Thursday, January 30, 2014

Training Day- CCS, DOK, MOUSE

Today the state of Pennsylvania provided me with some CCSS training (well, not exactly, but we'll get to that). This blog post will probably be on the long side and perhaps not as entertaining, but for those of you who are wondering what some of this stuff looks like up close, let me give you a look. Today's training is

Depth of Knowledge through Performance Tasks (presented in partnership with the Common Core Insitute)

Training today involved about seventy teachers and administrators at the Intermediate Unit office (in PA, there are regional field offices for the PA DOE) in the Hemlock Room. Yes, just like the poison you drink if you're an ancient Greek philosopher who wants to kill himself. You can't make this stuff up.


The IU lady, who never actually introduced herself nor wore a name tag, started things off with a pep talk for CCSS. "It's not as much about new content as it is new teaching," she said. "We've been going on an efficiency model." She observed that we would now be moving on to effectiveness, and that word reminded her of the new teacher evals in PA. What better way to start the day than a reminder that our professional evaluations are riding on this stuff.

She introduced Ed Heelifeld (my best phonetic rendering) who taught high school math for 12 years but is now a sales and service rep for Common Core Institute. "We help people implement the common core." So, "institute" here means "program sales company." It's a nice touch. I bet in retrospect Ray Kroc wishes he had started the "McDonalds Hamburger and Fries Institute."

Ed turns us over to the lead dog on this CCSS bobsled today-- Jill Stine.

Jill Stine

Jill Stine works for some combination of CCI and the Center for College and Career Readiness. She has a varied background in ed, ranging from teaching deaf classes at Camp Hill Prison to Title I reading to assistant principal. She worked with Bob Marzano in Florida implementing teacher evaluations. She's not shy-- I know all of the above because she told us. She described working with Marzano as "a fun time" in a tone suggesting it was contentious and that she knows not everyone loves her work.

It would be entertaining to describe her as a difficult, unpleasant human being with horns and foul breath, but she came across as fairly straightforward and likeable. She took questions, generally didn't evade, and was willing to engage with those of us who had issues with the program. A quick search suggested that she has occasionally been a bit too forthright in the past. She was reasonable and human, but unapologetically described herself as having "drunk the koolaid."

The First Thing I Did Not Expect

Stine's brief version of the CCSS origin story was a new one on me. In her story, the creators looked across all the state standards to see what standards they had in common. Then they asked if those standards were getting the job done. Then they overlaid another level of complexity to make them more better. Make of that what you will.


I'm actually looking forward to the day that "efficacy" takes over. We had a long discussion about what rigor is and is not. She showed us that little bad animation cartoon where the Britishy principal grills the teacher about rigor. She shared the Barbara Blackburn definition of rigor. We brainstormed a bunch of ideas. I must conclude once again that "rigor" is either A) everything we all already knew was a good thing to do as a teacher, or B) magical fairy dust of learning.

I'm Starting To Understand Randi Weingarten

We began the pivot toward the actual point of the by re-affirming that how we teach should be how we assess. Don't do a project and then give a test-- use the project as the actual assessment. Not for the last time today, I could see that if you squint your eyes and look at the good parts of CCSS (what I like to call "things good teachers already do") it provides, all on its own, a pretty strong indictment of the high stakes testing program that is its conjoined twin.

But I can see how, close up, it might look like testing is somehow twisting CCSS all out of shape, and if you could just get the foot of testing off the neck of CCSS, the standards would spring back to life. Because frequently in the session you arrive at a variation on "Well, that would be swell-- except for the test that's coming." I contend that testing has not bent CCSS out of shape-- that IS it's shape. But I can see how, close up, you'd think otherwise. 

I suspect that this is part of the reason that the CCSS reformista package gives so many people gut-level cognitive dissonance even when they don't fully understand it. It's like a bad M C Escher drawing where segments try to be two mutually contradictory things at once. It can't all be true at the same time.

So anyway-- better assessments. Also, kids have changed. Remember that for later.

The Main Event Finally Arrives--Webb's Depth of Knowledge

You know, Bloom's Taxonomy was swell in its day. Nothing wrong with it. But its big weakness was that whole emphasis-on-the-verb thing. You can describe the color of a read ball, and you can describe how you would create a system for playing chess in zero gravity, and both use the verb "describe" but are clearly different levels of operation.

Norman Webb came up with a newer, better tool. The DOK scale (thank goodness he didn't call it depth IN knowledge) delineates four different way that students interact with content:

1- Recall and Reproduction
2- Skills and Concepts
3- Strategic Thinking/Reasoning
4- Extended Thinking

You may be thinking that this sounds an awful lot like a collapsed Bloom's, and I wouldn't argue with you. I actually agree with the Bloom's verby problem, but I'm thinking that's a pretty easy fix. I'm also thinking that nobody is making money teaching people about Bloom's any more, but some folks are making an awful lots of money teaching teachers about Webb's DOK.

We spent much time looking at and categorizing examples of the four levels, and it was at times a tough slog because essentially they're trying to teach us to use a whole new language to talk about things. If you really want to know more about DOK, just google your heart out. There's tons out there.

I will share one insight that I actually found useful. Because DOK focuses on the complexity of the interaction with the material, you can ramp up DOK even with material that's not difficult.

But the real reason you care about DOK is simple-- it's what's being used as a guide by the high stakes test developers. This is why, for instance, we're seeing questions that have the student look at two different works and construct an argument about them based on evidence-- because that would be a DOK 3 or 4 level and will help HST grow beyond the old bubble test stigma.

So we're to be designing performance tasks that represent these different levels because that will better help us bring to life the inner beauty of the CCSS.

More Dissonance

These sorts of performance tasks are supposed to go slow and deep. One sample lesson was going to involve a week spent on one poem. Because we could all just teach 36 short works of literature in high school English classes this year. And elementary teachers with their 180 pre-packaged lessons can totally stretch those out so students can go deep.

Again, what some experts tell us we should do with CCSS and what others tell us we must do with CCSS materials simply don't fit. CCSS is a GPS that gives you directions for driving south toward Pittsburgh and then ends with directions about navigating down town Cleveland.

We also discussed a sample task for third graders and noted that on the HST this sort of thing would require a lot of rigorous time and focused attention for an eight-year-old. The obvious solution-- make sure that your instruction includes long soul-crushing tedious tasks so that your third grader is used to it by the time the test comes. 

A Question I Asked

We were talking about how the PARCC (which PA is apparently still pals with; we mostly don't like the idea of the computer testing, perhaps because we actually tried that a few years ago and it was a clusterfig of mammoth proportions), and how it was going to include these nifty performance tasks for assessments, and I asked, "How will the answers to the complex questions be graded and by whom?" I think a lot of people found that question interesting, but Stine admitted frankly that she had no idea, and that yes, that was probably important. IU Lady made some noises on behalf of the state that were less illuminating.

I may also have squeezed in an explanation of how to game the PA writing test.

We broke for lunch

Afternoon Not-Really-Delight

The afternoon opened with a video clip of Taylor Mali's "Miracle Worker," and I always think that reformers' use of Mali is kind of like politician's use of "Born in the USA" and I want to ask, "Are you really listening to this?" But I had resolved not to be an ass today.

CCI has prepared a nifty 128-page deconstruction of the standards, making them easily referrable and broken down in a way that would make local alignment a slightly less-inconvenient piece of paperwork. We looked at that, and we looked at a performance task that, unfortunately, purported to use Close Reading. It was actually Close Reading 2.0, complete with making sure not tell the students anything before having them read the work. Did I mention that the Taylor Mali poem hinges on the idea "I gave you what you needed before you even knew you needed it?" Close Reading 2.0 instead preaches "I won't give you what you need, even when you're floundering without it."

I give credit to Stine, who not for the first or last time was perfectly willing to engage me one-on-one during group time to trade points of view on these things. I am not sure how much I can learn from her, but she could teach people like Cami Anderson and John King a thing or two.

We spent more time on specific sample lessons. You can find some of this stuff on CCI's website, and each performance task comes with a coaching video to help you understand what you're supposed to do, in case you're somebody who doesn't belong in a classroom.This was also an interesting study in how teachers react to CCSS. In the morning, there was a lot of "Well, this actually seems benign, maybe even helpful" in the room, but the afternoon was more "Wait! What? This is the result? Well, this just doesn't seem right."

Annnnnd we were about done. IU Lady said some more hostessy things which I mostly blocked out, though I did jot down the phrase "really rich and authentic data" because I'm curious about the kind of brain in which that is an actual thing that comes out of CCSS.

Last Dissonance Aside

You may have heard that CCSS (and perhaps your evaluation) really values questions with more than one right answer. We hit that a lot. Also, collaboration is a biggie. And independently researching points that come up in the pursuit of answers. This should be part of what we do all the time. Except when we're taking the high stakes test.

My Last Question

At some point we had circled back around to the idea that you could increase complexity of the DOK level without increasing the level of difficulty of the content. Which I totally dig. But I asked "How do we reconcile that with preparing students for the high stakes test that will increase the level of BOTH?" And there were a lot of words that followed, but none of them added up to an answer. This conundrum still seems to rest on rigorous fairy dust-- we'll get the DOK levels of their brains rigorously ramped up so much that it won't matter that half the vocabulary is unfamiliar to them.

The Second Thing I Did Not Expect

Remember how kids have changed? That came up more than once, in basically a "kids these days" manner. I had never, ever hear this one before, but apparently one of the reasons we need CCSS and DOK levels is that kids these days are helpless and lack initiative. Stine told a story about her child calling to ask "Are we out of butter?" while standing in front of the frige. So, CCSS and rigor. Apparently the CCSS will make kids pull up their pants and get off our lawns.

The Third Thing I Did Not Expect

Remember how I said the state of PA didn't exactly provide the training? Well, that's because the training was sponsored by the folks at Office Depot, who paid our registration fees (160-ish bucks/head). They are corporate partners of the CCI, and two representatives of the company sat in the back of the room all day. At the end, a nice lady from Office Depot told us how important CCSS is and how useful we will find it in our classrooms. And they reminded us that Office Depot could help our schools meet the costs of change by giving them cheaper ways to get supplies. They offered us a swag bag, but I actually forgot to pick it up because I was still wrapping my brain around someone from Office Depot giving me advice on how to do my job.

I was not numb. I've sat through far worse, and there were useful nuggets in this day, including a better understanding of where the CCSS/Testing machine is coming from on some particulars. But still no kool-aid for me.

At the very end we saw an inspiration video about a football coach tricking a kid into doing a death march (crawling on hands and feet with another guy on his back) the full length of a football field. I thought maybe the video would end with the kid collapsing of heat stroke and the coach being fired, but no-- everybody felt better, because in the end you can accomplish really painful, difficult, and pointless tasks if you set your mind to it. It's possible I drew the wrong lesson from the video.


  1. "Remember how kids have changed? That came up more than once, in basically a "kids these days" manner. I had never, ever hear this one before, but apparently one of the reasons we need CCSS and DOK levels is that kids these days are helpless and lack initiative. Stine told a story about her child calling to ask "Are we out of butter?" while standing in front of the frige..."

    At our fall in-service from the Montgomery County IU in Pennsylvania, the instructor also belittled "kids these days." She first spoke about her own kids, as well (Must be suggested in a script) then about how kids "...just didn't have the stamina for the reading passages on the state tests." I spoke up at that point, but was dismayed when several other teachers present jumped on the "kids these days" bandwagon. Walking out to my car afterward I mentioned to a colleague that if we did actually see a difference in "kids these days," perhaps we should consider that middle school students today have not spent a minute in school without No Child Left Behind. If kids ask more questions, don't take chances, can't think out of the box, and don't have a love of reading passages, perhaps it may have something to do with the mandates. He looked at me and said, "You know I hadn't thought of that before." Yep.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing your experiences. It helps.

    1. This "kids these days" thread had slipped right by me, so I'm even more surprised to find it popping up elsewhere. Boomers picking on millennials ?!

  2. Another company looking to cash in on the cash cow called Common Core. Now what the heck does Office Depot know about good standards, assessments or curriculum? NOTHING. They know how to sell office supplies. And they are partnering with CCI in order to score a big contract to supply schools with supplies. Come on people. Look at who is pushing Common Core and look who is against Common Core. That is ALL THE EXPLANATION YOU NEED.

  3. this is the first time I have seen your blog......I love it! I am so much like you. I try to find the 'good' but I am not afraid to point out what others will not mention...the 'bad' about any given bandwagon. thus, I am labeled negative nellie. I just believe that we need to look at all sides of a thing before we accept it. too often teachers blindly drink the koolaid before they analyze the program. I thank you for addressing the elephant in the room.....we ALL need to do that more often and engage in HONEST discourse.....not just repeat the band wagon buzzwords like hypnotized zombies.

    1. Welcome to the blog! I agree that some honest discourse is just the thing. Do spread the word, and while you're here, be sure to check out the other excellent/interesting blogs listed in the right column!

  4. Superb piece. I feel like I was actually there. Of course, I've been to trainings around the incarnation of the Next Big Thing since 1974, so it's all so...familiar.

    The "kids today" thing is evergreen. Remember when kids today had no focus, so they needed Career Education? Or when the classes they picked (the "cafeteria curriculum") were not scoped and sequenced so we went Back to Basics? Response to Intervention was supposed to replace special education. And on and on.

    And of course, there are bits of goodness in all new ideas. If only teachers could use their well-honed judgment and pluck those things away, and use them as they see fit.
    Thanks for one of the best pieces I've read on a complicated subject.