This is going to be a little bit of newsletter and a large bit of URL -- not my normal scheme of things, but there is a batch of information lurking out there, and all I can do is give you the wherewithals to begin to take it in.
At least I can start off with a description, because we had a very nice colloquium indeed last Tuesday. Bob McIntosh of OSPI (the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) gave us a crash course in the state of K-12 mathematics in Washington. His disclaimers about not knowing all there is to know became more plausible as we saw how much that is. The adjective that leaps to mind is "overwhelming". Here are the bare bones: the US Department of Education has declared that in order to continue to receive federal funding (on which the state education systems are pretty thoroughly dependent), states must set up a testing system under which they can measure (by standardized test) the mathematical abilities of all students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 10. These scores will be inspected from year to year for adequate yearly progress (otherwise known as AYP). AYP consists very specifically of increased scores on the tests -- and furthermore the increase must be in each category of a disaggregated set of data. Otherwise put, it's no good if your AP students keep getting better, if it turns out that your ESL (English as a second language) students aren't improving. Failure to improve in any one of the categories (which include ESL and special education and I'm not sure what else) can cause a school to be classified as not making AYP even if all the rest of the categories sail ahead. And the punishment for this failure starts in year three. At first it merely includes dedicating 10% of the school's funding to professional development and paying for transportation of any student who wants to go to another school. The following year the school must also provide free tutoring in whatever format the parents choose. And it goes up from there. The only (relatively) bright side is a correction Bob McIntosh sent yesterday to an impression he had given us: "I learned today that schools that score above the "universal state bar" which is a predetermined level somewhere near the average for the state, are exempt from AYP. So that scenario of schools scoring at the top and then dipping would not put them into a 'needs improvement' category." Mild comfort.
There is one obvious solution to this. Make the tests dumb. This the OSPI is solidly unwilling to do. So they are making new tests to cover the grades not covered by the WASL, and building a massive instructional support system with sample lessons and links to other subjects and grade level content expectations. A lot of it is pretty important, and a good thing to build into the system. And in that sense the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) act which mandates all of the stuff I listed above is having some good effects. On the other hand, the pressures are enormous, and many schools run the risk of being totally destroyed by the draconian nature of the decreed consequences. In short, these are stirring, and decidedly tense, times.
That, as I said, is a pretty sketchy version of the state of affairs. One way to find out some more details is to look either at http://www.k12.wa.us/ESEA/default.asp or http://www.aft.org/edissues/downloads/TitleI_PPC_Jan02.pdf
Onward to my other topic. There has just been virtual conference on sustainability of systemic reform, run by the NSF for folks who have been taking part in one of the Local Systemic Change projects. It was quite delightful, with interactive poster sessions and the like (though virtual coffee is awfully low on caffeine.) The thing that struck me most, though, was the keynote address by Deborah Ball. She took on an issue that has been much discussed, and made the clearest case I have yet seen. The issue is what it is elementary school teachers need by way of mathematics and why they need it. Everyone agrees that they need more than they seem to have, and almost everyone agrees that pressing forward into advanced level mathematics is not the answer. There is even a rather neat buzz-word -- or rather, buzz-phrase -- for it: they need a profound understanding of fundamental mathematics. But what does that mean, and how do they need to use it? Deborah Ball addresses those issues and gives examples. Myself I found it downright inspiring, so I will give you all a pointer in that direction and see if it strikes you the same way: http://sustainability2003.terc.edu/go.cfm/keynote --