving date, as well as "traditionalists" for the Common Core debate. I was considering tagging this "How to Fix Common Core," but officially this post is not a part of that series.)

Of course, we already know that Thanksgiving commemorates the feast observed by the Pilgrims and Native Americans back in 1621. But here's the thing -- it's unlikely that the first Thanksgiving was observed in late November, and it's unknown whether or not it was a Thursday. Indeed, it's possible that the feast was closer to Canadian Thanksgiving in October, than any date in November.

One theory is that the first Thanksgiving feast was actually on another holiday -- a little-known Christian holiday called Michaelmas:

Notice that the name "Michaelmas" is pronounced with a short i, just like "Christmas," even though the holidays are named after St. Michael and Christ, respectively, each with a long i. If you recall six months ago when I was discussing the Waldorf schools, notice that one holiday often celebrated in Waldorf schools is Michaelmas.

Just as Christmas falls near the winter solstice, Michaelmas falls near the autumn equinox. To be exact, Michaelmas is on September 29th. It's known that the first Thanksgiving was a three-day feast, so if it began on Michaelmas, it would have ended on October 1st. But notice that these are dates in the old-style Julian calendar, since the Pilgrims came from England, and the English didn't convert to the new-style Gregorian calendar until just before the American Revolution. There was a ten-day difference between the two calendars, and so the last day of the feast would have been October 11th on our modern calendar.

Notice that October 11th, 1621, on the Gregorian calendar was a Monday -- indeed, it was the second Monday in October. And Canadian Thanksgiving also falls on the second Monday in October -- so our neighbors to the north have a three-day weekend on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, and these three days correspond exactly to the three days of the feast according to the Michaelmas theory!

Another theory is that the first Thanksgiving was not the Christian festival of Michaelmas, but instead the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles. Here's a link to this theory:

We know that the Jewish calendar is lunisolar, and so we must consult lunar tables. Sukkot falls on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei, right after Rosh Hashanah. It turns out that Rosh Hashanah in 1621 fell on September 6th Julian (September 16th Gregorian), and so Sukkot fell two weeks later, on September 20th Julian (September 30th Gregorian). This date is still much closer to the Canadian date than the American date, although Americans can take solace in the fact that at least September 30th Gregorian was a Thursday.

As it turns out, the only thing the Pilgrims actually did in November was not in 1621, but in 1620 -- they landed at Plymouth Rock on November 11th Julian (November 21st Gregorian), which is just before our Thanksgiving. So we could argue that American Thanksgiving actually commemorates the landing of the Mayflower, while only Canadian Thanksgiving commemorates the big feast.

But we still haven't figured out why Thanksgiving must be on a Thursday. We've mentioned it's possible that the feast began on a Thursday, according to the Sukkot theory. But it just as easily could have begun on a Saturday and lasted until Monday, according to the Michaelmas theory. And besides, most holidays either fall on an exact date (Christmas, Independence Day, Veterans Day) or observed on a Monday (Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day). Thanksgiving is an outlier in that it always falls on a Thursday. Why would anyone choose a Thursday for a holiday?

We know that President Lincoln first formalized Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November. But there were earlier presidents who made Thanksgiving Proclamations, often on Thursday. For example, President Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26th, 1789, a day of Thanksgiving, so the Thursday tradition was established well before Lincoln. But there is a relationship between Lincoln's Thanksgiving Thursday and another Christian holiday -- perhaps only slightly better known than Michaelmas -- called Advent.

Advent is defined as four Sundays before Christmas, and therefore serves somewhat as a countdown to Christmas. (To see what Sundays have to do with Thursdays, read on.) Notice that if Christmas falls on a Sunday, then Advent is a full four weeks earlier. But if Christmas falls on a Monday, then Christmas Eve is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and so the first Sunday of Advent is only three weeks and one day before Christmas.

Now suppose Christmas fell on a Monday. Then Advent is three weeks before Christmas Eve, which works out to be December 3rd, so this is the latest possible Advent. Notice that the previous Thursday would be the last day of November -- the latest possible Thanksgiving under Lincoln.

In other words, we conclude that "last Thursday in November" and "last Thursday before Advent" are in fact equivalent, and Thursday is the only day of the week for which "last X in November" and "last X before Advent" are equivalent. So under Lincoln's Thanksgiving date, Thanksgiving is three days before the Sunday when Christians begin counting down to Christmas. Under my Advent theory, Thanksgiving and Christmas have always been linked, decades before the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade featuring Santa Claus at the end.

Of course, notice that the Advent theory only explains why presidents proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving. It has nothing to do with anything the Pilgrims did. In fact, the Pilgrims didn't even celebrate Christmas (much less Advent), since it's not mentioned in the Bible (as opposed to St. Michael and Tabernacles). It's said that the Pilgrims began construction of their common house on December 25th Julian (January 4th Gregorian), so it was anything but a holiday.

Nowadays Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth, not last, Thanksgiving in November (so it isn't always the Thursday before Advent). I mentioned on the blog last year that this is due to President FDR ("Franksgiving"), since FDR wanted to extend the Christmas shopping season to boost the Depression economy. By FDR's day, Thanksgiving was certainly known as the start of the countdown to Christmas.

That's enough about the calendar -- let's move on to Common Core. But since it's still Thanksgiving, let's talk about the state that the Pilgrims landed in -- Massachusetts.

As it turns out, Common Core has sort of a setback in the Bay State. Massachusetts has rejected the PARCC exam, to replace it with a hybrid of PARCC and its pre-Common Core test, the MCAS. I see that there are several articles at the Boston Globe that discuss this, but here's the one I found with the most comments:

Judging by the comments, not many people agree with the PARCC/MCAS compromise. That's the problem with compromises -- they end up infuriating everyone. Here are the three types of comments that I found:

-- Pro-Core advocates (including the editorial board) say stick with PARCC because it measures college and career readiness and allows comparisons between states.
-- Anti-Core advocates say go back to the pre-Common Core MCAS. If the Core and PARCC are bad enough that people would want to see an alternative in the first place, just cut out PARCC completely.
-- Anti-testing advocates say eliminate state standardized testing completely. They were opposed to the MCAS long before there ever was a Common Core.

I like compromises because each side has merit, and hopefully a compromise can incorporate the best of what each side has to offer. I myself have had problems with many PARCC questions as documented right here on the blog, so I wouldn't mind throwing some of them out. But we can keep enough PARCC questions to allow state-by-state comparison.

Then again, I admit that there could be a better way to achieve a compromise. Notice that comparison to students in other states is most relevant to high school students. After all, these are the ones who are applying to colleges which draw students from many states, including two well-known colleges right in Massachusetts (Harvard and MIT). There is less of a need for elementary and middle school students to be compared to their counterparts in other states -- and besides, much of what is in the Common Core for the lowest grades is not age-appropriate (as discussed often here on the blog).

And so a great compromise would be for the (old pre-Core) MCAS to be given to eighth grade and below, and the PARCC to be given to high school students. Since the MCAS was traditionally administered to grades 3-8 and 10, this plan would keep MCAS in grades 3-8. PARCC tests, meanwhile, are given to every grade 9-11, so they would stay that way.

Oh, and there's one more thing. Any eighth graders enrolled in Algebra I should take the PARCC Algebra I test (and the MCAS test for ELA) They certainly shouldn't have to double-test in math -- the MCAS because they're in 8th grade and the PARCC because they're in Algebra I. We've seen how California almost came up with a super-hard eighth grade course in order to incorporate both the 8th grade standards for SBAC and the Algebra I standards -- we avoid this by not requiring 8th graders in Algebra I to take the 8th grade math test. If, by chance, there are any seventh graders enrolled in Algebra I, they shouldn't have to take the 7th grade MCAS either, but only PARCC Algebra I.

Unfortunately, Massachusetts will do the exact opposite during the current year of transition from PARCC to the new MCAS. It will be the high school students taking the MCAS this year, and grades 3-8 will still take the PARCC!

Last year, just before Thanksgiving, I wrote a blog entry discussing how Common Core affects instruction in grades 4-7. This is some (but not all) of what I wrote last year:

The academic work became tougher in the fourth grade as well. Up until then, our homework mainly consisted of spelling words, but in the fourth grade -- here in California, the standards require students to learn about our state's history that year -- we had our first extended project. We had to visit a mission set up by Spanish explorers and write a report about it. The report card shows that my grades dropped slightly that year -- I'd earned straight A's in second and third grades, but received a few B's during the fourth grade. (Of course, my math grade was still an A.)

Now on to the math. What math should students learn in grades 4-7? Well, there's one word that many preteens dread hearing during math class, long before hearing the word "algebra" -- and that word, of course, is "fractions." Dr. Hung-Hsi Wu not only wrote an extensive essay regarding Common Core Geometry. He also wrote about how fractions should be covered under the Core:

When people complain about the Common Core Standards in grades 4-7, the two most common complaints are of the form:

  • Students are not receiving credit for correct answers.
  • Students are receiving credit for incorrect answers.

What should happen when a student gets a question wrong? To many traditionalists, that student should be told "You're wrong!" as quickly and emphatically as possible. To say anything else is to give the student a fish. Students who aren't told that they are wrong -- the traditionalists fear -- will have misconceptions for years and will never become fishermen.

But there is an underlying assumption made by the traditionalists here. They assume that the students will meekly accept that they are wrong and learn the correct answer. But human nature tells us otherwise. In his work How to Win Friends & Influence People, nearly 80 years ago, Dale Carnegie writes that most people are resistant to being told that they are wrong. Rather than correcting themselves, they will become defensive. This is why one of Carnegie's principles is, "Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never say, 'You're wrong.'"

One Carnegie principle that can be especially helpful in a math class is, "Get the other person saying 'yes, yes' immediately." Here's an example of "yes, yes" in a math class:

Student: 2 + 2 = 5.
Teacher: Well, if you have 2 apples and add one more, you have 3 apples, right?
S: Yes.
T: And if you add one more to that, you have 4 apples, right?
S: Yes.
T: So now that you added 2 apples to 2 apples, how many apples do you have?
S: 4.

Even though nearly everyone is subject to the human nature of rejecting "You're wrong," I suspect that preteens -- and teens, of course -- are especially resistant to "You're wrong." It is because of this that while I support traditionalism in the lower grades, I cannot be a full traditionalist for fourth grade and above -- instead I support a mixture of traditionalist and progressive methods.

Sarah Hagan, a high school teacher from Oklahoma, discusses how her Algebra I students have trouble with overgeneralizing -- which is one of the most common errors made at this level. The students tell her that since two negatives make a positive, the sum of -3 and -5 must be +8. And -- despite what the traditionalists believe -- Hagan's telling the students that they are wrong and that the sum is -8 didn't lead to the students correcting themselves:

Because as soon as I start reteaching something that they have heard before, their minds shut down and start ignoring me.  I guess they are thinking, "I don't have to listen.  I already know this!"  But, the problem is that they don't know this.  They think that a negative exponent means that you need to change the fraction to its reciprocal to make the exponents positive.  In some cases, this works.  But, they are overgeneralizing.  They've been told that two negatives make a positive.  So, -3 + (-5) must be +8.  Again, they've taken a rule for multiplication and division and overgeneralized it.  And, don't even get me started on the order of operations.  No matter how many times I say that multiplication and division must be performed from left to right, I have a student who will argue with me that multiplication comes before division in PEMDAS so we must always do it first.

I repeat this for emphasis -- upon being told that they were wrong, Hagan's students either ignored or argued with their teacher. As Carnegie warned, the students certainly didn't correct themselves. I would point out that one easy way to get the students to realize that they are wrong without raising their defenses would be to have them add -3 to -5 on a calculator. As soon as they saw that -8 smiling back at them on their calculator screen, they'd know that they were wrong. But many traditionalists are also opposed to calculator use at any time prior to pre-calculus.

So what this all boils down to is, are the assessments -- that is, PARCC, SBAC, and worksheets created in the name of Common Core -- authentic enough that only those who can apply the math that they learned get the highest scores? I don't know -- but I suspect not, only because truly authentic assessments are extremely difficult to write.

Last year, I thought that perhaps requiring students in this grade span (Grades 4-7) to explain their answers, as on the PARCC test, would help them avoid making these kinds of mistakes. But after having seen traditionalists post so many bad PARCC and other Common Core questions requiring ridiculous explanations, I'm now starting to lean towards pre-Common Core assessments -- which would include the old MCAS -- for this grade span.

And so this is why my recommendation for the state of Plymouth Rock would be to revert to the old MCAS for grades 3-8, and keep PARCC for high school only.

I spent the rest of last year's post discussing a text often favored by traditionalists -- Saxon Math. I don't post that again, but I will have something to say about Saxon Math in the upcoming weeks.

Thus concludes this post. I hope you enjoy the rest of your Thanksgiving!

No comments:

Post a Comment