Questioning the conventional wisdom

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The phrase “conventional wisdom” is often an oxymoron, at least in education. At a bare minimum, conventional wisdom ought to be questioned. Which is what I propose to do here about ‘Time on Task’ and the new Common Core standards.

‘Time On Task’ is a concept educators love to talk about. It often goes this way: someone asks about extending the school day and/or the school year, prompting this response: “Good idea, because more time on task produces academic gains.”

Odds are good that what comes next is an emphatic statement about the importance of quality time on task — which strikes me as akin to supporting motherhood and apple pie.

Everyone nods approvingly at this conventional wisdom.

But they have it backwards. It’s not ‘quality time’ that matters so much. It’s ‘quality tasks.’ Anyone who’s spent much time in high school lately knows that much of what goes on there is mind-numbing. It’s the tasks, not the time, that ought to take precedence.

You may have read my earlier comments about creating knowledge, so I won’t rehash them here, except to say that teachers have remarkable opportunities to work with young people on tasks that build their skills and knowledge, tasks that challenge their creativity, and tasks that help them sort through the flood of information that surrounds them 24/7 and turn it into knowledge.

So it’s not ‘quality time on task’ that we should be talking about. Instead, it’s ‘Time on Quality Tasks.’ See that the tasks are meaningful, and we won’t have to worry about time — most students will want to complete quality tasks.

The second example of conventional wisdom that ought to be scrutinized involves the Common Core (national) standards for math and English, which have now been endorsed/adopted by 45 states. Bandwagons in general scare me, and the Common Core bandwagon is moving at high speed, endorsed not just by most states but also by teacher unions and many other education associations. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and I talked about it at our Twitter Town Hall this past Monday, and he was lavish in his praise, while taking extreme care to point out that the federal government had not written these standards.

(However, his Department of Education has thrown a lot of money at this and also made acceptance of ‘higher standards’ one of the four requirements for qualifying for its “Race to the Top” competition. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

Is this a sign that our children should be seeing year-to-year?

The Common Core will be a game-changer, the Secretary asserted. Perhaps they will be, but I have to wonder how many people have actually read them? (The PDFs, available for download at the site linked in the first paragraph above, are quite lengthy.)

One thing is clear: What we have now in public education is unacceptable. It’s a hodgepodge of standards, many quite low because of the ‘dumbing down’ effects of No Child Left Behind. As Robert Rothman makes clear in his valuable new book, Something in Common, America has been wrestling with this issue for years. So I am not arguing for the status quo. However, I am afraid that we are missing an opportunity to re-examine our 19th Century approach to school organization. Let me explain.

Because I taught English in high school and college at the beginning of my career, I have been poking around in the ELA standards (English Language Arts). They are very detailed, by year, and ‘strand’ and category. So be prepared to crack the code, ‘Rl.5.4,’ ‘Rl.9.10.10,’ and so on.

On the subject of ‘Range of reading and level of text complexity,’ by the end of the year, fifth graders are expected to “read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.”

Before you say ‘huh’, read on.

In that same category, this is what’s expected of 9th graders: “By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9–10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.”

“Scaffolding” is educational jargon. Think building blocks. First you learn to add and subtract, then you build on that scaffold and learn to multiply and divide, that sort of thing. An awful lot of learning does NOT occur that way, but that’s probably beside the point here.

Leaving aside the mind-numbing jargon that makes my eyes glaze over, I have a serious issue with the Common Core and the conventional wisdom that these detailed national standards are just what we need. They are pouring concrete around our antiquated, age-segregated approach to learning. Just when modern technologies allow students to move at individual and different speeds, the Common Core standards seem to set in concrete the notions of 5th grade, 6th grade, 7th grade, and so on.

I worry that these markers will become stop signs, just as the grade demarcations now operate. Not long ago I heard a school principal complain that he had to tell his 9th graders to ‘motor down’ to get ready for the 9th grade test — because they were doing 11th grade math. All they will get credit for, naturally, is the 9th grade. Isn’t “Slow Down!” a horrible lesson about the irrationality of the world for those young people to absorb?

Schools work around age segregation by creating programs for ‘the gifted,’ which allow precocious 9-year-olds to do work that’s usually for older kids. Sometimes kids skip a grade, but no one seems to question age- and grade-segregation.

I want to be clear here. I am not arguing for ‘fewer standards,’ something the writers seemed to have anticipated, because they write, “It is important to recognize that ‘fewer standards’ are no substitute for focused standards. Achieving “fewer standards” would be easy to do by resorting to broad, general statements. Instead, these Standards aim for clarity and specificity.”

‘Specificity’ they’ve achieved, but ‘clarity?’ Re-read the excerpts quoted above.

I have a suggestion. Rather than perpetuate grade-based learning, could we set standards for age groups? Standards for children ages 6-10 that say, ‘This is what every 10-year-old is expected to be able to do.’ Standards for kids ages 11-14 that say ‘This is what every 14-year-old is expected to be able to do.’ And graduation standards for those ages 15-18: ‘This is what every HS senior is expected to be able to do before getting a diploma.’ Then our system could actually be learner-centered.

Is that a pipe dream? What do you think?

13 thoughts on “Questioning the conventional wisdom

  1. I think you’ve missed the point entirely. The Common Core ELA standards are really disciplinary literacy standards. The goal was to create a system by which the “reading level” of kids could be tracked all the way into college. Literally making sure they are “college level readers” by the time they graduate.

    That’s why text complexity is so paramount in the Common Core. The analytical tasks students are expected to perform are narrow in scope and don’t change much over the years (increasing gradually in depth and breadth). This is essential to creating a vertically aligned K to 10+ continuum of reading levels.

    So the tests will be computer adaptive assessments that have a bank of texts of varying complexity and small pool of standard questions. As students go through the test it will vary in difficulty to find their level. That’s pretty much it. And then schools will be sold software that will do the same thing on a daily basis, with students able to work on their own reading level. Nothing about this reinforces traditional grouping students by age — it will do the opposite.

    The standards are perverse because they guts the discipline of English and are radically more narrow in scope than any high quality ELA standards used here or abroad. Nobody will even attempt to produce textual evidence to the contrary.


  2. I’ve mentioned before on this blog Larry Cremin’s observation that graded schools reflected nothing more than the contractor and architect of the first graded school in America, the Quincy School in Boston in 1847, who found the space appropriate for eight rooms. The more superstructure added to this kind of age segregation – which my intuition suggests was a Yankee response to the Irish Potato Famine – the sooner it will crumble and its meaninglessness become apparent.

    A few months ago a kid I was mentoring, with a serious reading disability, noted in a soon-to-close Border’s Bookstore a book he’d like to read, so I bought it for him. It was a little thing by Machiavelli called The Prince, and he uses it with some frequency in his classes – in everything from math to science to English and history. He now knows that it’s a book you “use” and not just a book you “read,” and, although it’s not in any of his 12th grade curricula, he’s discovered that, when a teacher asks a messy question, he can get out of it by beginning any answer, in any subject, at any level with “I was looking in Machiavelli the other day, and he suggested….” and filling in the blank with anything he wants to say. The teacher – any teacher – will back away and give him room for anything he wants to do. Great tool.

    The pretentiousness of “core standards” is astounding. Any kid – or parent, or sibling, or enemy – can find anything there, and can jump around at will. It’s the transparency of that pretense which ought to embarrass Duncan and his minions. One would think that they controlled all the access to the internet they once did in controlling library cards. Too late. The horse’s out the barn and the barn door is swingin’ wide. Any kid who wants to can achieve any of those standards whenever they want. Now, some colleges may require 12 years, but most will require whatever it takes to show those standards are achieved and the courses “passed.” (I wonder why so many teachers – and schools, and colleges – really want to subject themselves to the uncomfortable distinctions of courses past, let alone passed.) The thing that scares me is that places like Phoenix and the Post’s own Kaplan will sell their overpriced tuition bills to anybody who can breathe, and now that includes lots of kids who may or may not actually know anything. Test scores mask an awful lot of ignorance, particularly in that marketplace.


  3. The entire idea of national standards (and yes I know that Sec Duncan is keen to refer to them as State standards, but they are operating at a national level – a la 45 states have signed on and you must in order to obtain a NCLB get out of Jail waiver) is a mistake. A set of standards assumes that meaning is stable and context is not (in)forming. Neither is accurate. I’ve written a fair amount about the Common Core. Latest post is here.


  4. Let me comment on the question of ‘conventional wisdom’ rather than on the merits of any one of them; ‘time on task’ or the standards or whatever.

    Orthodoxies really are dangerous. And they do exist.

    In today’s NYTimes the “A Google a Day” question asks what’s the earth’s longest mountain range? The answer: The mid-Atlantic ridge, created by sea-floor spreading.

    Now, that was not always an accepted idea. Even as late as the time I was in grade school the consensus opinion was that there was no such thing as ‘continental drift’. Despite the maps making it look like South America fitted into the west coast of Africa, anyone suggesting such a thing was put down hard. In 1955 Einstein wrote a glowing forward to a book by a geologist ridiculing the notion. In Germany in 1912 Alfred Wegener had suggested the continents moved, but he was a metereologist and geologist did not respect metereologists’ opinion. To account for the movement of animals and people from continent to continent the geologists hypothesized the existence of ‘land bridges’ (since disappeared).

    During World War II Harry Hess ran the depth-finder on his transport ship wherever it was, and found the ocean bottom covered with canyons, trenches and volcanic seamounts. Down the middle of the Atlantic was a canyon 12 miles wide and 12,000 miles long. Hess later wrote a paper suggesting the seafloor was spreading from that canyon. He was ignored. In 1963 a geophysicist at Cambridge University and a Canadian geologist, Lawrence Morley, conclusively demonstrated the seafloor spreading and the continents-in-motion. Morley’s paper was rejected by the editor of the Journal of Geophysical Research who wrote him: “Such speculation makes interesting talk at cocktail parties, but it is not the sort of thing that ought to be published under serious scientific aegis”.

    That was ‘conventional wisdom’ in that field — ultimately corrected.

    There really is ‘conventional wisdom’ in the education-policy discussion, too — about the definition of achievement, about what’s a ‘good school’ or a ‘good education’.There are . . . there’ve always been . . . those who dissent from the consensus. But they’ve been put down, marginalized, in much the way those who early proposed what’s come to be called ‘plate tectonics’ were put down.

    John is right, about ‘conventional wisdom. It really can stand in the way of making progress.


  5. John,

    I’m here in Silicon Valley talking about using some ideas from high tech, and particularly software product development to improve education. Yesterday, I heard a number of talks about “capacity” or how much work individuals and teams can produce over time. For students, this is really just “time on task”.

    Turns out, the research from manufacturing and from studies of personal productivity in many other domains speaks loudly for the necessity of “slack time”. Optimal production doesn’t occur with 100% time on task.

    This degree of effort produces what most folks here refer to as a “death spiral” because there is simply no capacity to deal with the unknown (like having a lot of trouble in geometry when you were a whiz at algebra) or with “demand spikes” (like an unexpectedly large homework load or too many AP classes). Working at 100% capacity means there’s no time to experiment with new ideas that form the foundation of improvement.

    And that means no improvement.

    The consensus here is that about 70% of capacity is ideal for individuals and teams. This gets plenty of work done but also allows plenty of head room for “spikes” and plenty of time for experiments and innovation. This would apply, in my opinion, to both kids and teachers in education.

    Quality time on task — from the vantage point of the folks I heard yesterday — comes from working toward a clear purpose. We don’t have that in school as neither teachers nor students are allowed — because of standards — to develop a true purpose for their work. Being “told” your purpose doesn’t seem to work very well for most people. The most pernicious consequence of this lack of purpose is — you guessed it — time OFF task or time on the WRONG task.

    So there seems to be a fair amount of science about what we need to do about it. But these ideas don’t make it into the school house or behind the classroom door. This is the challenge. And it can only be met by educators themselves.

    In 5-10 years, I think, when we realize that Common Core and new tests weren’t really much better than no core and old tests, we might start looking at all the science outside of education for answers to the questions inside of education.

    In that regard, I think the future is very bright. I am learning so many wonderful ways this week to improve learning and work environments. Furthermore, it’s obvious to me how we could bring these ideas into schools.

    Then issues like “time on task” wouldn’t be issues at all.



  6. I was a little taken aback during my first reading of your post because I see time on task as the best of the best conventional wisdom. Speaking from the perspective of an inner city social studies high school teacher, when your kids are engaged from bell-to-bell, then class isn’t mind numbing. And for me, the goal of 54+ out of a 55 minute class is crucial for creating a team spirit, not to mention pride and self-confidence. And since teens like to question things, why not build on that rock?

    But on rereading, I was satisfied by your provision that, “It’s not ‘quality time’ that matters so much. It’s ‘quality tasks.’” I think I recoiled because I was reacting to the failed experiement of AB Block in the inner city, and how it not only killed time on task, but it made it necessary to “run out the clock” by putting too much stupid “book work” in, thus undercutting authentic instruction.

    I think the common core process is fine, but I can’t conceive of it making a difference in the inner city. Its tough enough persuading teachers of students with elementary skills to teach for mastery not compliance.

    Neither can I conceive of History Standards that are better than the 1990s Standards. The ones that were rejected by 100% of congress (as I recall) were the result of the best efforts of our best historians. Have historians become fundamentally more wise in the last twenty years? And again, regarding History, think of how much more information that needs to be covered now? And that’s even more true in Science. How could it be possible to design standards that keep up with the explosion of knowledge?

    The better approach is professional development to teach teachers to teach more high-quality material and concepts. I notice the new Chicago Consortium study emphasized the need for the teaching of better questioning. At the risk of over-similpfying and again acknowledging my perspective as a social studies teacher, I wish the teacher quality movement had taken the energy they used for data and modeling to fire people and put it into the teaching of better questioning.

    And that get’s you back to time on task. Start a class with a clip from Jon Stewart, ask questions to establish the link to the Standard of the day, listen to kids, read body language and adjust, and Socratic questioning can keep up the momentum from bell to bell every day. Of course, questioning and discussion isn’t enough, but it sure builds a foundation and a tradition.


  7. Time on quality tasks, in my mind, is exactly the point of the education debate. Nearly everything I can think of boils down to time on quality tasks. It brings full circle the issue of accountability–as students get older, they own a greater share of responsibility for their own education, if we are training them right. There is also a direct correlation that much smarter people have drawn between extended days and longer school year where student safety is concerned and that has to do with students who are engaged academic or other school-related enrichment activities are less likely to be involved in drug and/or alcohol abuse, gangs and crime in general, teen sexual activity, etc. They are much more likely to escape poverty. But it can’t just be any extended day or longer year.
    No matter what kids we are talking about, if they are not challenged, given a higher purpose (for lack of a better term), they will gradually find themselves outside the life they might otherwise have had, looking in at what their peers are doing. So, it is more about meaningful connections to learning than minutes or hours. But what number of minutes on a traditional schedule, block schedule or some hybrid is enough? And, at least in Utah, who says that 180 days and 990 hours means anything? These things are seemingly always how non-educators (legislators, governors, etc.) measure their justifications for funding (or not) education and why it becomes so easy to cut back drastically year after year, apparently. With virtual and blended learning models now (significant increases in the past 4-7 years) really making waves in K-12, the idea of time on quality tasks takes on more relevance.

    But it all boils down to what the estimable Ted Kolderie says about how we define the great educational issues of our time. What constitutes a quality school? Or a merely good school? We seem more clear on failure, but what is that we do when a school “fails” kids year after year, regardless of whose pet it may be? And what about that school that is marked for take over that bumps scores up a tiny bit, only to backslide and have a new clock given them before take over is threatened again? Mediocrity multiplied by a short turnaround equals failure, plain and simple. This is not a perspective I’m willing to renegotiate any time soon. My stubbornness on this issue has to do with the fact that we have pumped billions into education in the past 30 years (think of education time marked as BN@R and AN@R–Before or After Nation at Risk). Yet, the most recent 4 years AN@R, we have seen nothing but cut upon cut to district and charter school budgets with no sign that is letting up soon. I’m not suggesting that more money is the answer, but I am stating that money better allocated and “purposed” is critical. And with the desperation of a shrinking teacher pool, the lack of professionally comparable pay means only guys like me gravitate to it. All joking aside, all of these issues are like the finest tongue-n-groove woodworking and lacking the artistry needed, policies and law pin us down by such narrow measures that one wonders if we really do want to solve this dilemma, end the crisis in our schools.

    While no silver bullets exist to slay this hydra-like beast, we know for sure that there are successful tools being used effectively throughout the country in district and charter and private schools as well as in virtual and blended settings and in some homeschooling groups. When the competing voices and schools of thought seem to reject learning from the “other” guys, we show kids that adults are quick to practice double standards in terms of being life-long learners–do as we say, not as we do. That is what makes this forum, this discussion so crucial (great insights and seeds to contemplate in the previous posts), we have our national well-being at stake. No more, no less.

    So back from my 40,000-foot idealistic rant, I believe time on quality tasks will always be preferable to time wasted on personally harmful or societally debilitating activities. These things end up costing us a hell of a lot more than several thousand dollars per year per student. Now, to really dig in and find our collective resolve as a people. Occupying Wall Street won’t yield nearly as much as Occupying our State Offices or Departments of Education or individual Districts or Charter Schools will yield.


  8. I have to say that the greatest pleasure in writing this blog comes not from the writing but from the thoughtful reactions from its readers–an emotion I am feeling in spades this morning as I read what Ted, Steve, John and the others have written.
    I met a prominent educator at a cocktail party last night who said that he reads the blog to stay up with the latest thinking, and it was very clear to me that he was talking about the whole deal, what I guess could be called ‘the dialogue.’
    How do we expand the circle and get more people to join in the dialogue or to read the string of ideas?


  9. I like the points made about quality questioning. I do believe that also we need to instill critical thinking skills. Although that reminds of an old saying, everyone is in favor of critical thinking until it is your thinking they become critical of.

    In addition, it is an important that we develop students who are critical consumers of information. As John so astutely points out, we are bombarded as never before by information and being able to discern the wheat from the chaff is an ever increasing important skill. People often say something like, “you can prove anything with numbers or statistics” or “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ I usually respond, “well you can’t prove it to someone who understands numbers. The lack of understanding of how to consume information critically leads to poor decision making all over society, including in education policy making.


  10. John, I think there is another worry to add to your list of concerns about the Common Core, i.e. centralized control of the curriculum. If you control the framework for the curriculum you control the curriculum it produces. And the Common Core takes a giant step toward consolidating that control in a single federal agency. Maybe the Feds didn’t write the standards but they certainly control them and woe to the state that doesn’t adopt them. I would much rather see the Feds fund educational enterprise centers in every state to allow the states to develop their own approaches to reform. In my view fifty states working on the problem is much better than a single federal bureaucracy. Fifty states competing with each other keeps the process fluid and constantly improving. We live in a competitive world and good ideas will rise to the top because no state can afford to be left behind.


  11. We sat at the same table at this year’s McGraw-Hill Innovation in Education awards dinner at the NY Public Library in late September. Thank you for including me on your e-mail list.

    I’d like to comment on the variable “time on task”. In mathematics education, the phrase seems to have become popular as a result of its significance as an explanatory variable in the 1963-64 IEA international study of mathematics performance (what later became known as FIMS, the first international study of mathematics). Very quickly it was learned through studies in the U.S. that not all “time on task” was equal, and that this had to be “engaged time” rather than “scheduled time”. In recent times, the notion has further been refined to mean, in rough terms, productive time on educative tasks, i.e., time learning rather than just going over old stuff.

    In this regard, a personal note. I play the piano. I took for 8 years as a child, then 1 year in college, and continue to play. I am not a good pianist. I have a daughter who is a professional cellist. She is very good, obviously. I tell her my frustrations that despite all the hours I have spent at the piano, I do not play better. Her response, which I have found to be true, is: “Dad, you play. You don’t practice. Playing is not practicing.” I thought all these years that I was on task, but in fact all I was doing was replaying my errors and, in effect, learning the errors.

    I don’t know what has caused you to view “time on task” as a misguided notion. In my interpretations of the results of international studies of performance in mathematics, where – as you well know – the mean scores in countries such as Singapore, Korea, and Japan have long been significantly higher than those of the U.S. – the researchers have consistently ignored the time that is put in by students outside of school in what are called “juku” in Japan and Korea and “tuition academies” in Singapore. My understanding is that the percent of students who engage in these after-school programs is very high, well above 50%, and that the time put in is considerable, often meeting or exceeding the corresponding time in school on the same subject. Taking that into account makes time on task a more significant variable than the Common Core folks realize, but it also means that there is no way we should expect U.S. students to perform as well as students in these other countries unless we are willing to tolerate a rather significant change in the out-of-school work of students, something I have not seen anyone call for. (The “no homework” movement goes in the other direction.)

    While these after-school activities are formal experiences, we cannot discount the informal experiences. A child who is in a home in which two languages are spoken can learn both languages; there is a significant amount of time-on-task there. My daughter has had some of the best cello instruction in the country but that would not have paid off without the very large amount of time she spent practicing.

    In sum, I agree that “time” is not a sufficient variable in educational performance, nor even that “time on task” is sufficient, but it seems to me that meaningful engaged time-on-task is in some sense necessary.



  12. By the time FDR took office, soldiers were camped out near the White House demanding jobs and benefits. There was a massive “run” on the banks. People came and withdrew their money, which banks don’t have, it’s been loaned. So banks “called” mortgages like they could do then, demanded repayment. Which they didn’t get so they gw2 gold


  13. What a thoughtful blog post! I stumbled upon it only today, so please excuse my tardiness to the conversation.

    My response is to the last few paragraphs, regarding standards becoming stop signs, rather than goals. I got so excited when I read your two paragraphs about allowing kids to not have to slow down. And then I was so unhappy when I read your suggestion for how to remedy the situation, of making standards age-based.

    In the one-room school house, there was a curriculum, and when a student had completed it, they were graduated. I’m sure it didn’t always work out quite that way, but the concept was certainly there. For students who were not in a school, but learned with personal tutors, the education always followed the speed of the student. A well-known example of a “quick student” was Thomas Jefferson who began college at William & Mary when he was 16. And he spent but two years there, before going on to study law. An age-based curriculum would not have produced the Thomas Jefferson who became our president.

    I say that we should, indeed, have grade-based standards, however, we should allow students to flow through the grades at their own pace. Age standards would put a complete and utter stop to students who are ahead of the curve. There’s pretty good research to suggest that we ought not push the not-yet-reading student ahead in courses requiring reading, and there’s a wealth of research to support allowing a student who wants to fly through math curriculum at high speed. Why not let a student do both, if that suits them?

    My own pipe dream for educational standards, would be to allow the differentiation between subjects, and when a student has succeeded in that subject at a particular level of mastery, allow them to move forward. Call it a “threaded curriculum.” In this way, the student who needs more time to learn to write an essay, will not be held back from learning calculus, for example. The reality is, that the vast majority of students will follow in the grades as they were set up, because they were set up to address academic commonalities.

    In a threaded curriculum, no child would be left behind, nor would any be held back. Sure, allow for some kind of minimum developmental standards, to raise a red flag when a child needs special help. But the rest of the “standards” should be goals, which kids ought to be able to attain at their own pace, assuming they are putting in the time on task. (We can argue what those tasks ought to be some other time!) That way, the 6-year-old who can do mental double-digit addition, won’t be asked to complete sheets and sheets of double-digit addition on paper, at the age of 8, and the 11-year-old who has completed geometry, will be allowed to go on to algebra 2, even if producing an essay is still a skill not mastered.

    Pipe dream?


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