Monday, December 29, 2014

Jason Zimba: The Other Guy

NPR just ran a piece courtesy of the Hechinger report profiling Jason Zimba. If David Coleman is widely known as the Architect of Common Core, Zimba is That Other Guy who worked on Common Core, handling the math side of things. He never quite achieved the profile of David Coleman, but he's been right there every step of the way.

Zimba has always seemed to me (and I should note that all of my impressions of reformsters are based on twelfth-hand information from reading and youtubing and who knows, if I were actually to sit in a room with David Coleman, I might find him pleasant and personable and not at all possessed of a huge helping of hubris) to be somewhat more human than Coleman, but I've paid less attention to him because math is not my area of expertise. It's hard to sort these guys out; some, like Coleman, seem to have sought out the work propelled by sheer ego, while others seem to have just blundered into the reform biz without really understanding what they were doing.

The profile by Sarah Garland really wants us to see Zimba as a human being. It opens with a scene to remind us that he has children, and that the older one attends a public school, where Common Core is used. "I would be sleeping in if I weren't frustrated," says Zimba, speaking of his Saturday morning extra math lessons for his daughter to make up for what's lacking in the public school. He is apparently also frustrated by how Common Core is playing out in schools across the country.

Common Core was supposed to fuel a revolution. It was supposed to drive improvements in curricula and materials. It would push for excellence and provide the yardstick to measure progress toward that mountain of math awesometude. That was all its creators wanted, and while they knew it would be tough, they were surprised by the pushback.

"The creation of the standards is enshrouded in mystery for people," Zimba says. "I wish people understood what a massive process it was, and how many people were involved. It was a lot of work."

Well, yes. It was shrouded in mystery on purpose. In fact, it was shrouded in mysteries that were wrapped in lies about the involvement of classroom teachers and international benchmarks. But Garland says that the math standards were essentially written by three guys, and not for the first time, I'm reading an account that echoes those SF movies where scientists don't realize that their purely scientific experiment is actually going to be used as a weapon for evil.

"It was a design project, not a political project," says Phil Daro, a former high school algebra teacher who was on the three-man writing team with Zimba and William McCallum, head of the math department at the University of Arizona. "It was not our job to do the politics while we were writing."

I've written about McCallum before, a sad scientist who simply didn't and doesn't grasp the context of CCSS, the way it plays out in the real world, and the motivation of the people powering it. We just built the bomb for good. We never intended it to be used against humans, so humans should not be upset when they get blown up.

Zimba's humble early trajectory wouldn't suggest that he was headed for this kind of government work, but when at Oxford, he "befriended" David Coleman, and in 1999 the two hooked up again to tinker with the idea of an education consulting firm. They started Grow Network, a company that produced reports to help districts and states make sense of the new NCLB test results. "Zimba had a genius for creating reports that were mathematically precise but also humanely phrased, Coleman says." That's striking all by itself; I can't tell you how much of Coleman I've read, and how very rarely he acknowledges the value of any other person's work. Grow was bought out by McGraw-Hill and Coleman and Zimba headed in semi-separate directions. Zimba ended up teaching at Bennington (in Vermont-- there's a great monument there worth visiting) where Coleman's mother was president.

Together they wrote a paper in 2007 addressing the issue of many (maybe too many) standards for math across the states. It was the right paper at the right time. Shortly thereafter, in this squeaky-clean NPR version of history, when the CCSSO and NGA decided to tackle standards, "Coleman and Zimba were picked to help lead the effort." Can't help feeling we've skipped an awful lot of insider history right there. But Student Achievement Partners were formed and given a mountain of money to get to work.

"We were looking for a skill set that was fairly unique," says Chris Minnich, executive director of CCSSO. "We needed individuals that would know the mathematics — Jason and the other writers obviously know the mathematics — but would also be able to work with the states, and a bunch of teachers who would be involved."

That's a fun quote. Particularly the "bunch of teachers" part. Does it suggest that Coleman was on board primarily for his shmoozing abilities?

At this point, Garland's grasp of history gets even slipperier. We do get the inspiring story of Zimba and McCallum working long hours, slaving over the standards in the garage (just like Bill Gates starting Microsoft). She notes again that he was human, with a life and a family and a day job, spiced up with a story of some colleague telling him to stop texting about standards stuff while his second daughter was being born.

During the course of the next year, they consulted with state officials, mathematicians and teachers, including a union group. Draft after draft was passed back and forth over email.

"Consulting." Great word. Then the final standards were released in 2010. Garland notes that "by the following year" forty states adopted them; she does not note that many adopted them before they were written, though she does note that adoption happened "thanks in part to financial incentives dangled by the Obama administration" which is kind of like saying I paid my mortgage payments thanks in part to a Keeping My House incentive dangled by my bank.

Garland's timeline for the resistance to CCSS is even debatable. She marks the pushback to 2013 and the wave of CCSS test results. She says resistance didn't enter the mainstream until this year, when a father's posting about CCSS homework went viral and Glen Beck picked it up, followed by ridicule from Louis C. K. and Stephen Colbert. Which is about the most truncated history of Common Core opposition I've ever read.

Now CCSS allies are trying to salvage the cause by calling for testing delays. But the writers are just puzzled by all the fuss.

"When I see some of those problems posted on Facebook, I think I would have been mad, too," McCallum says. Daro tells a story about his grandson, who brought home a math worksheet labeled "Common Core," with a copyright date of 1999.
They argue there's actually very little fuzziness to the math in the Common Core. Students have to memorize their times tables by third grade and be able to do the kind of meat-and-potatoes problems Zimba asks of his daughter during their Saturday tutoring sessions, requirements he believes the so-called Common Core curriculum at her school essentially ignored.

In other words, they wrote it right, but everybody is reading it incorrectly.We built the bomb for Good. We do not understand why people are being blown up with it.

Even as Zimba and his colleagues defend the standards against cries of federal overreach, they are helpless when it comes to making sure textbook publishers, test makers, superintendents, principals and teachers interpret the standards in ways that will actually improve American public education, not make it worse.

All of this has pushed Zimba to a new conclusion, a new crusade, a new battle.

These days, Zimba and his colleagues acknowledge better standards aren't enough.
"I used to think if you got the assessments right, it would virtually be enough," he says. "In the No Child Left Behind world, everything follows from the test."
Now, he says, "I think it's curriculum."

Yes, the problem is that we didn't build a powerful enough bomb. If we built a bigger bomb, then it would be used the correct way. 

It is hard not to see these guys as hopelessly naive about How Things Work, about the implications of the work they were doing. I sympathize in part-- when he claims that publishers are mucking up the works by using CCSS to market any old crap lying around the warehouse, I don't disagree, but at the same time, dude, what did you think they were going to do with the bomb once you had finished building it?? You may have thought you were building an instrument of peace and wisdom and growth, but you should have paid better attention to the people who were signing your checks and collecting your work, because this is exactly what they wanted it for.

All three are trying to fix it. McCallum has some little start-up you've never heard of to make math apps. Daro is writing a complete math curriculum for Pearson, presumably because, you know, the politics and business are not his problem. Zimba's trying to work on it, too. None of them seem to see their own hand in the mess that is now choking public education. Granted, I see all of these characters through the smudgy lens of various journalists, but I keep feeling as if Coleman knows exactly what he's doing, but The Other Guys don't really get it. They don't see the battlefield because they are only focused on the bomb.

Zimba does not pick up the lesson that he now realizes that he was wrong back when he thought the standards would fix everything, so maybe he's wrong again now that he thinks national curriculum is the answer. And he doesn't seem to have any sense of the moral or ethical implications of trying to rewrite the education system for everybody part time in his garage-- did nobody at any point say, "Gee, for a project this massive, maybe there's a better way and other people who should be involved." While he seems to lack the strutting ballsiness of Coleman, he still must have the hubris required to think, "Yeah, I could write the math guidelines for every student in the country."


  1. Of course curriculum is their answer to the standards that aren't curriculum, they already sold us their standards, curriculum = corrupiculum, the next big sales job. Funny how there is no mention that the standards are flawed, inappropriate and can't be revised. Writing curriculum that matches flawed standards will only produce flawed products, but they don't care, spin & rebrand is their game.

  2. Read the article yesterday and love your analysis. I was also struck by the cluelessness shown by Zimba. I've seen it often when someone specialized in one thing (and successful usually) attempts something far from their skill set then is amazed when they fail. It's common in business. And, apparently, common among ed reformers.

    So my primary take away from the article is this: How can these reformers continue to maintain the hubris to believe they can, in the stroke of a pen, radically improve something that the best (and most insightful) minds in history have struggled with and developed over several millennia?

    It boggles the mind.

  3. Just a few comments from someone with more math expertise than Daro, and more education experience than any of them: first, Common Core math, at the high school level, (1) ends in exactly the same place -- "no net gain" of material not formerly covered by all schools everywhere; and (2) contains NO concept coverage that everyone everywhere hasn't been doing forever; and (3) pushes, inexplicably, material further down into the elementary grades, for no coherent reason, only to end up in the same place as noted in (1) above; and (4) is very badly organized, hard to follow and "hard work" to rewrite it for yourself so it is something you CAN teach with; and (5) contains some fairly serious omissions -- and some things that it's hard to be sure if the authors intended to omit them or not given the confusion and ambiguity with which they're written, but which are things which at least my state's higher ed people have said they definitely want kids to know....
    I am serving on the rewrite secondary math committee in Missouri -- of course, math is math, so that everything in Common Core was in our standards before, and everything that will be in our new standards was also [probably] in Common Core before (see earlier comment re the ambiguity and general lack of cohesion of Common Core math), but what we will end up with will be written in a way that ordinary teachers (and parents) can understand it....
    And to paraphrase and up-end a famous Common Core "talking point" -- I am still waiting for a single Common Core promoter to SHOW ME ONE THING that is a "concept" or "deep concept" in math that hasn't been taught, literally, forever....

  4. I had the opportunity to go to Japan this past summer and see how mathematics is taught there. For one thing, they have a long tradition of using "Lesson Study" to basically do research in the classroom. In Japan you are considered a novice teacher for the first 10 years and there are only about 6 textbook companies whose curricula are very similar. The amount of conversation about the development of mathematical understanding is built from the ground up, rather than from university backwards like we do here. The system is very coherent and their mathematics teaching is predicated on problem solving. What's funny is that much of the research they used to build their philosophies is American research (John Dewey) was quoted by several administrators who spoke to us.
    One of the overarching goals there is to give students problems that they are eager to solve. I was very impressed and I wish we had actually adopted some of those systems rather than claiming (Daro will cite Japanese mathematics teaching, but I don't really see that translated into the hear of CCSS) that we do.
    Anyway, while there may be noted aspirations to this kind of schooling, there would have to be a will to create that without the testing piece.

  5. Great post about Zimba, Daro etal

    Regarding the Japanese math education system - I read a great article about the Juku or "cram school" system in Japan (think Kumon).

    From reading this I get the impression that the Japanese math teachers simply assume that the students will be both learning and practicing their skills at the juku and thus have the luxury of focusing almost exclusively on fairly high level conceptual problem solving in the public school setting.