Friday, January 28, 2011

Society of Friends

Ah, Friends schools -- where Protestants teach Jews how to be Quakers.  It's a beautiful thing.

I live in the beating heart of Quakerism, and I'm surrounded by Quaker schools.  My kids are now attending two of them.  At their best, Quaker schools are the last bastion of child-supportive schooling, and their egalitarian, progressive views are a good fit for left-wing types like me.

Most people involved in a Quaker school are not themselves Quakers; there just aren't that many.   Schools are "Quaker" because they are under the supervision of a Meeting (Quake-speak for "church") and they teach Quakerism, with a fairly light touch. 

Full disclosure:  I attended a Quaker school myself for a couple of years, and it pretty well cured me of any interest in Quakerism.  I personally don't believe that you can improve religion by throwing out all the art, music, and ritual, which is basically all the stuff that makes sense to me.  The Quaker meeting, which is a lot of silence broken by the musings of the pompous,  is a practice I can do without.

There are two main types of Quakers; the old-family, old-money type (a.k.a "birthright Quakers", a.k.a "more money than God"), and the more recently joined crunchy-granola type (a.k.a "convinced Quakers".)  There's a similar division among non-Quakers at Quaker schools.  My younger daughter's school is, I think, in transition from one mostly dominated by old-money types toward one mostly dominated by crunchy-granola types (or is that just wishful thinking?)  My older daughter's school, from what I've seen so far, is firmly in the hands of old money, and likely to stay that way.

I used to know a guy who taught at a Quaker college, who told me that the faculty, in a moment of Quakerly enthusiasm, had decided to work by complete consensus -- that is, as long as one person didn't agree, no decision could be made.  As you can imagine, faculty meetings are populated almost entirely by dissenting windbags, so the result was that faculty meetings DID NOT END.   You could call it the "faculty meeting of the damned", if Quakers believed in damnation.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Reforming Math, 4

(Continuing from Reforming Math 1, Reforming Math 2, and Reforming Math 3.)

My latest e-mail to the Head of School at Natural Friends:

Here's a list of basic math concepts, with sample questions that all graduating NF kids should be able to do, WITHOUT CALCULATORS. To the best of my knowledge, none of the following is currently being taught at NF. If you have kids who can do all this, ask whether they study math outside of NF, for instance with Kumon, tutoring, or help from their parents.

I.) Standard algorithms.

     1.) standard long division algorithm
         try this.) 2226 ÷ 3.

     2.) standard multiplication algorithm
         try this.) 23 x 3560.

     3.) standard subtraction algorithm.
         try this.) 3246 - 1634

     4.) standard algorithm for taking an average
         try this.) what's the average of {10, 100, 36, 84}?

II.) Fractions.

     1.) fractions are a form of division.
         try this.) how can you write 7 ÷ 4 as a fraction?

     2.) general concepts: x/x = 1, x/1 = x, etc.

         try this.) How would you write 4 as a fraction?

         try this.) Complete this sentence: "multiplying by 1/2 is the same as dividing by _."

         try this.) Complete this sentence: "any number divided by itself is _."

         try this.) Complete this sentence: "any number divided by 1 is _."

         try this.) How would you write "one-half of 37" in mathematical notation?

     3.) multiplicative inverse (reciprocal) of a fraction.
         try this.) 5/4 x _ = 1

     4.) how to convert a fraction to a decimal
         try this.) convert 4/7 to a decimal.

     5.) how to divide one fraction by another
         try this.) 4/7 ÷ 2/3

     6.) how to cross-cancel when multiplying fractions
         try this.) 4/5 x 2/3 x 5/4
         try this.) What is one-half of two-thirds of three-fourths of four-fifths of 5?

     7.) multiplying a whole number by a fraction.
         try this.) 4 x 1/2 = _

III.) Decimals.

     6.) how to multiply two decimals
         try this.) .25 x .75

     7.) how to divide two decimals
         try this.) .75 ÷ .25

IV.) Shortcuts with 10.

     8.) how to multiply by multiples of 10
         try this.) 234567 x 100.

     9.) how to divide by multiples of 10
         try this.) 234567 ÷ 100.

Readers -- what math are your kids missing?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Grading Parents Again

Katie Allison Granju writes about yet another proposal to grade parents on Strollerderby.

(See also Grading for Learning.)

Bad Fuzzy Math Homework

From Arthur Hu Reviews 6th Grade Connected Math Oct 2003:


I am shocked to realize that ... "Connected Mathematics" is just as harmful for middle school as "Investigations" is for elementary school. It carries on the tradition of nightly homework that is a) hard to figure out b) takes forever to do once you figure it out c) after you're done you haven't learned any useful math d) it goes out of the way to make sure the #1 most important method to know is not taught, or allowed.

The whole theme of ed reform seems to be "work harder and learn less."


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Reforming Math 3

(Continuing from Reforming Math 1 and Reforming Math 2.)

Here's the response from the Head of School:

Your description of the Natural Friends mathematics program is distressing.  Your experience with Older Daughter is troubling.  Your report of the perception of other schools of our program and students is upsetting indeed.

I am working with our math specialist to examine our program with candor to insure among other things that the basic operations are effectively taught and learned.

I would contend that the goal of a constructivist math curriculum is not only to teach basic operations but to do so in a meaningful context.  I observed a part of a fourth grade math lesson this afternoon in which multiplication facts were being reviewed in the context of a math baseball game.  The product of numbers rolled on two cubes signaled an outcome in baseball terms (an out, a single etc.).  In short order students were given a second pair of cubes and a new set of ranges that indicated the value, in baseball terms, of the outcome of taking the sum of each selected-by-the-player pair of cubes and finding the product of those two sums.  One of the pair of students I was watching quickly realized that adding two cubes introduced an element of strategy into the game.  Rolling 6, 6, 3, 2 one student paired the sixes and therefore multiplied 12 X 5 to get 60.  His opponent noted that if he had paired each of the sixes with the 3 and the 2 respectively he would have been able to multiply 9 X 8 to get 72.  He said he would always add the two highest rolls with each of the lower rolls and then multiply.  I asked if this would give him a larger outcome every time.  He said he wasn't sure but he was going to find out.  The game offered a meaningful context for students to enthusiastically engage in a review of multiplication facts.  The introduction of the second pair of cubes provided a relevant novel element of mathematical strategy.

Math Trailblazers and Connected Mathematics are programs that attempt to engage students in the application of mathematics from the beginning without yielding up the also important algorithms and facts that are part of the language of mathematics.

I have recently learned of a book called A Mathematician's Lament:  How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form.  A math teacher at Friends Omphalos' high school described it to me.  I have ordered the book.  He described the premise of the book to be this:  imagine students being taught to paint are told, "To learn to paint you must learn about color and composition by using the color associated with the number in the designated regions and paint that color within the lines."  As students progress the number of numbers increase and the regions grow smaller.  Eventually frustrated with this process students ask, "But when do we get to really paint?"  The teacher tells them maybe when they get to graduate school they will be ready to paint.

I don't know that I will persuade you of the value of the Math Trailblazers and Connected Mathematics programs but I appreciate your willingness to share your assessment.  You have successfully called my attention to potential problems with our mathematics curriculum and its implementation.

And my response:

Right off the bat, so to speak, you've stumbled across a pet peeve of mine -- the way that baseball is assumed to be of universal interest to kids.  There are many kids who have no interest or experience of baseball, for instance, girls, and the children of immigrants.  My two daughters know nothing about baseball, and terms like "single" would be meaningless to them in this context.  Baseball is often combined with math, which, in my opinion, just supports the stereotype that math belongs to boys.

Leaving that aside, if the fourth-grade kids are inspired to ask interesting math questions because of this game, that's groovy, but it's not enough.  I would want to know that every child in the room was able to do basic multiplication facts.  You might have happened on one particular kid who is gifted at math, or who receives tutoring or extra support that the school doesn't even know about.  (I happen to know a NF 4th grader who does Kumon math, for example.)  And will the kid you talked to have help from the teacher to follow through and answer his question? 

I'm certainly not opposed to teaching basic operations in a meaningful context, and if that's what I saw going on at NF, I would have no complaints.  But what I see is that the kids don't learn the basic operations, which is how they wind up in remedial math at their next school.   At NF, kids don't learn the standard algorithm for multiplication; they only learn the "partial sums" method, which is less efficient (it takes much more writing.)  They don't learn useful shortcuts like cross-canceling when multiplying fractions.   They don't learn how to divide one fraction by another.   They don't learn multiplication and division of decimals.

I doubt very much that you'll be able to convince me of the wonderfulness of Trailblazers and Connected Math.  From what I've seen so far I'm not impressed.   For instance, TB and CM produce some of the worst homework assignments I've seen, and I've seen a lot of bad homework.  (I don't think homework should be assigned in elementary school at all, but that's a different discussion.)  TB and CM homework routinely has directions like "explain how you would answer this" that involve a lot of writing.  Just the other day, Younger Daughter had a homework assignment where she was supposed to "write a subtraction story".  That's a huge task for a kid like Younger Daughter who has language delays, but I happen to know that Older Daughter would have hated it too.  Why?  It's tiring, tedious, and time-wasting (and alliterative!). 

There's an essay version of the "Mathematician's Lament" kicking around the web, which I've read.  I'm not opposed to this point of view exactly, I just don't think it's a substitute for learning the basic skills of mathematics.  If you can ensure that NF kids are solid on their basic skills, you can do all the  "fascinating and imaginative" stuff you want with no objections from me.

Reforming Math 2

(Continuing from Reforming Math 1.)

Here's my second e-mail to the Head of School at Natural Friends:

In this e-mail I will describe some of the issues I've noticed with NF math.

Here's a  simple, and commonly agreed on, description of the goals of elementary school math: by the end of elementary school, students should be able to perform the basic operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) on the basic types of numbers (whole numbers, fractions, decimals, percents.)  I've seen this as a description of what kids should know by the end of 5th grade, so NF actually has an extra year to get it done.

Does Natural Friends achieve this rock-bottom math education?  Not even close.

As an example, consider fractions.  When Older Daughter was attending NF fifth grade, I started tutoring her at home using Singapore Math.  I thought I would begin with something familiar to her, so we started with fractions.  The very first problem in Singapore Math was "write 7 divided by 4 as a fraction".  To my amazement, Older Daughter had no idea how to do this, after weeks of "covering" fractions at NF.

One of the basic operations is division.  The only reason Older Daughter knows how to divide one fraction by another is because I taught her myself.  The question was never even addressed at Natural Friends.  Again, this is considered a basic piece of elementary school math and it will be needed for 7th grade pre-algebra.  At Friends Omphalos, it's just assumed that 7th-graders know how to divide one fraction by another.

To oversimplify, the goal of progressive math education is that kids should like and be interested in learning about math.  The goal of traditional math education is that kids should have basic math skills.  Neither of these goals is being met at NF.  NF kids routinely say they don't like math, and they can't perform basic operations either.

I noticed when Older Daughter was at NF that math is taught with words rather than numbers.  That is, there's a lot of discussion about how to do things, and the homework often involved writing explanatory paragraphs (!).  But math is, among other things, a language, and it must be learned on its own terms.  You wouldn't teach a Spanish class entirely in English, right?  Similarly, you can't teach math without spending a great deal of time writing numbers, symbols, and equations.

Something must be done.  NF needs a coherent math curriculum, and then you need to follow through.  You need to make sure that kids at the end of each grade have attained the basic skills appropriate to that grade.

I have heard of several cases of families leaving NF because of the sorry math teaching.  If you want to increase enrollment at NF, you need to improve math.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Reforming Math 1

Our younger daughter attends a small Quaker school.  Let's call it Natural Friends, or "NF", in an attempt to avoid a lawsuit.

At its best, Natural Friends is a comfy, nurturing sort of place where oddball kids like mine can be happy, and that's not a small recommendation.  We went there in the first place for our older daughter, and, in hindsight, her 2 years at the school were great for her.  Younger daughter, too, has been happy there, and her reading skills have been steadily improving.

The school has fallen on hard times.  This is our 3d year there, and there's been a different Head of School every year.  Families have been leaving the school like rats leaving a sinking ship.  The 6th grade is down to 5 kids.   Younger daughter's first grade has 11 kids (down from a high of about 30, I think.)  So, with the school under-enrolled and in disarray, I figure it's my chance to have an effect on how the place is run.

If I could change anything about the school, it would be their extremely weak math program.   They use Trailblazers and Connected Math (for the 6th grade), and the results are frankly terrible.   I wound up tutoring my older daughter at home with Singapore Math, and I was glad I did.  If I have to, I'll do the same with my younger daughter, but I'm worried that it might drive us both crazy.

So, without further ado, here's the first math-related e-mail I sent to the Head of School (names changed as above):

I wanted to describe to you some of the problems I've seen with Natural Friends' math program.   This e-mail will focus on the reputation of Natural Friends among the surrounding schools that NF graduates attend.

1.  Yachtley.)  I first heard about this problem when we were just beginning the process of getting our older daughter out of the public schools.  I mentioned to a neighbor, who is now the Dean of Yachtley's Middle School, that we were looking at NF.  She said, "oh, that's such a nice little school.  We love getting students who went there.  Sometimes they need extra help with math, but otherwise, they're great."

Another NF Mom that I know took her daughter on a tour of Yachtley.  One of the teachers there asked what school her daughter attends now, and when she replied "Natural Friends", he said, in a reassuring tone of voice, "oh, that's OK, don't worry about a thing -- we can remediate math."

2. Friends Omphalos.)   Our older daughter went to a summer session at Friends Omphalos in order to prepare for her first year there.  In the math class, the teacher said:  "I know we have some Natural Friends students here today.  If you went to Natural Friends, please stay after class."  After class, he said to the Natural Friends kids, "I don't want you to feel bad if you don't understand what we're doing in math today.  You probably just didn't see it at Natural Friends."

3.  Scotch Valley.)  I have heard through the grapevine of a mother who sent her NF-graduate kid to summer school at Scotch Valley, because otherwise they wouldn't admit him to the Scotch Valley advanced math track.

I think you'll agree that this is an embarassment for Natural Friends.  Next up:  how does NF earn this reputation?

Next, I'll post more of the correspondence between my fed-up self and the Head of School.  On the plus side, he seems to be taking my complaints seriously.  On the minus side, he's a believer in constructivist math.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Snow Day Announcements

Suppose you were running a school, and you needed a way to inform parents if the school was closed or delayed on account of snow.  How would you do it?

Method 1.)  You could set up a program of telephone robo-calls, guaranteed to wake the entire household at an ungodly hour of the morning, with the message that everybody could have slept in, because school has been delayed for 2 hours or canceled entirely!

Method 2.)  You could use the web, sort of.  On your school's home page, you provide a link to the "school closing information" web page of the local TV station, which lists schools, not by their name, but by a 3-digit "school closing number".  The school administration spends a considerable amount of time and effort reminding parents what the school closing number is, because, strangely, parents tend to forget random 3-digit numbers that they only use a few times per year.

Method 3.)  You could post the information on your school's home page, as soon as the decision has been made, which is often the night before the snow day.  This way, parents have a chance to find the information for themselves when they need it.

My older daughter's private school uses Method 3, which is my preferred method.  My younger daughter's private school started the year with Method 1, until I asked them to take my name off the phone list.  Then they proposed Method 2.  I believe I have now talked them into Method 3.  Time will tell ...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Guest post: Is more better?

[From Chris, originally posted at A Blog About School]

Our school administrators seem to think that piling more instructional minutes on the kids -- maybe even extending the school day -- will make their standardized test scores go up. I think that kind of single-minded focus on raising test scores ultimately harms the kids and dumbs down their education. But even if I did believe in raising test scores at all costs, I wouldn’t leap to the simplistic conclusion that more time sitting in class will produce higher scores -- an idea that treats kids as more like machines than like people.

I recently exchanged emails with Pasi Sahlberg, who has written widely about the Finnish educational system. Finnish kids’ standardized test scores are among the highest in the world, even though the kids don’t start school until age seven, and spend less time in class. Sahlberg explains:

As recently as 25 years ago, Finnish students were below the international average in mathematics and science. There also were large learning differences between schools, with urban or affluent students typically outperforming their rural or low-income peers. Today, as the most recent PISA study proves, Finland is one of the few nations that have accomplished both a high quality of learning and equity in learning at the same time. The best school systems are the most equitable — students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. Finally, Finland should interest US educators because Finns have employed very distinct ideas and policies in reforming education, many the exact opposite of what’s being tried in the United States.

Finland has a different approach to student testing and how test data can or should not be used. Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there standardized tests used to compare teachers or schools to each other. Teachers, students, and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers, or students do what they are supposed to do. Politicians and administrators are informed about how well the education system works by using sample-based learning tests which place no pressure on schools, and by research targeted to understand better how schools work. Parents and politicians think that teachers who work closely together with parents are the best judges of how well their children are learning in schools.
(Read the whole article.)

My fifth-grade daughter here in Iowa City gets forty minutes a day for recess and lunch combined, all in one break in the middle of the day. She has an hour of math instruction every day (as does my six-year-old first-grader!), plus an additional half-hour of math once a week. I asked Sahlberg how that schedule compares with that of a typical ten-year-old in Finland. His response:

In Finland the law stipulates that one lesson in school is 60 minutes of which 15 minutes have to be for recess. This means that a 10-year-old who typically has about 5 lessons a day has 60 minutes for recess plus some additional for lunch. You are not much wrong if you say that these pupils have about 75 mins daily for recess and lunch. Mathematics is normally taught about three lessons a week at that age.
So our ten-year-olds get two-and-a-half times as much math instruction as Finnish ten-year-olds get, and about half as much recess and lunch.

But if we could just add more instructional minutes, maybe we could catch up, right?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

What I Did Over Winter Vacation

 I have long admired Hieronymous Bosch's great masterpiece, the Garden of Earthly Delights. When I was a kid, I had a poster of it on my bedroom wall (yes, I was a weird kid.) Over Christmas break, I became obsessed with putting this jigsaw puzzle together. I've decided it's one of my life goals to see this great painting in person at the Prado.

OK, it's completely off topic ...

Friday, January 14, 2011

If I Must

If you've been reading around on the blogosphere, you are no doubt aware of Amy Chua's essay, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." In it, she describes her abusive campaign to make child prodigies out of her hapless daughters, on piano and violin (strangely, she allows no other instruments.)

The essay was published as part of the marketing campaign for Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The omnipresent coverage reminds me of the run-up to another book: Creating A Life, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Creating A Life was flogged relentlessly by all the media, but then racked up disappointing sales. I can only hope the same for Chua's book, which I have no desire to read. I'll wait for the bitter memoirs from her daughters, after they've completed a few decades of therapy.

It's not clear to me why Chua, and other Asian mothers, have set their sights on training their children in Western classical music. If they believe that mastery of the techniques of violin and piano playing is the road to fame and fortune in the U.S., they're in for a rude shock.

Above all, Chua strikes me as a ruthless self-promoter, aiming to get media attention and a quick buck at the expense of her young daughters. Really, how American can she get?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Whole Brain Teaching for Profit

The Whole Brain Teaching Company is now promoting a series of 7 Web Seminars, for a mere $4.95 each. They promise:

The beauty of our web seminars is that each program focuses on one, use-it-on-Monday, teaching technique. We guarantee you won’t be overwhelmed.

Well, of course you won't be overwhelmed, considering that Whole Brain is all about taking one simple idea and beating it to death. You certainly won't be overwhelmed by complex, subtle thinking with this crowd. No worries there!

In spite of the money they're now charging, under Whole Brain Teachers of America, we see this:

Whole Brain Teachers of America is a grass roots, education reform movement...

All of our seminars and downloads are free. Whole Brain Teaching is a movement, not a business.

Time for a rewrite, Biffle!

More Parents Getting Fed Up

From the NYTimes, At One School, A Push For More Play Time:

Some kindergarten parents at Public School 101, a graceful brick castle in Forest Hills, Queens, wanted more free play time for their children; so they decided to do something about it.

Gone were the play kitchens, sand and water tables, and dress-up areas; half-days were now full days. Instead, there were whiteboards, and the kindergartners, in classes of up to 27, practiced reading and math on work sheets on desks at P.S. 101, also known as the School in the Gardens.

Play came in the form of “choice time,” a roughly 30-minute afternoon period during which each child chose what blocks or toys in the classroom to work with, and at recess, which was often truncated by the time it took for every child to calm down and form an orderly line back to class.

About a month ago, about half of the kindergarten parents signed a letter to the principal, Valerie Capitulo-Saide, asking for more unstructured time in the school day, an extra recess period and better procedures in recess. Ms. Capitulo-Saide gave them one extra gym period a week and no longer required students to form perfect lines at recess, one parent said.

Most parents hate to rock the school boat, so the fact that half the parents signed a protest letter shows that the culture is beginning to change. What a lame response from the principal, though.

Homework was another problem:

Early childhood homework is another issue. Each Monday, the kindergartners get a packet of worksheets they are supposed to complete by Friday. There are generally 10 to 12 reading, writing and math worksheets each week. Parents are also asked to read to their children.

Victoria Zunitch, who recently withdrew her daughter from P.S. 101 to send her to a private school, said kindergarten homework ended up being parent homework because the children had trouble working independently.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Of Course It Won't Work

A recent NYTimes article, New American Academy in Brooklyn is an Experiment in Class Size, describes

an audacious public education experiment taking place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, one that its founder hopes will revolutionize both how students learn and how teachers are trained. Instead of assigning one teacher to roughly 25 children, the New American Academy began the school year with four teachers in large, open classrooms of 60 students. The school stresses student independence over teacher-led lessons, scientific inquiry over rote memorization and freedom and self-expression over strict structure and discipline. The founder, Shimon Waronker, developed the idea with several other graduate students at Harvard. It draws its inspiration, he said, from Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding high school in New Hampshire where students in small classes work collaboratively and hold discussions around tables.

What are you, crazy? Why would a system designed for a small, hand-picked group of smart, well-behaved high school students be appropriate for a huge mixed group of first-graders?

Why would a bunch of Harvard graduate students have any insights into the needs of a bunch of Brooklyn kids? It's a completely different world.

It seems to me that young childless adults are the worst possible candidates to put in charge of a school. They're too close to their own childhood to have any perspective on it, and, with no children of their own, they don't understand the parent's point of view either. That's not to say they can't be good teachers. They just need plenty of coaching and support from those with more experience.

I can't believe these wankers were actually given a school to run. And as one commenter asked, haven't they heard of Montessori?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Meritocracy? Not So Much

From a NYTimes article, Study Finds Family Connections Give Big Advantage in College Admissions:

A new study of admissions at 30 highly selective colleges found that legacy applicants get a big advantage over those with no family connections to the institution ...

According to the study, by Michael Hurwitz, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, applicants to a parent’s alma mater had, on average, seven times the odds of admission of nonlegacy applicants. Those whose parents did graduate work there or who had a grandparent, sibling, uncle or aunt who attended the college were, by comparison, only twice as likely to be admitted.

... Mr. Espenshade pointed out that legacy status is just one of many possible advantages.

“We did a paper that found that if you are an athlete, you have 4.2 times the likelihood of admission as a nonathlete,” he said. “The advantages for underrepresented minorities are pretty big, too.”

When the Bloom is Off the Rose

One of the many problems with reward systems is that they don't work over the long haul. As time goes on, kids get bored with the rewards they've already gotten and will require more as the price for their continued compliance. Of course, by that time they've forgotten what it feels like to be genuinely interested in learning.

Here's a post from "Newbie teaching in Gilroy, CA" from the Whole Brain Teaching website:

I already had knowledge of the basic scoreboard strategy. At the beginning of the year my students LOVED it and I saw student engagement soar. But right around November their interest/motivation seemed to plummet...

And a comment from another Whole Brain teacher:

Students are having a variety of reactions to my apparent change in personality. Some are lapping up all the sap I've been offering ... Some look exhausted from time-to-time. Even those tired looking students are easily re engaged with reminders to gesture or with a brief class rehearsal of expected behavior. I'm hoping this isn't just a honeymoon.

I can see that some kids might find WBT to be a novelty at first, and perhaps a welcome chance to move around and make a little noise during the school day. But can you imagine going to a WBT school, and looking at that damn scoreboard with the smilies and the frownies, and reciting those same stupid rules ("Keep your dear teacher happy!") for the 5th consecutive year? They'll have to put Prozac in the drinking water so the kids can cope.

If you read around on the WBT page, you find a lot of discussion of cute ways to change up the scoreboard, clearly a response to the basic tedium of the system. It's a glimpse of the trivial minds that get attracted to this stuff:

I've tried to make scoreboard parties a little more exciting for the students by changing them for the season. In October, we had "Spooky" / "Boohoo" and I even changed the frown face to one of a ghost. I'm looking for some November ideas. I have a new frownie of an Indian so I was thinking of something Thanksgiving related. I had thought about Gobble Gobble, but I'd like to have one for both and - any thoughts?

If you're not busy banging your head on the keyboard by now, let's look at one more comment:

I have begun making gestures for reading comprehension. ... Enjoy

This is followed by helpful pdf files containing gems like these:

Question: What are Text to Self Connections?
Answer: Connection that you make about yourself to a text.
Gesture: hold hands out like a book, point pointer fingers together then point to yourself.

Yeah, there's a definition I want my kid to memorize. How did people manage to comprehend reading before "text-to-self" was invented?

Where We're Headed

From Megan McArdle at the Atlantic, via kitchen table math:

Three years after the stock market cratered in 1929, American schools suffered their own crash. School districts had managed to ride out the early years of the Great Depression; in fact, because many districts depended on property taxes, which didn’t crash as fast as income taxes, more than a few managed to increase spending.

But in the 1932–33 school year, many districts ran out of funds. With more than one in five workers unemployed, many households didn’t have the money to pay property taxes, so all of a sudden, the school boards didn’t have enough money to pay their bills. Some 2,200 schools in 11 states closed entirely—in Alabama, schools in 50 out of 67 counties shut down. Many more districts cut services or sharply reduced their hours; thousands of districts in the Midwest and South shrank the school year to fewer than 120 days.

This is why I can't imagine that the Iowa school district that Chris blogs about will actually lengthen the school day. It would cost money, so it won't happen.

It's more likely that the superintendent will announce that the district can't afford to lengthen the school day, so they need to cut lunchtime again. Next year, it'll be down to 10 minutes. The year after that, they'll shut the cafeteria entirely, and the kids will be expected to subsist on crackers and water eaten at their desks during classtime.

I liked this quote from the article:

The economist Herb Stein famously said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Guest post: What’s the plan?

[From Chris, originally posted at A Blog About School]

As I wrote in my last post, I wish our school board members would tell us whether they think No Child Left Behind’s policy of pursuing higher standardized test scores at any cost is bad for our kids. That policy is the central feature of American education today, and drives many of our district’s practices. So I think the board members, and the board collectively, should have a position on it -- preferably one strongly condemning it.

But at the very least, I’d sure like to know their plan for dealing with No Child Left Behind over the next few years. Several of our schools have already been designated “schools in need of assistance” (“SINA schools”). The district is required to accommodate parents who want to transfer their children out of a SINA school; my kids’ school took in so many transfers that it had to add a temporary building to have enough classroom space. Enrollment at the SINA schools has dwindled so much that one school board member has questioned how those schools can “survive.” Yet the number of SINA schools can only increase. Under No Child Left Behind, all schools are expected to achieve one-hundred percent proficiency on math and reading test scores by 2014 -- a mere three years from now. Even some of the best public schools in the country -- for example, the New Trier schools in suburban Chicago -- have failed to meet the No Child Left Behind standards. There isn’t a school in our district that is likely to achieve one-hundred percent proficiency by 2014, or ever.

As the number of SINA schools grows, and the number of non-SINA schools shrinks, how does our district plan to accommodate the parents who want to transfer from the former to the latter? Will the district just move students out of established buildings at the SINA schools and into temporary trailers at the non-SINA schools? And that will increase test scores how, exactly?

And what is the district’s plan for dealing with those ever-escalating testing benchmarks? Is it just to do whatever it takes to get those scores up? Will they find new ways to pile more “instructional minutes” on the kids? Lunch can’t get much shorter, so will they continue to cut back on recess time? Or is it art, music, and gym that will go? Will six-year-olds get an hour-and-a-half of math every morning, instead of the hour they currently get? Will the kids have to stay at school even later into the afternoon? Will we send them back to school in July, instead of mid-August as we do now? And what new disciplinary techniques will the district introduce to keep the students “on task”? Will the kids receive even more instruction on the importance of being quiet and obedient? Will first-graders be expected to sit still for even longer periods of time?

What will happen to the teachers and principals at the schools that fail to meet the benchmarks? Will they ultimately all be fired? If so, who will replace them? Is there any reason to think the replacements will squeeze more testing points out of the kids? Is there any reason to think talented and dedicated people will continue to choose to work in such a system?

I suspect that the plainly unrealistic nature of the one-hundred-percent proficiency requirement enables our school officials to think that if they simply lay low, No Child Left Behind will eventually be amended and they will be saved from having to confront these questions. But in fact, the Obama administration’s plans for amending the law have been derailed by the election of a Republican Congress. And there’s no reason to think that any amendments to the law will change its basic policy of pursuing increased standardized test scores at any cost, and penalizing schools that fail to meet test score targets.

So what’s the plan?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Guest post: Is our school board responsible for what goes on in our schools?

[From Chris -- Originally posted at A Blog About School]

Suppose you were elected mayor of your town. But suppose that once you took office, you found that state laws required you to enact policies that you otherwise would not have chosen -- policies that might even be harmful to the people who elected you. What would you do?

Our school board members might recognize that hypothetical. They are elected by the people of our school district. But, once in office, they find themselves cogs in a machine that they did not create. The state of Iowa, under the threat of losing federal funding, has passed laws requiring its school districts to pursue certain policies -- specifically, to pursue a program of raising the kids’ standardized test scores at all costs, regardless of the long-term educational consequences, regardless of whether it kills the kids’ enthusiasm for learning, regardless of whether it impairs the development of critical thinking, regardless of whether it teaches authoritarian values, regardless of whether it results in cuts in the arts and the humanities, regardless of whether it means treating the kids less humanely, and regardless of whether it results in kids’ cramming down their lunches in less than fifteen minutes while bundled up in snow pants and parkas. If the district doesn’t comply with the state’s requirements, the state can revoke its accreditation, merge the district with a neighboring district, or even put the district into receivership, like a bankrupt company.

If you’re a board member, what’s the right thing to do in that situation?

One approach would be to close your eyes to the effect of the state-mandated policies. You have to obey state law anyway, so why bother even asking whether the law harms your constituents? Just do as you’re told, and then try to use whatever freedom you have left over to make things as tolerable for your constituents as you can. In the meantime, you could pray that the law might change before you have to do anything worse. I call this the “board member as state employee” approach.

Another approach would be to think hard about what’s best for the kids, and about whether the state-mandated policies are serving or harming them. If you concluded that a state-mandated policy was actually harming the kids or impairing their education, you could work to find ways to circumvent, avoid, or undermine that policy. You could involve the community in a discussion about the effects of the policy, and about what the community should do in response. You could make a big stink about why the policy is wrong, and you could pass a resolution calling on the state to change the policy, and you could organize opposition to the policy, and you could lobby for change. You could drag your feet in implementing the policy, and make the state force you, kicking and screaming, into executing the policy. You could make it hard for the state to get its way, even if that meant risking penalties. You could proceed on the theory that if everyone fought the policy that vigorously, the state would be more likely to change it. I call this the “board member as elected representative” approach.

It may be that our board members have thought hard about No Child Left Behind and decided that raising standardized test scores at all costs really is good educational policy. I wish I knew. All I ever hear is people passing the buck. Teachers answer to the principal; principals answer to the superintendent; the superintendent answers to the school board; the school board has to comply with state law; the state has to follow federal law or lose the federal money -- so really, if you have a complaint about how your local school is treating your kids, you need to address it to Barack Obama and the five-hundred-and-thirty-five members of Congress.

That’s baloney. Sure, Congress and the President have a lot to answer for when it comes to the current state of our schools. But our elected school board members aren’t just helpless functionaries who have to meekly obey any order that comes down from above. They owe it to us to tell us whether they think No Child Left Behind is bad for our kids, and if so, how they think the district should respond. When are they going to start acting less like state employees and more like elected representatives?

Why is Art Class Expendable?

Our older dd, who loves art, was fortunate to go through 6th grade in an elementary school, where she had art class every week. When we started applying to middle schools for her, I was dismayed to discover that art would be offered for only one 6-week segment in the year.

So far, at her new school, she hasn't had one art class. This is in stark contrast to phys. ed., which she has had once a week every week, or even more when she was on the soccer team.

Why is this? I think it's because of the competition to get into elite colleges. People hoping to send their kid to a competitive college are routinely told to get the kid into sports -- crew or fencing is good for girls, for instance. You can go to Yale if you're an excellent fencer, but your drawing skills can only take you to art school.

Similarly, playing a musical instrument can give a kid an edge. An admissions director who's looking at hundreds of straight-A, high-SAT applications is thrilled to know that the orchestra is looking for bassoonists; it provides a reason to take the bassoon player over the other high achievers.

Not coincidentally, schools (public and private) in wealthy districts boast terrific athletic facilities, and often very strong music programs, but not much attention is paid to visual art.

What curricular decisions would schools make if they weren't constantly looking forward to the almighty college application?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Guest Post: Race, Class, and Self-Righteousness, Part III

re-posted from An Urban Teacher's Education.

I had it in my head that I was going to teach in a high-needs school. That's where I thought my talents could best be developed, where I could be part of the struggle for social justice, and where I could do the most good. Although I applied all over the country, I was really anxious about the possibility of teaching in New York or DC. Those were the districts I'd read the most about in terms of school reform, and they seemed like some of the toughest places to teach. I guess it was a combination of wanting to prove myself, wanting to develop my teaching in the districts most noteworthy for reform, and this feeling of responsibility toward those with less fortunate backgrounds who I felt were being systematically denied opportunities their richer peers are routinely offered. What's ironic, or perhaps entirely appropriate, is that I have so much distaste for the people entering teaching today who are just like I was. Perhaps I shouldn't feel this way, but I do - especially for those who intend to spend no more than two or three years teaching and then move on to something else.

What I've learned since my internship experience in Tennessee is just how intensely powerful the socio-economic factors that converge at the intersection of inner-city public education are and just how frighteningly unprepared new teachers are to deal with them (which is why it's so nonsensical to teach for two or three years). On the one hand, there are the agonizingly devastating effects of socio-cultural and economic poverty. I am continually astounded by the challenges so many of my students have faced in their lives (challenges the scope of which I will never deal with). Exactly how do you teach a child world history when she comes to you bawling that her mother just tried to commit suicide? How do you teach the child who finds out on the internet mid-class that her father murdered her mother and sister with an axe? How do you help the kid who comes to you at the end of the school day and tells you he has no place to sleep because he's been kicked out of his friend's house? Or the kid who tells you in a behavior reflection log that she can't concentrate because she spent the weekend drinking, smoking, participating in orgies with adults she met on craigslist, and being yelled at by her girlfriend for cheating, but that she'll try to do all of her work now?

Then there's race, stigma, and all kinds of other social bias that affect children disproportionately in inner-city schools. It's hard to continue a lesson on economics when one of your black students who has a lot of social credit with the other students yells at you to shut the fuck up because you're a racist son of a bitch and storms out the door. It's hard to focus on your work when your administrator implies that the reason there's an achievement gap in the United States is because white teachers shouldn't be working with black and hispanic children. It's hard to believe that anything you're doing is worthwhile when you see children from poor communities enter the world of affluence and stick out like sore thumbs - everyone feels awkward and is further inclined to stay within their comfort zones.

Combine these factors with the air of self-righteousness that too many of our young teachers and school leaders are entering education with these days, and I'm afraid you may just have a recipe for going exactly nowhere. What the public apparently believes inner-city schools are, what teachers do, and where students come from doesn't exactly foster an incoming teacher force that knows what it should be doing or how to get there. When I see young teachers on the 6 train grading papers while wearing watches and earrings their students could never dream of owning, I wonder how well they could possibly understand their students. When I see that Cathie Black has been congratulated by her wealthy friends for doing something honorable, I'm horrified by the lens with which they must understand society.

I guess I should ask who I am to judge. I certainly didn't understand the world that lay before me when I became a teacher. For too long, I held hope that enough hard-working people like me could really solve a lot of educational problems. But when I stepped down and contrasted the talking points coming from our educational leaders with the realities I see in schools every day (over the course of a few years), my hopes were shattered. Take out all of the bureaucracy, the politics, the systems, the professional development, and imagine someone like Arne Duncan telling the kid whose parents abandoned him that if Arne could just fire all the teachers at his school, he'd be on track to go to college. I think absurd is the best word.

After a mere five(ish) years teaching, it seems to me that most of us in the educational debate are not only talking past each other, but that our country's objectives don't align with the needs of the kids. NYC's DOE website says, "Children First. Always." I shudder every time I see it. I cannot imagine that Deborah Kenny's mission is really, at its heart, to serve children when a visit to Harlem Village Academies does little more than hype its success and provide pictures like this. Nowhere can a parent go to find information about after school activities, teacher emails, or curriculum. Instead, there are opportunities to donate, news stories about HVA's successes, and teacher profiles that, rather than provide information about teachers, tell us why HVA is a great place. From the top to the bottom, urban education is, sadly, often less about making differences in kids' lives than it is about advancing people's careers and egos.

What would I have done if I'd known this when I began my ignorant foray into urban education? I can't be sure, but I probably would have been less ambitious to take on opportunities in some of our most disadvantaged communities. I've learned that it's these high profile districts that too often make a game out of parading test scores around as if they were truly synonymous with "student achievement."

It's still clear that we are (quite obviously) intentionally denying a great many of our students opportunities that they should have. But I'm less optimistic about the ability of a few talented educators or even educational policy to make a difference in the system. It seems to me the problem is much more deeply embedded in the American ethos, and our republican/federalist form of government is in no position to uproot its ills. President Obama, or any politician for that matter, is in no position to be completely honest with the American voter.

"Listen, it's clear we have problems with our public schools, but that's really not as much the federal government's fault (or at least it wasn't until 2003) as it is your own. If you spent more time exercising your political rights in the name of equal opportunity in your own communities through volunteering, voting, and discussion, we probably wouldn't be in as much of a mess as we are. It's too bad that most of us are too busy running the rat race to have time for any of that."

Instead, Obama must promise us a plan from the federal government to fix our schools for us if he wants to secure votes. And that's just the opportunity hyper-ambitious people with large egos and wallets need to step into the policy arena, their goals far more often aimed at making money and gaining prominence than helping schools to improve from within.

After nearly five years, that's what I gather. Education is not a monolith, and I won't talk as if it were, but in many urban schools the incredibly powerful and destructive factors of social stigma, poverty, and self-righteousness are not the necessary combination for reform I envisioned when I was just beginning.