Thursday, September 29, 2005

Politicized math

An outfit called Rethinking Schools opines that being for solid math instruction and against turning math into a political circus is committing a "right-wing" act. Shouting "right-wing" is a poor substitute for an argument.

We think Diane Ravitch and her fellow right-wing pundits have gotten multiculturalism -- and us -- all wrong.


In June Ravitch penned a Wall Street Journal opinion piece lambasting multicultural approaches to teaching mathematics. And she singled out our new book Rethinking Mathematics for special scorn.

Quoting from the table of contents -- in a manner that suggests she never bothered to read further -- she decried the book for trying to make math education culturally relevant to the children actually being served by U.S. public schools.

Ravitch accused Rethinking Schools -- and math teachers who believe in multiculturalism -- of abandoning academic rigor in favor of "political correctness."

Other right-wing pundits quickly took up Ravitch's chant and Rethinking Mathematics became a lightning rod for right-wing pundits and bloggers. Notably, Baltimore Sun columnist Gregory Kane -- who also seemed content to scan the book's table of contents and read no further -- blasted away at Rethinking Schools and multiculturalism.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Materialist fallacy

Conventional wisdom has it that educational failure is solely due to insufficient funding and can be remedied by pumping more money into the system. Even though many districts would benefit from the infusion of more funds if used wisely, ultimately this conventional wisdom constitutes a misdiagnosis of educational failure. The key culprits for this failure are the curriculum and instructional methods as well as the cultural values of the students and parents.

This point was driven home in spectacular fashion by a multi-billion grand experiment in Kansas City that resulted in abysmal failure:

For decades critics of the public schools have been saying, "You can't solve educational problems by throwing
money at them." The education establishment and its supporters have replied, "No one's ever tried." In Kansas City they did try. To improve the education of black students and encourage desegregation, a federal judge invited the Kansas City, Missouri, School District to come up with a cost-is-no object educational plan and ordered local and state taxpayers to find the money to pay for it.

Kansas City spent as much as $11,700 per pupil--more
money per pupil, on a cost of living adjusted basis, than any
other of the 280 largest districts in the country. The money
bought higher teachers' salaries, 15 new schools, and such
amenities as an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, and field trips to Mexico and Senegal. The student-teacher ratio was 12 or 13 to 1, the lowest of any major school district in the country.

The results were dismal. Test scores did not rise; the
black-white gap did not diminish; and there was less, not
greater, integration.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Tales out of ed school

While going through ed school I had the dubious pleasure of encountering postmodernism and "critical pedagogy" on several occasions. One such occasion was a course required for middle grades endorsement. The only book used in the course was called Affirming Middle Grades Education edited by Carl W. Walley and W. Gregory Gerrick (Allyn and Bacon).

A nebulous title like that does not bode well and indeed the book is about all kinds of things except academic achievement. You'll find chapter headings and topics like Middle Grades Teacher Advisory System (this is big), Interdisciplinary and Interthematic Curriculum Designs (educationists are obsessed with interdisciplinary and thematic units, more often than not contrived), Morally Responsive Teaching, Team Teaching, Community Building...

The weirdest chapter was The Excluded Middle: Postmodern Conceptions of the Middle School. It's couched in thick postmodern jargon and obsessed with "power arrangements". It argues for a "fundamental shift away from the status quo power arrangements. The survival of the planet is at stake." Education must no longer serve "social structures" (whatever that is) and "unjust power arrangements" and embrace a "postmodern vision." The author urges that "society must be the function of education," as John Dewey and George Counts are said to have "insisted". Apparently this means that "the primary focus of education" must be the improvement of society and the creation of a "just, caring and ecologically sustainable community." Middle schools must adopt this vision or students and teachers will never be "empowered".

Schools must move away from "linear organization of curriculum on scope and sequence charts...mastering proficiency in discrete skills...memorizing officially sanctioned information (could the author mean academic subjects?)...accountability...written tests..." The author proclaims that we "have now entered a postmodern era" despite those who cling to "hegemonic schooling structures." Postmodern education "promotes diversity, understanding and a new social imagination with 'multiple points of consent.'"

What should education be about? Condemning "modern power structures." What will be "the hallmark of postmodern learning environments?" You guessed it! "Multiculturalism; eclecticism; cooperative practices; interdisciplinary experiences; community based projects; racial and gender inclusiveness; ecological and spiritual sensibilities; shared power arrangements; just economic structures that support health, nutrition and psychological well-being of all citizens..."

So education is all about welcoming some "structures" and condemning other "structures". The "structures" that education "must be prophetic" in condeming turn out to be, once again, "modern power structures."

I would have liked to learn some specifics about these nefarious "modern power structures," but apparently the author feels they are self-evident and that repeating the phrase endlessly is sufficient. This is odd since these "modern power structures" that education must not serve (how is education serving them now?) are evil incarnate and "have resulted in holocausts, genocide, starvation, ecological destruction, massive poverty, slavery, patriarchal domination, colonization, environmental degradation and other horrors of the twentieth century." They surely deserve to be described in great detail so we can recognize them and stare them in the face en masse.

The author issues this dire warning: "If education does not focus on these issues, then it is complicit in the continuing modern holocausts."

Adopt the ill-defined postmodern stew or you are a criminal!

This is some of the crap prospective teachers must endure to become "certified."

BTW, the author of this chapter is Patrick Slattery, Associate Professor of Education at Texas A&M University where he teaches "curriculum theory" and "foundations in education" among other things.

Mindless middle school games

The Education Wonks have a hair-raising report on the mindless goings-on at a middle school. It seems that middle schoolism is taken to new heights with a dash of social engineering:

Wacky Wednesday: Several times per month, kids participate in a series of activities at lunch time designed to get them even more wired before they come into our afternoon classrooms. Examples include the notorious eat-the-candied necklace-off-a-member-of-the-opposite-sex contest, the raw-egg/ toss, water-balloon slingshot hit-the-kid contest, and Fun With Shaving Cream.

The Monthly Dance: Right after school, our 12-14 year-old students get to spend an hour-and-a-half bumping and grinding (and what they call freak dancing) in a darkened room while teachers and administrators blithely look on. (No parents are ever to be seen.)

And then there are those extra-curricular activities that are tailored to a more specific group of kids:

Annual Turkey Trot: This little time waster contest occurs right after lunch one day during the week before Thanksgiving. While the whole school is watching, our more athletic types run through an obstacle course. Students with the best times are awarded large trophies.

What was once called "The Christmas Mile" then, "The Holiday Mile," and now, "The Winter Mile:" In the week before winter vacation, in the late morning, our student athletes once again get the opportunity to demonstrate their prowess in front of their lesser-fit classmates by running one mile around the school's track. The girls go first, and then the boys. Large trophies are awarded to the winners.

Powder Puff Football Game: This annual throwback spring-time homage to a time of more gender-specific roles innocence features our more popular girls on the field playing flag football while our male athletes perform cheerleading routines in short skirts, falsies, and pom-poms. Again, the entire school gets to watch right after lunch, usually on a Friday afternoon.
There is much more. Read the whole thing.

Middle schoolism

Middle schools are a major target of an anti-intellectual movement dubbed "middle schoolism" that sees middle schools more like a psychiatric ward than a place for academic achievement. In fact, it is hostile to academic achievement.

Now the veil is ripped off the ugly face of middle schoolism in a just-released
major study by the Fordham Foundation.

The study concludes that middle schoolism together with be lingering effects of the bizarre theory of "brain periodization" should be consigned to history's dustbin.

As a teacher of middle graders I know first-hand that early adolescents are perfectly capable of academic achievement and are not the dysfunctional monsters the movement would have us believe they are.

Excerpt from The Education Gladfly:

Fie on Middle Schoolism

If ever an education fad showed dreadful timing, reaching its intellectual and political pinnacle just as lightning struck the mountaintop, it's "middle schoolism." The key year was 1989, when the middle school bible, an influential Carnegie-backed report named Turning Points, was published. It hit just as the governors and then-President Bush gathered in Charlottesville to place the United States squarely astride the standards-based reform that is antithetical to the central message of this education religion.

In the ensuing decade and a half, the National Middle School Association (NMSA) and its acolytes, flying the banner of Turning Points and arguing that the middle grades are no time for academic learning, argued with great success that these schools should be devoted to social adjustment, coping with hormonal throbs, and looking out for the needs of the "whole child."

That is the essence of middle schoolism as set forth in a stunning new Fordham report by Cheri Pierson Yecke. It's a jeremiad drawing upon gobs of evidence that show the middle grades are where U.S. student achievement begins its fateful plunge and where a growing number of other nations begins to outpace us.

You can access the middle school report here.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Semantic fraud

If you thought "multicultural" education had anything to do with learning about different cultures, world history or perhaps languages or an appreciation for , say, Indian food and exotic dances, a leading guru of "multiculturalism" will quickly disabuse you.

It's about something totally different:

The underlying goal of multicultural education is to affect [sic] social change. The pathway toward this goal incorporates three strands of transformation:

the transformation of self;
the transformation of schools and schooling; and
the transformation of society.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Polski3's complaint

Teacher and fellow blogger Polski3 left an interesting comment here on the vast amounts of history that need to be crammed into one year according to the California framework. This necessarily leads to the most suferficial treatment of history topics.

"....Teach the subject matter in depth".

This would be nice. But, here in California (and I am sure many teachers in other states are subjected to this), I have to teach what is mandated by our State Dept. of Ed. via their frameworks.

I am currently teaching Grade 7 History, which, according to the framework, includes the end of the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, European Middle Ages (including the history and influence of the Christian Church, Medieval life and institutions, the Crusades, the Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution, Age of Reason, Age of Discovery, Age of Revolutions), Survey of Islam and development of Islamic Empire and its Contributions, 'Medieval' African Empires and Cultures, 'Medieval' China and Japan and the major PreColumbian Native cultures of Middle and South America.

This is a ton of material to try to cover with my 175 mostly 11-13 year olds, most of whom did not study early US History in Grade 5 or Ancient History in Grade 6 (also as per State framework) because "they are not tested on social studies" while in grade school. BUT, they are tested on this material in Grade 8.

It would be great to teach some of the above in depth.....especially such personally interesting topics as the Crusades, Black Death, Vikings, Chinese Inventions and Discoveries, the Mongols and their Empire, etc. But I can't teach any of this in depth. I have to 'get through the standards'. They have to be ready for THE TEST.
A much better approach would be to spread out the teaching of history over many grades, beginning in the early grades. But this would run smack into one of the most sacred and pervasive dogmas of progressive/constructivist ideology: the dogma known as expanding horizons and any number of other names. As a result, the early grades are a content-free wasteland as far as the teaching of history (and geography for that matter) is concerned.

This problem is compounded by the lack of history testing in earlier grades.
As Polski3 points out, although the framework requires history in earlier grades it doesn't get taught because "they are not tested on social studies." No tests, no teaching. This points up the need for testing on the one hand and explains educationist hostility to testing on the other. Hostility because it would force educationists to do something they don't want to do: teach content. (Educationist is my shorthand for followers of the progressive/constructivist faith).

From the Fordham Foundation's study called Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?:

The same is true in education, and specifically in the social studies: you have to possess some basic skills and knowledge before you can begin to tackle the higher tasks of analysis and critical thinking. Content knowledge is also the backbone of good teaching. To be effective, pedagogy must begin by identifying the specific knowledge a teacher expects students to learn and establishing clear assessment procedures. Only then can teachers begin to determine how to teach content to their students.

Unfortunately, the delivery of content in elementary social studies is frequently hampered by two popular but misguided theories— "expanding environments" and "constructivism." Both are ineffective because they focus on how social studies should be taught in elementary classrooms rather than on the content knowledge that should be the centerpiece for teaching and learning.

Expanding environments is the basic curriculum that most states, textbook companies, and curriculum leaders use to organize elementary (K-6) social studies, and it has dominated elementary school social studies for nearly 75 years. The basic premise is that at each grade level, each year, students are exposed to a slowly widening social environment that takes up, in turn, self/home (kindergarten), families (1st grade), neighborhoods (2nd), communities (3rd), state (4th), country (5th), and world (6th). While this approach appears to provide an organized curricular sequence, it lacks substantial content, especially in the early elementary grades, and children tend to find its narrow focus deeply boring. In fact, expanding environments actually impedes content knowledge because of its trivial and repetitious sequence. For example, students in grades K-3 are taught about "community helpers" like mail carriers, milkmen, and fire fighters. Such lessons are superfluous (what kindergartener does not know about firefighters?) but more damagingly do not even begin to lay the groundwork for later study of history, heroes, struggles, victories, and defeats. Instead, they limit children's instruction to persons and institutions with which children are already familiar.

Constructivism is a theory that holds that humans learn when they analyze, interpret, create, and construct meaning from experience and knowledge. At its root is a belief that only self-discovered knowledge is understood and remembered. Constructivists believe that students must be self-directed while learning in order to create their own meaningful experiences that will be retained when moving forward in life. While there is no doubt that some worthwhile learning may occur this way, it is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve self-created meaning unless specific content knowledge is a prerequisite.

Proponents of both approaches—expanding environments and constructivism—stress the importance of active learning over content knowledge as a necessary component of historical or geographical understanding. Yet just as the chess player needs to know how to move the pieces before he or she can begin the process of mastering chess, the elementary student needs content knowledge as the basis of thinking critically about history, civics, geography, economics, and all the other disciplines that make up the social studies. Content knowledge, we argue, must come first when making teaching and learning decisions.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The importance of domain knowledge

A rich vocabulary and fluency are generally recognized as essential elements required for reading comprehension. Another key element -- domain knowledge -- is getting short shrift under the dominant anti-knowledge ed credo known as progressive/constructivist education. The focus is on fiction and abstract comprehension strategies when endless time is not spent on often trivial hands-on activities and projects.

Let's hope this forthcoming book by E. D. Hirsch will help curtail the prevailing worst practices.

New Book on Reading by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., to Be Called The Knowledge Deficit

Press Release

Charlottesville, VA August 25, 2005 —This March, Houghton Mifflin will publish a new book by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., that will answer questions plaguing educators all across the country. Why do American children fail to perform as well as children in other industrialized countries? Why, after fourth grade, do students experience a slump in reading comprehension? Why, despite federal government spending of a billion dollars a year on the Reading First program, do so many schools fail to meet the goals established by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)?

The book, entitled The Knowledge Deficit, answers these questions not by looking at funding or legislation, but by looking at what children are actually being taught. This, says Hirsch, is where the problem lies. Our children are not learning how to read because they are subjected to a watered-down curriculum that fails to build the background knowledge essential to reading comprehension. Many schools excel at teaching the mechanics of reading, at giving kids the decoding skills they need to make out individual words. However, by fourth grade, students’ deficit in background knowledge trips them up. A steady diet of fictional stories and instruction in abstract thinking skills leaves students starved for facts ─ facts about history, geography, science, literature, mathematics, music, and art. Because of their knowledge deficit, students cannot comprehend the texts they are asked to read in fourth grade and beyond.

Hirsch not only diagnoses the problem with reading in America and explains why students are failing to make adequate yearly progress under NCLB, he also shows how these problems can be corrected. This book builds upon decades of research into school curricula that Hirsch has conducted since his best-selling Cultural Literacy captured the American imagination in the 1980s. The new book is likely to be a bombshell, blasting to smithereens the received ideas of the education school thoughtworld that determine what and how kids are being taught in America today.

Drawing on extensive scholarship and vast knowledge of cognitive psychology, as well as on recent practical experience in school reform, Hirsch points the way out of our current morass, showing educators, policy makers, and parents how we can overcome the achievement gap that leaves poor students, who are disproportionately black and Hispanic, behind. Only by doing this, says Hirsch, can we fulfill the democratic imperative that first drove the creation of America’s public schools.