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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Common Core...It Could Happen to You!

I am beginning to understand what Horace Greeley meant when he said, “common sense is an uncommon thing.” When you put it in the context of Common Core, it becomes a very uncommon thing.

It has become my mission to reach the masses regarding the truth about education in Texas. What I have learned through this process is that there many who abandoned common sense for fear. I feel it is important to honor the opinions of all Texans who care about public education. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. However, everyone is not entitled to their own truth. While there may be different interpretations of the truth, the truth is absolute.

Education, like many applied sciences, has disputable matters- things on which we can agree to disagree. For example, it is my opinion that all students should learn 21st century skills to prepare them for today's workforce. There are other educators that believe students should only experience rote instruction. While I respectfully disagree (based on my own experience and research), I honor their right to that opinion. If we are ever going to achieve a constructive dialogue about education in Texas we must separate fact from opinion.

The first area where we have to separate fact from opinion is with educational standards. Standards are absolute. They are written in stone and available to all. Consider a standard by its definition - a required level of quality or attainment. The requirements must be clear to achieve the level of quality prescribed in the standard. Our standards in Texas (the TEKS) define the level of content and skills students must attain or achieve at each grade level. The Common Core Standards, though not appropriate for Texas, also prescribe the content and skills to be achieved at each grade level. Love them or hate them, have any opinion you want about them, the fact is: they are standards. They are absolute. How they are implemented is a disputable matter.

Unfortunately, when fear mongers create their own truth we all lose. I have seen a handful of bloggers twist the truth to incite fear for their own monetary gain. They will abandon the context and make outlandish claims for their own purposes. They write in innuendo and make ambiguous generalizations, much like I have in the last few sentences.

For example, there have been several national education conferences in Texas. They come here because Texas is a great model for public education. But, when you consider there are 44 states that use Common Core standards, it would be common sense that there will be sessions on how to implement Common Core at a national conference. Does that mean that there is a plot to bring Common Core to Texas?

In another example, there are several national companies that do business with schools in Texas. They also do business with schools in the 44 states that have adopted Common Core. If a school does business with them, have they suddenly adopted their own standards and are now using Common Core?

In an effort to show how ridiculous this is, I am going to use the logic adopted by these fear mongers to show that even they could be accused of advocating the Common Core standards. First, I must tell you that I don't really believe that these bloggers are advocates of Common Core; these are just heuristic examples.

Donna Garner, when not chasing windmills, is a blogger and activist who contributes to a website ( that sells advertising. One of the advertisers is LearningRx, a national company that helps struggling students.

Here is an advertisement from LearningRx:

Read this information from Terri Clark, the owner of LearningRX:

"The purpose of this transition is the development of a common core of standards across the nation, using the most advanced research to prepare students for success in college and in their chosen careers. This initiative, led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with input from teachers, parents, school administrators and experts from across the country, will establish a single set of clear educational standards from kindergarten through grade 12.
These standards will promote equity for all students, no matter their location, to collaborate and compete with others in the U.S. and abroad. Collaboration across state lines allows for ease in the development of teaching materials, assessments and teacher-support tools. While the Common Core Standards establish what needs to be learned, individual states, districts, schools and teachers will determine best practices. These best practices will not be tested until the school year 2014-2015, when the Common Core Assessment will be completed..." Click here to read more.

If you abandon common sense you might conclude that Donna Garner supports Common Core because she writes for a website that advertises for proponents of Common Core. They are, after all, paying them for space on the blog.

The same can be said for Meryl Hope and Breitbart News, a blogger who uses a "news" template to report circular logic. She also sales advertising space on her site. Two universities advertise on her site, Walden University and Liberty University.

Walden University literally offers courses on how to implement Common Core:

Here is post from the Liberty University website:

An excerpt from this post: 

Again, when I abandon all reason, I can only conclude that Meryl Hope as Breitbart News is supporting Common Core implementation by monetizing a website.

I give you these examples as a warning: Beware! Common Core could happen to you! Teachers are being vilified for using educational resources that have things like Common Core Aligned stamped at the bottom. Let's assume the best intentions and all come together to tell the truth about education. Let's all use common sense, even when it is a very uncommon thing.
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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why Schools Need Curriculum: A Baseball Parable

There once was a young boy who loved baseball. He woke up every morning early just to watch Sports Center. He watched the Astros every chance he got and knew the statistics for every player. His father took notice of his son’s obsession. Though they had no money, the father was determined to get his son a baseball glove. One day he stopped by a garage sale in the neighborhood and found a tattered baseball, a worn out glove, and a crooked tee. He brought them home to his son and they enjoyed a nice game of catch.

The young boy loved his new gift. Every day he would go to the local park, set up his tee and ball, and practice his swing. On the first day he hit the ball 10 feet. The second day he hit the ball 20 feet. The third day he hit the ball 30 feet. The fourth day he hit the ball 30 feet. The fifth day, 30 feet. He became discouraged because he was not improving. He would watch his favorite players to see how he could improve his swing. But, no matter what he did, he could not hit that ball beyond 30 feet.

One day the young boy was at the local park practicing when one of the neighborhood girls walked up to the young boy. She had a pink bat, pink glove, pink helmet, and a shiny pink ball. She asked the young boy if she could practice with him. He reluctantly agreed and went to the pitcher’s mound with low expectations of how far this girl could hit the ball. The young girl put her ball on the tee, reared back and hit the ball over the young boy’s head. As he made the long walk back to retrieve the ball, he ran through several scenarios in his mind to avoid having to step up to the tee, hit the ball 30 feet, and feel the humiliation of being defeated by the young girl. Instead of faking a cramp or pretending that his mom was calling him home, he decided he was going to give it a try. He made the walk of shame up to the tee, put the shiny pink ball on the tee, said a small prayer, closed his eyes, and swung with all his might. The ball launched off the tee like a pink frozen rope, over the head of the young girl and over the outfield fence. Tears filled his eyes as he rounded first base, then second, then third. Finally, he slid into home plate for a world series style celebration.

So what did the boy do differently that he is now able to hit a homerun? The truth is, the boy was able to hit a homerun the whole time. He wasn’t hitting the ball wrong. He was hitting the wrong ball.

The same is true in education. We have incredibly talented teachers that do all the right things to hit it out of the park everyday. But, without curriculum, they are hitting the wrong ball. Curriculum takes the standards that hold school districts accountable and provides them with a scope and sequence to meet the standards through instruction. Curriculum is the ball. Instruction is the swing. And, the state assessment is the outfield fence. It doesn’t matter how great the instruction is if you don’t have the right curriculum, just like it doesn’t matter how good your swing is if you have the wrong ball.
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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Who is Marzano, and Why is He In Our Schools?

I saw a blog article recently that made this claim: “Robert Marzano shows schools how to implement common core. If schools are using any Marzano programs they are using Common Core instruction materials.” I think it is important that Texans understand who Marzano is and why successful schools implement his research findings.

Robert Marzano wrote a book in 2001, long before Common Core,  entitled Classroom Instruction that Works.  It is important to know that the research behind the book is not traditional original research. It is a much more powerful synthesized research called “meta-analysis.” Marzano describes meta-analysis as a summary, or synthesis, of relevant research findings. It looks at all of the individual studies done on a particular topic and summarizes them. For decades, classroom instruction has been cursed by “fads” and not scientific research. The need for meta-analysis was first addressed in the 1986 publication by the U.S. Department of Education entitled What Works: Research About Teaching and Learning (U.S. Department of Education, 1986). In a preface to that report, then President Reagan wrote, "In assembling some of the best available research for use by the American public, What Works exemplifies the type of information the Federal government can and should provide." This was the beginning of quality research for public schools and the foundation for Marzano’s research.

In Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement, Robert Marzano (2001) and his colleagues identified nine instructional strategies through a meta-analysis of over 100 independent studies. They determined that these nine strategies have the greatest positive effect on student achievement for all students, in all subject areas, at all grade levels. I can’t imagine that anyone, educator or not, would be surprised to see some of these strategies. Most of them are common sense. For example, Homework and Practice has a great impact on student achievement. I think the response of most sensible people would be “duh.” But, there are bloggers who claim that using the strategies in Marzano’s research is akin to indoctrinating your children into a Marxist philosophy. When I abandon all reason, I think this claim is related to the strategy Cooperative Learning. Bloggers have associated cooperative learning with Lev Vygotsky, a Marxist who developed a learning theory commonly used in education. For more about this learning theory, please read my previous article on project based learning:

Now, let’s address the claim that anyone who uses Marzano programs are using Common Core instruction materials. It is absolutely accurate that Marzano authored a book entitled Using Common Core Standards to Enhance Classroom Instruction & Assessment. Here is a description of the book:

“Discover how to weave an in-depth understanding of the Common Core into successful classroom practice with this two-part resource. You’ll learn how to power the standards with guided assessment and measure student progress in a way that accurately reflects learning. Included are hundreds of ready-to-use, research-based proficiency scales for both English language arts and mathematics.”

This book would not be very useful in Texas. But, when you consider that 44 states have adopted common core, it would not be surprising to find a nationally renowned education author would write a book to address the common core standards. Marzano’s book is about understanding the Common Core standards and successfully meeting those standards through high quality instruction. It is not about a Common Core philosophy of instruction. There is no Common Core philosophy, because Common Core standards are just that: standards. Please read my previous article about Common Core in Texas:

I would not be surprised to find that states using Common Core are also using Marzano’s strategies any more than I would be surprised to find out that most of the people in those states brush their teeth. You see, research supports that brushing your teeth is good for them. Research also supports that using the strategies outlined by Marzano are good for classroom instruction.

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Friday, May 9, 2014

What is Project Based Learning and Should I Be Afraid?

I have had a lot of questions about Project Based Learning lately, and I feel like I should address some of the common myths circulating around Texas. If your school district is implementing Project Based Learning, do not be afraid. There is nothing new under the sun, and Project Based Learning is no exception. First, I will explain Project Based Learning and then I will address each myth separately. I would also encourage you to post any questions you may have in the comment section and I will gladly address any concerns you may have.

The following is an explanation of Project Based Learning (PBL) from The Buck Institute at

Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge. Essential Elements of PBL include:

• Significant Content - At its core, the project is focused on teaching students important knowledge and skills, derived from standards and key concepts at the heart of academic subjects.
• 21st century competencies - Students build competencies valuable for today’s world, such as problem solving, critical thinking/problem solving, collaboration, communication, and creativity/innovation, which are explicitly taught and assessed.
• In-Depth Inquiry - Students are engaged in an extended, rigorous process of asking questions, using resources, and developing answers.
• Driving Question - Project work is focused by an open-ended question that students understand and find intriguing, which captures their task or frames their exploration.
• Need to Know - Students see the need to gain knowledge, understand concepts, and apply skills in order to answer the Driving Question and create project products, beginning with an Entry Event that generates interest and curiosity.
• Voice and Choice - Students are allowed to make some choices about the products to be created, how they work, and how they use their time, guided by the teacher and depending on age level and PBL experience.
• Critique and Revision - The project includes processes for students to give and receive feedback on the quality of their work, leading them to make revisions or conduct further inquiry.
• Public Audience - Students present their work to other people, beyond their classmates and teacher.

In laymen’s terms, PBL is an instructional strategy that leverages the important skills that our students will need to work in today’s economy. Unlike educational “fads” of the past, today’s schools are actually improving what they do based on research. Not just any research, synthesized research (studies that pull together the results of research from several sources over several years). PBL has been studied over the last 40 years and the results are in: it is absolutely the best way for students to retain what they have learned and apply it in another environment. It is also the best way to get students engaged and excited about learning. For more information on the research behind PBL, follow this link:

Let’s take each myth separately to help relieve any fear you may have regarding PBL in your district.

MYTH: If students are in a PBL classroom, they will not longer learn basic facts or spelling.

TRUTH: Basic facts are a very necessary component of PBL or any instructional approach. However, it may not look like it did when we were in school. For example, the flash cards we used to learn our basic math facts, looked like this:

Today’s flash cards, developed from researched best practices, often look like this:

This approach allows students to begin to understand the relationships between numbers. Not only do they learn the facts, but they also use critical thinking to determine the relationship between the numbers. The goal is to begin preparing them for algebra while building their basic facts.

Spelling is also taught in a contextual way. But, it is very important that teachers who use Project Based Learning still give spelling tests and assess a student’s mastery of basic facts.

MYTH: Project Based Learning is just group projects and students just receive group grades.

FACT: Students in a PBL environment are subject to group accountability (group grades) and individual accountability (individual grades). Well-designed PBL units ensure that the state standards are mastered. To ensure this happens, teachers must assess learning throughout the project. A true PBL unit will never have just one group grade at the end of the project. The teacher will have to check for understanding as the unit progresses and make sure the unit was designed so the students, at an individual level, will have to master the standards to complete the project. Students still take tests, they still complete homework, and they still have direct instruction from the teacher. In other words, students will be measured on their individual achievement. Common sense will tell you that it would be impossible to teach a student a new concept, like finding the mean of a data set, without instruction. In fact, highly functional PBL classrooms have more explicit instruction and structure than traditional classrooms. Without it, PBL would not be successful. For more information on how students are graded in PBL and the structure of PBL classrooms, visit For an explanation of how PBL differs from projects, visit

MYTH: Project Based Learning is a Common Core philosophy.

FACT: Project Based Learning cannot be a Common Core philosophy by definition. Common Core is a set of standards; they cannot be curriculum or instruction. They cannot be a philosophy outside of what is written on the document listing the standards (please read my previous article on Common Core in Texas: With that said, there are school districts that use Common Core that also use Project Based Learning. There are also several districts that use Common Core that use traditional methods of instruction.

MYTH: Project Based Learning is a Marxist philosophy used to indoctrinate our children to be liberal minded. (There are other versions of this myth, like Communist philosophy, pro-Muslim philosophy, United Nations plot, Benghazi cover-up plot).

FACT: I think the idea that PBL is a Marxist philosophy originates from the idea that Lev Vygotsky was a Marxist; therefore his learning theories must be Marxist. If there are other ideas, please share them.

There is no question that Lev Vygotsky believed in the Marxist philosophy. However, fear mongers either don’t know or fail to mention that he did not agree with Marx in regards to learning theory. In fact, he challenged Marx’s ideas in psychology and rejected the idea of studying psychology as philosophy and insisted it be studied as a science (Click here to read an article that includes Vygotsky’s own writings on the matter: ).

So, how is Vygotsky’s research used in education? First, I will provide a basic explanation, then an education explanation. Vygotsky believed in social learning (don’t panic, it is not socialism). Here is a basic example of how we learn socially:

When you were born, you were not able to understand, much less speak, any language. How is it that you are now able to understand language? It is because of your surroundings. The reason you speak English (if it is your first language) is because everyone around you spoke English. You didn’t randomly begin to speak French in an English environment. It makes since that we learn from those around us.

Let’s take this idea a step further. Vygotsky stated that a child follows an adult's example and gradually develops the ability to do certain tasks without help. This theory is called the Zone of Proximal Development. Here is a graphic to describe the theory:

Here is an example of how this is applied in education:

A student is able to perform simple addition when working with a teacher or parent, but is frustrated when performing the task alone. By guiding the student to use tools and strategies, and by asking questions about why he/she is using each tool or strategy, the student is able to fortify knowledge and eventually add independently.

The bottom line is this: Project Based Learning is an instructional strategy that seeks to use researched best practices to help children learn. There are no Communist plots. It was around a long time before Barak Obama, Bill Ayers, and Linda Darling-Hammond and several other liberals believed to be behind its development. Teachers, who are primarily conservative in Texas, are not involved in an elaborate plot to indoctrinate your children into any liberal agenda. I am not surprised to see that liberal educators use Project Based Learning any more than I would be surprised to see them at Whataburger. It’s good stuff. But, just because a liberal eats at Whataburger and you eat there too doesn’t make you a liberal. It just means you have good taste.

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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Is there Common Core in Texas? Yes, but not in the way you might think.

First, I think it is important to explain state standards and how they are used. Every state in the United States has established essential standards to be met in their public schools. Texas has determined that our schools will meet the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or TEKS. The Texas State Board of Education, an elected entity that provides governance over our public schools, adopts these standards. These standards are measured by assessments. In Texas they are measured by the STAAR/EOC assessments administered to our students yearly. This is often referred to as “accountability.” Accountability ensures that the state standards are implemented in our local schools. Most educators agree that it is important to have accountability. However, there is much discussion about the current system. Needless to say, that would be another article for another time.

Second, it is important to understand the relationship between standards and curriculum. Curriculum is the content that will be taught in the classroom. The standards are the framework that the curriculum is built on. For example, the standard would be: The student is expected to compare and order non-negative rational numbers. The curriculum might be a two-week unit on numerical reasoning that addresses all of the key concepts, the product that would show the evidence of learning, and specific expectations of what comparing and ordering non-negative numbers would include.

Finally, it is important to understand the relationship between curriculum and instruction. The curriculum is WHAT is taught. Instruction is HOW the curriculum is taught. Instruction includes using the curriculum to determine your content goals and collecting resources, like textbooks, to deliver the content in an organized and meaningful way to help your students master the content. Understanding the distinction between the two will go a long way in understanding the Common Core State Standards.

Now that you understand state standards, let’s explore the Common Core Standards and their relationship to the Texas standards (TEKS). It came to pass that several states were falling way behind in academic achievement. Several of these states decided to adopt common standards that were more rigorous than their current standards. However, Texas already had rigorous standards and decided to keep our standards (TEKS). It may or may not have been good for these states to adopt common standards and it really doesn’t matter in this discussion.

The general myth is that there is Common Core in Texas. On its face, this is not true. Texas has not adopted the Common Core State Standards in any way. We have kept our own state standards. However, there are several areas where the TEKS and the Common Core Standards overlap. Let me present to you a common sense approach to understanding how this could happen.

When your child or grandchild goes to 1st Grade in Texas, they generally have the same background knowledge as 1st Grade students in other states that have the same socio-economic background. So, it would probably not surprise you that the TEKS and Common Core are very similar in their standards. Here is an example:

The Common Core Standard: CC 1.OA.3 - Apply properties of operations as strategies to add and subtract. Example: Examples: If 8 + 3 = 11 is known, then 3 + 8 = 11 is also known. (Commutative property of addition.) To add 2 + 6 + 4, the second two numbers can be added to make a ten, so 2 + 6 + 4 = 2 + 10 = 12. (Associative property of addition.). [Students need not use formal terms for these properties.]

The TEKS: TX 5.E - The student is expected to: identify patterns in related addition and subtraction sentences (fact families for sums to 18) such as 2 + 3 = 5, 3 + 2 = 5, 5 - 2 = 3, and 5 - 3 = 2.

Though these standards are not exactly alike, they could reasonably be accomplished with similar curriculum and resources, like textbooks. The instruction would be a little different in a Common Core classroom vs. a Texas classroom, because the Texas classroom would be accountable for the Texas standards. Even more, you would not be surprised to see a practice sheet that would address both of these standards.

Though the above practice sheet would be considered aligned with the Common Core, it would also be considered aligned with the TEKS. It addresses both of the standards.

Here is the problem. Fear mongers have taken resources used to address the TEKS that are also aligned with the Common Core and shouted from the mountaintops that teachers are using Common Core in Texas. The TRUTH is: the Common Core is in Texas only as much as it is in our TEKS. Which, by the way, is a lot. In fact, 68% of the math Common Core and math TEKS align at some point. But, please don’t take my word for it. Don’t take anyone’s word for it. Here is a link to the Renaissance Learning spreadsheet that shows the alignment between the Common Core Standards and the TEKS for Math and Reading:

I hope this helps explain Common Core in Texas and I hope you will help put this myth to rest. Unfortunately, those who hope to destroy public education in Texas will often go into denial when they hear this truth. In fact, I have even heard some say that Common Core is not just a set of standards, it is a communist plot that seeks to indoctrinate our students into some elaborate liberal blah, blah, blah. My response is: Nope, Common Core Standards are just that, standards. Any conspiracies must now be directed toward curriculum and instruction, but not standards. If this article helped you to better understand the Common Core in Texas, please share with others that may benefit from knowing a little more.
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Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself

I feel obliged to introduce myself and the purpose of this blog. I am Cathy Moak. I am an educator. I have over 20 years of education experience, including teaching at the elementary, middle school, and college level. My passion for teaching has led me into many different experiences in education, including writing and aligning curriculum, technology integration, digital learning, instructional best practices, behavior management, professional development and project based learning. I work at The University of Texas at Austin, but I do not represent them in this blog. I am proud of the work I do. I am in a unique position to help teachers and administrators grow professionally.

I tell you all this so you will know that my motives are pure. I have no political ambitions, although my husband serves on our local school board. I am a Christian. I love our constitution. I support our troops. I simply love what I do and those I serve. 

I started this blog to dispel common myths (and outright lies) about education in Texas. There are fear mongers who are using these myths in an effort to destroy education in Texas. I don’t really understand their motives, but their rhetoric has made its way into our communities. I decided it is time that someone told the truth about education in Texas.
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