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.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Girl math

I got a good laugh out of this clip from the Simpsons.

I don't know if it is still being seriously argued in some feminist quarters that it is necessary to take the "male" bias out of math to make math accessible to girls. In my own experience teaching math to middle graders, I find that girls do very well with real math, for the most part better than boys.

In any event, the clip is funny at least as a museum piece.

Hat tip: Mindless Math Mutterings

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Costly fantasy

The NYT reports on the creation of a Creation Museum. In this fantasy version of evolutionary history, prehistoric kids get to mingle and cavort with dinosaur buddies. However, I don't like the look of these dinosaurs. Their legs look like corncobs.


NYC Educator demonstrates that teaching similes can take unexpected turns.

Fifth grade honors math

An Illinois school district in the Chicago suburbs reveals its Fifth Grade Honors Mathematics Curriculum.

This is nicely ambitious and to be accomplished with fuzzy math materials. From the first trimester:

Students will use the four phases of problem solving (understand, plan, carry out and look back).

+ Students will represent a problem and its solution by working backwards and by using logic charts.

+ Students will estimate reasonable answers using a variety of strategies including compatible numbers and high and low range.

+ Students will demonstrate an understanding of exponents, square roots, prime numbers and order of operations.

+ Students will demonstrate an understanding of fractions and how they relate to each other and to whole numbers using concrete models, drawings, and mathematical symbols.

+ Students will demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between mixed numbers and improper fractions.

+ Students will add and subtract fractions with like and unlike denominators.

+ Students will add and subtract mixed numbers.
From the second trimester (excerpt):

Students will be able to read, write, compare and order decimals, fractions and percents.
+ Students will be able to compute accurately with fractions and decimals.
+ Students will see the relationship between fractions, decimals, and percents.


Students will select appropriate computational strategies for solving ratio, proportion, and percent problems.
+ Students will conduct investigations involving rates.
+ Students will solve non-routine problems using a variety of strategies and resources.
There are also very helpful suggestions (including links to math sites) on how parents can get involved:

Work with your child in his/her acquisition of multiplication and division facts up to 12.

· Play games that use strategic skills, such as chess, Rush Hour, Mancala, and Set.

· Discuss real life scenarios where rate, ratios and proportions are used. For example compare similar items in a grocery story for content and price, how much distance can be covered at a certain mph and how many miles per gallon your vehicle yields.

· Mentally estimate sales tax, tips, and percent off in the real world.

· Cook and build with your child including measurement and proportion.

· Use logical reasoning and math skills when planning events such as parties. Include serving side, total amounts, price per person, etc.
I am teaching math to the disadvantaged in the city and can only dream of such proficiency.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Fallacious anti-testing arguments

Joanne Jacobs quotes Right on the Left Coast: Views From a Conservative Teacher on objections to a driver test. Seen this way, the case made by the anti-testing crowd evaporates into thin air.

I am completely against this new testing regime for the following reasons:

1. It stifles the creativity of drivers.
2. It's not testing the "whole driver".
3. There's plenty that goes into driving that can't be evaluated by a machine.
4. This is just "drill and kill"--why aren't they testing critical thinking skills, which the research shows is more important to driving than merely being able to see?
5. This is a one-size-fits-all, high stakes test.
6. Why should we test, anyway? Testing doesn't make anyone a better driver.

This is all very funny when applied to a driver test. But these are the exact same arguments the anti-testing crowd applies to academic subjetcs.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Soliciting ed guru advice

I need advice from constructivist ed gurus.

Over and over, I run into this bit of "insight" from constructivists: "Knowledge is constructed by the learner from experience." First, I was beaten over the head with this "insight" in ed school. Now I see it at constructivist sites like this one.

What does it mean? How does it work in practice?

I tried to put it to the test. I decided I want to know something about Tang and Song China. According to constructivists, I need to construct that knowledge from experience. What should I do? I don't have any experience with Tang and Song China. I live now, not in the era of Tang and Song China. Then I hit on a brilliant idea: time travel. I tried cranking up that rusty, old time machine. It didn't work. Now I am trying to construct without experience but with the help of a hat. I am trying to pull the knowledge out of a hat. Ain't working either. I guess I'll just settle for a book and ignore the constructivist piffle.

My conclusion is that either constructivists keep repeating the same nonsense (probably due to a lack of critical thinking ability), or there is something I am not getting. I suspect the former.

Ed guru advice welcome.

On the same site I find this gem:

Radical constructivists do not advocate goals, sequential instruction, aids to learning, or restrictions on content for learners because each learner is unique and educators do not know what the learners need or want to learn.
I've got news for these "educators": In my experience, a lot of "learners" don't know what they need either. As for wanting to learn: Forget it!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

"Social justice" assault

Sol Stern of City Journal wrote a lengthy and troubling report for on growing leftist indoctrination in public schools and ed schools under the "social justice" label. (Teaching for “Social Justice” -- The Leftist Assault on America’s Public Schools).

Publicly funded institutions should not be used as a vehicle for someone's political passions.

From the introduction:

Among all the ailments that America’s public schools face, one of
the least known but most menacing is the effort by the radical left
to bully present and prospective teachers into using their classrooms
to indoctrinate students in the anti-American and anti-democratic
ideology that goes under the name of “teaching for social justice.” This movement has already achieved some of its aims, as the proliferation
of social justice themed schools in many of our nation’s school districts shows. The teaching for social justice movement threatens not only the children who are targeted for leftist political brainwashing, but it undermines whatever is left of the common democratic ideal of American public education. If the social justice educators achieve their objectives, more and more parents are bound to lose confidence in the public schools. Without parental support there is no public in public education.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Math myths demystified

This excellent math myth debunking effort has been out now for two years and is still fresh. A sign that myths don't age easily. Educationists claim that knowledge (which educationists call "information") need not be acquired because it changes so rapidly that it virtually becomes obsolete overnight. Not true as I demonstrated here. Now if only myths would become obsolete as quickly as knowledge supposedly does. Reading myths are also nearly indestructible like viruses.

Humor -- Automation gone wild

Among the things that bug me endlessly are stupid phone menus that give endless choices (press nine if you want help). The problem is compounded by the introduction of voice recognition. Very often voice recognition has a hearing impediment. Since computers are idiots savants who lack common sense, can't think and lack real-world knowledge and experience, the result is more frustration.

But of course it is cheaper to hire a computer than a real person who often can't think either, despite all the emphasis on "critical thinking."

Automation has also made inroads into an unlikely place: the Catholic Church. To cope with an acute shortage of priests, the Church in Spain is experimenting with the automation of confessionals.

(In Spanish)

I particularly like the part where the confessor punches in "one" twice and the computer reads "eleven".

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Bayeux Tapestry animated

To go to the original site.

Poison from China

Today's NYT has a huge story on how counterfeiters in China produce poison that ends up in medicine and is killing thousands, especially children.

From China to Panama, a Trail of Poisoned Medicine

The kidneys fail first. Then the central nervous system begins to misfire. Paralysis spreads, making breathing difficult, then often impossible without assistance. In the end, most victims die.
Many of them are children, poisoned at the hands of their unsuspecting parents.

The syrupy poison, diethylene glycol, is an indispensable part of the modern world, an industrial solvent and prime ingredient in some antifreeze.

It is also a killer. And the deaths, if not intentional, are often no accident.

Over the years, the poison has been loaded into all varieties of medicine — cough syrup, fever medication, injectable drugs — a result of counterfeiters who profit by substituting the sweet-tasting solvent for a safe, more expensive syrup, usually glycerin, commonly used in drugs, food, toothpaste and other products.

This makes me sick. Instead of executing people on demand to harvest their organs for transplants, Chinese authorities should concentrate more on clamping down on criminal counterfeiters. It's time to rethink the love affair with supercheap products from China made under horrendous working conditions and the exploitation of labor.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Obscurantism in academia

In an earlier post called History is knowable, teachable and testable, I called attention to the controversy surrounding the Florida legislature's view that history has a factual basis that can be taught. This seems like an odd controversy. Of course there are verifiable facts. Settlers did come to this country. The Founding Fathers did write certain documents. There was slavery and a Civil War. Lincoln was president and was assassinated and so on. It seems ridiculous to be making this argument.

What seems like a ridiculous argument turns out to be a necessary argument when one immerses oneself in the febrile, lunatic and obscurantist world of postmodernism that holds sway in the academy. In this hallucinatory postmodern world in academia, facts no longer have an independent, objective existence and don't count. Instead, they are produced at will. According to one professor, what counts as an argument is not that it be supported by verifiable facts but that it "coincide with our political convictions and cultural attitudes."

One can get a sense of this abandonment of reason by reading an article on the perversions of Middle East archaeology that appeared in All this seems esoteric and one has to be something of a masochist to expose oneself to the dreadful postmodern cant, but I think it is relevant because eventually this lunacy will trickle down to pre-collegiate education:

“Postmodernizing” Archaeology at Barnard
By Candace de Russy May 4, 2007
Nadia Abu El-Haj is an assistant professor at Barnard College who deserves more scrutiny from everyone interested in the degenerate methods by which great universities are destroyed.
The greatness of modern, western-style universities – the thing that separates them from all the academies that went before them – is that facts and theories asserted in universities must be supported by verifiable evidence. At the old academies, an appeal to Aristotle, Confucius, or the Bible was enough to support an idea. In the modern university, theories are judged by Occam’s razor, explanatory value, and verifiability of the supporting facts.
El-Haj is a young cultural anthropologist of the purely theoretical school. She has written a book entitled Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, which was sent to me by a group of scholars calling themselves the Va’ad ha-Emet (Hebrew for Truth Committee). These scholars, wary of speaking out publicly against the shoddy and slanderous scholarship in El-Haj’s book for fear of retribution on their respective campuses – which they describe as “vituperative” – appealed to me for assistance in publishing a statement from them (more about which to follow).

In her introduction, El-Haj explains that she works by “rejecting a positivist commitment to scientific method,” writing, instead, within a scholarly tradition of “post structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory and … in response to specific postcolonial political movements.” And the particular theory that El-Haj puts forward is that the “ancient Israelite origins” of the Jews is a “pure political fabrication” – a machination she proceeds to blame on “Israeli archaeologists” who were called upon to “produce … evidence of ancient Israelite and Jewish presence in the land of Israel, thereby supplying the very foundation, embodied in empirical form, of the modern nation’s origin myth.”

Deplorably, in the rarified air of Morningside Heights, some Columbia faculty appear to celebrate this sort of “liberation” of scholarship from any necessity to encounter verifiable facts. For example, Keith Moxey, the Ann Whitney Olin Professor Professor of Art History at Barnard College and one of five members of the committee that will vote on El-Haj’s tenure bid, lauds “The abandonment of an epistemological foundation for … history and the acknowledgment that historical arguments will be evaluated according to how well they coincide with our political convictions and cultural attitudes collapses the traditional distinction between history and theory.” (See Moxey’s The Practice of Theory: Poststructuralism, Cultural Politics, and Art History.) In other words, evidence, verifiability, probability and explanatory power become irrelevant, for what counts is that an argument “coincide with our political convictions.”

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Making connections

In IF You Liked Whole-Word Reading, Open Classrooms & Fuzzy Math
You Will Love Inquiry-Based Science
Charles Ormsby makes connections between modern fads dreamed up by ed gurus. What loony idea will come next? Suggestions welcome.

Teaching different achievement levels simultaneously is particularly obnoxious. It violates a basic law of physics that says that a body cannot be in different places at the same time. Consequently, teacher input is fragmented and rendered ineffective. But what are laws of physics to ed gurus who don't believe in a stable body of knowledge and instead conceive of knowledge only as "information" that keeps changing so rapidly that it need not be learned?

Guru advice that there is no need to learn anything because one can always look up the "information" somewhere is also fallacious. A lot of things we might know require extensive struggle to achieve understanding. I teach middle grades math and see daily that achieving an understanding of topics like ratios, proportions, percentages, unit rates, operations with integers, geometry, even ordering fractions, doesn't come easily. It's not a matter of looking it up when needed and grasping it instantly. It requires time and effort. What is true for math is also true for science and other subjects. Imagine trying to "look up" and understand topics in organic chemistry without a laboriously acquired firm grounding in chemistry. Or making sense of all the difficult terms in biology that were never memorized and understood if guru advice is followed.

See this hilarious video and see how handy "looking it up when needed" is.

[Note: There is certainly no dearth of grossly ignorant people. However, this video appears to be rigged by means of selectiveness to promote a biased point of view. The selection of people being interviewed is hardly representative. One could easily do the opposite: Interview a sizable number of people at random and then select only the knowledgeable ones to "prove" that the public is highly sophisticated.]

Here Ormsby:

As if deciding that we shouldn’t teach the magic code was not enough, professional educators decided to re-engineer the learning environment in the classroom. Again, we have thousands of years of experience in the design of learning environments. Past experience underlined the need for mental focus and concentration … a condition that is seriously hampered by distractions. Even parents who are not trained as educators seem to realize that children should turn off the TV and rap music while trying to absorb a history or math lesson.

But our education gurus had a deeper insight than the rest of us mere mortals could possibly appreciate. They figured that if you put classrooms together, without walls between them, the students would benefit from all the noise. It made sense to them, apparently, that understanding algebra or trigonometry would be enhanced by students reciting Shakespeare in the adjacent classroom! What were they thinking?

To make matters worse – is it even possible? – educators decided to give the teachers an extra challenge. Instead of having teachers teach a subject to a set of students who are roughly at the same achievement level in a subject, they decided to force them to teach to multiple levels simultaneously.

In a fourth-grade math class, teachers are required to teach simple addition and multiplication to some students while teaching division to others, and fractions to their most advanced students.

When it comes time for English Language Arts (read’n & write’n), they must simultaneously teach basic reading skills to some while discussing the classics with others.

Of course, they can’t actually do these things simultaneously, so they have to break up the class into more homogeneous groups and then split their time among the groups. Now students who could have had the teacher’s attention for the whole class, can only get it for a portion of the class time.


Since the teacher splits the class up to make the sub-groups more similar in achievement level, one might ask, “WHY DIDN’T THEY DO THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE?” What were they thinking?

Last week I had occasion to witness a classroom in the inner city run by an admittedly incompetent substitute that was completely thrashed by pupils running wild like atoms flying around in a heated substance. It brought to mind the stark contrast between guru preachings about "inquiry," "discovery," "constructing knowledge and meaning," natural curiosity, and the reality of this classroom.

UPDATE: rightwingprof left a comment pointing out that we have a demonstration here of a student-centered classroom. Student centered indeed!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

DOE to parents: Don't mess with the fuzzies

Occasionally slightly testy but mostly to the point text savvy takes issue with the Department of Education's recommendation that parents become a cog in fuzzy math schemes:

Try to be aware of how your child is being taught math, and don't teach strategies and shortcuts that conflict with the approach the teacher is using. Check in with the teacher and ask what you can do to help. Ask the teacher about online resources that you can use with your child at home.
(Via KTM II)

text savvy observes dryly that parents have a long history of passing on various skills to their offspring:

In case anyone (like the DOE) needs the obvious stated, parents have been successfully passing on low-order and high-order cognitive skills to their offspring long before there were schools, lesson plans, professional development seminars, research grants, or instructional philosophies.
text savvy even alludes to evolutionary roots explaining this parent behavior but is willing to make exceptions for certain tribes in a bow to the phenomenon of bongo-bongoism.

New math language

In a post called Math for poets, Linda Moran cites the comments from a mother and scientist that illustrate how traditional math terms are being swept away by fuzzy math. Apparently, terms like angles and degrees are too taxing:

In TERC it is
*joining not addition
*separating not subtraction
*bits and pieces and not fractions
*capacity and not volume
*it is what the calculator displays and not decimals.
*it is "landmarks" rather than ALL the numbers in the decimal system.
*it is turns and not angles and degrees.
*it is write a story and not write the equation.
*it is draw pictures and not show a true effective reusable strategy.
Fuzzy math was designed to make math "accessible" to large segments of the population which in the view of the fuzzy math creators were hitherto marginalized by rigorous math instruction. But by taking math out of "math", everybody loses.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Whole language debate

Who that?
Good debate about whole language vs. phonics at edspresso. Ken De Rosa, a phonics advocate, locks horns with whole language teacher Nancy Creech. Ken likens whole language advocates to the Japanese who were still roaming the jungles for years after the end of WW II, refusing to give up.

I have seen the sad victims of the psycholinguistic guessing game promoted by whole language. Words come out of the mouth of these victims that are nowhere in the sentence. Context clues are important for meaning but not for decoding, perhaps with the exception of words like read and lead. It does take a special zealotry to cling to this failed method.

See Martin Kozloff's A Whole Language Catalogue of the Grotesque for what whole language gurus actually believe. It's like entering a fun house with hideously distorting mirrors.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

What I learned in PD today

From a professional development day inspired by an ASCD presentation by Dr. Jan Jones called Building Millennial Minds: Preparing Today's Students for Tomorrow's World I learned that:

Change is exponential. Gates says technology capacity doubles every nine months. Photonics leads to unimaginable data transmission rates. Semantic Web will be our new global brain.

The world is changing four times faster than schools (Dr. Willard Daggett).* Actually, the doctor is a bit fuzzy with the number. The exact number is 4.2651.

[The vision I have is of a globe spinning so rapidly that it'll throw everyone into space, including educationists].

Kids are immersed in fancy new technology (digital natives).

People will not earn a living, they'll learn a living.

21th century skills redefine core skills. What are those new core skills? Deep conceptual knowledge, critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving, innovation, imagination.

[I am afraid the mindless repetition of the critical thinking mantra will dull the senses and stop all thinking in its track. What's needed is critical thinking about "critical thinking."]

What are the implications for teaching of all this? I quote: "Learning can no longer be full, frontal lecturing or recall of data/facts, content."

[This is a spectacular non sequitur. Doubling technology capacity (whatever that is), faster data transmission rates and kids running around with iPods have no bearing on what content should be learned and how it should be taught. If it isn't dizzying technological change but the call for "deep conceptual knowledge" that necessitates the abandonment of content recall, then there is trouble, too. How is one supposed to have "deep conceptual knowledge" without engagement with content, i.e. assimilating or learning the content? Recall is another way of saying that content has been learned. A conceptualization is an abstraction from facts, a way to bring order to otherwise disparate facts. Conceptual knowledge, deep or otherwise, is impossible without that basis. So once again, educationists are blowing smoke, apparently enamored of the high-falutin' sound of these phrases without applying some critical thinking.]

What takes its place:

Big ideas

21th century learnings [note the plural]

Melding disciplines

Unique connections

Meta-cognitive options

Focusing instruction on relevance (don't fixate on minutiae, high-stakes testing)

Digital age literacies, e.g. health & wellness literacy, visual/performing arts literacy, information literacy, multicultural literacy... [Another example of educationist corruption of a good word that is now rendered meaningless].

So just go ahead, do the critical thinking and creating. No need to know anything.

*The sound of "change" makes educationists delirious. It's as intoxicating as a bottle of vodka. The change that whips them into a frenzy is mostly of a superficial nature, like faster data transmission rates and higher flash card storage capacity, kids adept at playing with new electronic gadgets and so on. From this they draw illogical conclusions about what and how things should be taught.

To calm them down from this frenzy and to rehearse critical thinking skills, I recommend that educationists be required to write a rigorous, lenghty and critical essay before Ed. D.'s are handed out. This essay could be called Change and Continuity. The objective of this essay is to examine what changes are occurring, whether these changes are profound or superficial and what, if any, effect they should have on the academic curriculum.

Educationists should then compare and contrast these changes to what stays the same in the various subject areas, 21th century or not. Educationists could ask themselves a long list of questions pertaining to the various disciplines. For example, do faster data transmission rates and high-capacity flash cards alter the laws of gravity and motion, planetary orbits and atom bonding, or the electromagnetic spectrum and Fraunhofer lines? Do these technological changes impinge on photosynthesis and animal cell structure? Or refraction and the Doppler effect? Do they make 2 + 2 = 4 untrue? Is pi no longer the ratio of circumference to diameter because of dizzying 21th century changes and yet-unheard of electronic gadgets? Did Caesar suddenly not cross the Rubicon because Gates predicts a doubling of technological capacity every nine months?

Requiring educationists to pose and answer these questions could have a sobering effect. But I wouldn't count on it.

So that's what it is!

Maybe one day I'll pin down what this "constructivism" is. Is it a theory of knowing as some claim? Or is it an approach to teaching as the influential Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development claims:

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.

Source: From The Language of Learning: A Guide to Education Terms, by J. L. McBrien and R. S. Brandt, 1997, Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
So, many researchers say that each individual constructs knowledge rather than receiving it from others. Ain't that grand. How did these researchers figure this out? Did they research how each individual constructs the periodic table, how atoms bond, how the sun produces energy? How individuals construct knowledge about the Renaissance period? Ah, I forgot. Through hands-on materials instead of textbooks.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

More intense, instead of longer school day

The New York Times reports that many states and school districts with failing schools are seeking salvation in a longer school day. Failing Schools See a Solution in Longer Day. Prodigious amounts of money are once again being made available for a solution that is likely to yield negligible results:

FALL RIVER, Mass. — States and school districts nationwide are moving to lengthen the day at struggling schools, spurred by grim test results suggesting that more than 10,000 schools are likely to be declared failing under federal law next year.

In Massachusetts, in the forefront of the movement, Gov. Deval L. Patrick is allocating $6.5 million this year for longer days and can barely keep pace with demand: 84 schools have expressed interest.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York has proposed an extended day as one of five options for his state’s troubled schools, part of a $7 billion increase in spending on education over the next four years — apart from the 37 minutes of extra tutoring that children in some city schools already receive four times a week.

And Gov. M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut is proposing to lengthen the day at persistently failing schools as part of a push to raise state spending on education by $1 billion.


And of all the steps school districts take to try to improve student achievement, lengthening the day is generally the costliest — an extra $1,300 a student annually here in Massachusetts — and difficult to sustain.
Schools would do better to focus on wasted time during the existing school day rather than lengthening the school day. Schools should work more intensely, instead of longer. Schools should ask themselves: Do we really need all these endless blocks for sustained, silent reading of vapid fiction? Shouldn't we perhaps also be reading some science stories, biographies, history? What about this time-consuming bean-counting project? Do kids really need to be spending a week to count a million mung beans? Another papier-mâché dinosaur?

I propose a different model.

For a fraction of the additional funds the states are willing to dish out, the districts could try a much more effective model: Offering intensive academic support (IAS) to small groups (not more than ten) during regular school hours in failing schools. This support can be offered for math and science, for example, two areas in which the disadvantaged fail spectacularly. It would require hiring a few new teachers with expertise in the respective subject areas per struggling school. These intensive academic support sessions could be held during the prep times of regular classroom teachers.

Such an approach would do wonders to the math and science education of the disadvantaged. Because of large classrooms and frequent disruptions, regular classroom teachers cannot offer the individualized and sustained attention the disadvantaged need to succeed in math and science. Many are so far behind and have such poor work and study habits that only intensive and sustained academic involvement will bring them up to speed.

It can be done.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

What to do with disruptive students

I wrote a deliberately provocative post on the huge problem of disruptive students (Segregate non-students). This has generated a series of very thoughtful exchanges by Diana, NYC Math Teacher and Larry Strauss. The responses add much more complexity and subtlety to this problem than expressed in my prescription. I encourage everyone to read the comments.

I particularly like Larry Strauss' suggestion:

If you are going to remove disruptive students, do so for a positive reason, some form of behavioral intervention; call it a good manners academy and get a well-paid tattooed drill sergeant to conduct it.
How issues are framed and formulated is crucial when seeking solutions.

Monday, April 02, 2007

History is knowable, teachable and testable

Less than a year ago, the Florida legislature caused a sharp outcry by requiring that the U.S. history taught in the state's schools "shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed" and "shall be viewed as knowable, teachable and testable."

For example, there was this Op-Ed in the NYT that made the case that facts need to be interpreted. The folks at Common Dreams seemed to believe that the sky was falling and the end of "critical thinking" had arrived:

Florida's Fear of History: New Law Undermines Critical Thinking
by Robert Jensen

One way to measure the fears of people in power is by the intensity of their quest for certainty and control over knowledge.

By that standard, the members of the Florida Legislature marked themselves as the folks most terrified of history in the United States when last month they took bold action to become the first state to outlaw historical interpretation in public schools. In other words, Florida has officially replaced the study of history with the imposition of dogma and effectively outlawed critical thinking.

Instead of being terrified of history as the Common Dreamers claim, according to the Tampa Tribune the proponents of the law were simply perturbed by the "widespread lack of knowledge about U.S. government and history." So the Dreamers have it backwards: The lawmakers don't fear history. They want more of it.

I also found talk about meaning and significance in the Florida statute. This does not sound like a ban on critical thinking:

(b) The history, meaning, significance, and effect of the provisions of the Constitution of the United States and amendments thereto, with emphasis on each of the 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights and how the constitution provides the structure of our government.
There were also voices that derided such apocalyptic visions:

Construction Deconstructed
Facts and snippy academics.

By Matthew J. Franck
Academics are touchy people — especially when mere mortals presume to speak for themselves on matters where the professors claim expertise. So Cornell historian Mary Beth Norton lashed out, in the Sunday New York Times, against the Florida legislature for daring to make law on a subject squarely within its responsibility — educational standards in history — without apparently consulting the most enlightened members of the history professoriate, like, say, Mary Beth Norton. Oh dear, what trouble those poor legislators bought themselves. I’m sure they’re all slapping their foreheads and saying “Dang! Why didn’t we ask this Norton woman for advice!”

For Norton, the first cardinal sin the legislature could have avoided was its statement, in a revision of Florida education statutes, that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed.” Tsk, tsk. “Facts,” Norton says, “mean little or nothing without being interpreted — another word for ‘constructed.’ All historians know that facts never speak for themselves.” Somehow I think people who have made it their work to write laws didn’t need to be told about the importance of interpretation, of facts or anything else. So Norton’s preening and condescension are certainly misplaced here. Her assertion is a half-truth anyway. Facts are what they are. (The Second Continental Congress did vote for independence on July 2, 1776, to use an example of Norton’s. That speaks for itself whether anyone is listening or not.) “Meaning” is another matter, and facts rise and fall in our estimation with the uses we make of them. This much is true too — one might say it’s a fact — and if that’s all Norton wants to claim, she surely has no quarrel with the Florida legislature.
This controversy seems strange at first but becomes clearer when one considers the inroads postmodernism has made into the field of history. Matthew J. Franck continues:

But let’s do a little interpretation ourselves. It seems not to have occurred to Norton that when the Florida legislature decreed that in the state’s schools history shall be treated by teachers “as factual, not as constructed,” it was evidently taking sides in a debate in Norton’s own discipline. (I say “evidently” because I have no inside dope from Tallahassee — only the eyes of a reader of the statute.) As the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle observed a decade ago in The Killing of History, postmodern social theory has been invading the historical profession, reducing “the belief that there are ‘facts’ about history” to the status of “an ideological position” with no privileged status over the competing view that “history is nothing more than a form of literature.” Perhaps Norton, who declares that she “love[s] facts,” hasn’t heard of this crisis in her own discipline. But someone in Florida seems to have heard of it. And that “not as constructed” language in the new state law was surely aimed at such fashions of postmodernism, with the intent of keeping the state’s history teachers from donning those new clothes.
In a review of Keith Windschuttle's book in The New Criterion, Roger Kimball chronicles the strange things that have been happening to the study of history. At bottom, it is an abandonment of the commitment to truth:

One depressing sign of this situation is the absolute horror with which the idea of “objective truth” is regarded in chic academic circles today. Another is the widespread tendency to downgrade facts to matters of opinion—a tendency that follows naturally from the rejection of objective truth. This shows itself in the amazingly prevalent assumption that truth is “relative,” i.e., that the truth of what is said depends crucially upon the interests, prejudices, even the sex or ethnic origin of the speaker rather than—well, than the truth or falsity of what the speaker says. The basic idea is that truth is somehow invented rather than discovered. Typical of this position is the feminist complaint about “male-centered” epistemologies that make false claims to universality (another word that inspires panic) or objectivity.
So I say, let's first get a factual foundation in history. Then interpretation can follow. Interpretation without a factual foundation is just empty palaver.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Critical thinking and creativity watch

It's been said that if fascism comes, it will come in the name of anti-fascism.

I am reminded of that aperçu every time an educationist, business-type or politician sings the praises of critical thinking, higher-order thinking skills, creativity and innovation.

These are all lofty aspirations. What bothers me is that the advocacy of these worthy goals is frequently accompanied by a disparagement of subject matter knowledge. These advocates seem to believe that these qualities can be taught in a vacuum. It's questionable whether they can be taught at all. More likely they develop incidentally through a struggle with subject matter. They are certainly not free-floating entities without moorings. So to get back to the fascism case, in edland anti-intellectualism comes in the name of "critical thinking" and "creativity".

I found new evidence for this phenomenon in a fight over educational legislation in Colorado as presented by the blog Mount Virtus:

On a party line vote today, the Senate Education Committee passed a bill sponsored by Senator Sue Windels (D-Arvada) to mandate standards on Colorado schools that teach sex education. Three committee members, all Democrats - Windels, Bob Bacon, and Ron Tupa - voted to support the House Bill 1292 mandate six weeks after voting against a mandate setting higher state graduation requirements for math and science (Senate Bill 131), and eight weeks after voting against a requirement that high school graduates have basic competency in English (Senate Bill 73). Suzanne Williams (D-Aurora) was the only committee member to cast votes for all three measures.

Last week the House Education Committee, chaired by Mike “Give ‘Em Hell” Merrifield, shot down the math and science requirements after hearing support from a Jefferson County teacher, a university president (could have been two if Merrifield hadn’t rescheduled the hearing at the last minute so CU’s Hank Brown couldn’t testify), and a Lockheed engineer. Said Merrifield:
And here is the kicker:

“My contention is by forcing every child into this narrow curriculum, we are not making them more innovative, we are not making them more creative,” the Colorado Springs Democrat said, citing a national report that calls a well-rounded education the “passport to a job in which creativity and innovation are the key to a good life.”

The Witwer plan, Merrifield said, would make students “more regimented and more lock-step (with) less ability to think outside the box.”
(Hat tip to Myrtle Hocklemeier commenting at KTM II.)

The twisted thinking exhibited by this chairman of the House Education Committee (of all things!) frankly leaves me speechless. It's easy to utter a stupidity. It takes considerable effort to describe the nature of a stupidity. For example, would I have to brandish logical notions like denying the antecedent or affirming the consequent to tackle this inanity?

Another juicy example comes via D-EDRECKONING. Highly prolific blogger Ken deRosa cites a Daily Mail article in which some Association of Teachers and Lecturers suffers paroxysms of anti-intellectualism:

Schools should teach children the key skills they need for life - like walking and thinking - not set subjects such as history or French, teachers' leaders have said.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers called for the National Curriculum to be torn up and the testing system abolished.

The union said teachers in local schools should be able to adapt lessons to fit a new framework focusing on important skills for life, rather than academic subjects.

Martin Johnson, ATL's acting deputy general secretary, said prioritising academic education over other types of knowledge was "totalitarian".

"A curriculum is a selection from the total sum of knowledge, which is exploding," he said.

"For the state to suggest that some knowledge should be privileged over other knowledge is a bit totalitarian in a 21st century environment. We are arguing that knowledge which traditionally has high status should not be privileged over other kinds of knowledge.

Schools should teach children the key skills they need for life - like walking and thinking?


Now I am waiting for an educationist to point out breathlessly that walking is an important 21th century skill.

In the meantime, Rory has left a comment at D-ED RECKONING in which he reviews the massive amount of research confirming the importance of walking:

I am finally glad someone has finally decided to address the walking achievement gap.

Study after study has confirmed that the ability to walk is a critical aspect of employment.

Our new information based society heavily depends on consumption of coffee. A recent study by a leading University determined it is much more economical to provide centralized coffee pots in office environments. Without the ability to "walk" to these coffee pots, employees will soon suffer from coffee withdrawal causing severe detrimental effects on worker productivity.

L.B. Ral from Progressive University cautions against a biased approach to walking instruction though. He notes that different cultures have different styles of walking.

Meanwhile, disabled activists have called the new emphasis on walking instruction discriminatory. They point out that thousands of wheelchair bound people across the country are able to get around quite well without walking. They recommend "walking" classes be replaced with inclusive instruction on "moving".