Dr. Jane F. Schielack has served as associate dean for assessment and preK-12 education in the Texas A&M University College of Science since 2006, roughly the same time battle lines were being drawn across the country between pure mathematicians and mathematics educators in a long-simmering debate over direct instruction versus discovery learning better known as the U.S. Math Wars.

Back then, Schielack led the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) writing team that settled the score by developing focal points designed to guide curricula to better prepare U.S. elementary and middle school students for high school and eventual careers in science and education. The work became the underpinning for the Common Core State Standards, a much-maligned and just as commonly misunderstood, according to Schielack, effort to improve U.S. mathematics education. So common that NCTM even developed a myths-versus-facts video.

Present day, Schielack continues to call them as she sees them from her vantage point in what could be described as the sweet spot of the ultimate Venn diagram -- the interface between mathematics and pedagogy. As a professor of mathematics and of teaching, learning and culture at Texas A&M, she has the rare expertise and ability required to function in both circles, placing her in high demand for high-ranking committees, task forces and councils charged with the next big thing in mathematics education.

As a 30-year veteran of such exercises, she's seen it all, with education (bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. degrees in mathematics education from both Texas A&M and the University of Texas) and experience in all the right places, including stints as a teacher in an elementary school classroom and as an administrator with the Texas Education Agency (TEA), where she co-wrote the State of Texas' first official standards for mathematics education in 1979.

As a faculty member at Texas A&M since 1982, she's taught a variety of courses, most notably mathematics for elementary education majors, and conducted vast independent and interdisciplinary research, including six years' worth as director and co-principal investigator for Texas A&M's $10 million National Science Foundation-funded Information Technology in Science (ITS) Center for Teaching and Learning.

Last week, Schielack took five with Texas A&M Science Communications to explore all things educational enhancement and assessment, explaining what it is and why it matters. Where most people have a three-year snapshot with regard to testing and related standards, she has a 30-year one. By the end of the 72-minute conversation, it was clear that her vast knowledge in tandem with her passion for her favorite subject and those who teach it add up to one powerful, potentially transformational combination.

Before we get into the meat of math assessment, you mentioned that a history lesson would be helpful. Why history when the subject here is math?

"I think that's really what's missing -- the history. There are not a lot of people involved now who have much history of where all this came from. Most of this started with a focus on reform teaching at the national level, which is controversial, but not to the degree that assessment is. However, they are not disjoint. People talk about the things they are upset about, and it's in the context of three to five years. I just think history is important in terms of making decisions and figuring out how we got where we are, and which part of it is still valuable and which part has been corrupted to the point where it's not valuable any more."

So, what are the high points of that history, particularly where Texas is concerned?

"Interestingly, Texas' history is sort of parallel to what's happened nationally in curriculum and assessment in mathematics since 1980. That year, there was a revision in Texas. I was at the Texas Education Agency at that time, and I had just come out of the classroom a year before that and been involved in the teaching, so I knew this was exactly what the situation was. All these special interest groups had gotten into the legislation things about curriculum, like you had to teach a week's worth of career education, and you had to teach a week's worth of fire safety, etcetera. There were all these little bits and pieces all scattered all over the place in the education code.

"I don't know if people know this, but in Texas, we have an education code. There is a law that tells us what we're supposed to teach. Well, at that time, that law was pretty much, teach some math, reading, science, and then all these little bits of all these other little things. And so in 1980, the Legislature essentially wiped clean the whole education code -- they just threw it out and said, 'We're going to start over again. We're going to start from scratch, and we're going to write curriculum, state-mandated expectations for the four main subject areas with art and other expanded areas. I was involved in writing the math ones while I was at TEA. Two of us in the office wrote it together; it was called The Essential Elements. We used the NCTM standards that had come out about that same time in 1979, and that was really the first time that the state had ever had a state-mandated set of expectations. Before they basically had a textbook review, and they had a call for textbooks that had certain things in them and that's what everybody taught from. But it was clear as we went around the state for accreditation that there were plenty of places in our 1,100 school districts (more than 800 of them were little) where things weren't getting done. They just didn't do it.

"So, along with that revision of the curriculum or rewriting of the curriculum came the recognition for the need for accountability. And the accountability was to guarantee that every student was having the opportunity to learn what they needed to learn in order to be successful. That was the point. It wasn't to punish anybody; it wasn't to say one district was better than another district; it wasn't for comparison. It was called a criterion-referenced test where you set a bar and you expected everybody to meet that bar. It wasn't about deciding who was better than whom or anything like that. So there are all of these assumptions that were put into place when it was started, and Texas was kind of the lead on this, because we had strong governors, one of whom ended up doing this as the president."

OK, that's the history -- what about the present?

"So there are national suggestions -- NCTM only makes policy suggestions -- and then Texas has a state-mandated curriculum and assessment process. As the years have gone along, there have been revisions and modifications to the NCTM descriptions of the curriculum, and each time, we've come along as a state with a revision of the curriculum and test, which has gone from the TABS test to the TAAS test, etcetera. There have been about three or four revisions of curriculum in Texas that have followed in parallel to the development of the national standards and assessment.

"Thankfully, we have lots of people in Texas who are involved in national activities. We have one of the most active math supervisors groups in the nation. And so, we've always been right there at the lead. But of course, over those 30 years, other people have gotten involved for other reasons, and the use of the test has morphed into something that really wasn't what it was when it started out. The motivation was, 'Let's find out where this isn't happening well and address the issue,' and now sometimes it's more high stakes than originally intended with regard to graduation and teacher evaluation, which everyone knows is a lot more complicated than that in terms of why students aren't learning.

"So, there have been some less-than-logical thought processes that have evolved over the years, and it's just that people have seen ways to use it for their own gain. The reality is, having expectations for students and finding out whether those expectations are met or not are still good ideas."

Well, then, what is the best way to test and assess?

"To me, it should always be about, 'How do we do that in the best way that supports the teachers and the students?' That's what's going to support our state, which is going to support our nation. But I don't think it's simple. The tests aren't bad or good -- it's how you use them. There are things we could do differently. We wouldn't necessarily test every student every year, but if that's the choice you make, the problem then becomes how to do it in the best way.

"A lot of districts were adding to their assessment burden by saying, we've got to measure things every week or every month -- to the point where they were testing more than they were teaching. These aren't things that are mandated by the law; those are things that districts decided to do. To address this, a group of assessment experts at SMU put into place this assessment process specifically for algebra readiness in response to the Texas Algebra Ready Math Initiative. It's not the high-stakes test. It's a test you can use to figure out if you've got something to address. They give it three times a year, and it's totally free, you can access it online through the free portal the state has set up that many people don't know about. These are the kind of things that the state does to help, to say, 'Here, we know you have this high-stakes test because we have to match what the rest of the nation is doing, but here are some things that are useful to help you get to that point.' These tests have reports that come with them that identify weaknesses in students and other data. That's what I've been involved with the last three years through TEA."

What do you see as the critical factor for our schools, from teachers to student to overall impact?

"It really boils down to leadership. One of the great benefits Texas has is a highly active math supervisors group. However, not all school districts are involved. It's the ones who have decided they're going to pay math supervisors. But they do a lot to promote things like this when they know programs are good and they interact with each other. TEA would use them as their dissemination groups.

"It's a complicated system. There's the Legislature, the State Board of Education and TEA, and then there are 20 regional Education Service Centers all over the state. Each of those groups are independent of each other in some sense, but they're all part of the conduit for what gets into the schools. There is lots of room for things to get changed or reinterpreted. Good leadership at each of those levels is critical, in my mind."

While we're on that critical note, what do you feel you bring to the table?

"I have a math background that's very unique for a person interested in elementary education. That's not a common combination. I essentially have a master's degree in mathematics, content-wise. I don't have a master's degree in mathematics, because I chose to get my master's in education, but I took all the coursework and am certified in both elementary and secondary. So the math background I have is unusual for a person who's involved in curriculum development in the public school system. Most of the people who are involved in curriculum as a career are less involved in a subject-oriented background. I didn't want to give up my math when I decided to go into elementary education. I just kept taking classes.

"If I had to pick one thing that I've ever brought to any group, it's that unique combination of content knowledge and curriculum organizational knowledge. In my 30 years, that's what it's been about -- the interface between how people learn math and how you do math. There is special knowledge in that section. It's a really critical component for the kinds of things I've done in my career and the kind of things that are necessary for these kinds of committees that do things like curriculum development and assessment design. Usually they try to address this by making sure that on the committees, there are educators at the classroom level and at the research level and there are content people at various levels. But there is something unique in my mind about a person who sits in the middle of those things. You can bring all the disparate information, but somebody still has to put it together.

"That's what I've noticed when I look back on my career. Most of the time, I've ended up being the person who integrates the information, synthesizing the input. I always end up being the one who produces the first draft of the document or the chair of the committee. I've evolved to that point, because I think there's a special set of knowledge and skills that doesn't necessarily exist if you just do math or if most of your attention is in the classroom. You can call it multidisciplinary, but it's really the integration of those things, and I think that's true in science, in social studies and in English. I think that's true in every area, but I think it stands out more in mathematics for some reason."

OK, if curriculum and standards are crafted, suggested and/or endorsed by the national organizations and then certified at top levels, where's the rub?

"It's the difference between intention and implementation. From there, the question becomes, 'How do you improve implementation?' First of all, you have to have the right. From a national perspective, there are strings attached to a lot of this because of the funding, which makes decision-making less than simple. Just because you know a better way or the right thing to do, if it doesn't fit into the legislation, it's next to impossible. In Texas, we don't have the federal trappings of Common Core, but we do have state legislation that requires certain ways of reporting and participation."

Since you mentioned the elephant in the room, let's go ahead and talk about it: Common Core. What's your experience with it?

"Interestingly enough, I was just in Oklahoma, where they are pulling out of Common Core. As a result, their higher education group (the equivalent of our Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board) was having to re-establish what they are going to do as a state. They wanted someone from outside the state to verify that what their equivalent of TEA had written is college and career-ready so that they would be OK, dropping out of Common Core. Nobody really knows what the impact of dropping out of Common Core is, and that's part of the problem.

"Because I have two hats -- a national hat and a state hat -- I've done a lot of work with it in other states that have adopted Common Core. Texas isn't one of those states, but when we revised our math standards in 2012 after Common Core came out, we used a lot of the same information that the Common Core people used."

What would you say are the most important factors or indicators for school success where curriculum and assessment are concerned?

"The bottom line is, a curriculum is only as good as its implementation. I do all the things I do because what I really care about is helping the teachers do a good job. If they don't have a good curriculum, if they don't have good leadership, if they don't understand how to use the assessments, then they're not going to be able to do a good job. And most of them want to do a good job.

"I've been interacting with school people for 30 years. I used to have to do accreditation visits when I was at TEA. At that time, that meant visiting schools, actually going in and staying for an hour or two. I got to where I could tell in five minutes from walking in what kind of principal the school had. I would still say that.

"The comfort level a teacher has with the issues, how the school is dealing with issues like curriculum and assessment, is so dependent upon the leadership skills of the principal and the management of the district at the administrative level. Teachers aren't going to be comfortable if they aren't supported. It's the message that leadership sends -- not that the tests are bad, but, 'How do we make this valuable for our school and our students?'"

Now, for the ultimate bonus question: I understand you took a graduate-level statistics course at Texas A&M from Dr. H. Joseph Newton. What's your educational assessment of the Dean of Science and his overall teaching methods?

"I don't really have one, but I do have lots of great stories. For instance, we had an exam, and on the last question, I took a wrong detour. I spent a lot of time doing the wrong thing, and by the time I realized what I had done, I didn't have enough time left to correct myself. So I used the final minute or so to write him a note, saying that if I had enough time, here's what I would do to solve the problem. He gave me a lot of credit for that, which proves that he understood the difference between conceptual and procedural understanding -- the basis of the reform teaching movement we discussed above."


Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or shutchins@science.tamu.edu or Dr. Jane F. Schielack, (979) 458-0549 or janie@science.tamu.edu

Hutchins Shana

  • Dr. Jane F. Schielack

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