Saturday, October 20, 2012

Vote them out

A parent reads from a letter that contains a powerful indictment of TERC math at a school board meeting. The board is unresponsive and eventually gets voted out. Very gratifying!

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Junior's sophomoric regurgitation

If you want a good chuckle, read this piece by the NYT's A. Revkin.

Revkin is enourmously impressed by a junior's sophomoric regurgitation of hoary educationist prescriptions and treats them as breathtaking original thought. Another education writer in the making?

Friday, March 25, 2011

New intelligences discovered

There is a lot of hand-wringing about what to do about dismal academic performance. This little gem points to a way out.

Multiple Alternatives
Will Fitzhugh

It has been said, with some justice, that if one is to criticize the novel curricular suggestions and philosophical positions of others, there is a duty to offer alternatives. In the case of Multiple Intelligences, what seems to be called for is Multiple Alternatives.

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, at least as filtered through the curriculum development processes in the most Social of Studies, requires attention to the Mathematical, Bodily/Kinesthetic, Visual/Spatial, Interpersonal, Verbal/Linguistic, Musical/Rhythmic and Intrapersonal Intelligences of Today’s Youth.

It should be remembered in this context, that Professor Gardner of the Harvard School of Education, called these qualities Multiple Intelligences, because, as he has said, if he had called them Talents, he would have attracted much less Attention.

While a truly sophisticated debate about the endless varieties of classroom innovation might not be out of place at what has become of our Schools of Education, it is my view that in the classroom a very different set of talents deserves cultivation.

In keeping with that view, I offer the following suggestions of Alternative Multiple Intelligences whose development should be most likely to contribute to the education of the majority of our students.

Perhaps the most important is Paying Attention Intelligence. Without paying attention, it is truly astounding how much instruction even the average student is capable of ignoring on any given day, and as the word suggests, ignoring is the primrose path to Ignorance.

Memorization Intelligence is seen as old-fashioned, except when it applies to the names of music groups, sports or movie stars, and clothing or soft drink brands. Nevertheless, if students don’t remember anything, that is pretty close to the same thing as their not knowing anything. If a student is asked for the dates of the United States Civil War or the name of the first female Secretary of Labor, and she says, “I don’t remember,” that is the functional equivalent, for all practical purposes, of admitting, “I don’t know.”

Of course there is a storm of debate among professional educators, or rather between professional educators and the rest of the country, over the importance of knowledge as such, with the educators coming down on the side of correct sentiment fueled by general ignorance and propaganda, but let us put that aside for the moment.

If one can accept, at least provisionally, that some knowledge may be useful for some purpose as an outcome of education, then Recognition Intelligence and Recall Intelligence, so useful on tests of knowledge, become central as well.

When it comes to writing, I would argue, in the face of the united opposition from the National Council of Teachers of American English, that Punctuation Intelligence and Spelling Intelligence are also essential.

Another often neglected but vital talent for students is Hard Work Intelligence or Diligence Intelligence. We have so often in recent decades taught students that creativity is far more important than work, and that if they are not the smartest student in the class they should give up trying to do their academic work and fall back on their innate creativity and capacity for having fun instead. A return to emphasis on Hard Work Intelligence, where it has been tried, has led to some astonishing academic results. Jaime Escalante’s success in teaching Calculus at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles is not the only example.

It might be noted in passing that it seems very likely that if Mr. Escalante had spent more time on Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence, Intrapersonal Intelligence, and other Gardner Intelligences, his students would have done quite a bit less well on the AP Calculus Test. But then, he was not a Social Studies Teacher.

There are many other neglected Intelligences not supported by Professor Gardner, such as Courtesy Intelligence, Time Management Intelligence, Turning in Homework Intelligence, Papers in on Time Intelligence, Seeking Extra Help Intelligence, Taking Personal Responsibility Intelligence, Asking Questions Intelligence, etc.

In these cases, at least, it seems Tradition still Knows Best...

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Is this Science?

The global warming fraternity portrays itself as embattled but plays rough.

Stephen Schneider says "Most of our colleagues don't seem to grasp that we're not in a gentlepersons' debate ..." Stephen, I think your colleagues are well aware of that, viz: James Hansen of NASA wanted trials for climate skeptics, accusing them of high crimes against humanity Robert Kennedy Jr. called climate skeptics traitors Yvo de Boer of the UN called climate skepticism criminally irresponsible David Suzuki called for politicians who ignore climate science to be jailed DeSmogBlog's James Hoggan wants skeptics treated as war criminals (video) Grist called for Nuremberg trials for skeptics Emo-Joe Romm wanted skeptics strangled in their beds A blogger at TPM pondered when it would be acceptable to execute climate deniers Heidi Cullen of The Weather Channel called for skeptical forecasters to be decertified Bernie Sanders compared climate skeptics to Nazi appeasers. So yes, Stephen, we know why this is not a "gentlepersons' debate"

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Dunce adviser

What's going on with education in England?

An education professor is advising the government to drop academic subjects because supposedly they have a middle-class origin and alienate the disadvantaged. Moreover, such education has the nefarious effect of improving one's economic well-being.

Children should no longer be taught traditional subjects at school because they are "middle-class" creations, a Government adviser will claim today.

Professor John White, who contributed to a controversial shake-up of the secondary curriculum, believes lessons should instead cover a series of personal skills.

Pupils would no longer study history, geography and science but learn skills such as energy- saving and civic responsibility through projects and themes.

He will outline his theories at a conference today staged by London's Institute of Education - to which he is affiliated - to mark the 20th anniversary of the national curriculum.

Last night, critics attacked his ideas as "deeply corrosive" and condemned the Government for allowing him to advise on a new curriculum.

Professor White will claim ministers are already "moving in the right direction" towards realising his vision of replacing subjects with a series of personal aims for pupils.

But he says they must go further because traditional subjects were invented by the middle classes and are "mere stepping stones to wealth".

Not everybody is happy with the ed prof's prescriptions:

Tory schools spokesman Nick Gibb said Professor White's view was "deeply corrosive". He added: "In the world we are living in, we need people who are better educated, not more poorly educated, more knowledgeable about the world, not less so.

"This anti-knowledge, anti-subject ideology is deeply damaging to our education system. It is this sort of thinking that has led to the promotion of discredited reading methods, the erosion of three separate sciences and the decline of mathematics skills.

"I just find it astonishing that someone with his extreme views has been allowed to advise the Government on education policy."

Via Joanne Jacobs.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Picture this

Whole language mother teaches phonics kid how to read.

[Click to enlarge]

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, a cartoon is worth a thousand disquisitions.

Hat tip to Language Log which has a good discussion of whole language, the Lysenkoism of reading instruction.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Connecting the dots without the dots

A reader of Bridging Differences asks:

"Instructivist v constructivist? Can there be some common ground between the two?"

There is common ground by implication if you listen to constructivist rhetoric as in the excerpt below from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). For example, both schools of thought believe in asking students probing questions and in pressing them to explain their thinking. It only seems there is a gulf because all too often constructivists give the impression they invented asking students probing questions and pressing them to explain their thinking. For all I know, constructivists also claim they invented the recipe for apple pie.

Among the differences I can see is the role of the teacher. In addition to being an active listener and a coordinator and a manager and a facilitator, instructivists also want teachers to give explicit instruction.

From ASCD:
[What is the teacher's role in the constructivist classroom?
Narrator: A constructivist approach requires more of students—and teachers as well.

In addition to providing information, teachers must probe students' understandings, paying close attention to what they say and think and valuing their points of view. Teachers circulate more, talk more with students, asking them probing questions, pressing them to explain their thinking, encouraging them to draw conclusions.

Jacqueline Grennon Brooks: The teacher has a very proactive role. The teacher has a very intellectually rigorous role. The teacher has the role of being an active listener and a coordinator and a manager and a facilitator all at the same time. Because, while listening to what people are telling him or her, the teacher is formulating a plan of action.]

What is still shrouded in mystery as far as I am concerned is this whole issue of constructing knowledge rather than receiving it from others, e.g. from teachers and textbooks. What are the sources of external input if textbooks and explicit teacher instruction are out? It’s easy to proclaim that students learn best when they gain knowledge through exploration and active learning. But how does that work specifically in the various disciplines? OK, I can explore circles and pi, but how will I learn world history or geography or languages with hands-on materials instead of textbooks? How will I explain my reasoning, if I am not supposed to commit knowledge to memory? And why is reading a book or listening to the teacher and trying to understand the materials not active learning? What is learning if not something committed to memory? Why do constructivists disparagingly characterize a demonstration of learning residing in memory (where else would it reside?) as "regurgitation"?

Again from ASCD:
[The Definition of Constructivism
Constructivism is an approach to teaching based on research about how people learn. Many researchers say that each individual constructs knowledge rather than receiving it from others.

Although people disagree about how to achieve constructive learning, constructive teaching is based on the belief that students learn best when they gain knowledge through exploration and active learning. Hands-on materials are used instead of textbooks, and students are encouraged to think and explain their reasoning instead of memorizing and reciting facts. Education is centered on themes and concepts and the connections between them, rather than isolated information.]

Constructivists rail against committing factual knowledge to memory but are all for making connections. It's like trying to connect the dots without the dots.

Fire rainbow

A rare event of nature.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

No connectedness without discrete skills

A mathematician once said that math was "a seamless whole" inside her head.

I don't know if this ties in with the idea of a seamless whole, but it has occurred to me that discrete skills are needed first before one can appreciate the connectedness of math. Without these discrete skills, math is more like a seamless black hole.

This became apparent to me again while teaching a group of seventh and eighth graders brought up on EM and currently using CMP who are a tabula rasa when it comes to the simplest bits of math knowledge. They can't do any operations with fractions (e.g. change mixed numbers to improper fractions let alone addition and division), can't divide decimals, don't have knowledge of even rudimentary geometry... One wonders what they have been doing for seven and eight years.

The seventh graders are currently in the CMP stretching and shrinking stage. Their homework consisted of finding the scale factor of two rectangles the width of which goes from 1.5 cm to 3 cm. So the idea was to divide 3 by 1.5 (they can't do it because they can't divide decimals). When I tried to show an alternative way of division using fractions to demonstrate the connectedness of math (seamless whole), I ran into trouble, too. They don't have the discrete skills of seeing 1.5 as 1 1/2, then changing this mixed number to 3/2 and dividing 3 by 3/2 (they absolutely can't divide fractions and moreover don't see 3 as 3/1. It would have been spectacular to make them experience with understanding that the more complicated decimal division problem 3/1.5 virtually solves itself when you divide the respective fractions (3 divided by 3/2). Invert and multiply but they have never heard of reciprocals and how they work. The 3 cancels and 2 is left standing without much ado!

So the upshot is: they use Connected Mathematics but can't see the connectedness of math because they don't have discrete skills (skills they could have learned through drill and kill but haven't). So to them, math is a seamless black hole from which not even light can escape.

Explicit and interactive math teaching

I came across comments made by Lee Stiff, past president of NCTM on how math used to be taught.

STIFF: Parents are upset because, when they visit classrooms, they see activities that they're not used to. When they were students in school, they probably sat in rows neatly lined up, and the teacher just talked and talked and they used paper and pencil, and that's how they learned their mathematics.

When they see students engaged and talking with one another, when they see teachers allowing students to question and think thoroughly about the mathematics and the relationships, they wonder if the basics are going to be achieved. But the test results show that they are, their students are learning the basics.
It seems to me that keeping this caricature of traditional math teaching alive plays a vital role in perpetuating fuzzy math. By setting up a false dichotomy, the caricature provides the rationale without which the fuzzy project would collapse.

The scenario described by Stiff sounds more like an idee fixe, a hallucination or just a plain lie. What teacher would teach math without encouraging student participation through questions and having students work problems or come to the board?

Recently, I achieved amazing success with a small group of usually refractory and definitely lagging 7th and 8th graders through a combination of direct instruction and the Socratic method. The problem I put on the board was a circle inscribed in a square, one of my favorite mini think problems (an alternative is two circles in a rectangle). The task was to calculate the area not covered by the circle. Only the measure for a side of the square was given. The creative jump was to see that subtracting the circle area from the square area would get to the answer and that the known length of the side of the square would reveal the radius of the circle.

It was amazing to see that with a little bit of prodding and filling knowledge gaps the students actually got the answer with FULL UNDERSTANDING.

SAT brain teaser:

To make an orange dye, 3 parts of red dye are mixed with 2 parts of yellow dye. To make a green dye, 2 parts of blue dye are mixed with 1 part of yellow dye. If equal amounts of green and orange are mixed, what is the proportion of yellow dye in the new mixture?

Lift all boats

Education Week reports on a new study that shows that smaller classes don't help close the achievement gap.

Class-Size Reduction of Limited Value on Achievement Gap, Study Finds

Reducing class sizes—a popular policy among parents, teachers, and lawmakers—has long been viewed as a way to increase student achievement.

But while shrinking the number of students in a class can lead to higher test scores overall, it might not necessarily reduce the achievement gaps that exist between students in a given classroom, a new study suggests.

Reviewing data from Project STAR—a longitudinal research study on class-size reduction in Tennessee and the most famous experiment on the topic—Spyros Konstantopoulos, an assistant professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., said that it’s a “tempting” idea to think that having fewer students assigned to a teacher will reduce the achievement gaps between students.
Instead, he found, “manipulating class size” doesn’t appear to narrow those gaps. In fact, the range from the lowest achievers to the highest achievers—what he calls “variability”—was greater in the smaller classes of 13 to 17 children than it was in larger classes of 22 to 26 students. He came to that conclusion after looking at the performance of all students in the STAR study, as measured by the Stanford Achievement Test.

“In the present study, I found that high achievers benefit more from being in small classes than low achievers,” Mr. Konstantopoulos said in an e-mail. “This indicates that the achievement gap is larger in small classes than in regular-size classes.”

He suggests in the article, which is being published in the March issue of Elementary School Journal, that the higher achievers, perhaps, are better at taking “advantage of the opportunities or teacher practices that take place in small classes.”

It's probably true that high achievers would benefit more from such a setting. But why fret over gaps if both high and low achievers benefit from smaller classes? Just not at the same rate.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Student body reform

A grand experiment spearheaded and financed by Bill Gates aimed at reforming high schools in Chicago has suffered a setback. In addition to the ongoing high school transformation, Gates' other big idea is to smash high schools into smaller pieces, part of the so-called small-schools movement.

A high school in a tough neighborhood was turned into small schools six years ago. Performance continued to be dismal. Now, the idea is to put the pieces back together again. Oh, and don't forget to fire all the teachers in another merry-go-round.

See this Chicago Tribune article:

Chicago Public Schools to fire hundreds at 8 under-performing schools -- 200 teachers, 7 principals face ax after years of poor performance
Beginning in 2002, Orr was broken up into three small schools -- Vines Preparatory Academy, the Applied Arts Science and Technology Academy, and EXCEL-Orr Academy -- which were supposed to improve performance both through their scale and through curriculum specialties.


Under the plan, Orr would be re-created as a single school, a teacher-training academy. It would be operated, along with its feeder elementary schools, by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, the non-profit teacher preparation and school management organization that runs Sherman.
Panacea after panacea has been tried with this school. What hasn't been tried is student body reform.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Biofuels not "green"

The New York Times reports on scientific studies that show that biofuels are not the vaunted "green" fuel many believed it to be. The findings makes sense. Insatiable demand for fuel will necessarily lead to the destruction of natural habitats when the fuel comes from plants.

UPDATE: concernedctparent called my attention to this great article in National Geographic on the subject.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Navigating ed school

A reader asked me how I was able to navigate ed school considering the dominance of the constructivist creed and my instructivist views. I tried to voice my criticisms in my papers and discussions without being overly abrasive, and was able to get through the experience. It also helps to pay some lip service to the creed.

I am posting here my teaching philosophy that I wrote at the time. Writing a teaching philosophy was a requirement. The paper is an illustration of my approach. It was a time full of optimism, as yet unmarred by the reality of the classroom. If ed school had concentrated less on theory and more on what's actually going on in an inner city classroom, it could have had some value.

My Teaching Philosophy

My fundamental belief as a prospective teacher is that learning need not be drudgery. As a teacher I would like to inspire my pupils to see learning and the discovery of new things as a joyous activity. Teaching is as much a science as an art. An effective teacher must not only master the subject matter he/she is teaching and be conversant with educational psychology and the latest learning theories, but must also inspire through strength of personality. Having a good sense of humor, a well-modulated voice and some acting ability is a conditio sine qua non for an effective teacher. A good and effective teacher must also teach how to think critically and how to discover connections. Facts in isolation are useless and easily forgotten. They become meaningful when placed in context with the proper background to fit into a framework or a whole.

In my view an effective teacher must choose the best methods and techniques traditional and innovative approaches to teaching have to offer. An effective teacher must be an open-minded hybrid guided by constant reality checks. An enthusiasm for innovative approaches must not displace the ability to learn from experience. An effective teacher must be armed with the analytical skills to make him/her an intelligent consumer of research and practitioner of educational theories. All too often educational theories are misunderstood and become a travesty of the original intent. Some of these misunderstood or misapplied notions, techniques and theories are developmentalism, child-centered education, constructivism and multiple intelligences.

Developmentalism is a romantic view of the child best illustrated in Rousseau's Emile. Rousseau sees the child as natural and good. The child must be shielded from the corrupting influence of the adult world. This view creates a dichotomy between what is "natural" (and therefore good) and the accomplishments of civilization that could include book learning that are regarded as artificial. The child must follow his natural inclinations and discover the world for himself at his own pace. All too often that inclination doesn't materialize and the child falls behind in academic achievement. Closely related to this romantic view of the child is the notion of developmentally appropriate instruction. While sensible on its face, the danger of this notion is that it can easily slide into low expectations. Low expectations are particularly harmful to disadvantaged children and tend to reinforce the status quo and perpetuate the stratification of society. Parents enjoying a high socioeconomic status can always hire a tutor for their offspring if schooling fails.

Constructivism is based on the belief that students learn best when they construct their own knowledge. Students are not passive vessels to be filled but must be active participants to retain and integrate knowledge. This insight derived from memory research is often misunderstood to mean that students should not have external input and be the beneficiaries of knowledge accumulated over thousands of years; that they must reinvent the wheel so to speak. This particular form of constructivism that privileges and finds expression in discovery learning disregards the fact that all learning activity, including listening to expository instruction, is constructivist, i.e. requires active engagement.

Misunderstandings of a similar nature apply to Gardner's multiple intelligences. By labeling skills, abilities, aptitudes and talents "intelligences," Gardner managed to create great excitement among educators who suddenly saw a way to spread the aura and prestige of "intelligence" to hitherto undreamed of areas. Thus hopping around and being a good gossip became forms of intelligence. Moreover, educators felt the need to wrap the many forms of intelligence around a specific educational task like teaching fractions, in order to stimulate each individual intelligence. Cognitive scientists have shown that children learn best when subjects are taught in the content's best modality.

It is important to keep in mind as a teacher that teaching is a great responsibility. It is a responsibility to the pupils, to the parents and to the citizenry that makes enormous financial sacrifices in the form of taxes. All too often, teachers and the educational establishment feel that they have complete license to indulge in wild experimentation with untested and unproven theories that waste the pupils' time, and then feel resentful if they are held accountable. Often these theories are proven failures but are adhered to in quasi-religious fashion. After all, religion is usually impervious to experience and evidence.

It is a responsibility to the pupils since after all they are the primary beneficiaries of education. At the lower levels, education must ensure that the pupils are proficient in reading, writing and arithmetic. These skills are fundamental to enable the pupils to succeed as they continue through elementary and secondary schools and later on through college. Too many entering college students lack basic writing skills and must spend time in remedial education. Even remedial education is often unable to correct deficiencies and ingrained bad habits.

Basic writing skills include the ability to spell correctly, the use of proper grammar, the use of punctuation marks in a logical fashion and the ability to write coherent sentences. It is also crucial that pupils learn how to identify parts of speech. Many spelling mistakes are due to the inability to distinguish between a verb and a noun, i.e. make up and makeup. Common mistakes like a confusion between "your" and "you're," "its" and "it's" are due to ignorance about basic grammar. Other examples are "there," "their" and "they're." It is shameful that students spend twelve years in school without mastering such a simple task. It would be a tiny part of my teaching philosophy to make sure that these simple tasks are mastered.

Another grave concern of mine is the de-emphasis of history and geography in the curriculum. As a result of curricular reform in the beginning decades of the 20th century spearheaded by such luminaries as Harold O. Rugg, history and geography became subsumed under the nebulous category of social studies. The danger of not specifically naming subject areas such as history and geography in the curriculum is that these subjects might then very well receive only a fragmentary and cursory treatment as evidenced by widespread ignorance in these areas. For example, many high school graduates believe Austria is Australia and are baffled when shown a map and asked to identify countries.

Much can be learned from educational psychology. For example, it has been shown that relevant prior knowledge is indispensable for learning new material (Beck et al., 1991). Often students lack useful background knowledge to understand text that takes this background knowledge for granted. A good teacher must be aware of this lack of background knowledge. Extraordinary insights can be gained from experiences with artificial intelligence and even computer programs designed to translate from one language to another. For example, one AI program started to build a small tower in mid air because it lacked the real-world knowledge of gravity. Computer translation programs cannot grasp textual and extra-textual context to evaluate and interpret the meaning of words to make sound judgments.

In math instruction, educational psychology has shown that a number sense and the concept of the mental number line are an indispensable prerequisite for math learning (Case & Okamoto, 1996). Teachers must be familiar with effective ways employed to correct such deficiencies.

The teaching profession is an exciting field for anyone who enjoys learning and has the capacity to inspire students to experience and share this enjoyment. Education is not only important to economic survival but it also immensely enriching.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Closing the gap

Two giants of education with differing views, Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch, are having an amicable conversation in search of common ground, and in the process are covering a lot of ground. It's all happening in a blog aptly titled Bridging Differences.

I am not totally convinced that finding common ground is always desirable. Yes, it sounds good. Maybe something positive comes out of it. However, there is the danger of moving away from one's sound position in order to bridge the gap.

The blog is open for comments. I took the opportunity to counter views that seem mistaken to me. Here are my most recent comments:

"The only way to counter the “testing and accountability” movement (which has failed miserably at improving our students’ learning)..."

You are a victim of a common confusion. Testing is the messenger who brings news of the state of learning. All that testing does it tell educationists that they have or have not succeeded in what they are supposed to do.

A thermometer analogy will immediately reveal the fallaciousness of your statement. Visualize an outdoor thermometer that shows the temperature to be five below zero and then imagine someone cursing that the thermometer has failed to raise the temperature to a cozy 75 degrees.

Posted by: instructivist January 27, 2008 9:53 PM

"Kids born to white-collar parents attend schools where—hey—if you can’t answer the lower-order questions, but are successful when answering questions that call for synthesis, comparison, etc., you’re creative and gifted!"

Don't worry about the white-collar parents' kids supposed ability to do synthesis and comparison. They can't synthesize and compare if there is nothing to synthesize and compare. The Bloom levels are inextricably linked. One level can't happen without the preceding level. You need ingredients to bake. You erroneously assume white-collar parents' kids can bake with thin air.

Posted by: instructivist January 27, 2008 10:07 PM

Thursday, January 24, 2008

TERC -- Parents rebel

Another parent group is formed to fight the fuzzy math plague. The fuzzy math program the parents are fighting is TERC (also known as Investigations).

What would it take to send those responsible for introducing these dubious programs packing?

The group's name is Teach Math Right

Monday, January 21, 2008

The pits

Depressing pictures of the book depository for Detroit schools.

(via Joanne Jacobs)

Gates wrecking ball

Propelled by Gates millions, Chicago's high schools are being transformed to conform to progressive/constructivist visions to save the disadvantaged. The transformation is a fantasy that will not save the disadvantaged. It will make them even more disadvantaged. The visions being implemented on a wholesale basis rest on misdiagnoses of the reasons for academic failings. The seeds for failure are planted in elementary and middle schools. What is needed is quality education and rigor in the grades preceding high school.

With respect to science education, Catherine Johnson of KTM observed: "I do recall David Klein once telling me that the situation in science is even worse than the situation in math." I am reproducing my response here:

The situation in science is indeed dismal. Here in Chicago, constructivist ways in science called inquiry (FOSS, STC, IES, SALI, IEY) are largely the norm up to eighth grade, especially in failing schools (most of them). The educationist motto seems to be: If poison makes them sick, give them more poison.

You can also tell something is fishy when acronyms proliferate (alphabet soup proliferation). For example, science for 8th grade is IEY which stands for Issues, Evidence and You.

The HUGE SCANDAL in my view is that most high schools here in Chicago are being converted to constructivism (inquiry). It's a Gates idea called high school transformation. Gates dangled millions in front of the mayor and board who immediately jumped. A Gates agent was made executive director of the transformation project. That means academic textbooks go in the garbage and community projects are the new forms of learning science.

This scandal is taking place unnoticed by the local media. It raises the question whether one wealthy individual should be allowed to implement his fantasy and wreck high schools which after all are public entities. Resistance from school administrators and teachers is ignored. The transformation is imposed from above by fiat.

Schools can select from two or three virtually identical inquiry programs the way the politburo used to put up two or three apparatchiks as the only choice in an election. Even that pseudo choice is constrained in some cases. Now I hear that the board abolished earth science as a graduation requirement to accomodate the Gates fantasy. Two of the three pseudo choices don't even have earth science.

I wrote a comment I posted on the district299 blog that deals with Chicago ed issues. I reproduce it here (note what is in store for high school math):

The whole high-school transformation project looks like a stealth operation, really a coup. There is no HST website, no transparency. The HST office is unable to provide information on newly targeted high schools. The only (spotty) information is through the grapevine.

The project pretends to be democratic, but it is a sham. Schools can volunteer the way the Chinese Communists can produce "volunteers" en masse. It's also unclear what the total number of targeted HS is. A CPS document I have talks about three waves of 14, 15 and 20 schools respectively, making it a total of 49 HS. Other sources put the number higher.

Then there is the question of effectiveness. Will the new nostrums really improve academic achievement? Alexander Russo asks the perfect question: "Are things any better at the schools that started doing HST a couple of years ago?" There should already be evidence showing whether the nostrums are working. Why is that evidence or lack of evidence not discussed? It would have been prudent to run pilots before embarking on wholesale, highly questionable transformation. I can only conclude it wasn't done because it would interfere with putting this fantasy in place. Hence the pseudo-democratic stealth operation.

Targeted schools get to choose one of two or three IDSs. IDS stands for Instructional Development System and incorporates six "change levers" (note the nebulous, new-age lingo). IDSs are the heart of the nostrum and are described as the pillars of the core instructional strategy. The actual IDSs are simply progressive/constructivist, mainly NSF-supported, tracts that are trying to do to HS what's been done to elementary and middle schools with disastrous results.

The IDS choices in math are Agile Mind and Cognitive Tutor. In science there are three pseudo-choices: Inquiry to Build Content, Content to Build Inquiry and Meaningful Science through Inquiry. These are vastly stripped of content but they say they make up for this lack of content by motivating students to go deep. The motivation is said to come from touching the lives of students.

Content can take a back seat since according to the "Foundational principles for IDS instruction" the goal is inquiry and engaged learning. Here the "principle" says: "Focus is on problem solving, reasoning, critical thinking. Students seek their own knowledge, formulate arguments. Activities should maximize connection to student lives." How much critical thinking can go on without much to think about is anybody's guess.

My view is that the HST project is another instance of barking up the wrong tree. A lot of the disadvantaged coming from the elementary and middle grades are disastrously ill-prepared for HS. As a middle grades teacher I see these horrific deficiencies all the time. Those concerned with the success of the disadvantaged need to focus on what comes before high school.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Deconstructing constructivism

Most prospective teachers seeking certification must go through education schools where they get bombarded with the rhetoric of progressive/constructivist education, the dominant ed school ideology. Here is an antidote to this mind-numbing assault written by Martin Kozloff (a/k/a Prof. Plum), an education professor who is in a distinct minority. In his inimitable way, Prof. Plum deconstructs ed school piffle point by point in Fads and Flapdoodle vs. Serious Instruction.

Here a few excerpts:

Fads and Flapdoodle

The nonsense below has for about 100 years been foisted on gullible education students and public schools by the dominant education establishment, run by so-called “progressive” educators in ed schools, state departments of public instruction, curriculum organizations (such as International Reading Association, National Council for Teachers of English), organizations that certify ed schools (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education), and unions (National Education Association).

No Fads. Serious Instruction.

The tested, true, and effective ideas, below, are the minority position in the field of education, and are advocated by the so-called anti-establishment, which supports traditional forms of instruction guided by scientific research.

If you believe and act on the following tested and valid ideas, you’ll be on the road to Master Teacher; and you’ll be a blessing to your students.

2. “Education theorists---Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey, Gardner---provide useful information on how to teach.”

2. Education theorists---Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey, Gardner---provide next to NOTHING useful on how to teach.

Their ideas are vague (it’s not clear what you’re supposed to do), over-generalized (don’t apply to your students), plain wrong, or totally insane.

“What would Dewey do?”

Who cares?

3. “Be guided by the following ideas: child-centered and student-centered, holistic, natural, authentic, learning styles, multiple intelligence, brain-based instruction, developmentally appropriate practices, best practices, etc.”

3. DO NOT be guided by these ideas. These ideas are LOONEY. They’re one step away from psychotic. In any other field they’d be considered fraud.

[See number 2 at the end.]

• There is NO scientific research to support them.
• They will be NO help at all to you.
• These ideas reflect the preferences of education professors---not science, not reality.
• The more you use these terms, the dumber and you get and the less effectively you teach.

b. “Instruction should be holistic. For example, you should teach spelling, reading, and writing at the same time.”

b. The word “holistic” is new-age mind slop. Like “holistic healing.”

• Complex skills DO consist of simpler skill elements. It’s essential that students learn these first.
• You can’t solve math word problems if you don’t know the basic math operations, such as addition and multiplication.
• You can’t write or spell if you can’t read words. So, what should you teach first?

g. “You can’t transmit knowledge. Students must construct knowledge. Therefore, most learning and instruction should be in the form of inquiry and discovery.”

g. “The battles at Lexington and Concord were on April 18, 1775.”

• I believe I just transmitted knowledge.

• Persons who talk about students constructing knowledge have no idea what this even means. Are they mind readers?

• The SANE way to look at learning is this: Teachers present examples and students induce (figure out) the general idea (concept, rule, routine) that is revealed by the examples. Teachers can also TELL students a concept, rule, or routine, and then substantiate this with examples.

• There’s a lot of research showing that students learn MORE and learn faster when the teacher teaches in an explicit and direct way, rather than when students try to discover knowledge.

• What does it even mean---discover knowledge?

“Hey, guys, I discovered reading!!”

• Discovery and inquiry are the worst possible ways to teach essential skills (reading, math) to disadvantaged students.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Constructing misconceptions

A core tenet of the progressive/constructivist education creed is that students must construct their own knowledge. For this reason, according to the creed, teachers should not impart knowledge or provide explicit instruction. A teacher should merely be a guide on the side instead of a sage on the stage, as the rhyming slogans of the creed have it.

I was recently watching a video called A Private Universe produced by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics two decades ago that casts doubt on the wisdom of the knowledge construction dogma. The video shows students who were asked to explain what causes the seasons and the phases of the moon. From Harvard graduates to bright freshman, the explanations were all wrong. In other words, all these students were laboring under misconceptions.

The lesson here is that constructing one's own knowledge in areas like science has a great potential of leading to false beliefs. Many of these students probably had received explicit instruction from knowledgeable teachers and yet tenaciously persisted in constructing their own false knowledge. The way to correct these misconceptions cannot possibly be more construction of one's own knowledge as mandated by the creed, but teacher-centered ongoing diagnoses of the many misconceptions and heavy doses of explicit instruction with constant student feedback.

Here is how the producers describe the video:

With its famous opening scene at a Harvard graduation, this classic of education research brings into sharp focus the dilemma facing all educators: Why don’t even the brightest students truly grasp basic science concepts? This award-winning program traces the problem through interviews with Harvard graduates and their professors, as well as with a bright ninth-grader who has some confused ideas about the orbits of the planets. Equally useful for education methods classes, teacher workshops, and presentations to the public, A Private Universe is an essential resource for science and methodology teachers.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Edubabble fluency

When even ed schools like Appalachian State’s ed school are fluent in edubabble, then you know "progressive" education has arrived.

From Teaching Teachers How Not to Teach -- Do our schools of education really do good a job of training teachers?

One sign of that contagion is the mission statements and “conceptual frameworks” of the education schools in the state. Read them and you’ll see that progressive theory controls. At Appalachian State’s Reich School of Education, for instance, the conceptual framework says:

"We believe that theory should guide practice in all aspects of our work. While we use a variety of theoretical perspectives in the preparation of educators, socio-cultural and constructivist perspectives … are central to guiding our teaching and learning. Our core conceptualization of learning and knowing – that learning is a function of the social and cultural contexts in which it occurs (i.e., it is situated) and that knowledge is actively constructed – emerges from the intersection of these two perspectives."

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Old new-fangled skills

An organization dedicated to "infusing 21st century skills into education" commissioned a poll that had the vast majority of voters clamoring for supposedly new-fangled skills:

The national poll was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Peter D. Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Partnership for 21stCentury Skills.

Among the other key findings:

• Eighty-eight percent of voters say they believe that schools can and should incorporate 21st century skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving skills, computer and technology skills, and communication and self-direction skills into their curriculum.

I could swear I heard these skills, particularly critical thinking and problem-solving skills, being bandied about for the better part of the 20th century, which led me to believe they are 20th century skills. Apparently, I was in error.

An ode to progressive education.

Who can compete with all that fun as educators prepare the young for their world? See the kiddies happily dancing into the world of tomorrow. However, how sawing wood and pushing toy trucks around can help you learn math or history is not explained.

Meet Kilpatrick, Bagley (a critic of progressive education) and Dewey himself. I think this video is from the 40s.

Teachers speak out on NCLB

In this report by John Merrow of PBS, celebrated teachers speak out against NCLB. The criticisms range from unrealistic expectations to the narrowness of tests. The thrust of the opposition to tests seems to be that the students have amazing abilities that are not captured by the tests. So what if students fail to demonstrate minimal proficiency. There are always these ineffable amazing abilities.

I also like one teacher's plaint that instead of asking for right answers we should ask students to think. Yeah, those false dichotomies again that seem to be an educationist staple. Isn't it possible that thinking could lead to the right answers or that asking for correct answers can stimulate thinking? Of course, this question is purely rhetorical.

Click on "Watch this program online now" at the Merrow Report page to see the video clip.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Decentering Earth

Poor Earth!

First it was knocked out of its central location by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo et al. Now (relatively speaking) comes a popular text called Astronomy Today (Chaisson) that denies its many, probably unique, splendors.

1.1 Our Place in Space

Of all the scientific insights attained to date, one stands out boldly: Earth is neither central nor special. We inhabit no unique place in the universe. Astronomical research, especially within the past few decades, strongly suggests that we live on what seems to be an ordinary rocky planet called Earth, one of nine known planets orbiting an average star called the Sun, a star near the edge of a huge collection of stars called the Milky Way Galaxy, which is one galaxy among countless billions of others spread throughout the observable universe.
But is this true? Is Earth really just an "ordinary rocky planet"? I can think of a number of things that make Earth special. For one thing, amazing luck places it at a distance from the Sun that makes it habitable. The infamous greenhouse effect makes it hospitable and cozy, thanks primarily to water vapor, by far the most important greenhouse gas.* Earth has vast oceans that moderate temperature fluctuations. Goldilock would approve. It has fresh water. It has an atmosphere, and a benign one to boot. Not the poisonous brew of Venus. It has just the right tilt of its axis, held stable by a moon, that gives us our glorious seasons. I mean, its axis could be lying flat on its back like that of Uranus. And we might have 25 years of darkness, alternating with 25 years of relentless sunshine if Earth were Uranus.

*I avoid boiling water to reduce my water vapor footprint.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Gifted drop dead

It is shameful that educationists care so little for the needs of gifted students. The egalitarian dogma and the quest for mediocrity are more important than the well-being and the development of the potential of those unfortunate enough to have been born with above-average abilities:

In many Delaware districts, the gifted are left behind
State offers no funding to teach brightest students

They are bored -- so much so that they may not pay attention in class or will act out in frustration.

Some make poor grades, either because they no longer care or because they have spent so many of their younger years unchallenged that when they suddenly face a rigorous course in middle or high school, they don't know how to study.

They are the nation's gifted children, those with abilities beyond other children their age. Too many of their abilities, advocates argue, remain untapped by U.S. schools that don't serve them as they focus instead on lifting low-achieving students to meet the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Statistically, 20 percent of U.S. school dropouts test in the gifted range, said Jill Adrian, director of family services at the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a nonprofit founded by philanthropists Bob and Jan Davidson out of a concern that the nation's most gifted and talented children largely are neglected and underserved.

Then there is the loss to the nation from wasted talent.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Starved for money

If you listen to Kozol of the land of Kozolnistan, schools are starved for money. On the other hand, money can flow quite freely as this extraordinary report in the Washington Post about D.C.'s school practices shows. It relates how a teacher on the verge of retirement founded an institute to promote Lucy Calkins' dubious theories, instantly got $2.9 million from the school system without a contract, and promptly gave herself a salary of $150,000 among other hugely wasteful activities. All out of love for children:

In spring 2005, Ford said, she was looking for ways to remain active in education after her retirement, scheduled for that summer. Ford said she, Kelly and two other women who had worked at Horace Mann decided to create a nonprofit group to spread enthusiasm for literacy training across D.C. schools. They incorporated the institute March 25 that year, and Ford became president and executive director. Her compensation, which started four months later, is listed as $150,000.
"It was a spontaneous initiative by four of us," Ford said. "We saw this as a huge moral obligation."
Calkins is the draw:

After receiving its funding, the Teachers Institute quickly sent a group of assistant superintendents to New York for training. In the years since, it has sent teachers to visit Calkins's programs and brought staff members from the program to visit District schools. It holds three-day training sessions and monthly study meetings for teachers and principals.

The group has purchased thousands of children's books and provided schools with rugs for children to curl up on while reading.

More waste:

In September 2006, Kelly said, the institute rented a warehouse to store a "vast quantity" of excess books, supplies and electronics that the organization had bought with public funds and whose value Kelly estimated at $100,000.

An Internal Revenue Service filing shows that, for the year that ended in June, the organization spent more than $1 million on "professional development." Over two years, the institute reported spending $244,000 on computers and software, $357,000 on travel and $1.1 million on printing and publications.
In an initial interview, Ford estimated that the institute had 16 employees. Later, she said the number was actually two, explaining that the rest of her staff members were public school teachers detailed to assist the institute.
When The Washington Post questioned an IRS filing by the institute showing that it had spent $94,000 on the unpaid board of directors, an outside accountant for the group determined the number to be a mistake. The accountant, John T. Squire, said the group will file a corrected report to the IRS.
Ford referred many questions about spending and bookkeeping issues to her outside accountants, saying she prefers to keep her focus on the programs aimed at children. Time spent answering questions about finances, she said, detracts from the push to improve reading and writing.
"It is really hard to be diverted from the mission," Ford said. "The kids in the city are running out of time. I just want to do the work."
The kids are running out of time. They desperately need to be saved by Calkins.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Three cheers for Google

Google is pouring its massive resources into developing alternative energy sources:

SAN FRANCISCO - Google Inc. is expanding into alternative energy in its most ambitious effort yet to ease the environmental strain caused by the company's voracious appetite for power to run its massive computing centers.

As part of a project announced Tuesday, the Internet search leader and its philanthropic arm will pour hundreds of millions of dollars into a quest to lower the cost of producing electricity from renewable energy sources such as wind and the sun.
I wish big-money boy Gates would follow suit and get out of the education business, instead of using his billions as a wrecking ball on high schools.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Right to an audience

This is rich!

Alfie thinks he has a right to be heard at taxpayer's expense.

Alfie Kohn Settles Suit
By The Associated Press

The state Department of Education acknowledged Monday it violated the free speech rights of a standardized test critic and agreed to pay him $187,000 to settle his lawsuit over being dumped as a speaker at a state-run conference.

Alfie Kohn, a former teacher who lectures widely, was asked to discuss his views on standardized tests, including the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Systems test, at a 2001 conference on public schooling in the state's western region.

Kohn said state education officials, after learning he planned to focus on his opposition to the MCAS, forced local organizers to cancel his speech after threatening to withdraw $28,000 in state funding. His lawsuit alleged that state officials violated his rights and kept others from hearing his views.

In a statement Monday, the education department acknowledged it had violated Kohn's First Amendment rights [Emphasis added]. In a letter written as part of the settlement, the department said its position "is that vigorous debate about education issues is healthy and welcome."

The suit was filed by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Kohn, a school principal, a counselor and a parent. In the settlement, Kohn will receive $7,500 and his attorneys will get $179,500, the ACLU said.
This could be a precedent for a new get-rich-quick scheme. Demand an audience at taxpayer's expense. If denied, claim huge damages.

My understanding of the 1st amendment is that the state cannot deny your right to free speech (except for yelling fire in the wrong places, etc.), but you have no right to an audience. This case is a scandal. Shame on the education department for squandering public funds.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Radical transformation of high schools flying under the radar

Going largely unnoticed by major media, Gates billions are rapidly and radically transforming high schools and turning them into a homogenized monolith reminiscent of the Gleichschaltung of yore. This extraordinary transformation is driven by a nebulous creed called The 3Rs Solution that "education experts" see as a panacea to real, imagined and misdiagnosed problems:

The good news is we know how to fix our broken high schools. We must base them on a brand new set of 3Rs, identified by education experts as the key ingredients of an effective education:

Rigor: all students need the chance to succeed at challenging classes, such as algebra, writing, and chemistry

Relevance: courses and projects must spark student interest and relate clearly to their lives in today’s rapidly changing world

Relationships: all students need adult mentors who know them, look out for them, and push them to achieve
It's unclear what rigor refers to since schools are forced to choose from 2-3 packages heavy on constructivism (inquiry), the antithesis of rigor. Most likely, "rigor" is thrown in because it sounds good. Just like "excellence". Even the crappiest schools sing the praises of "excellence". It's also unclear what is relevant to today's students. Academic content apparently is not.

What is clear is that choice and content are radically reduced. For example here in Chicago (a major target of the Gates assault), the packages high schools are forced to choose do not contain Earth science, a subject an educated person should know something about. Electives are also flying out the window.

Investment to Transform 50 Chicago High Schools to Ensure Students are Prepared for Success

$21 Million Investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will Strengthen High School College Prep Curriculum and Instruction

When Gates says jump, our clueless mayor, who is running the schools, asks: How high? An astonishing feat considering the mayor's constitution.

Learning foreign languages early

With all this globalization, it is remarkable that so few elementary schools teach foreign languages. Everyone knows that a language is best learned when young. A few districts are wising up as this NYT report shows.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

English through Latin?

In a superb post, rightwingprof takes issue with the suggestion by some that Latin should be taught to learn English grammar. RWP offers many powerful arguments, among them the obserbvation that English grammar is very different from Latin grammar. Why sweat through Latin to learn to distinguish between who and whom? The effort doesn't survive a cost-benefit analysis. I particularly like this analogy:

I’m not saying students shouldn’t study Latin — far from it. I am saying that students shouldn’t study Latin in order to learn about English. It’s like taking apart a jet engine in order to learn how to fix your car. Most of what you learn taking apart the jet engine doesn’t help you with your car engine.
So by all means, let's teach the correct usage of who and whom. And for good measure, let's work on combatting the horrendously ignorant use of "I" when "me" is called for, as in "between you and me" (not "I", aarrgh!). But we don't need the whole enchilada of Latin for that. Also, we don't need to study all of Latin in order to learn Latin plurals and know that the singular of bacteria is bacterium and that data is the plural of datum, or learn Greek to know that the singular of criteria is criterion and the singular of phenomena is phenomenon.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sixth grade Singapore math

Gotta chew on this one.

Sample questions from Singapore's PSLE examination. This examination is given to sixth graders who leave for secondary school. Apparently secondary school starts after sixth grade in Singapore. I can't imagine giving these types of questions to most sixth graders here. At least not at this point.

Apparently, this kind of proficiency can be achieved with Singapore's cheap math booklets.

It ain't the money, it's the quality of the curriculum and instruction.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

No science

When I read stories like this, Science courses nearly extinct in elementary grades, study finds I begin to wonder whether educationists will ever get their act together. What seems to be missing is the notion that the purpose of schools is to teach a few core subjects at a minimum. Science must definitely be part of that core:

The third-graders looked puzzled when asked what they liked best about science. No answer.
OK, then, next question: "What is science?" a visitor asked the children in a hallway at Bessie Carmichael Elementary School in San Francisco.
"Science is like art," said Manuel, 7, who let that cryptic response hang in the air as he ducked away.
He might have meant that both can open the heart to beauty. Or maybe he was saying that science, like art, is something students don't get much of these days in elementary school.
If it were the latter, a new survey of 923 Bay Area elementary school teachers would agree.
About 80 percent of those teachers said they spent less than an hour each week teaching science, according to researchers from the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley and from WestEd, an education think tank based in San Francisco.
In contrast, a national study seven years ago found elementary school science instruction averaged more than two hours per week, said Rena Dorph, the lead researcher on the new study.
"It's alarming because it's a very short amount of time per week dedicated to a subject that's considered a core subject in schools," said Dorph, who is director of the Center for Research, Evaluation and Assessment at the Lawrence Hall of Science.
Understanding science helps children learn to think and solve problems while questioning the world around them, Dorph said.
There is also evidence that people who go into scientific fields generally learned to love science as children, she said.
And as a practical matter, colleges require applicants to have taken science in high school.
"And how are you going to understand high school science if you haven't had it before fifth grade?" Dorph asked.
Then there is the inevitable NCLB excuse:

"The demands of No Child Left Behind have made it almost impossible to devote enough time to science," said Melinda Dart, a fourth-grade teacher at Wilson Elementary School in Daly City's Jefferson Elementary District.
I thought NCLB now requires science teaching.

Part of the problem also seems to be poor teacher education:

-- Ten times as many teachers say they feel unprepared to teach science than feel unprepared to teach math or reading.
This points to a fundamental problem with ed schools. Ed schools don't value academic knowledge and thus elementary teacher training consists mostly of moronic activities devoid of academic content. Once upon a time, teacher training institutions (so-called normal schools) were responsible for both academic knowledge and pedagogy. Ed schools went off the deep end when academic knowledge was divorced from pedagogy and pedagogy floating in a vacuum became their only responsibility. Lacking a meaningful purpose, ed schools needed to find ways to kill time. Vapid courses and frantic, mostly trivial activities were the answer.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Herding cats

Teaching is probably the only profession that is more rewarding and satisfying than herding cats.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Teaching in the inner city

The Chicago Tribune went into a classroom for a year in an inner-city school to observe first hand the challenges faced by teachers. The result is a gripping three-part series: A TRIBUNE SPECIAL REPORT: THE TOUGHEST ASSIGNMENT

Discussions on teaching the disadvantaged usually focus on teachers and ignore the social ills that afflict the disadvantaged:

Part 1: They needed a lifeline and found a teacher
By Stephanie Banchero

Tribune staff reporter

September 1, 2007

At a school where every other reform had failed, Montie Apostolos was the last, best chance for students to succeed.

She had been brought in because she produced impressive gains in reading test scores at her last school. She was tough. Her lessons were rooted in the best research, and she was trained for inner-city schools.

She's an uncompromising, charismatic 56-year-old grandmother with an irresistible life story: She had fought off water cannons, attack dogs and white supremacists to get her own education in the segregated South. Nothing her students faced was going to surprise her.

But on a fall morning last year, at Sherman School of Excellence on Chicago's South Side, Apostolos' steely demeanor met its match.

A baby-faced 8th-grade boy stood at a lectern analyzing a poem. In a squeaky voice, he talked about feeling alone and neglected, like the narrator. And, matter-of-factly, he ticked off events that brought him there.

He had been taken away from his crack-addicted mother. His brother had been shot in the heart and head during a gang fight. His young cousin had died of neglect.

Apostolos suddenly realized what she had to overcome to reach her students. And in a rare unguarded moment, she hurried from the classroom, her eyes brimming with tears.

Apostolos and her class were at the leading edge of a historic experiment at the heart of the No Child Left Behind reforms. Sherman was the first school in Illinois—one a few dozen nationwide—in which the staff was completely overhauled according to federal law.

The perennially underperforming school had been closed in June 2006 after it failed to meet federal testing standards six years in a row. It reopened three months later under the management of Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit group that trains teachers. The academy ran five Chicago schools last year, and is set to open two more Tuesday.

The new management replaced the teachers with hand-picked, skilled educators such as Apostolos.

The stakes were high. Lawmakers debating the renewal of No Child Left Behind were looking for evidence that strong teaching could rescue schools impervious to other reforms.

As a new school year gets under way, the Tribune is examining the first year of Sherman's turnaround, as seen through the eyes of the teacher and studentsin Room 301.

Evidence from that year suggests that a strong and dedicated teacher, backed by a top-notch principal and high-quality professional development, did make a difference.

But the first year also showed that teaching in a low-income, inner-city school can grind down even the most energetic professional.

Apostolos struggled with the uneven academic progress of 34 students—children such as Kyesha Caver, a smart 13-year-old, far ahead of her classmates; Sarah Stevens, a C student who desperately wanted A's; and DJ, who could not focus because of a troubling secret he kept locked inside until he was arrested at the end of the school year. (The Tribune is not using his full name because it does not publish the names of juveniles charged with crimes.)

Apostolos' time to meet their needs was short. Adding to the pressure, she took on the roles of mother, social worker and counselor. By the end of the school year, she had worn down and she wondered whether she belonged in the classroom.


Five weeks into the school year, Apostolos stood in front of her class shaking her head in disgust.

"I'm not going to tell you again," she said to a boy who had draped his body over his desk. "Get your head off the desk and pay attention."

He kept his head buried between his folded arms, eyes squeezed shut.

"Last chance," Apostolos warned. "Get up and go splash some water on your face to help wake you up, or I am going to give you an F for the day."

The boy dragged himself from the seat and sauntered to the door, drawing laughs with his exaggerated slowness.

As the year got under way, Apostolos was taken aback by the lack of interest she saw in many of her students. One boy was removed from the classroom because Apostolos suspected he was high on marijuana. A girl kept falling asleep; she had been staying up late doing laundry for the family.

A boy disappeared for weeks when he ran away from home. A girl missed two weeks because she was afraid she would get beaten up on the way to school.

Apostolos tried to counsel them, discipline them or just ignore their insolence. But she was not about to let them knock her off course.

"You are going to learn," she told the class as she turned to write on the board, "whether you want to or not."

Monday, September 10, 2007

Broadening learning styles

Learning styles are needlessly reduced to too few categories. Here, Dr. Kerry Hempenstall explores Freud's seminal contributions to learning styles.

How could educationists have overlooked these important categories for so long?


Scores go up when questions get easier, a Daily News analysis shows. Daily News exam finds math scores up when difficulty rating went down

When test scores rise, politicians crow that schools are getting better, but a Daily News analysis of recent standardized math exams and a News experiment suggest another reason: The questions might be getting easier.
The site has links to New York state 4th grade math tests for different years.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

SAT challenge

Read the following SAT test question, then click on a button to select your answer.

Note: Figure not drawn to scale.

The circle shown above has center O and a radius of length 5. If the area of the shaded region is 20 pi, what is the value of x?


I like this challenging SAT problem because it demonstrates once again that background knowledge is needed to deploy critical and creative thinking. This should give pause to "critical thinking" advocates who disparage knowledge (known as "content" nowadays).

Here is the reasoning, based on background knowledge, offered by SAT (don't read past this point if you want to solve this problem yourself):

In order to find the value of x, you should first determine the measure of the angle that is located at point O in the right triangle. To determine this angle, you must calculate what fraction of the circle’s area is unshaded. The radius r of the circle is 5 and its area is pi r^2, or 25 pi. The area of the shaded region is 20 pi, so the area of the unshaded region must be 5 pi. Therefore, the fraction of the circle’s area that is unshaded is 5 pi/25 pi, or 1/5. A circle contains a total of 360 degrees of arc, which means that 1/5 of 360 degrees, or 72 degrees, is the measure of the angle at point O in the unshaded region. Since you now know that two of the three angles in the triangle measure 72 degrees and 90 degrees and that the sum of the measures of the three angles is always 180 degrees, the third angle must measure 18 degrees. Therefore, x = 18.

More cold water on "learning styles"

The learning-styles craze has received another well-deserved drubbing from a leading scientist in England. Let's hope "senses working in unison" will gain the upper hand on non-sensical pigeonholing:

Pupils are instead given questionnaires to discover if they prefer to learn through "visual, auditory or kinaesthetic" (Vak) teaching. Once identified, the teacher will allow a visual child to learn through looking at cartoons, pictures and fast-moving computer programmes. A "kinaesthetic" learner will be allowed to spread their work on the floor, wander round while they are thinking or learn through dance and drama. In some schools, pupils' desks are even labelled to indicate their learning styles.

According to Susan Greenfield, however, the practice is "nonsense" from a neuroscientific point of view: "Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain. It is when the senses are activated together - the sound of a voice is synchronisation with the movement of a person's lips - that brain cells fire more strongly than when stimuli are received apart.

Also see the article by cognitive scientist Willingham on teaching in the
subject's best modality.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

CA math

There is no need to keep reinventing the wheel. California math standards look good. Here are California's grade level expectations in math.

Here is a compact version.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Relatively speaking...

Kids and grownups should have fun marveling at these different sizes.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Multiple approaches

There usually are multiple approaches to doing things. For example, if you want to increase the pass rate on tests, you could try to make students more proficient. Conversely, you could dumb down tests as described by Marc Epstein in Dumbing Down the Regents in City Journal.

But the 15 document-related questions are ludicrously easy. The documents include some written passages, but are mostly political cartoons and photographs. Several concern the women’s suffrage movement, such as a photograph of a suffragists’ parade showing women carrying various signs containing the word “suffrage.” The exam question asks, “What was a goal of the women shown in these photographs?” Another photo shows a White House picketer with a banner reading, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” The exam asks the student to state “one method being used by women to achieve their goal.” A third document is a reproduction of a Massachusetts Women’s Suffrage Association poster listing “Twelve Reasons Why Women Should Vote.” All of the reasons on the poster begin with the word “because”: “Because laws affect women as much as men,” for example. The Regents question reads: “What were two arguments suffragists used in this 1915 flier in support of their goal?” To get full credit, all the student has to do is copy two of the reasons from the poster! Other photographs show 1960s civil rights sit-ins. One question: “Identify one method used by these civil rights activists to achieve their goals.” Another question asks the student to name one goal of the activists. And so on.
And then there are the adjustments:

Once teachers have marked the exams, they use a chart created by the state to convert the raw score into a final grade. The extraordinary adjustment built into the chart makes it possible to get only 20 of the 50 multiple-choice questions right and pass the Regents. It’s also possible to complete only one of the two essays and pass. The examiners have created a fail-proof test that measures nothing beyond basic reading and writing competence. It wouldn’t be difficult to train a sixth-grade class that can read and write at grade level to pass the test.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Internet to the rescue

Parents dissatisfied with the fuzzy math plague can go to this site:

No expensive tutor needed. The program provides endless practice of all major topics with immediate feedback. Good for K-8.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Dumb and dumber

Some educationists believe that so-called "21th century skills" means dumbing down the curriculum beyond recognition. Such educationist advice is being followed in England. England is introducing a new curriculum radically stripped of content in favor of "life skills." All this is reminiscent of the Cardinal Principles of 1918, the embodiment of the Progressive war against the academic curriculum. Perhaps Marx was on to something when he observed (a paraphrase): History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

Churchill and Hitler are out. Olaudah is in:

Secondary schools will strip back the traditional curriculum in favour of lessons on debt management, the environment and healthy eating, ministers revealed.

Even Winston Churchill no longer merits a mention after a drastic slimming-down of the syllabus to create more space for "modern" issues.

Along with Hitler, Gandhi, Stalin and Martin Luther King, the former prime minister has been dropped from a list of key figures to be mentioned in history teaching.

This means pupils may no longer hear about his stirring speeches during the Second World War, when he told Parliament that defeating Hitler would be Britain's "finest hour".

The only individuals now named in guidance accompanying the curriculum are anti-slavery campaigners Olaudah Equiano and William Wilberforce.

The omission of Churchill added to a growing row over Labour reforms to secondary education - the most radical since the national curriculum was introduced in 1988.

Critics warned traditional subject disciplines were being stripped of key content and used to promote fashionable causes and poorly-defined "life skills".

They said that while the two World Wars remain on the curriculum as broad topics the failure to specify teaching on Churchill - while naming other individuals - downgraded his importance.

The move was called "madness" by his grandson Nicholas Soames, the Tory MP.

"It is absurd. I expect he wasn't New Labour enough for them," he said.

Tory spokesman on children Michael Gove added: "Winston Churchill is the towering figure of twentieth century British history.

"His fight against fascism was Britain's finest hour. Our national story can't be told without Churchill at the centre."

Schools are also being told to tear up the timetable of eight lessons a day and introduce classes lasting a few minutes - or several hours - by mixing different subjects together.

Five-minute lessons on spelling, French or German could be "drip-fed" throughout the day.

The architect of the new curriculum, Dr Ken Boston, insisted traditional approaches had been "exhausted".

The slimline regime is being introduced amid concerns that teachers do not have enough time to ensure youngsters master the three Rs.
Meet the architect of the new curriculum. Would you buy a used car from this man?

The justification given by this architect of the new curriculum for this stripped-down curriculum is rather puzzling and sounds more like demented babbling:

Dr Boston said the changes were necessary because the rise in education standards throughout the Western world was "slowing down".

"In some countries, it has reached a glass ceiling through which it cannot break," he said.

"The traditional approach to covering the syllabus has been exhausted: it has delivered all it can: it will work no more."

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Doing chemical experiments like throwing sodium or potassium into water is not without risks. As a matter of fact, it's very dangerous.

Who would have thought that experimenting with math can also be hazardous? This is what happened when a fellow foolishly divided by zero.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Spreading the blame

Jumping on teachers for educational shortcomings is a sport in some quarters. In a welcome corrective, Diane Ravitch looks at the role students need to play in the educational enterprise:

When the time comes to talk about solutions, the conversation and the remedies always seem to focus on teachers. The line goes like this: Our students are not learning because our teachers are not smart enough, are lazy, don't care, get paid regardless of their effectiveness, and so on.

So, once again, out come the usual solutions to our nation's education problems: Incentivize teaching. End tenure. Adopt schemes for merit pay, performance pay, bonus pay. Pay teachers according to the test scores of their students. If student test scores go up, their teachers get more money. If student test scores don't go up, their teachers get extra professional development, and if need be, are fired.

After sitting through another day of discussion in which the teacher was identified as the chief cause of our nation's education woes, I felt that something was amiss. It's not as if there is a failure to weed out ineffective teachers — about 40% who enter the profession will leave within their first five years, frustrated by their students' lack of effort, their administrators' heavy hand, unpleasant physical conditions in their workplace, or their own inability to cope with the demands of the classroom.

I have not met all three million of our nation's teachers, but every one that I have met is hardworking, earnest, and deeply committed to their students. All of them talk about parental lack of support for children, about a popular culture that ridicules education and educators, and about the frustrations of trying to awaken a love of learning in children who care more about popular culture, their clothing, and their social life than mastering the wonders of science, history, and mathematics.

Home life has the greatest influence on a child's success or failure in school. It shapes the behavior of the child. It is where values and attitudes are communicated. Home life can be intellectually stimulating or impoverished. Attempts to remedy educational disparities also need to focus on this neglected aspect:

We will continue to misdiagnose our educational needs until we focus on the role of students and their families. If they don't give a hoot about education, if the students are unwilling to pay attention in class and do their homework after school, if they arrive in school with a closed and empty mind, don't blame their teachers.
UPDATE; Judging by most of the responses to my post, the thesis is widely misunderstood. I'm concerned with the environment parents create simply by being, i.e.having or lacking certain attributes. These attributes can be any number of things, e.g. providing a loving and nurturing environment conducive to the healthy emotional development of the child; valuing respect for others and teaching good manners; attaching value to education; providing an intellectually stimulating environment even in incidental ways. Contrast this with dysfunction and psycho- and sociopathology as is so often the case, a pathology that poses nearly insurmountable obstacles to education and perpetuates stratification. The thesis does not concern itself with minutiae like school board relations.

In this respect the thesis seems unremarkable.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Math textbook reviews

It is quite difficult to navigate around the Mathematically Correct site when looking for specific math textbook reviews. There is no search function. Updating is also sporadic and it is not possible to tell at a glance which entries are new or the date of other entries. Important articles like Barry Garelick's Miracle Math and An A-Maze-ing Approach To Math are not linked (at least I haven't been able to find links).

I did find a page that puts together reviews of second, fifth and seventh grade math textbooks in a handy fashion.

Glencoe/McGraw-Hill Pre-Algebra, an Integrated Transition to Algebra and Geometry comes out on top for seventh grade in these reviews. On the other hand, amazon reviewers panned this textbook. Where is the truth?

I use Scott Foresman/Addison Wesley Middle School Math and am quite happy with it.

Dale Seymour Publications Connected Mathematics Program gets an F from mathematically correct. CMP is a cult item in many districts, including here in Chicago.

It's worth citing the review for fun. I particularly like phrases like these: "If this topic is covered, it is extremely difficult to find." Also this: "Fractions [1.0] This topic is missing or cryptic."

Mathematically Correct Seventh Grade Mathematics Review
Dale Seymour Publications
Connected Mathematics Program
Lappan, Fey, Fitzgerald, Friel and Phillips
Menlo Park



This is part of a series of second, fifth, and seventh grade Mathematics Program Reviews. This review includes a summary of the structure of the program, evaluations of a selected set of content areas, and evaluations of program quality. Ratings in these areas were made on a scale from 1 (poor) to 5 (outstanding). The overall evaluation was made using the traditional system of letter grades. For details of the methods used in this evaluation see Methods for Seventh Grade Program Reviews.

Student Text Structure

This course is composed of 8 "books" of about 70-90 pages each.

Each book is arranged around a mathematical topic

1. Variables and patterns
2. Stretching and shrinking
3. Comparing and scaling
4. Accentuate the negative
5. Moving straight ahead
6. Filling and wrapping
7. What do you expect?
8. Data around us

Content Area Evaluations

Properties, Order of Operations [1.0]

If this topic is covered, it is extremely difficult to find. In any case, the coverage is insufficient.

Exponents, squares, roots [1.0]

This topic is very weak. Positive integers are raised to whole number powers only in the context of prime factorization. The small coverage of scientific notation includes only positive integer exponents and heavily emphasizes the use of calculators. All other topics are completely absent.

Fractions [1.0]

This topic is missing or cryptic.

Decimals [1.0]

None of these topics are presented in this book. Expressing decimals as percents is assumed. Perhaps students were taught to make this conversion on their calculators in an earlier grade.

Percents [1.2]

There is no evidence of development of this topic in this book. At the start of book 3 "percent" is described as one of the "terms developed in previous units." Perhaps so, but if so, the level of development was low. There is certainly no teaching of percent. Some percent problems are intermixed with ratio problems in the various exercises, but there is no instruction on interconverting fractions, decimals and percents. There are almost no word problems on discount, markups, commissions, increase or decrease. Some "scale factors" for similarity are expressed as percents.

Proportions [3.5]

This is an adequate treatment of this topic. Most of the grade 7 topics are covered at some level. It is interesting that although proportions are used relatively often, by the standards of this book, they are not referred to as such as the authors have decided to put "proportion" in the list of nonessential terms at the front of the book.

Expressions and Equations - Simplifying and Solving [1.1]

This book is devoid of algebraic manipulation. The only solving of equations is graphical, and that is limited to problems involving direct variation. It is difficult to see how a student can become prepared for any mathematics-based profession with this little instruction in the key skills leading to algebra.

Expressions and Equations - Writing [2.1]

This book has a heavy emphasis on using proportions to find the lengths of similar parts of similar figures. On the other hand, there is very little practice or instruction in writing equations from a verbal description. The problems related to this topic are stretched over an excessive period of time as students answer endless questions about the situation. Essentially all of these problems are dealt with via tables and then in a graphical context.

Graphing [4.0]

The one advantage of the heavy emphasis that this book places on graphical over analytic solutions is that graphing is covered moderately well. Nearly all topics that should be covered are covered.

Shapes, Objects, Angles, Similarity, Congruence [2.5]

Formulas and derivations, or even "discoveries" of area of two dimensional figures are not given. They may be assumed to have been mastered at an earlier year. Surface area and volume are "discovered" in a long series of construction projects, many of which look doomed to failure. At the end of this formulas that have been discovered are not explicitly stated in the text. The teacher's manual suggests that the appropriate formulae will "come out" in discussion. If the student discovered the wrong formula, or forgot to write it down, good luck, since there is no way to look back and remember a formula.

The exercises on finding volumes of irregular objects using displacement are interesting extensions. On the other hand, much of the teaching is absurd and again abjures analysis for experiment. For example, students spend who-knows-how-much-time filling cylinders and cones with beans to discover, approximately, the relationship between the volume of cylinders and the volume of cones. This is a waste of time and inaccurate. Unfortunately, this could describe many of the activities in this book.

Area, Volume, Perimeter, Distance [1.0]

Essentially none of the grade 7 level topics are covered. They may be assumed from previous years, but one cannot assume that from the presentation.

Program Quality Evaluations

Mathematical Depth [1.7]

There is very little mathematical content in this book. Students leaving this course will have no background in or facility with analytic or pre-algebra skills.

Quality of Presentation [1.4]

This book is completely dedicated to a constructivist philosophy of learning, with heavy emphasis on discovery exercises and rejection of whole class teacher directed instruction. The introduction to Part 1 says "Connected Mathematics was developed with the belief that calculators should be available and that students should decide when to use them." In one of the great understatements, the Guide to the Connected Mathematics Curriculum states, "Students may not do as well on standardized tests assessing computational skills as students in classes that spend" time practicing these skills.

Quality of Student Work [1.5]

Students are busy, but they are not productively busy. Most of their time is directed away from true understanding and useful skills.

Overall Program Evaluation

Overall Evaluation [1.7]

This rating is perhaps deceivingly high, as 7 of the 11 topics rate no higher than 1.2. The rating is as high as it is based largely on two high subscores, proportions and graphing. It is impossible to recommend a book with as little content as this and an inefficient, if philosophically attractive, instructional method.